Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 30 Sep 2020

Vol. 271 No. 6

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Aviation Policy

I thank the Cathaoirleach. As the Minister of State knows well, the Covid-19 pandemic has decimated the aviation industry and tourism sector. It is having a significant negative economic impact on the businesses and employees in the region. In County Clare alone, hotels, guesthouses and tourism attractions are such an important part of the economic life of our county and have been decimated as a result of what Covid-19 has done. We need to see now and to ensure, as we look to the other side of Covid-19 whenever that might be, that vital infrastructure that has been built up over many decades is there and is protected. The real worry now is that as economic recovery starts to take hold it will be concentrated through the main airport in the country, namely, Dublin Airport. That would be devastating to the future life of regional development and would have a dramatic impact on the capacity of County Clare and the entire west of Ireland to achieve economic recovery.

As the Minister of State is aware of the threat, airlines will not be making money on any of these routes for quite a protracted period of time. They are threatening to move aircraft to other locations in the world where rules around travel are less restrictive. We, as a functioning Government, cannot allow that to happen. We are going to have to put in place State supports to protect the key routes and to provide funding to these private airlines, as much as we would not want to do that in a normal time. It will be necessary, however, because these routes are so vital to the economic well-being of the region. There is a public service obligation model which has been used in the past to support air access to routes where they are not profitable for a particular period of time but where their vital importance is recognised for the economic activities in the region. I am appealing to the Minister of State as a representative of the Government to give every consideration to the demands and needs of these regions to provide the appropriate funding to support airlines and to protect routes, so that these areas can recover when we get to the other side of the pandemic.

I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, for being here and I congratulate her on her appointment.

This is an important debate about, as the task force said, the protecting of public health but also the rebuilding of consumer confidence and regional and international connectivity. Cork and all of our airports operate in an open economy and we are an island nation. Our aviation sector, therefore, is critical. We need clarity on the task force recovery plan, on reform of the red and green list, and we also need to have a comprehensive remodelling of our testing. In welcoming that the Government has signed up to the European protocol on testing, it is now important in doing so that we recognise the green, orange and red system. In particular, on the red list, it is important that the option of testing in lieu of quarantine is put in place. It is about protecting our public health but it is also about rebuilding consumer confidence.

If one takes Cork Airport, for example, it has seen its passenger numbers plummet by 90% and faces a loss of €20 million for the year ahead. We need the reform that Senator Dooley has referred to by giving incentives for route development and retention. It must also be remembered that Cork Airport is the only airport that has not got funding under regional airport capital funding and I ask that that be given serious consideration.

I know that my time is short and that the Minister of State is going to reply but it is important that this debate is the beginning and a catalyst for the recovery of our aviation sector. This is done in the widest possible manner to support Government but to recognise also that a stimulus package to include Cork Airport is required. Reform of our testing is also required and if we are serious about signing up to the European protocol then green, red and amber means what it means, but our green and red lists must also be looked at in their entirety. I want a debate around what a green and red list means and around connectivity. Gabhaim buíochas.

I call on the Minister of State to speak. She is very welcome. I wish her well in her new role as a good west of Ireland lady and a friend of mine.

I thank the Acting Chairman and both Senators for raising this very important issue. I appreciate the enormous challenges facing Irish aviation at the moment. The industry has already weathered a prolonged period of significantly reduced demand which has affected the many people employed in the aviation industry throughout the country.

Ireland's economic well-being is closely linked to our global connectivity, in which aviation plays a key role. I can assure all stakeholders that the importance of the aviation industry in terms of its contribution to GDP, FDI and job creation is well understood, and that the Government will do all it can to support it through the very difficult period ahead.

The aviation recovery task force, which delivered its final report in July, made a number of useful recommendations to get the aviation sector back on its feet again. A number of the recommendations have already been implemented by the Government and others which are aimed at stimulating growth in air travel, are being examined and developed into proposals that will be deployed when the time is right. Among the actions already taken by the Government are measures to assist the sector financially. These include the extension of the wage subsidy scheme, tax claw-back measures, and the offer of liquidity support which is available to the aviation sector through the Government's €2 billion ISIF Pandemic Stabilisation and Recovery Fund. I am acutely aware of the challenges that our State airports and indeed all Irish airports are currently facing and will continue to face over the coming months as the country adjusts to the new reality of living alongside Covid-19. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I have met with the management of the DAA, the Shannon Group and Cork Airport and have been updated on the challenges facing Dublin, Shannon and Cork airports. I have seen at first hand the impact that Covid 19 has had on Cork Airport's operations. In addition, I have also met with our regional airports to discuss the challenges they face.

In addition to the horizontal Exchequer supports provided by the Government which I have mentioned and which the airports are availing of, the Government's commitment to our State airports was most recently demonstrated by a decision we made in recent months to provide an emergency grant of €6.1 million to Shannon Airport to complete its hold baggage screening project, a safety and security requirement under EU regulations. The provision of the funding ensured that Shannon Airport was in a position to resume passenger flights on 1 July. Officials in my Department are exploring further targeted support measures which will be considered by the Government as part of further plans to aid broader economic recovery. These supports would be targeted at maintaining connectivity at Cork, Shannon and Dublin airports.

