Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

RTÉ Financial Restructuring

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Bruton, to the House.

I thank the Minister for attending to discuss this important issue. It came as a shock a number of weeks ago when it was mentioned on "Prime Time" that Lyric FM in Limerick might be closing as part of RTÉ's cost-saving measures. I am concerned about the closure of the Limerick studio. I have had a number of meetings with Lyric FM, which plays an important role in the cultural life, not only of Limerick, but of Ireland. It has a large listenership from all over the country and there has been a ground swell of support for the staff and the station. While I am aware that the station is not closing but being dispersed to Cork and Dublin, our national broadcaster's proposed closure of the Limerick studio is going against the grain of what the Government is trying to deliver. Under Project Ireland 2040, the Government has spoken about everything happening in the regions. For example, six in every ten jobs that have been created in recent years have all been outside the M50 and in the regions. However, this move has literally drawn a circle around the mid-west and decided to get rid of it and move so many people to Cork and so many to Dublin. The Minister's other remit is climate action. Staff piling into cars to drive to Cork and Dublin will add to climate change issues.

This Thursday evening, a number of cultural institutions, including choirs and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, will hold an event in the chamber orchestra's performance space to support Lyric FM.

I am worried about losing this cultural heritage in Limerick and the wider region and about the job losses. Twenty-five jobs will be lost, which will have knock-on effects for their families. RTÉ has a cultural director, yet that person has never even visited the Lyric FM studio. The University of Limerick has offered space to RTÉ and other organisations are willing to offer space at knock-down rates to keep Lyric FM in Limerick.

Given my major concerns about this issue, I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Bruton, and thank him for taking the time for this debate. He has a report that was delivered by the board, which is chaired by Ms Moya Doherty, and Ms Dee Forbes as RTÉ's director general about a restructuring model for RTÉ. Everyone accepts the need for a restructuring of RTÉ overall. Nevertheless, I seek clarification from the Minister regarding two aspects in the context of the mid-west and Limerick specifically. The first relates to RTÉ's regional broadcasting and general news remit in the mid-west. My understanding is that RTÉ will retain that, but we want to be certain that it will retain the ability to broadcast live from a studio there. The Minister is probably aware that Lyric FM and RTÉ's regional newsroom are based on the same floor in the same building on Cornmarket Square in the heart of Limerick city.

They have been there since 1999. The studio is the best state-of-the-art facility outside of Donnybrook. It is in the heart of Limerick city and houses the RTÉ regional studio and Lyric FM. Lyric FM has the lowest cost per hour of any RTÉ station. I would make the counterbalancing case that there is a strong argument for the decentralisation of other arms of RTÉ, such as 2FM, to the Lyric FM studio in Limerick. A large amount of capacity is available and the livelihoods of 23 people are at stake. Lyric FM is a major cultural element of what we offer in the mid west. When the Minister is reviewing this proposal, I request that he ask RTÉ to give careful consideration to the model operating in Limerick. If some reorganisation is required, including a reduction of costs in Limerick, so be it. Staff are aware that there could be a slightly smaller studio. Lyric FM is key to the Limerick operation, however, and it is one of the successes of decentralisation. The worry is that RTÉ is going for the low-hanging fruit when wider restructuring could take place.

I thank the Senators for raising this issue. We all acknowledge that this is a difficult time for traditional media, whether national or local. RTÉ has not been immune from the impact of people migrating their viewing and listening habits to different platforms. Senators also agree that broadcasting is a vital part of our public service, locally and nationally. It is important to have that vibrant, locally relevant information and entertainment service. Nonetheless, RTÉ has to adapt to the dramatically changed environment in which public service broadcasting has to be delivered in a vibrant way.

I welcome the work the RTÉ board and management have put in to devising a strategy. That strategy is about cutting back but it is also about developing new platforms and ways of addressing the audience. RTÉ has sought assistance and additional support from the Government. We are committed to providing support and in last year's budget we provided €10 million. The difficulty for RTÉ in recent years is that while its costs base has increased by some €28 million, its income, other than from the licence fee, has been static. The organisation has not been able to grow that revenue, so even the €10 million extra provided by the State, via the licence fee and effectively adapting the social welfare contribution, has not been enough.

