Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Flood Risk Management

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kevin Boxer Moran, and thank him for coming to the Seanad to respond to my query today. In early September, the Minister of State visited Coonagh in County Limerick where flooding had occurred. It happened on a Friday and approximately 25 houses were flooded. The water came into their ecosystems and into some of the homes. There was also flooding in Na Piarsaigh GAA club and in Coonagh Airfield, where both the hangar and several aircraft were damaged.

My understanding is that while there has been great progress in terms of people being compensated or looked after, and a number of issues have been resolved around na Piarsaigh and the airfield - I understand that is nearly at a conclusion - there are a number of homes that have not been sorted out. How are those homes going to be sorted out? Also at the time, the Minister stated that there would be an investigation into the cause of this event and what was going to happen maybe in terms of flood defence to resolve this ongoing issue because it is not the first time that Coonagh and this particular part of Coonagh has been flooded. I would like to thank the Minister because certainly when we did contact him on the day, he was very quick to respond and he came down himself to see first-hand how everybody was affected across the sporting club as well as the residents. My concern really is that a number of issues have not been resolved in terms of the residents. Could the Minister give an update as to where he thinks it is at and how long it is going to be before it is finally resolved?

I thank Senator Byrne. I call the Minister of State, Deputy Boxer Moran.

I thank the Senators for giving me the opportunity to come into the Seanad and explain the current position. The Office of Public Works undertakes routine inspections of all flood defences along the Shannon Estuary. During the routine inspection by the OPW staff of the River Shannon flood defence embankment system, damage to the sluice outfall was noted. The function of the sluice outfall allows for the discharge of water from the area protected by the embankment to the estuary and during the high tides prevented tidal waters in the estuary from entering into the protected area. While repair works had been started in mid-August, due to the forecast of high tides, emergency repair works were carried out on Friday, 30 August and Saturday, 31 August 2019. Unfortunately, these temporary works failed and the water breached the embankments.

The OPW has now reconstructed an embankment at the breached area and is continuing to monitor the area in its current consideration of opinion on constructing a replacement to the sluice control. The OPW acknowledges that in trying to repair the damage to the sluice, the temporary structure did not initially provide appropriate level of protection and did lead to the flooding in the area. I visited the area on Saturday, 1 September 2019 and I met with those affected. I take the opportunity again to thank the affected homeowners for their ongoing support and co-operation. The OPW was in contact with the local authorities over the weekend in question, and sandbags were provided to the affected householders and several pumps deployed to the area. I acknowledge and pay tribute to the council and its staff and to the people who helped out in the area in response to the incident.

In trying to agree a redress for the incident, the OPW acted promptly at all times. In the week immediately following the incident, the OPW met and wrote to those homeowners and apologised for the damage to their homes and contents caused by the situation. In that week, the OPW offered interim payment to the homeowners directly affected by the flood event so they could locate alternative rental accommodation if required and start restoring their homes to their pre-flood conditions. The OPW also appointed a loss adjustor to visit the affected homes in the week following the incident. In addition, the OPW contacted the State Claims Agency, which on behalf of the State is managing the claims for those affected homeowners as well as the GAA club and the Limerick Flying Club. The State Claims Agency is working with the homeowners affected by this event to help establish the quantum of costs in restoring the houses and the contents affected to their pre-flood position. Many of those affected have engaged their own loss assessor, and the State is covering the cost of that service. The loss adjustor has also visited the GAA club and the Limerick Flying Club with a view to agreeing the quantum of costs to restore their facility to pre-flood position. Given the numbers of houses and facilities involved and for reasons of privacy and confidentiality, the OPW cannot make comment on further details in relation to this matter.

I thank the Minister. I call Senator Byrne.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach and the Minister. I too want to pay tribute to the council staff who worked extremely hard that weekend, and the staff from the Minister's Department who came to visit. I was in a house within the past week that still has a porch loose and sitting in the front garden. That household has small children, one of whom is a baby.