The key to a meaningful recovery in the aviation sector, however, is to enable safe travel where the risk of contracting coronavirus from travel is low, where that risk can be mitigated through additional measures such as testing, and where travellers have some level of certainty on the public health measures in place during their travel journey. The European Commission proposal for a co-ordinated approach to the restriction of free movement offers a way forward in this regard. The Government took the decision to broadly align with this EU approach to international travel, which is expected to be finalized at the General Affairs Council on 13 October next. With regard to countries other than those on the green list, the proposed new EU approach would involve graduated requirements for testing of passengers. My Department is consulting with the Department of Health and the HSE as well as maritime and aviation stakeholders, to consider the possibility of introducing testing for Covid-19 in the context of international travel, as an alternative to the current general advice against non-essential travel. Any testing regime would need to be consistent with public health requirements and cognisant of the resources and capacity for testing available in our health sector. It is our hope that once the European common approach, including a supporting testing regime, is agreed, the path ahead for aviation and travel will be clearer and we will then be in a better position in respect of the visibility on what still might be necessary to support the aviation sector in the medium term. Officials in my Department are exploring further targeted support measures which will be considered by the Government as part of further plans to aid broader economic recovery.

The gentlemen have one minute between them for a supplementary question. I am not going to allow people ramble on.

I thank the Minister of State for her confirmation that her Department is looking at those targeted reports for services in those regions. Shannon's connectivity to London Heathrow and the east coast of the United States, namely, Boston and New York, are the key strategic routes that need Government intervention and targeted support. I hope that the Minister of State will be able to provide a level of security and certainty to the airport and airlines like Aer Lingus to ensure they are in a position to retain aircraft in those locations and that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, we are in a position to resume services.

I am being parochial, but it is important that Cork Airport would be added to the existing regional airports OPEX scheme because it has been excluded up to now. I agree with Senator Dooley that connectivity is critical. If one looks at the potential of Ryanair in terms of Cork Airport, 80% of the flights are gone. That is 100 jobs between pilots and cabin crew. This is an ongoing issue on which we need to have continual debates. This is about safe connectivity and about us being innovative and bold as we always have been in aviation. Whether it is aeroplane leasing, flying the Atlantic or Ryanair with Michael O'Leary, we have been innovative.

This is too important to have it shoehorned.

I know it is, but we have to-----

I have asked for a debate-----

-----on transport. We need a bigger and wider debate.

I accept that and we will have time. I am sorry to cut across the Senator.

Global civil aviation is facing its most challenging crisis ever and a range of forecasts across the airline sector do not anticipate global capacity returning to 2019 levels before 2023 or 2024. When aviation might resume in a meaningful way is clearly linked to the evolution of the coronavirus, ongoing travel restrictions and advisories, as well as the more general economic outlook. In Ireland current estimates predict airport passenger numbers this year at just 25% of 2019 levels. The scale of the decline is having a severe impact on airlines, airports and associated businesses in the aviation sector. To assist businesses to protect employment, the Government acted early in the Covid crisis to introduce wage supports and put in place a suite of measures to assist businesses, which I mentioned earlier.

I have committed to undertake an examination of the future viability and sustainability of Shannon Group. I will consider financial supports and any other measures that may be necessary and appropriate as part of the review of Shannon Group. I intend to bring recommendations to Government shortly.

Senators can be assured of our commitment to ensure that we open up aviation. As an island nation, it is critical not only to our economy, but also socially, and for tourism, family, friends and all our diaspora. It is an issue of fundamental importance to us.

I gave a bit of leeway there because two Senators were involved. I ask for everybody's co-operation on the remaining matters.

Mental Health Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Butler. I wish her well. We were good friends when we were in the Dáil together. I know she has major challenges and I wish her well with that.

I formally congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Butler, on her new position. Knowing her work ethic and her compassion, I have no doubt that she will bring a very positive bearing on the areas of mental health and older people.

I want to talk about the provision of Jigsaw mental health services in Newbridge. The mental health of our young people has rarely been under the level of stress it is at present. Adolescence and young adulthood is a fraught time anyway, but the added burden of Covid-19 restrictions has disproportionately affected the 12 to 25 age cohort. Their education has been completely disrupted and along with it their support network and friendships within the school community. The leaving certificate class of 2020 had to contend with serious uncertainty for several months about their exams and CAO offers without any of the usual rites of passage associated with leaving school. Of course, those doing their leaving certificate in 2021 also have problems.

Third level students and those doing apprenticeships have also seen their lives completely changed and they live with continued uncertainty about the coming academic year. Part-time jobs have been lost and many young people face serious financial pressure combined with the great pressure they face from social media. The burden on the mental health of young people is immense. The need for services aimed at this age group is immense. With this in mind, for some time I have been calling for a branch of Jigsaw to be opened in Newbridge.

I have been calling for this since well before the advent of Covid. I had the opportunity to bring the previous Minister of State with responsibility for mental health to Newbridge to visit one of our volunteer-led charities there, HOPE(D), which does incredible work with young people supporting them with their positive mental health. A number of years ago I spoke in the Dáil Chamber about the devastating impact of five young men who took their own lives within one month of each other in the town of Newbridge. It was absolutely shocking. I therefore do not raise this issue out of nowhere. Given all the issues we have at the moment, we absolutely need a branch of Jigsaw in Newbridge.