To date, the Government's decisions have been to tender out the collection of the licence fee so as to cut the very high evasion rate and also, over time, to move to a device independent charging system. RTÉ is asking the Government to review that option and suggesting that it is not enough. We are evaluating the proposed plan. RTÉ has done its own work with PwC and there has also been a contribution from NewERA.

Turning to the details outlined, I am not across the detailed evaluation done on the individual changes put forward. I understand the point that Lyric FM and the studio in Limerick has been a very valuable element of broadcasting in the mid west and that any change is going to be a problem. RTÉ is committed to discussing the impact of these changes with those directly affected, via their unions. I am sure RTÉ remains open to proposals that would deliver equal value. The organisation recognises, however, that it must be financially viable while also developing a strategy that repositions RTÉ to take up opportunities in a rapidly changing media world.

Our work of examining what RTÉ management has proposed is ongoing. I will meet representatives of the organisation to discuss this strategy and how that can be developed over time. I will return to the House to discuss the matter in greater detail.

The only matters that come to me for ministerial consent, as opposed to the board and the executive making decisions on them, are those relating to, for example, changes of channels or whatever. This type of decision is within their remit. The board will have to evaluate the case put forward by the Senator and others, including unions. Its members will have to decide whether they need to modify their plan in light of what has been submitted. That is a matter for the executive and the board in the first instance. I will certainly convey the Senator's concerns to those involved.

I thank the Minister for his reply. My biggest concern is that the University of Limerick wrote to RTÉ two months ago, as well as previously, but has not had the courtesy of a reply. The university authorities offered a space on the campus. There are many proposals out there. So many people want to see Lyric FM kept in Limerick. The cultural aspect is so important. Lyric FM has become the meat in the sandwich. There is to be a 100% staff cut. The workers are not sure whether they will be offered jobs in Cork or Dublin. This is supposed to be voluntary redundancy but the studio is being closed. My understanding is that a kiosk-type facility will be built for the regional correspondent. A studio will not be available if RTÉ, 2FM or anyone else comes to Limerick. That will be a huge disadvantage for Limerick and the region.

I thank the Minister for his comments. I wish to make two quick points. When the Minister meets the RTÉ board, he should stress that it is critical that any decision should include a proper evaluation, particularly concerning the mid-west and Limerick. All options must be considered where Lyric FM is concerned, including the University of Limerick offer and an examination of the current studio. My worry is that this is not just about Lyric FM. It is about outside broadcasting and live broadcasting from the region. Any downgrading of the mid-west regional remit by RTÉ is unacceptable. The proposals that have been made by RTÉ are disproportionate. That is the key feature here. We will be trying to ensure they are not the final decision. The board appears to have chosen measures that are disproportionate for Limerick and the mid-west. When the Minister meets RTÉ, I ask him to request a proper evaluation of those decisions. They do not add up.

I reiterate that this is ultimately a decision for the executive and the board. They must decide on the best site and rationalise their decision. They will doubtless listen to the unions and others who will make the case the Senators are making. The decision must be made in the context of a time of radical change in the broadcasting environment. That puts huge obligations on the management and board to find a new path to delivering public service broadcasting in a vibrant way. That is the challenge they face and I do not underestimate it. That is why there is an independent board to decide how to deliver the public service broadcasting remit. I will be working with the board to see how we can assist, but this repositioning of RTÉ is a really important element in meeting the challenge. While I understand the Senators' concerns, I am equally aware of the very difficult challenges with which the board is trying to cope.

Court Accommodation Provision

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for arranging for this matter to be discussed.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and thank him for taking time to come to the Seanad to respond to this particular issue. The Courts Service and Ms Angela Denning announced on 24 October 2019 that Roscommon courthouse would close for refurbishment on 30 March 2020. The closure of Roscommon courthouse would be another major blow to Roscommon town, the Courts Service, the public, staff and the solicitors and barristers who practise in this circuit. The Courts Service took complete possession of this historic building when Roscommon County Council vacated it in 2018 to transfer to the new civic offices in Roscommon town. The Circuit Court sits on the first and third Tuesdays of each month, with a break for summer. The District Court and family courts also sit in the building. It is a very historic building, going back more than 100 years. It is a beautiful and iconic building in Roscommon town. It is of a beautiful design. With the vacating of the rest of the building by Roscommon County Council, it is a most suitable building. One of the benefits of Roscommon County Council investing quite a considerable amount of money on new civic offices is that the courthouse and services could be developed to provide confidentiality and privacy for barristers, solicitors and, most importantly, the public who use these facilities, in which justice is served well.