On health and safety grounds alone, the sooner a conclusion can be reached, the better. Some people have been sorted out already. Does the Minister of State have any idea how much longer it is going to take? We are now in the month of December and this happened on 1 September, more than three months ago. I understand that there can be queries around costs and so forth but on health and safety grounds, this must be sorted out. A total of 25 houses were affected although only five had to be evacuated. The sooner this can be resolved, the better for everybody. I ask the Minister of State to take that message back to his Department.

I will do that. I ask the Senator to bring the names of those she represents and details of the issues involved to the attention of my Department. Individuals needed help and we did our best to provide it. There are legal issues to be worked through but I want to make sure that everybody is looked after. When I visited the area I met Senator Byrne and a number of her colleagues and assured the people affected that I would do whatever is necessary to get them back into their homes and that the necessary funding would be made available. The OPW is working closely with the people affected and with the local authority. Christmas is approaching and I want to see everyone enjoying it. The last thing I want is people having to contact the Senator because they are worried or concerned about their future. I will take the information supplied by the Senator here today and relay it to the relevant parties in my Department. We will see if we can rectify the problem.

Services for People with Disabilities

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath to the House and invite Senator Mullen to speak.

Curaim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I thank the Minister of State for his attendance here today and for his willingness to engage on this important matter. During the Order of Business last week I highlighted an immediate threat to the provision of services for members of the disability community, specifically to the services provided by the National Platform of Self Advocates. As the Minister of State will be aware, the platform is Ireland's first disabled persons' organisation and the only one to consist of and be directed solely at people with intellectual disabilities. It was established in 2011 by people with intellectual disabilities and has been funded by a grant from a private philanthropy organisation. It regularly seeks to progress vital employment opportunities for its members and its national meeting in July of this year focused on that theme.

Unfortunately the private funding has now ceased and in the absence of direct Government assistance, the National Platform of Self Advocates will have to close at the end of the year. I do not have to remind the Minister of State of the vital contribution made by the platform to the comprehensive employment strategy for people with disabilities which runs from 2015 to 2024, a fact he recognised during a debate on the strategy in this House in May. Indeed, as I understand it, the Minister of State has been a significant supporter of the platform over the past 18 months and without his intervention, the platform would have closed at the end of last year.

I seek a response to four very practical questions. My first question is whether the Minister of State will provide clarity on whether the Government, through his Department, has committed itself to respond positively to the requests that have come from the National Platform for Self Advocates. I accept that the answer to my next question is conditional on the answer to the first. Will interim funding be considered that would allow the organisation the space to seek out or apply for other sources of philanthropic or private sector support? My third question is of particular importance. Given that the issues surrounding the impending funding deficit were known for at least 18 months, why has the situation been allowed to deteriorate to this level once again? Finally, I ask the Minister to clarify whether Ireland will stand in breach of its obligations under the terms of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, ratified in March 2018, if it does not support the National Platform for Self Advocates in the way that I am requesting.

As the Minister of State is aware, states, including Ireland, are obliged to establish an initiative for building capacity among disabled persons' organisations in consultation with such groups. I look forward to his response.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I agree with him on it and am well aware of the valuable work of the National Platform of Self Advocates. I am glad to have the opportunity to address this issue on this important International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

The Government is committed to providing services and supports for people with disabilities which will empower them to live independent lives, provide greater independence in accessing the services they choose and enhance their ability to tailor the supports required to meet their needs and plan their Iives. The overarching principle governing the planning and delivery of services and supports for adults and children with disabilities is that they should be as integrated as possible with services and supports for the rest of the population. Significant year-on-year budgetary increases in the disability sector have positively impacted on the lived experience of people with disabilities. However, I recognise that daily challenges remain for many people with disabilities and their families.