Jigsaw aims to create a more supportive environment for young people. It also provides online mental health supports for young people, their families and those around them. It provides a community-based, holistic approach and seeks to inform and support people and educate them about young people's mental health. Its services are accessible, visible, effective, inclusive and timely and they are very much needed in south Kildare, particularly around Newbridge.

HOPE(D) is a wonderful charity based in Newbridge. It does great work providing help to those aged 13 and upwards who are battling mental health problems. Of its clients, 25% are adolescents. It needs absolute assistance. It is losing the building from which it currently works and its future is uncertain.

Bringing Jigsaw to Newbridge would be a huge help to the area. We could look at a collaborative partnership approach between HOPE(D) and Jigsaw to give young people the assistance they need as they face into a difficult winter and a difficult year. I hope this can be brought to fruition in the near future.

I thank the Acting Chairman and Senator O'Loughlin for the warm wishes extended to me. I thank Senator O'Loughlin for raising the issue of the opening of a branch of Jigsaw, the mental health organisation, in Newbridge, County Kildare. She is quite right that I have heard her talk about this over many years; it is not something I have heard for the first time today.

As we all know, Jigsaw is an absolutely fantastic organisation. It has 12 sites nationwide, all of which provide brief intervention and support to young people aged 12 to 25 with mild to moderate mental health difficulties. When I came into this role 11 weeks ago, I met Dr. Joseph Duffy, the CEO of Jigsaw, and was really struck by the way in which it organises and does its business. Most importantly, prior to Covid, one could refer oneself to Jigsaw, so a 12-, 13- or 14-year-old could actually walk up to a Jigsaw premises and self-refer. One can also attend with a sibling, one's parents or an advocate. What is also very important about Jigsaw is that it continues its supports until the person is 25. Child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS, for example, end at 18 and then one enters into the adult services. Many 18-year-olds are still in school doing their leaving certificate or they might be transitioning into college, which can be a very difficult time for them. From that point of view, Jigsaw's ethos is fantastic. In addition, what Jigsaw has done during the Covid pandemic is phenomenal. It was able to move online within four days to provide blended support services. Obviously, with Covid, a lot of the face-to-face interactions had to end, but Jigsaw was able to move online and continue its supports.

As the Senator will be aware, mental health continues to be a priority for the Government, and I intend to progress all aspects of mental health in the context of implementing the current programme for Government and the new policy, Sharing the Vision. Mental health service users are among the most vulnerable in society. In recognition of this, €39 million was added to the HSE mental health budget last year, bringing the annual budget to €1.026 billion. This is significant investment but it has to continue. I am in budget negotiations trying to extend that amount. The HSE provides approximately €10 million annually to support 12 Jigsaw sites nationally. A priority for me and the HSE is to open two new Jigsaw services, in Wicklow and Tipperary, by the end of this year.

The question of providing new Jigsaw services for 2021 or beyond can only be taken in the context of agreeing the forthcoming budget and the subsequent HSE service plan for next year. It should also take account of other similar early intervention services in an area, whether they are provided by the HSE directly or by another agency on its behalf.

The Senator mentioned HOPE(D), the fantastic work it is doing and that its future is uncertain at the moment. I am happy to visit south County Kildare with her to meet this organisation because it is very important. The number of organisations on the ground providing help and support is phenomenal. It is all about care in the community because that is important. To progress a Jigsaw project in a particular area it is very important to get local community buy-in, the support of the HSE and local authority and to try to identify a premises. That would be very helpful and I will support in any way I can.

I thank the Minster of State. I will certainly welcome her to Newbridge with open arms to visit HOPE(D) and the Kildare Youth Theatre, KYT, which is another community group that does a great deal of work on positive mental health through the arts and creativity. The Minster of State mentioned the HSE's Connecting for Life strategy, which is important. It states that the rate of youth suicide in Ireland is among the highest in the EU, which is quite frightening. County Kildare has the highest rate in Leinster and it is higher than the national average. I am delighted for the people of counties Tipperary and Wicklow that they have secured Jigsaw centres. However, in previous conversations I have had with the HSE, I understood that County Kildare would have been high on the list. I acknowledge the Minster of State is going to push for this in the budget and the HSE plan. I will add my voice to the calls on the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minster of State also mentioned the possibility of looking for a building. I have spent some time on that and have identified a few buildings in Newbridge because I appreciate that can sometimes be the biggest problem. I thank the Minster of State and will continue to liaise with her on this.

The Senator will appreciate that the HSE has statutory responsibility for the planning and delivery of health and personal social services at local level. The HSE, as is reflected in its annual service plan, strives to deliver services in the best possible manner. Currently, Jigsaw has 66% coverage throughout the country but I would love to see a situation where we have 100% coverage as this is so important. Coupled with this, I have met a lot of youth groups recently. The Senator mentioned the Connecting for Life strategy. I was given figures, which may be revised up or down slightly, that, unfortunately, showed that 431 people took their own lives. That is hugely problematic. I recently met a group who had lost one of their friends in the Kilkenny area. They told me they heard of Jigsaw way too late and it was sad to hear that. At the moment I am working on a leaflet that is going to go into every secondary school next month, which is Mental Health Month. It is a small three-page leaflet, which will identify all the groups such as Jigsaw,, MyMind, BeLonG To, and the 50808 text support service. I am happy to say 500,000 of these will go to secondary schools. Students might put them in their schoolbags and might not look at them until night time but they will know there is help and support there. I will do all I can to work with the Senator.