In the circumstances, I feel the proposals to move the Circuit Court's sittings to Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim and the District Court's sittings to Castlerea are totally unacceptable. This comes on top of the fact that the chief superintendent and the regional power of An Garda Síochána in Roscommon, which serves Longford and Roscommon, is being moved to Castlebar. This is another downgrading of the services in the area. Boyle courthouse was closed in 2011 and was never reopened.

The Minister is aware of the situation. Coming from the neighbouring constituency of Laois-Offaly and as a very accomplished solicitor, he will realise the benefits of these services being available as locally as possible. A nexus of staff has also built up in the area over the years. I accept that refurbishment is required and that the building requires rewiring and so on but is it possible to phase this in while the Courts Service continues to operate? Failing that, I know that the Courts Service is looking for alternative temporary accommodation in Roscommon town. I suggested that the new council chamber, which is not used every day of the week, could be adapted in a minor way to accommodate the Courts Service. It has loudspeakers, an area for the press, and an area for the public to meet and there is good accommodation in the chamber. I will not delay. I am more interested in hearing the Minister's response than in making my case in this particular regard.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to update the House, and Senator Leyden in particular, on progress regarding the Courts Service in Roscommon town and the refurbishment of Roscommon courthouse. I hope I will be allowed to depart from my reply for a moment to offer my sincere congratulations to the Senator on the birth of his granddaughter, Nicole Mairéad, in Brussels. I wish her all the best in her future years.

I thank the Minister. I will convey that message.

I wish good health to her and to her grandparents here in Roscommon.

That is very kind of the Minister. I thank him.

As Senator Leyden will be aware, under the provisions of the Courts Service Act 1998, management of the courts, including the provision of accommodation for court sittings, is the responsibility of the Courts Service, which is independent in the exercise of its functions. However, I am happy to advise Senator Leyden that the Government’s National Development Plan 2018-2027 includes a firm commitment for the development of new or refurbished courthouses, including the refurbishment of the courthouse at Roscommon. This is a good news story for the people of Roscommon.

The Courts Service has informed me that in 2018 it acquired full ownership of the historic Roscommon courthouse, which was formerly under the ownership of Roscommon County Council. The Courts Service intends to refurbish the courthouse and to use the space previously occupied by the council to provide additional facilities for users of the court.

The OPW has conducted various surveys of the building since the Courts Service took possession of it and in common with many old buildings, the main areas of focus were the electrical works and the roof of the courthouse. Based on initial surveys, it was estimated earlier in the year that €350,000 would have to be put aside for electrical works. However, at a meeting with the OPW in October 2019, I understand mechanical and engineering experts indicated the cost of the electrical works alone would be at least €450,000. In addition, following the recent collapse of a ceiling in a jury room on the ground floor of the courthouse, investigations were carried out on the condition of the roof and it appears it too needs considerable work. In total, it appears it would be likely to cost at least €1 million to repair the roof and to carry out electrical works at the courthouse. At the same recent meeting, the proposal was put to the OPW about completing some small remedial works in order to keep the courthouse open until March 2020. I welcome this approach and I am hopeful no further issues will arise between now and then. If necessary, there is a contingency measure in place to facilitate sittings of the Circuit Court in Carrick-on-Shannon and sittings of the District Court in Castlerea as an interim measure. I acknowledge what Senator Leyden has said about seeking alternative and appropriate facilities in Roscommon town. I assure the Senator that is under way and I would be happy to keep him informed of progress on same.

On a personal note, I thank the Minister for his best wishes on the birth of Nicole Mairéad Leyden Ryan. I will convey his best wishes to Sinead and Dermot. I thank him very much for that from a personal point of view.