Addressing the needs and rights of people living with a disability, as well as those of their families, is a priority for the Government and my primary focus as Minister of State with responsibility for disability issues. As the Senator rightly pointed out, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities supports that priority through providing a comprehensive and robust framework for the realisation of rights. The Department of Health and the HSE have responsibility for a significant number of actions under the national disability inclusion strategy, as do several other Departments. The HSE national service plan is focused on providing supports to people with disabilities and enabling them to maximise their full potential as independently as possible.

I share with my ministerial and Government colleagues a strong desire to ensure that people with disabilities are afforded every opportunity to realise their potential in every dimension of their lives. In this regard, disability advocates have been tireless champions in shaping the way we, as a society, think about disability in the context of moving towards social inclusion being accepted as the norm. The National Platform of Self Advocates was established in 2011 by people with intellectual disabilities and was funded by a grant from Atlantic Philanthropies. Unfortunately, that funding ended last year when Atlantic Philanthropies ceased operation. Since then, I have remained in regular contact with the platform to secure its immediate future through interim funding and its long-term future by trying to secure long-term Government funding. I am in constant contact with Government colleagues to secure this funding and will continue those endeavours.

In 2019, the Disability Federation of Ireland, DFI, and Inclusion Ireland will receive HSE grants of €1.2 million and €632,000, respectively, enabling them to ensure that the voices of people with disabilities are heard when it comes to changes in services and legislation that will improve the quality of life and participation in Irish society of people with an intellectual disability. The role of service users in informing health and personal social service provision through advocacy is well documented. Effective service user involvement through organisations such as DFI and Inclusion Ireland enables services to anticipate problems, address complaints, develop appropriate and effective service provision. It guarantees that service users will be at the centre of efforts to improve the quality and safety of service provision for many years to come.

On the Senator's four particular questions, I strongly support the national platform. Over the past two years, I have provided it with interim funding and I will continue to so do until the other issue is resolved. On the Senator's second point, I will respond positively to the organisation because it makes a valuable contribution to Irish society. Ten days ago, I sent a cheque of €5,000 to assist it. Further interim funding will soon be issued. As the Senator rightly pointed out, and in line with the convention, we need a group such as the National Platform of Self Advocates which is involved with mainstream disability groups such as DFI and Inclusion Ireland. Negotiations with it are currently under way.

Would you like to ask a brief supplementary question, Senator Mullen?

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. Of course what he said after his scripted speech will be welcomed. It was more significant than much of what was in the scripted part. It is on the record and that is appreciated. Obviously, the questions of when and how much will be of great interest to the platform. I thank the Minister of State for that.

My underlying concern - one I have raised previously - is about the credibility of our commitment to truly advancing participatory decision-making for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. I am sure the Minister of State will agree with me on this point. The dimension of people advocating for themselves is absolutely critical.

On paper, our commitments are always watertight. However, recent experience with Cuisle as well as this immediate crisis for the national platform suggests that there is still work to be done towards actively realising those commitments.

Representatives of the disability voluntary sector appeared before the health committee prior to the summer recess. Their testimony, almost to a person, was that the existing framework of support is tottering on a knife-edge of financial and institutional collapse. In fact, to use the words of the representative from Rehab when speaking about the broader disability sector, the house is falling down. I do not mean to be political but it is hard to avoid concurring with that assessment when we see what is happening. Anyway, I thank the Minister of State for his response. We obviously look forward to seeing the meat put on the bones of that response, so to speak.

Clearly, a central goal of the Government's disability service reform is to support people with disabilities to enable them to live independent lives in the community and to make their own choices and decisions. The national platform, as far as I am concerned, is one of the organisations that does this effectively. I have worked with those involved during the past three years since I became a Minister of State. I have them as consultants, I use them as advisers and I give them some interim funding because I respect the work they do. The key thing for me is that I respect the fact that they are disabled people speaking for the disabled and not NGOs or chief executives from big organisations. They are on the ground themselves.

In 2018 I launched the Transforming Lives report on effective participation in decision making. Working group 3 was an inclusive group of people with disabilities, family members and organisations working with people with disabilities and the HSE representatives, thus ensuring that a broad church of opinion was heard during a comprehensive consultative process.

