Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Ferry Services Provision

I welcome the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, back to his alma mater.

I welcome to Minister to the Chamber. Obviously he has been here before and it is great to be back in the old Chamber of the Seanad. I requested that the Minister attend today to discuss the national strategy of promoting viable trade routes between southern Ireland and the Continent, which is a major issue at the moment when Brexit is taken into consideration, as is how connectivity and trade routes can be improved. I am speaking specifically about such routes as the car ferries on the Cork-Swansea route, which left us many years ago, and the viability, in particular, of the French ferries, which are very important for our industries in both directions. Brittany Ferries runs a fantastic operation but it is seasonal and operates at certain times. It also operates another operation to the north of Spain which is also seasonal. Such connectivity is a major issue for a growing economy such as in Cork. How can we promote this kind of interaction between both France and Ireland to ensure that the seasonal element of the ferries can be extended to a year-round commercial entity?

This is one of the key issues for both tourism and connectivity. Not alone will that promote the trade in vehicles but it will also provide for the transport of containers. At the moment if one has a container and needs to get it to the Continent, the Dublin Port scenario, unfortunately, comes into play. With the potential we have in Cork, in particular, we need to be looking at viable options for promoting Cork and its port and to then drive on to ensure that we have these viable trade routes.

This conversation is taking place in the context of the Brexit debate. The Minister is very up to date on that issue and has made some very keen statements in the last number of weeks on it. I need that reassurance that we have that strategy, that potential and have those trade routes under way to ensure that, as we are going forward, they will be a real part of our strategy in promoting the southern region of Ireland, in particular.

I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the House on this matter.

I would like to confirm that shipping services to and from Ireland are market-driven and that the market offers a diverse range of viable maritime routes in and out of the State, both to the UK and continental Europe. This is vital to facilitate both trade and tourism. Nationally, Ireland is well-served by ferry links to the UK and continental Europe. These links are frequent and competitive. There are currently a total of 79 return sailings from the Republic of Ireland every week direct to Europe and there are 257 return sailings every week direct to and from the UK. Shipping operates in a highly liberalised global market environment and the ongoing development of our shipping network has provided more competition, choice and frequency in accessing global markets.

Looking specifically at trade routes between southern Ireland and the Continent, the Port of Cork Company has been very proactive in seeking to establish direct routes to Europe. A new route from Cork to northern Spain was announced on 16 January 2016 and the first service commenced on 9 May 2018. This service is operated by Brittany Ferries, to which the Senator referred, and makes two return sailings a week from the Port of Cork to Santander. In addition, the port has a well-established weekly return sailing from Cork to Roscoff in France. The ferry can carry around 500 passengers and has space for 195 cars. The service provides more choice for freight carriers which can bypass the UK landbridge and go directly to Europe, which is important as Brexit draws closer.

The Port of Cork is currently undertaking major development works, including the construction of a new container terminal at Ringaskiddy. This work will enhance national port capacity and future increases in trade by facilitating larger vessels, increased tonnage and throughput.

In addition, the Port of Waterford has been very active in seeking to establish more direct links with the Continent. This is in keeping with its long-term plans for growth and future development. In July 2019, BG Freight Line, in partnership with Maersk, announced the commencement of new weekly lift-on, lift-off freight service on the Waterford-Rotterdam route.

This acts as a deep-sea feeder route for businesses which are exporting or importing goods globally through Europe's largest seaport.

This service from the Port of Waterford provides a wider choice to Irish importers and exporters in the south east. Last year, Irish Rail and Rosslare Europort, an important ro-ro port, completed a report on Rosslare and approved a €15 million investment plan for the strategic development of the port. Shannon Foynes port is also currently engaged in a major capital expenditure programme to increase capacity. The port is actively exploring opportunities to develop new routes. The port is talking to businesses in the catchment area, to shipping companies and to ports on the Continent about the feasibility of new routes.