An interview the Minister gave was carried in the Roscommon People on 1 November. In that interview, the Minister pledged to support the court staying in the locality and he has basically confirmed that in the sense that he would prefer if that arrangement could be made. That can be done and suitable accommodation can be made in the area. We also have Government offices in the town and the Courts Service has availed of same. If there is a bit of arrangement carried out in the area there would be no difficulty in keeping those services in Roscommon town, pending the work that is needed. I am not denying that work is required. I would be concerned that the service can be retained in the building while some work is carried out. As someone coming from a constituency like Laois-Offaly, the Minister knows the importance of Tullamore courthouse. There is a beautiful building there and Laois also has fantastic facilities in Portlaoise. I am confident the Minister will help us along the way with this. I thank him again.

I thank the Senator again for raising this issue. Consultation is the key here. I am keen to ensure that at all times there will be adequate consultation. I understand the Courts Service has met with local practitioners on 24 October and again last week on 7 November to alert them to the issue and to seek the assistance of the local stakeholders with finding possible interim locations for Roscommon court sittings into next year. I am informed by the Courts Service that it is happy to assess any suggested venues on the matter of their suitability for the hosting of court sittings. The Courts Service has agreed to meet practitioners again in the near future and has agreed to visit any suggested venues. I would be happy to continue to engage with Senator Leyden in order to ensure any venues he might put forward or any other venues in the area that might be considered appropriate for an interim court sitting would be inspected by the Courts Service in order to assess their suitability. I welcome the fact the Courts Service is proactively working to maintain court services in the town of Roscommon, which I understand to be the basis of Senator Leyden's submission. I agree with that and I am anxious to ensure the Courts Service continues to seek alternative venues to house the District Court in Roscommon and also, as was mentioned, the Circuit Court.

Legislative Process

As the Minister will be aware, Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 set out new criminal penalties on the purchase of sexual services from sex workers, where the buyer of sex is criminalised but the sex worker is not, sometimes referred to as the Nordic model.

In response to concerns that have been raised on the impact of this model on the safety of sex workers in jurisdictions where it has been implemented, the then Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, agreed to a report on the operation of the new provisions incorporating the number of arrests and convictions and an assessment of their impact on the safety and well-being of sex workers. That section was commenced in March 2017, meaning that the report will be delivered to the Oireachtas hopefully before March 2020.

My first question is, therefore, what progress has been made in relation to the preparation of this report? What is the process of the Department in assembling the information set out in subsection (2)? What level of detail or analysis will be undertaken and how long will the report be? As the Minister will be aware, the Nordic model has been criticised internationally by organisations representing sex workers and human rights bodies like Amnesty International, on the ground that it puts women involved in an even more vulnerable position, as it forces them to rely on law enforcement for their safety, when there may be low levels of trust in the criminal justice system or where the sex worker is a migrant, there are fears around the impact on immigration status. Sex workers surveyed in Norway have even said that one only calls the police when one thinks one is about to die, and a recent Government report in Northern Ireland found that it led to a spike in demand for sex work rather than a decrease. Based on what we know, it is likely the same issues are being reproduced here in Ireland. The increased penalty for brothel keeping in the 2017 Act, where a brothel is defined as "two or more sex workers", is forcing women to make themselves more vulnerable by working alone or risking prosecution.

In June of this year, we saw two migrant women from Kildare receive significant custodial sentences under these provisions. When this is compared to the extraordinarily low number of client arrests and prosecutions, it is clear that this law is having a disproportionate impact on the female sex workers rather than the intended target: the buyers of sex. I am sure the Minister will agree that these are very concerning developments, and they call into question the effectiveness of these provisions, especially when those who support them frequently invoke their positive impact on sex worker safety internationally. It places even greater pressure on this report process to properly analyse the law considering these developments.

My second question is, therefore, if the law is being found to have a negative impact on sex worker safety, will this report be considering options for law reform to improve safety and well-being? Will the Minister be considering alternatives to the Nordic model of buyer criminalisation as a result? At the very least, will the Minister consider repealing the draconian provisions on brothel keeping and make them fit-for-purpose, rather than just forcing vulnerable migrant women to work alone?