The recommendations arising from the report offer a roadmap - this is the key argument I make with the various Departments - to the effective participation of people with disabilities in making decisions about the design and delivery of the supports they need to live their lives and to live ordinary lives. A representative of the national platform - this is a very important thing - was a member of the strategy group and the advisory group on personalised budgets, for example, thus ensuring that their opinions were taken into account at all times. This led to the publication of the final role. Those involved made a positive contribution.

As I outlined earlier, the Disability Federation of Ireland and Inclusion Ireland receive considerable funding from the HSE to provide advocacy services for people with disabilities. We tried to get some of those involved in assisting in the funding issue but there is something of a blockage - I will be straight with Senator Mullen about that.

It is important to avoid duplication having regard to the availability of resources. This is a point I accept. However, I accept that the national platform has a role to play. As far as I am concerned, those involved have my support and I am continuing to push this within Government. In the meantime, there is no question of it closing. As far as I am concerned, the organisation will get the interim funding from me. However, I am keen to see stable funding. As the Senator rightly pointed out, we need stability in the sector. This organisation has a fantastic three-year plan which I support and which is supportive of me. Senator Mullen can bring this message back to the national platform: I am in there supporting it. It will have interim funding in the coming week or so to keep it going beyond January.

Road Signage

I thank the Minister of State for coming in today. He understands this situation well. I will set out some background to this issue for those who may not be familiar with it. Back in the 1990s, official road signs began popping up around Enniscrone and many other towns and villages throughout the country directing people to "Inishcrone".

Since then difficulties are being posed for tourists and visitors who want to visit Enniscrone but are confused by a different spelling. When I was growing up, Enniscrone was our local seaside area and we never knew it as anything else. Local people have articulated these concerns over several years, rightly believing that visitors intending to come to Enniscrone have difficulty finding the place and because it is confusing end up in an entirely different place. There has been a welcome increase in visitor numbers due to the development of the Wild Atlantic Way but, unfortunately, many businesses have said these visitors are simply getting lost. This is due to the fact that they cannot locate the town because they are looking for Enniscrone and the sign says "Inishcrone". The problem is exacerbated by satnavs or Google Maps, which we all use in our vehicles, because many recognise only Inishcrone as opposed to Enniscrone. The local economy is losing out.

These mounting concerns have led a strong community campaign, which has been lobbying for one placename spelling to be used consistently across the board. Thankfully, this issue will be resolved through the use of a plebiscite, where local people will have their say on a preferred placename, to be carried out by Sligo County Council. As part of the local campaign, I have made numerous representations to the Minister of State. This included facilitating a meeting at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment between the chief stakeholders and the Minister. The Minister of State has been engaged on this important issue. Certain legal work has to be completed in order that the plebiscite can be held. I understand that legal provisions require updated regulations for the holding of plebiscites to change placenames.

I attended a public meeting well over a year ago. There must have been 500 or 600 people there and the vast majority want this addressed as soon as possible. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's reply.

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter. The name by which people know their own locality or by which others recognise it is pretty fundamental. As well as being a beautiful place, Enniscrone is a popular destination. It has been for years but, as the Senator pointed out, it has benefited in recent years from the Wild Atlantic Way and golf tourism in particular.

The changing of placenames should be possible at local level through a democratic process. I fundamentally believe in the right of the residents of any area to be involved in resolving issues such as this. This is also consistent with the spirit of a associated placename provisions in enactments given effect over the years by the Houses of the Oireachtas. Placenames are a core part of people's identity and people hold strong views concerning the proper representation of a local placename. A placename may also be a means by which, as the Senator pointed out, a town, village, or area is more widely recognised and markets itself to visitors. It is, therefore, appropriate that there should be a mechanism or process that allows local people to express their views on such a matter.