Brexit highlights the importance of connectivity from Ireland to the Continent. Shipping companies in the past have responded to economic developments and increased or decreased capacity in response to changing developments. In preparation for Brexit, some shipping companies have already commenced providing additional capacity on direct routes to Europe. CLdN launched a new 234 sq. m ro-ro freight ferry, the MV Celine, with a capacity of 8,000 lane metres, on the Rotterdam-Zeebrugge-Dublin route in October 2017. CLdN has also introduced additional capacity on its direct route to Europe with its vessel, Laureline. In addition, Irish Ferries' investment of €150 million in its newest passenger and freight vessel, MV W.B. Yeats, provides year-round freight capacity between Ireland and France of 165 HGVs per sailing, or 60,600 HGVs per annum. Another vessel of similar size to the W.B. Yeats is due to commence operations in the Irish Sea in 2020.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response on the issue of a strategy to ensure we have connectivity with the Continent from the southern Ireland region. It is about capacity, as the Minister mentioned clearly in his response. It is all about the capacity that will be provided, as well as the capacity that exists. Some of this capacity is currently coming through the Dublin Port but I believe we need to look at the regional spread of the capacity, whether it is roll-on, roll-off or cargo itself. The potential we have in southern Ireland in terms of geographical location and the manufacturing and pharmaceutical base gives us a real step towards building on that capacity so we can increase our trade links and, in turn, increase our capacity.

I accept what the Senator says. There is no intention to exclude any region in any way. The more capacity we have in this situation, the better. We will certainly consider the Port of Cork as part of that strategy.

Heritage Sites

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Moran, to the refurbished House and I thank him for loosening the purse strings to do a wonderful job on the historic Leinster House. The Office of Public Works, OPW, is to be congratulated on a marvellous piece of work.

Alas, that is not why we are here today. We are here at the request of Councillor Paddy McQuillan in regard to St. Laurence's Gate in Drogheda. To give some background to the issue, two and half years ago a committee was formed with the purpose of closing the historic and iconic St. Laurence's Gate to public transport and, instead, opening the gate as a tourist attraction for the town. It is already listed on the Discover Ireland website as being widely regarded as one of the finest of its kind in Europe. However, with increased traffic through the town, the gate was being damaged, particularly by trucks that were being sent through it by satellite navigation systems. Indeed, I have some photographs of trucks stuck under the gate and the resulting wear and tear on its structure.

There was great excitement when the newly-established committee got together in Louth County Council and a traffic management plan was designed and implemented, and the gate was closed to traffic. Unbelievably, it is now two years on and the gate is still lying idle, and a very busy tourist season has come and gone without the gates being opened to the public as a visitor attraction. The road markings have not even been removed.

The Minister of State's predecessor and our Independent colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, visited the gate and pledged to make it fulfil its potential as an open visitor attraction. It was briefly open to the public during the two recent fleadhanna cheoil. Those events were sold out each day.

It would appear that since the council owns the surrounding land and the OPW owns the protected structure, the delay lies somewhere between the two bodies, but it has proven difficult for councillors and those involved in the campaign to have the gate reopened to get a definitive answer.

The gate was built in 1280 and has survived to the present day, but it needs careful work if its structure is to be protected. This is particularly true regarding the south tower, which I understand is structurally damaged and needs repair. Bringing the tower up to the standards required to make it a safe and sustainable visitor attraction will require investment by the OPW, but time is of the essence. Given the work done in Leinster House, there is no organisation better qualified to bring a building back to its original standards than the OPW.

County Louth has an impressive tourism offering and an enviable built and natural heritage set in a unique location at the very heart of Ireland's Ancient East. The council and its economic forum have a strong and achievable tourism plan with Drogheda as a gateway town at the centre, but, sadly, without its historic gate. What plans has the Minister of State for the tower's renovations? When can the people of Drogheda expect the gate to be fully restored and open to the public for tourism business?

I thank the Senator for his welcome words for my OPW staff and colleagues. I also thank the Houses of the Oireachtas Service, which has done a tremendous job. People might complain about what it cost to do up Leinster House, but the damage was only visible after the plaster was peeled back. The finished article is now a house for the future. I wish Senators the best of luck in the year ahead.

The St. Laurence's Gate building is an iconic structure in Drogheda and is instantly recognisable as a reminder of the ancient town defences. It is a 13th century barbican and was one of the entry points to the town in medieval times. It is a strong visual reminder of Drogheda's past.