I know in responses to parliamentary questions on this issue that the Minister will be engaging with An Garda Síochána, the HSE and civil society groups and that he will be funding research in this area. What is the methodology that will be used for the research? Will the Minister commit to it being independent and based solely on the evidence, excluding stereotypes and misconceptions of sex workers? Will it place the voice of sex workers themselves at its centre and not just rely on testimony from An Garda Síochána and civil society organisations?

I would appreciate a response to these specific questions. I am deeply concerned by the impact of this law and believe that it is actively causing harm to extremely vulnerable women. I hope this report and doing it properly is a significant priority in the Minister's Department, and I look forward to hearing his response.

I thank Senator Ruane. I call the Minister, Deputy Flanagan.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter. Part 4 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 provided for two new offences: paying for sexual activity with a prostitute, and paying for sexual activity with a trafficked person. The Act also removes those who offer their services as a prostitute from the existing offences of soliciting for the purposes of prostitution. A fundamental focus in the introduction to this legislation was to ensure that women working in the prostitution sector would have increased protection and face no repercussions for reporting crimes related to their work. Senator Ruane will be aware that Part 4 of the 2017 Act specifies that not later than three years after its commencement, the Minister for Justice and Equality shall cause a report to be prepared on the operation of section 7A of the Act and cause this report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. As the Act was commenced in March 2017, review of Part 4 will formally commence in early 2020 after three years of its operation.

I appreciate the wide interest which there may be in the matter of this review. My Department is at present undertaking the groundwork for the preparation of this report, including to the funding of relevant research.

My Department will also seek submissions from interested parties when the review commences. Indeed, Senator Ruane has raised a number of questions. By way of reply at this stage, more detailed information on the approach to be adopted, including the means for consultation with stakeholders, will be announced when it is available, and the report when complete will also be published in due course. Senator Ruane may be interested to hear of the two research projects being funded under the Dormant Accounts Fund, which we anticipate will feed into the review of the Act.

The first project is by the Sexual Exploitation Research Project, which is under the school of social policy, social work and social justice at UCD. That aims to provide empirical data on the experience of women in the commercial sex trade and the response of the criminal justice system in the context of the new law. This project draws significantly on information held by the HSE anti-human trafficking team and work already done under an earlier but much smaller joint research project during 2018, carried out by the HSE and the anti-human trafficking unit of my Department.

The second project is by Gender, Orientation, Sexual Health and HIV, GOSHH, which is a charity based in Limerick city. The project aims to explore the current level of awareness and know-how about the criminalisation of purchasing sex legislation among survival sex workers. It also aims to design an evidence-based ethical approach to research and working with survival sex workers.

Senator Ruane will also be aware of the second National Strategy in Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence 2016-2021. As Members of the House will be aware, the strategy is a whole-of-Government response to domestic and sexual violence and contains a range of actions to be implemented by Government departments and agencies and includes a monitoring committee, including membership from the non-governmental organisation sector. I anticipate as the review gets under way and as it proceeds, the monitoring committee will be centrally involved in overseeing its progress and examining its recommendations.

Indeed, more generally, I take this opportunity to note that as part of the transformation programme in my Department over the past year, a new criminal justice policy function has been created. Within this function, a community safety applied policy unit has been established with responsibility for policy on the full range of issues that relate to victims and community safety matters within the criminal justice system. The pulling together of all matters relating to victims, including human trafficking, sexual violence and support for witnesses within trials will ensure that dedicated time and space will be available to enable complex issues such as this to be appropriately examined, ultimately leading to a more robust and evidence-based policy in this and other fields that best protect the position of victims, including vulnerable women as has been evidenced by the contribution of Senator Ruane.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. Senator Ruane, would you like to ask a supplementary question?

I thank the Minister for his very detailed response. This is more an observation as we move forward when speaking of the monitoring committee. The space in respect of representation for sex workers in Ireland is dominated by organisations and NGOs in support of the Nordic model. This is more about putting down the marker to ensure those groups that are not often represented in those wider gender conversations, such as Sex Workers Alliance or anybody that is working in the sex industry, find an avenue somehow into the process of developing this report in terms of the impact on them. The Migrants Rights Council has been very involved over the years as well in terms of its role and the State's role in making sure that migrant women who are in fear in respect of immigration are in a position to come forward.