Sligo County Council has contacted officials in the Department and expressed an interest in holding a plebiscite to determine the official placename that should be assigned to the town of Enniscrone. As the Senator will be aware, I met a delegation of concerned residents from the area a few months ago. Following the enactment of the Local Government Act 2019, provisions under Part 18 of the amended Local Government Act 2001 relating to the change of names of areas were finally commenced. The commencement of these provisions allows for new regulations to be given effect for the holding of local plebiscites for the purpose of changing placenames. My Department has prepared draft regulations for this purpose. However, during the drafting process, a further complication and legal concern was identified regarding the interaction of this Part and provisions relating to placenames under Part 5 of the Official Languages Act 2003, which is under the aegis of my colleague, the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan.

I have now received legal advice on the matter that it would not be possible under Part 18 of the Local Government Act 2001 to change a placename in a non-Gaeltacht area that is the subject of a placenames order under Part 5 of the Official Languages Act 2003. The Department's legal unit has contacted its counterpart in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to invite its observations on the matter. I have also spoken to the Minister, Deputy Madigan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, about it. It is intended that both Departments jointly will seek the further advice of the Office of the Attorney General. If there is an unintended conflict between the two separate statutory frameworks, it may be necessary to resolve the matter by additional amendments to the relevant provisions before giving effect to the regulations for the holding of local plebiscites. I know this is a further complication and delay but it is better to ensure that the process we undertake in the form of a plebiscite would be legally supported. Now that there is some further clarity on the complex legal issues involved, contact has been made between in the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and those in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as I have said. The aim is to try to seek agreement in principle as to how to proceed so that the matter can be resolved. In this regard, I understand that a potential piece of legislation is on the schedule and that there is an Official Languages (Amendment) Act that on the parliamentary schedule. The Department's policy objective is that it should be possible for a plebiscite to be held in any area to change a placename. The same mechanism for doing so should apply everywhere in Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht areas. Resolving this matter will allow the Department to make necessary regulations to allow the people of Enniscrone to have a say in the naming of their locality.

Senator Feighan is right to point out that there are other examples around the country where the provision of new signposting maybe 20 years ago resulted in names being used that were not the names that people locally recognised or at least not spelled in the manner the people locally would recognise.

I will conclude by welcoming the Senator's long-standing interest in the matter. I will certainly keep him informed and updated with regard to any changes that may need to be made in the law by means of the amending legislation coming before the Oireachtas soon.

This has gone on quite a long time. It sounds as if there is a turf war between two Departments. I would like to see this resolved as quickly as possible. The Minister of State is talking about legal matters and clarifying various issues. I urge that they are clarified as quickly as possible. The Minister of State rightly said that the legislation is there to be brought before the Dáil. I hope this could be done before the Christmas period and we could get this issue resolved once and for all. Somebody on Facebook asked why we were talking about placenames and said it is not a problem. As the Minister of State articulated, because everyone uses Google maps and satnav, it has become very important. I know of some fellows who went to the ploughing championships last year - I think they were Deputies - and they put in the wrong name and ended up 50 miles away. I will not say we are getting lazy but we are not following the signposts any more, we are just following our Google maps and satnav. It is more important now than ever that this is resolved. I thank the Minister of State for the attention he has given this matter so far. We need to get these two Departments together to deal with the situation once and for all.

I would like to reassure the Senator that there are no turf wars at this stage. This time last year, just before the session ended, the Local Government Act went through this House and we hoped that would allow for the regulations to be drawn up. It turned out the amendment that was included in that Act only applied to the possibility of holding plebiscites in Gaeltacht areas. That was an oversight at the time. We do not want a situation where we hold a plebiscite and it is challenged and it is found there is no legal basis for it to be held. We firmly believe that local people should be able to have their voices heard on important matters like placenames.

The Senator is correct. I find myself guilty of this as well. We have become lazy. I do not know who the Deputies were who could not find their way to Carlow. I reassure the House that I know my way to Carlow. They ended up 60 miles away. That is not much of a statement about their sense of direction.

I thank the Minister of State and Senator Feighan.