The major issue with the gate in recent years was the fact that the roadway through it had been used for ordinary traffic purposes until 2017 when the local authority decided that vehicles should be rerouted away from the archway. It was the OPW's view at the time that this was essential to prevent further physical damage to the monument, as repeated vehicle strikes had given rise to serious alarm over the years and there was a genuine fear that it might be compromised or even terminally damaged. The OPW was relieved when the difficult decision was taken locally to remove the traffic threat from the area. I applaud the members and executive of Louth County Council for taking that decision.

Having resolved the traffic issue, the question arises as to what steps are necessary to realise the full potential of the gate and how to reopen it to the public, thereby creating a new focal point and a tourism attraction in the town. This needs the co-operation of the OPW, the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, and the local authority, each of which has a role to play. There is no doubt that this is a very challenging proposition, one fraught with difficulty. Two major issues present: first, how to arrange safe access into the interior of what is a compact and confined space in a way that is suitable and enjoyable for visitors and, second, how to deal with the building's multiple serious structural issues in a way that preserves its stability and structural integrity.

The gate building can actually be visited on special arrangement. This option has been open to the public previously and visits were conducted on a number of occasions on foot of special arrangements made as part of heritage week, recent fleadhanna cheoil, and the other local festivals that the Senator referenced. I confirm that the building will continue to be available for opening on request for special events. These limited openings have proven popular and serve as a direct reminder of the locals' pride in this landmark building and the potential it holds for visitor attractions in Drogheda.

Bearing that in mind, the OPW and Louth County Council have co-operated since the traffic closure in trying to find a way to have the gate open to the public continuously.

The council has also prioritised proposals for creating a landscape plan for the surrounding area and developing a public realm project to improve the immediate vicinity of the building. However, the single most serious and pressing issue that is causing difficulty and impeding progress is the structural condition of the building. This has been prioritised over any other issue since it calls into question the continued stability of the monument.

As a result of a structural assessment in early 2017 by external consultant engineers working for the OPW, major cracks and structural weaknesses that have significantly compromised the building were discovered. This means that in the view of both the OPW and the structural consultants the building is unsafe for unrestricted general access and, although the OPW can continue to open it under supervision for special occasions, it cannot be fully opened as a visitor attraction in its current condition. The OPW has been working on the development of a scheme of works to counteract this problem with the assistance of its engineers and is aiming to advance a project at the site when this has concluded.

I must caution the Senator that this is a very complex and challenging works proposal. The OPW is not in a position to say when it will be concluded and a stabilised building provided. The OPW is conscious of the need to progress this project. However, there are a significant number of urgent and pressing needs at other monuments in the Louth-Meath area and resources will at times have to be prioritised to deal with those. I appreciate that this will cause some disappointment as I am sure that locals were hopeful that the gate would soon become a favourite destination for visitors. I regret that this will not be achievable in the short term.

I understand the limitations placed on the Department and that the Minister of State has calls from all corners of the country for various projects relating to monuments. The important aspect here is that there is a possibility of payback by having it open as a tourist attraction in Drogheda. When he returns to his Department the Minister of State might discuss with his officials how we could move the project forward. I appreciate that the matter is complex. The fact that it crosses three different organisations makes it even more difficult. However, the councillors I met in Drogheda to discuss this issue are willing to work with the Minister of State in any way they can in order that the monument can be opened for Drogheda as the gateway to the Ireland's Ancient East.

I assure the Senator that I am working with the local authority there also. It has a number of different issues on which I am working with it all the time. This is a serious structural issue. While the Department has consultants viewing it, we still have to find the money and resources to make it a proper attraction. It is open from time to time for different events and I was influential in making that happen last year for the Fleadh Cheoil and local festivals. I will continue to do that and make it as open as possible for the people. I will also work to get the money to do what people want to be done with the building for the future.

School Accommodation Provision

The father of the House is here, and I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad to respond to my question on school provision in Swords, County Dublin. Swords is the largest town in Ireland. It currently has a population of over 45,000 and is expanding at a rapid pace. However, there is a school placement crisis in the Fosterstown area. Significant housing development is planned for this area of Swords, with over 3,000 homes planned in the coming years. That will make the current bad situation in Rivervalley and Fosterstown even worse.

That is what I want to talk about today. There is an insufficient number of school places at this end of Swords. Schools have been provided in recent years at the other end of the town but this particular area has a very high population of young people that is expanding and there are not enough school places.