The brothel keeping laws really prohibit that, and as part of the report's development, we really need to look at what we mean by "a brothel". Maybe we need to define what a brothel is because more than one woman, or two women living in a house together as sex workers, is not necessarily a brothel in the terms we all believe a brothel to be.

We have an industry-led idea of what a brothel is. I believe this should form an important part of the discussions in the Department. I have had a positive experience with the new policy team in recent weeks in respect of other justice Bills and so I look forward to their involvement on this report. In the coming weeks, once the Minister has more of an idea of what it looks like, it would be great if he could share it with my office. This would allow me to disseminate some of the information to some of the smaller groups working in this area.

Minister, would you like to respond?

I would. I accept the invitation to engage further from Senator Ruane. I would be keen to hear from the Senator and I would be keen to share with the Senator any information that she and I believe might be helpful.

This is a complex matter. I very much appreciate the interest of Senator Ruane and her contribution to the issue. As I said earlier, at present we are undertaking the groundwork for the preparation of the report, including the matter of funding for an appropriate level of research. We will be seeking submissions from interested parties once the review commences. I anticipate the monitoring committee will have a central involvement in the process and in assessing the issues as matters proceed. Of course it will play a role in any recommendation, guidance or advices that might be included in the matter of the reporting.

I very much appreciate the interests involved here. I acknowledge that there are differing views from different stakeholders. I am not going to prejudice or in any way pre-empt the modalities for outcomes of the review but I will commit to engagement with Senator Ruane in particular. Indeed, if there are other Senators who wish to engage or if the House, by way of motion or otherwise, wishes to hear further from me on this matter I would be happy to engage. I suggest, however, that were the issue to be raised with me in January or in the new year when matters are more advanced by my Department, I certainly will update the House at that point if it is deemed appropriate in the circumstances.

Foreign Conflicts

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle. On the afternoon of 4 October a young artist and activist, 24 year old Dumar Noe Mestizo, was murdered in Cauca, southern Colombia, by men riding motorbikes. He is one of the latest victims of the chronic violence against members of the indigenous communities in Colombia. In 2009 Dumar's father, who was the Nasa indigenous leader, Marino Mestizo, was also murdered in the same region. In a statement, people representing the north Cauca indigenous association said that they hold responsible the Colombian Government for showing total indifference to the incidents of genocide facing the indigenous people. I wish to repeat that because it is such a significant statement: they said they hold responsible the Colombian Government for showing total indifference to the incidents of genocide facing their people.

In August, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, the country's largest such body, said that 97 indigenous leaders and activists had been murdered in the preceding 12 months, with the majority of cases occurring in Cauca. Since then, several other killings have occurred. Overall, more than 500 social activists have been killed since the peace deal was signed in November 2016.

This is not peace and the Colombian Government has shown no signs of wanting to implement the peace agreement. Peace is not just important for FARC; it is also important for the natives of Colombia who, like most indigenous peoples of the Americas, are among the most oppressed and neglected communities in the world. They have been totally ignored and abandoned by successive Governments in Colombia, but also by the international community. They are victims of imperialism, colonialism and capitalism, and this is not what they deserve. As a nation which prides itself on respect and dignity with aspirations for a seat on the United Nations Security Council, it is important that we stand up for indigenous communities and vulnerable peoples across the world.

We know too well from our own history what it is like to be an oppressed people in our own country. There is no point in seeking a place on the UN Security Council unless Ireland is prepared to speak out and stand up for the vulnerable. Otherwise, we simply uphold the status quo. Surely the point is to make the world a better place. I hope the Minister of State will be able to clarify the situation for us today, since such representations should form a core aspect of our bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. What has the Government done to help these people? What will it do and what is it prepared to do to help bring these murders to an end?

I thank the Senator. As the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, is preparing for parliamentary questions in the Lower House, I have been asked to take this Commencement matter.