Schools Building Projects

The Minister of State is staying with us. If it is in order, we will move to Senator Gallagher as he is the only one here at the moment. Is the Minister of State taking the question about Ballybay Community College, County Monaghan?

I presume it is all right if we move to Senator Gallagher. We need to keep moving.

I extend a very warm welcome to the Minister of State and congratulate her on her appointment as it is the first opportunity I have had to do so. Knowing her personally, I have no doubt she will have huge success at the Department and wish her all the very best and good luck in that.

I seek an update on the proposed extension of Ballybay Community College. It is an issue that I, along with my colleague in the area, Councillor Séamus Coyle, have worked on for many years. Indeed, I take this opportunity to extend great credit to the people in the school community, the pupils, teachers, board of management, the parents and Cavan and Monaghan Education and Training Board, CMETB, that have worked and championed hard to get the project off the ground.

The school has been a great success both academically and on the sporting field, so much so, that it has outgrown its original footprint because of its popularity and the large number attending, which is a credit to its teaching staff. I was delighted last December when the Minister, by way of reply to a Commencement debate, informed me that the school had finally gotten the green light to proceed. The news was greeted with great enthusiasm by the entire community of Ballybay.

Since the new Minister for Education and Skills has taken up office, I have stressed to her the importance of the facility moving forward. It is disappointing that the project has taken so long but now that we have a green light I hope that it will move swiftly along in order that the school community, comprised of teachers, pupils and parents, will enjoy a much needed facility that they are crying out for. I hope that the Minister of State present will have some good news for me this morning on the status of the extension because the school community in Ballybay has waited long enough for the project to be completed.

I thank the Senator. Brevity is his middle name.

I thank the Senator for his kind words of welcome to this House.

I am representing the Minister for Education and Skills. She was not in a position to attend so asked me to take this Commencement debate, which I am happy to do. I spoke to her briefly and she informed me that she is very much aware of all of the work that the Senator has done to date to progress the extension at Ballybay Community College, working with Councillor Coyle. As the Senator said, the people of Ballybay are completely behind the project.

I can confirm to him and the House that the Department received an application from CMETB for additional accommodation for the community college in June 2019. The request was given careful consideration. I am pleased, on behalf of the Minister, to advise the House that approval has been given for the provision of a stand-alone extension to the existing accommodation of the school. The extension will include two general classrooms, a science laboratory and a science preparation area. The project is being funded under the 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 increasing the accommodation that it currently occupies.

I assure the House that the Department is conscious of the need for the accommodation. Likewise, the CMETB is aware of the importance to the school community of the delivery of the project in a timely manner. Indeed, officials of the Department have been in regular contact with the board on the matter.

I am pleased that a design team has been appointed by the board to carry out the works necessary to bring the project through the various stages of architectural planning and onwards through to construction.

Under the Department's additional accommodation scheme, a school building project has a number of stages within the design and delivery process where approval, from the Department, is mandatory. The next 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 is required to seek approval from the Department at this stage, namely, stage 2(a), of the design process. The design team has been progressing the project through this stage of the process in recent months. In that context, I am delighted to announce to the House that the stage 2(a) report to be provided to the Department was received yesterday, so the Senator has tabled a very timely Commencement matter. Officials in the Department will now begin the process of reviewing the stage report. Subject to the Department being satisfied with these proposals, it may authorise the CMETB 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 of its planning application. Subject to departmental approval at that stage, as well as through the tender process, the CMETB and its consultant will then proceed to tender for a contractor to carry out the building works.

This project superseded an earlier project which was for the provision of a science laboratory and science preparation area only. This project had been approved but could not proceed due to significant cost and design challenges. The entire provision approved with that project is now included in the revised provision.

There was some good news there for Senator Gallagher but I am sure he will have a supplementary question.

I thank the Minister of State for the response. I welcome the fact the CMETB and the board of management of the school have done their bit and passed the parcel, so to speak, to the Department. This is good news. It is progress and I am delighted to welcome it. I will be in contact with the office of the Minister to ensure there are no delays with the Department and that the project will proceed without delay as soon as possible.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I assure the House that the CMETB is fully committed to providing this critical school accommodation. I also assure the House that it will be supported by the Department in doing so, particularly at the key stages in the process. The Department also remains fully committed to progressing the project in that context. The Senator is quite right when he mentioned the board of management, the principal of the school, all of the staff, the community and local politicians including the Senator driving on the project. A huge amount of work has been done in the background that a lot of people do not realise and it is great to get some positive news today. I hope the community can drive on with the project. On behalf of the Minister, I am delighted to bring this news here today.