A site for a school on Forest Road has been identified in the Fosterstown master plan. Rivervalley community national school opened its doors a number of weeks ago and while the addition of this school to the area is very welcome and has given relief to some families, it is located in the Riasc Centre in Drinan, which is a 45-minute walk from Rivervalley. There is no public transport available and there is severe traffic congestion in that particular area. It is far from ideal to have the school located on this temporary site. People are crying out for a permanent school building on Forest Road.

This issue has been raised by my council colleagues on a number of occasions and council officials have told them that it is up to the Department of Education and Skills to issue a request to Fingal County Council to purchase the site and start the development. It is essential that the school is built before all of the houses are developed in the area and before the crisis gets completely out of hand. A permanent school building on Forest Road in Swords must be built. There is a massive deficit in the provision of school places. I call on the Minister of State to give a commitment to the people of Swords that the Department will go ahead and give the signal to Fingal County Council to purchase this site because the fear is that if it is not done now, the site will be lost to housing.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter and I hope the answer I provide today will be sufficient. I wish to apologise on behalf of the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, who, at the last minute, was unable to attend today. Again, I thank Senator Clifford-Lee for raising the matter and am happy to clarify the position in respect of the delivery of permanent accommodation for Rivervalley community national school in Swords.

As the Senator knows, following a nationwide demographic exercise, it was determined that a new primary school was required to be opened in south Swords in September 2019 to ensure that there were sufficient primary school places to serve the school planning area. Following on from a patronage appointment process, the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB, was appointed as patron of this new school. The final grant of planning permission was received on 30 August 2019 from Fingal County Council for the development of interim accommodation for the school at 85-87 Main Street, Swords, in order to ensure that the school would open in September 2019. It was then necessary to seek alternative interim accommodation and the school opened in suitable contingency accommodation on a Department-owned site in Drinan on the south side of Swords, the area which the school was established to serve. The school is located there at the moment but is moving to Rivervalley. Once work has been completed on the site at 85-87 Main Street, the school will relocate to interim accommodation on that site in due course.

The Minister is committed to providing a permanent accommodation solution for the school at an early date but the acquisition of a suitable site is required to facilitate the delivery of this project. The DDLETB, as school patron, is currently advancing a site acquisition process with the assistance of the Department of Education and Skills. A potential site option in the Rivervalley area has now been identified. Following on from initial engagement with the relevant landowners, a more detailed technical assessment of the site is now being undertaken. The Senator will understand that this must be done before the site can be purchased. That said, I believe that the site in question is more than adequate. Of course the Senator will appreciate the importance of ensuring the technical feasibility of any proposed site to ensure that the required level of accommodation can be provided and to mitigate any potential planning risks to the project. I can assure Senator Clifford-Lee that the Department and the DDLETB are working to progress matters as quickly as possible. They have been in constant contact in recent weeks with a view to securing a permanent site for Rivervalley community national school at the earliest possible date.

Once a site for the school has been secured, the project to deliver its permanent accommodation can be progressed to the architectural planning process. I assure the Senator that the provision of a permanent school building for River Valley community national school in a suitable location is a priority for the Department of Education and Skills and that officials are working to advance this project as quickly as possible.

The Minister of State referred to the ongoing work at 85-87 Main Street in Swords. When will that work will be finished and when will the school be able to temporarily locate there? He also referred to a technical assessment. When will the technical assessment of the site on Forest Road be completed? Will the Minister of State give a commitment that the permanent school building on Forest Road will be delivered before any more housing comes on stream?

I do not have an answer to the Senator's first question, but I will speak to the Department as soon as I leave and ensure that officials reply to her. With regard to the site acquisition process, all I know is that it is currently being advanced. I am informed that it is at an advanced stage and that the Department has accepted the necessity to deliver this building as soon as possible. The Senator will appreciate the importance of ensuring that assessments of technical feasibility are carried out on the site to ensure that everything is in order. I have been informed that the site is fine and grand. I have asked for a timeline but I do not have it. I am, however, assured by the Department that we will have such a timeline in the coming weeks. I will make it my business to ensure the Senator is provided with that timeline as soon as possible.

I thank the Minister of State. I will write to him and the Minister with a view to getting that timeline.

Sitting suspended at 3.05 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.