I am aware of the difficult situation that exits for human rights defenders and indigenous leaders in Colombia and of the worrying levels of violence, threats and intimidation against these groups. The absence of the state in former conflict areas following the demobilisation of FARC has resulted in other armed groups gaining control in these areas, primarily to control the illegal economy. This has implications for the security of local communities, in particular human rights defenders and community leaders, including indigenous leaders.

Our new resident embassy in Bogotá has been engaging with civil society, European Union and multilateral partners on this issue since it opened at the beginning of this year. We also raise this matter regularly in our exchanges with the Colombian Government. The Taoiseach underlined Ireland's continuing support for the Colombian peace process at his meeting with President Duque on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York in September last year. The visit of the Foreign Minister of Colombia, Carlos Holmes Trujillo Garcia, to Ireland last September also included dialogue and exchanges on the situation for human rights defenders in the country.

Earlier this year, former Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, in his position as UN special envoy to the Colombian peace process, a role in which he is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, led the 11th session of the EU-Colombia human rights dialogue. During this dialogue with representatives of the Colombian Government he raised the alarmingly high numbers of attacks against human rights defenders across the country. Particular reference was made to the disproportionately high level of violence against indigenous leaders and the need for collective protection measures.

Furthermore, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade regularly meets and supports human rights defenders from Colombia. It will continue to engage with these groups through our embassy in Bogotá and in Ireland. The peace process is fundamental to improving the human rights situation in the country and Ireland has contributed over €14 million in support of this since 2007, mainly channelled through the UN and Colombian and international NGOs focusing on human rights, conflict prevention, peace building and supporting livelihoods for rural populations. Ireland also provides ongoing support in the form of lesson sharing, based on our own experience of peace building and reconciliation on the island of Ireland. In June this year, a delegation from Northern Ireland visited Colombia to engage in discussions with the government on key elements of the peace agreement and its implementation.

Great strides have been made in the implementation of the peace accord in Colombia. However, significant challenges remain, including in the areas of rural reform, the reincorporation of former combatants and the protection of human rights defenders and social leaders.

Not least among the lessons we have learned in 20 years of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is how long it takes to build a sustainable peace. It is not a linear process. Ireland will remain a committed supporter of Colombia in its efforts to secure long-lasting peace and security for its people.

I thank the Minister for his response. I have to tell him that this is almost a personal matter for me at this stage. I went to Colombia in May and visited a town called Cajibio in the Cauca region, where the locals showed me pictures of all the young men who had been murdered by right-wing paramilitaries. They operate with impunity. That is why indigenous people have been so clear in calling out the responsibility of the Colombian Government. I acknowledge the engagements that have taken place. What is missing so far, however, is a clear condemnation by our Government of the extreme right-wing Colombian Government of President Duque, whose members are happy to sit with their arms folded and effectively facilitate the genocide of indigenous peoples in Colombia. I suspect that one has to meet those people to see the true horrors that have unfolded. I was equally horrified to find out that the local forests, from which these right-wing paramilitaries emerged to kill these people, were owned by an Irish company.

We need to do more. I would like to hear a clear ringing condemnation of the failure of the Colombian Government to protect the indigenous people I am speaking of.

I thank the Senator. It is obvious that he is very engaged with and understands this situation. I can say from my personal knowledge that the former Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, is equally committed to this process and has spent a lot of time on it. He was there when the initial peace process came to a false dawn and did not come to pass. He has worked incessantly ever since to secure the peace deal that was brokered three years ago and to make it work. As I said in my opening comments, we have learned that this is not a linear or quick process. There are lots of areas that need to be worked on. Condemnation is simple, but is it effective? We need to work with people to persuade them, as has happened in South Africa, Mozambique, Latin America and other places. We need people to engage. Over the years our President has been very involved in Central America in his previous roles as a Minister and Deputy. There is a lot of work to be done. There are lessons from all over the world which we can pick up on. Hopefully those lessons will be accepted and taken up by the political leadership in Colombia. That is absolutely essential if it is to work. We see this ourselves and we sometimes fail to understand why others do not, but we have to work with them. That is very important. That is why we want to get a seat on the UN Security Council in 2021.

I thank the Minister of State for coming before the House.

Sitting suspended at 3.25 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.