Covid-19 Pandemic Supports

I thank the Minister of State and I congratulate her on her appointment. This is the first opportunity I have had to do so. This question relates to the eligibility for the Covid illness payment, which is an enhanced illness benefit. There is a large degree of confusion as to the difference between persons who have to self-isolate and those who have to restrict their movements and, by extension, confusion about their entitlements from the State, in particular when they find themselves in a situation when they need to restrict their movements.

We have a situation in this country at present with retail workers. Last week, I was contacted by Mandate trade union and it also contacted the Minister to seek clarification. Its members are front-line retail workers interfacing with the public day in, day out. They are also low-paid workers and have no cushion when it comes to being out sick. There is a real concern about what entitlements they have if they are a close contact of a confirmed case and need to restrict their movements.

Not only is the Minister of State's reply very important but the communication to the wider public is critical. People do not understand their entitlements. I would like to understand the number who, if they are eligible, have sought Covid-19 payments because they are self-restricting. Of course, this is dependent on the Minister of State telling me they are entitled to it in the first place. I look forward to the response.

I thank the Senator for posing this question. It is a very important question and clarity is needed on it. I am representing the Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection who is not available to take the question. I agree with the Senator that there has been a large degree of confusion and I hope that I can bring clarity to the situation.

As we all know, illness benefit is a short-term payment made to insured people who are unable to work due to illness. This payment is funded by the Social Insurance Fund through the payment of PRSI contributions by workers and employers and, in the event of a shortfall between contributions received and benefits paid, the Exchequer. This was always the situation.

Under the Health (Preservation and Protection and other Emergency Measures in the Public Interest) Act 2020, the Government, having regard to the manifest and grave risk to human life and public health posed by the spread of Covid-19, made exceptional provision, in the public interest and to mitigate the effect of the spread of the disease, to amend and extend the Social Welfare Acts to provide for entitlement to illness benefit for persons who have been diagnosed with, or are a probable source of, infection with Covid-19. The rate of payment of the enhanced illness benefit payment in respect of Covid-19 is higher than the normal maximum personal rate for a limited period. The measures were designed to ensure that, where a registered medical practitioner or a HSE medical officer diagnoses a person with Covid-19 or identifies him or her as a probable source of infection of Covid-19, the person can comply with medical advice to isolate while having his or her income protected. This is essential to limit and slow down the spread of the virus, keep the number of people affected to a minimum and reduce a peak of cases which would cause extreme pressure on the health system.

On the question regarding numbers, unfortunately I do not have that information, but I will bring the matter to the attention of the Minister with a view to her Department providing the information to the Senator.

I welcome the Minister of State's clarification that if a person has to self-isolate or restrict his or movements, he or she is entitled to the illness benefit payment. There is an important question with regard to the certification that a person requires to be eligible for that payment. For example, is a doctor's note required? Currently, when a person presents for a test and is diagnosed with Covid-19 there is a paper trail, but this is much less the case where a person has a negative result but is still required to restrict his or her movements for 14 days. I urge the Minister to clarify the certification required and to place emphasis on the need to communicate this to the wider public. The Minister of State referred to the need to slow down this virus. Unless we tell people who are restricting their movements that they will receive this benefit, some people may go to work or conduct their activities in public and we need to discourage that.

As I said, payment is made where a medical practitioner advises a person to remain away from work. It is clear then that a person needs to be certified by a medical practitioner to avail of the two weeks' enhanced Covid payment. As of 25 September 2020, 55,000 claims had been received since March 2020. Almost 52,000 people have received an enhanced illness benefit payment, the vast majority on the basis that they were a probable risk of infection rather than having been diagnosed with Covid-19. Of those who made claims, 7% have been diagnosed with Covid-19, 82% are a probable risk, 11% were on a Covid-19 illness benefit payment and have moved to another illness payment and 1,854 are currently on the enhanced illness benefit payment. Over €36 million has been spent on the enhanced illness benefit payment to date. I hope this provides the clarity the Senator sought.

Northern Ireland

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, to the Seanad this morning. I wish him well. I soldiered with him in the Dáil from 2016 to 2020. He was always committed. I know he will be very committed to his new role.

I welcome the Minister of State. There is no doubt that it is an extremely busy time for him and his colleagues so I appreciate his coming here today to discuss a very important issue. The Minister of State will know too well that the New Decade, New Approach agreement that was signed in January comes on the back of intense and sometimes painstaking negotiations that had been taking place for the year previous. It is worth acknowledging that at the time of signing the New Decade, New Approach agreement there was a lot of hope in the North of a new decade of politics and opportunities, even when the regional and all-Ireland economy faced unprecedented uncertainty and instability due to Brexit. There was hope all the same. The British Government defaulted in its financial commitments to the obligation before the ink had even dried on the agreement. Fortunately for us, however, we had the Irish Government on our side. It is with that in mind that I ask the Minister of State to update the House on his Government's commitments under annex A.