Schools Building Projects Status

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan. I invite Senator Gallagher to outline his matter.

Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach seo inniu. The Minister of State is welcome to the House. I thank him for taking time to be here. Ballybay community college applied for an extension to its school facilities in 2015. The extension incorporated two classrooms, a science room and a science preparation area. The school has been waiting patiently for some years for some good news from the Department. Along with the local councillor for the area, the current cathaoirleach of Monaghan County Council, Seamus Coyle, I have raised this issue on numerous occasions, most recently three weeks ago, with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh. Yesterday, I requested that a Commencement debate on the matter be arranged for this afternoon and I am pleased it is going ahead.

Ballybay community college is a successful school with more than 338 students. The numbers, thankfully, are increasing year on year. The school is located in the centre of County Monaghan and caters for a wide catchment area. The school has a great record on the academic front and on the sporting field. Last year the school won an all-Ireland football championship title for post-primary schools. The school is very successful and is blessed with excellent, dedicated and hard-working teachers under the guidance of principal, Moyah Lynch, and deputy principal, Conall Ó Grianna. The school is progressing at a great rate.

I understand the Minister of State may have some good news for us this afternoon. I believe the Department was in contact with the school yesterday evening and perhaps again this morning. I eagerly look forward to the response of the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, in the Chamber this afternoon.

I thank Senator Gallagher for bringing this very important matter to the attention of the Department. I know he has been to the forefront of promoting this project for a long period. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, I wish to outline to the House the current position regarding a new building project for Ballybay community college. I can confirm to the Senator that my Department has received a request from Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, for additional accommodation for Ballybay community college. The request has been given careful consideration. In that respect, I am pleased to inform the House that approval has been given for the provision of a stand-alone extension to the existing accommodation of the school. As the Senator correctly said, this extension will include two general classrooms, a science lab and a science preparation area. The project is being funded under my Department's additional accommodation scheme.

As is usual with such projects, its delivery has been devolved to CMETB. It is being progressed with a view to resolving the issues referred to by the Senator and to increasing the accommodation that it currently occupies. Under my Department's additional accommodation scheme, the next step in progressing this project is for the CMETB to arrange for a consultant to carry out the work necessary to bring it through the various stages of architectural planning and onwards through construction in due course. The board will also engage with the Department at various stages in the process in that context. The first stage in the process will be the completion of a detailed design for the project. In accordance with the terms and conditions of the scheme, the CMETB will be required to seek approval from the Department at this stage, namely, stage 2(a), of the design process. The Department will review the designs presented to it in that respect. Subject to the Department being satisfied with these proposals, it may then authorise the board to proceed to lodge a planning application for the project.

The CMETB will then bring the project through the planning process and may need to revert again to the Department, depending on the outcome. At that stage, subject to departmental approval and the tender process, the board and its consultant will proceed to tender for the contractor to carry out the building works. This project will supersede an earlier project, which, as the Senator will be aware, was for the provision of a science laboratory and preparation area only. This project had been approved but could not proceed due to the significant cost and design challenges. The entire approved provision for the project is now included in the revised provision. I am delighted to make this announcement. I am sure the pupils, staff, parents and the entire community of Ballybay and its catchment area will benefit from this critical extension project.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. That is, indeed, good news and I thank him most sincerely for relaying it to us. I take this opportunity to thank the school's board of management, the parents' association and the CMETB for their work in bringing this project this far. I also thank the Department for finally giving us the go-ahead to move on to the next stage. This is a great investment for the taxpayer because the school will continue to thrive and the young people of Ballybay and its surrounding areas will be the beneficiaries of this investment. I look forward to the project proceeding without delay to its ultimate conclusion as soon as possible.

I again thank the Senator for raising this important matter. I assure the House that the CMETB is fully committed to providing this critical new school accommodation and that it will be supported by the Department, particularly in the key stages in the process. The Department remains fully committed to progressing this project.

Sitting suspended at 3.12 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.