It was welcome news in Derry and the wider north west that the region featured significantly in the document. In fact, it even had its own section. This did not happen by accident and I am sure the Minister of State will know that our party played a key role in ensuring that Derry and the wider north west featured heavily in the negotiation process. It was right that the document recognised that the region was in need of much significant strategic investment. I acknowledge and thank the Government for its financial contribution towards the north west strategic partnership, which was formed under Fresh Start and has done great work over the years. In page 60 of the document, the Government commits to exploring opportunities to invest in the Derry, Strabane and wider north west inclusive growth deal. The deal currently comprises investment of €105 million from the Northern Executive, €105 million from the British Government and €50 million from Derry City and Strabane District Council and Ulster University. I note that my colleague, Conor Murphy, Minister of Finance in the North, wrote to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, in May this year requesting that consideration be given to contributing to this funding path. I ask the Minister of State to clarify whether his Government has explored this and if we could pick it up as a matter of urgency with the stakeholders in the north west.

The Minister of State will be acutely aware that Derry and the north west have ambitious plans to expand further and higher education through the provision of the Magee campus expansion. I have met the Minister of State's officials many times over the years and made this point very clear. The Minister of State will accept that the insertion of the Magee expansion into the document was absolutely essential for our party to buy into its agreement. Therefore, given that the agreement was signed by the Government, what has it done with the north west further and higher education cross-Border cluster, Ulster University, the Executive in the North or the British Government, which are referenced in the document in respect of the Magee expansion?

Annex A also states that the Government will enhance and update the national development plan here to commit to additional joint funding and cross-Border investment in infrastructure. What has happened in respect of this? I welcome the fact that the Government has committed €75 million towards the A5 but I once again remind the Government of its previous agreement to fund 50% of the overall cost. I would like some clarification in this regard. I am very conscious of the range of issues I have brought to the Minister of State today. However, given the week that is in it and the fact that we could potentially be going over a cliff-edge in respect of Brexit negotiations, has the Government considered targeted funding into the North, particularly in respect of Border constituencies? I have mentioned a range of projects today. At the time of signing New Decade, New Approach there was a lot of hope. There was hope in Derry and I am sure the Minister of State along with the Minister, Deputy Coveney, would not want there to be another false dawn for the people of Derry and the north west. I would be grateful for specific clarification on the issues raised.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach as an bhfáilte a chur sé romham anseo ar maidin. Ba mhaith liom freisin mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir McCallion ós rud é gur ardaigh sí na hábhair tábhachtacha seo ag tús an tSeanaid inniu.

The New Decade, New Approach agreement, as the Senator said, was published on 9 January 2020, and formed the basis for the parties in the North to resume operating the power-sharing Assembly and Executive. The Irish and British Governments, at the same time, each announced their own separate sets of financial and other commitments in support of the resumption of the power-sharing institutions at Stormont, and the work of the North-South Ministerial Council. The Government is fully aware of the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which the Senator outlined, and is determined to ensure maximum progress is made in implementing all of them for the benefit of everyone on the island of Ireland, North and South, including the people of counties Derry and Donegal, and the wider north west.

I am aware the Senator tabled this matter previously and raised specific issues, which, I assume, are along the lines of those raised today.

Regarding the construction of the A5 road, which is perhaps the most signature project and will inevitably be the most visible in respect of people moving and travelling, the agreement restates the Government's commitment to provide €75 million up to 2022 for the project. Governments over the years have committed to this project and little has happened. However, the Taoiseach and the Government are absolutely committed to making sure that this happens. As the Senator rightly said, it will require co-operation from the three sides. She mentioned the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance, Conor Murphy, and the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon. With all parties working together, we are determined that the project will be delivered, and she can be assured that the Taoiseach will provide leadership on this issue.

As the Senator will no doubt be aware, a public inquiry in Northern Ireland administered by the planning appeals commission into the A5 western transport corridor scheme concluded on 13 March 2020. Subject to a favourable outcome from the public inquiry and the successful completion of all statutory procedures and environmental assessments, construction work on the first phase of the scheme, phase 1A from New Buildings to north of Strabane, could commence during 2021. As somebody who travelled in that particular area during the summer, going to north Donegal, I am aware that the road is badly needed and the project will bring significant economic benefits to the area when it is completed.

The Government welcomes the development of plans for ambitious new higher education provision at the Ulster University Magee campus in Derry. This investment has the potential to increase access to third level education for young people on a cross-Border basis, enable further co-operation between third level institutions in the north west and underpin broader economic development and opportunities in the region.

When I was the spokesperson for education in the previous Dáil, what I found surprising was how little cross-Border movement there is in education. We may think there is a large number of students crossing the Border, but there is not, in particular, for example, in respect of the institutes of technology in Dundalk and Letterkenny. However, this campus could have a major impact, and it is up to all parties involved to grasp the opportunity.

The Government is willing in principle to contribute to capital investment to support expanded provision at Magee campus, alongside the commitment made by the UK Government as part of the New Decade New Approach agreement. We look forward to early discussion with the Northern Ireland Executive on taking forward this co-ordinated investment.

The North West Strategic Growth Partnership, established in 2016 through the North-South Ministerial Council, brings together senior Government officials from relevant Departments, North and South, and other stakeholders to deliver on the strategic priorities aimed at bringing real and positive change for the north west. The Government, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, provided €2.5 million to the North West Development Fund. Matching funding of €2.5 million was provided from the Northern Ireland Executive.

The Government remains committed to continuing to support the work of the North West Strategic Growth Partnership and is committed in principle to providing further funding in collaboration with the Northern Ireland Executive.

The meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in plenary format, which took place in Dublin on 31 July last, was a positive development for co-operation and shared understanding. That it how we will get things done.

We look forward to continued engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive, including in taking the New Decade, New Approach commitments forward through the regular pattern of ministerial meetings via the North-South Ministerial Council's 12 policy sectors over the coming months.

In relation to the expansion of the Ulster University Magee campus in Derry and the possibility of the Government working with the Executive in the North, I ask that the issue be placed on the agenda of the next North-South Ministerial Council. There is continuing engagement between Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the further and higher education establishments in the north west but I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate that what we need now is leadership to bring forward proposals for full expansion of the Magee campus. It will need a bespoke arrangement and help and assistance from the Irish Government, the Government in the North and perhaps the British Government. All the good work and endeavours of the north west further and higher education cross-Border cluster can only go so far. We have political agreement on the need to expand the university in Derry for the wider north west and we need political leadership from the Minister of State, the Executive in the North, the British Government and the two councils in Derry and Donegal. I ask that this matter be put on the agenda of the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.

I will pass on the Senator's request to the Taoiseach and the Ministers. We have a Taoiseach who is probably the most committed to education we have ever seen. He is also committed to breaking down the barriers between people within the North and between North and South. That is what this Taoiseach is about. One way of doing that is expanding access to education, both regionally for the north west and Derry and with regard to the cross-Border education aspect, which has not been given the attention it deserves over the years. I assure the Senator that this will be progressed under the Taoiseach and his Government. This will be a real commitment and the Senator will see real action on it. The Government fully recognises the need for further investment and development in Border areas. We are committed to exploring opportunities for investment that will further support communities to bring greater economic prosperity and social benefits to the wider region but, most importantly, breaking down barriers and bringing together the people of this shared island. That is how we will make progress economically and socially.

The PEACE+ programme will be important as well. The Taoiseach was key to negotiating that programme at the European Council and we are working to ensure the North of Ireland and the Border counties achieve the greatest possible benefit from the programme over the next few years. The Taoiseach and I will be keeping a close eye on that programme of money.

Foreign Policy

I raise the democratic crisis in Belarus, of which the Minister of State will be aware. I do so in the full knowledge that the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has a very deep personal connection with Belarus and met Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Brussels on 21 September. She is the opposition leader in Belarus who has been displaced by the recent presidential election and has had to flee the country, in essence. The Minister described her as an extraordinary and brave woman.

The Minister of State will be aware that, since 1994, Alexander Lukashenko has been President of Belarus. He was the first president elected after the constitution was established. Belarus has been independent since 1990 so it is a relatively young country. During his term as President, Mr. Lukashenko's attitude to the people of Belarus has been characterised by what he has described as his authoritarian ruling style. That is evidenced in the manner he has behaved. He has treated the democratic institutions of Belarus with contempt. In the original constitution, there were term limits on the presidency in terms of the number of years and terms a president could serve. In 1996, Mr. Lukashenko, in a referendum, extended the number of years of a presidency from five to seven. As a result of that referendum, he has been barred from membership of the Council of Europe. In 2004, he held a referendum to remove the constitutional term limits, which was described by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, as unfree. There is no doubt about his attitude. In 2006, when he ran in the presidential election, his opponent, Alyaksandr Kazulin, was arrested and beaten by police in Belarus and this is exactly the kind of thing we saw recently in the run-up to the 2020 election. Mr. Lukashenko seems to get 80% of the vote every time. Nobody believes that, but that is what is recorded officially. The OSCE has described these presidential elections as unfair, whereas Russia has described them as open and fair.

An axis is emerging here and that is highly undesirable from the point of view of international relations. Again, in 2010 opposition presidential candidates were imprisoned and beaten. Independent observers described that election as fraudulent and it has been criticised by the European Union, as was the most recent election in 2020. Perhaps it is the highest profile because of the massive public outcry at the result of opposition leader, Ms Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Her vote clearly was not reflected in the huge public outcry that came as a result of that election.

The European Commission High Representative said very clearly the election was neither free nor fair and described last week's secret inauguration by Mr. Lukashenko as lacking any democratic legitimacy. There is clearly a consensus internationally that this man is a dictator and this is an authoritarian dictatorship. It is the last one in Europe. It is right on our borders in Europe. I want to know what Ireland is doing about that. The European Union has failed to put sanctions in place and I am aware of the position of Cyprus in that regard. However, what is Ireland doing to put pressure on them? Mr. Emmanuel Macron in France said that Mr. Lukashenko must go. The UK and Canada have put in place sanctions against Belarus. The UK is not a country we should be following here. We should be ahead of the curve on this issue. I would like to see the Taoiseach make Ireland's position clear that we are opposed to this type of regime, we are opposed to the lack of democracy and that Mr. Lukashenko must step down as President of Belarus.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an fháilte a chuir sé romham inniu. Nuair a tháinig mé isteach mar Aire Stáit níor cheap mé go mbeinn, ar mo chéad lá sa Seanad, díreach ar ais i Seomra na Dála. Tá taithí agam anseo ach bhí mé i mo Sheanadóir ar feadh cúig bliana freisin. Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an t-ábhar seo a roghnú don Seanadóir Ward.

The human rights situation in Belarus following the presidential election is appalling and has been on an ongoing basis but, particularly, since then and it is certainly worthy of discussion here. I repeat that election was not free or fair. Let us be honest, Mr. Lukashenko is an absolute outrage to European values and the democracies we hold dear.

There have been many messages from Irish citizens concerned for the welfare of the Belarusian people. Many of those who have written have opened their homes and their hearts to Belarusian children since the Chernobyl disaster so there is a good link over recent decades between Belarus and Ireland. Both I and the Taoiseach share those concerns.

Prior to the election in August, Ireland along with the EU highlighted the worrying situation during the 44th session of the Human Rights Council in July. However, after the election the situation deteriorated further. We have seen indiscriminate mass detentions, including of children, credible reports of torture and ill-treatment of those detained, forced exiles and disappearances and curtailments of media freedoms, including Internet shutdowns.

Ireland has acted quickly and clearly to those events. Along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, I have made statements expressing our deep concern following the use of state violence against peaceful protestors and we have called for the immediate and unconditional release of those unjustly detained, for an end to violence and for a sustainable and peaceful resolution through dialogue. That was also the message conveyed by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, during the UN Security Council meeting on 4 September and at the Human Rights Council where Ireland also supported a joint statement expressing concerning at Internet shutdowns.

We have condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities and Ireland has continued to work with other EU member states to ensure a firm EU response. Senator Ward has outlined some of the difficulties at EU level he is obviously aware of that do not involve us. I am hopeful there will be opportunities this week for further dialogue among our EU partners that have difficulties with this, not regarding Belarus, as the Senator will understand, but other difficulties they have relating to it. I am hopeful that the European Council may do something on this issue but that depends on every member state agreeing with the strong position the Taoiseach will take.

We support the imposition of targeted sanctions against those responsible for the falsification of the election result and the use of state violence against the Belarusian people and we will continue to seek their quick imposition. This is what the Taoiseach will be looking for at the European Council. However, sanctions are, of course, just one element of the broader response and we are working constructively with our EU partners on a review of EU-Belarus relations. We must support the Belarusian people in their simple and clear demand to have free and fair elections and to have their basic human rights respected.

The Taoiseach has spoken to the opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who has a well-known connection to Ireland, having spent many summers here in her youth. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, met her with other foreign Ministers last Monday in Brussels. The future of Belarus is for the Belarusian people and for them alone to decide in fresh democratic elections. Their resilience in the face of very real threats to their lives and their liberties is an inspiration to all of us who cherish democratic principles and the rule of law, and we stand by them. We have full solidarity with them and the Taoiseach will do everything he can at the European Council to ensure real action is taken by the EU on the difficulties there.

I acknowledge what the Minister of State said regarding his commitment to dealing with this issue. I also acknowledge what he, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and the Taoiseach have done and the solidarity with the Belarusian people they have expressed. I am very heartened by what he said on the opportunities that may arise this week to advance matters and I am very encouraged by the fact that Ireland clearly supports sanctions against Belarus. This is an important step. I regret, as the Minister of State said, that there are difficulties beyond Ireland's capacity that are preventing this from happening. Europe has to act, however. It must not be seen to sit idly by as an authoritarian dictator continues to act apparently with impunity on the border of the EU.

What I hope will happen is that the Taoiseach will take the ultimate step of saying publicly that Mr. Lukashenko should step down. I acknowledge there is broad consensus politically in Ireland on this, and I understand the difficulties that arise from such a statement but given that other European leaders have made this clear view known, for example on behalf of France and the UK, I hope the Taoiseach will also take the step of calling for Mr. Lukashenko's resignation.

We will maintain our call for the authorities to engage in meaningful dialogue. To be clear, the Government led by the Taoiseach does not accept the results of the election. I want to be absolutely clear. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE, of which Belarus is a member, has offered to visit Minsk and help facilitate talks. We will continue to encourage the authorities to grasp the offer with both hands. I am hopeful targeted EU sanctions will be imposed shortly, and the Taoiseach will be very strong when discussing the importance of this step at the European Council later this week.

The European Council operates by consensus. Two member states have difficulties with this, not because they have difficulties in imposing a sanction on Belarus but because of other issues that are important to them, and I acknowledge they are very important to them. I hope we can, through dialogue, encourage this step to take place. We cannot do anything at the European Council without consensus. That is what the Taoiseach and other leaders are working towards this week. I hope we will see a positive outcome. I will be there with the Taoiseach and I will speak to my colleagues on this issue.

Sanctions alone are not the answer. The repression faced by ordinary people in Belarus, including members of civil society, members of the co-ordination council, environmental activists, journalists, human rights defenders and lawyers and almost everybody, except his family and close colleagues it seems, is totally unacceptable and we must support the people in defending their rights. I assure the House that Ireland, led by the Taoiseach and the Government, will remain steadfast in its support for the Belarusian people.

I thank the Ministers of State, Deputies Naughten, Butler and Byrne, for coming to the House this morning and giving of their time in such a friendly manner. It is nice to see that happening in the Seanad. I congratulate all of the Senators for how they have put their case and their co-operation with the Chair.

Sitting suspended at 11.45 a.m. and resumed at 12 noon.