Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Data Centres

Senator Boylan has four minutes and can then come back in.

Go raibh maith agat, a Chathaoirligh, and I welcome the Minister of State. I am here to raise the deeply concerning proliferation of data centres in the country. It seems they are now a new frontier for extraction where our cool climate and windy hillsides are ripe for the taking. We know that data centres are popping up all over the country and with them comes windfarms and fossil fuel energy generators. Despite the best efforts of tech giants to greenwash the impact they are having, the figures do not lie. The surge in Irish data centres comes with a massive carbon footprint. They pretend that big tech is a clean industry but it requires a huge amount of energy to power the servers and fans to suck in cool air. Each video on file on the Internet has to be stored in these data centres.

By 2027 data centres will consume 31% of Ireland's electricity. Across Europe while energy use is decreasing, in Ireland we are an anomaly because it is increasing. That has nothing to do with our household or population growth. It is purely down to the rise in the number of data centres. They will require 12.5 TW of electricity above what is being provided. That is enough power for 24 million homes. These data centres should be treated like the carbon intensive industry that they are. It seems there is a greenwashing campaign in full spin because we hear that data centres will be 100% powered by renewables. However, the amount of energy projected to come from their windfarms is far outstripped by the demand from these data centres.

On top of that, each megawatt of wind capacity must be backed up with energy generated from fossil fuels. This is not to mention the fallout of the biodiversity disaster in the Meenbog wind farm, which has a contract with Amazon. While pilot projects in which waste energy is sold to heat homes or public buildings are welcome, they barely put a dent in emissions.

When we hear talk of the cloud, it is as though it has no material impact but the truth is it is bad for climate and to date, the Government has given the industry a free pass while the public is left to carry the bulk of the massive cost for the infrastructure required to run these data centres. The Irish Academy of Engineering estimates that we will need €9 billion of new infrastructure. It seems the Government strategy has been so successful in attracting data centres that we now have an enormous and disproportionate amount of western Europe's data infrastructure, and with that comes these colossal CO2 emissions.

This begs the question as to what we are getting out of this deal. Will we get jobs? Not really, as after the short-term jobs used in construction, data centres do not require very many people to run them. I read the Government strategy and the headline benefit in the executive summary indicates that this will raise the international visibility of Ireland. It seems that what we are getting in return for hosting these data centres is some good public relations. I am sure the Tánaiste's spin doctor could come up with a bigger and cheaper way to do this with less of an impact on climate change.

Billions of euro in taxpayers' money are being siphoned off to benefit these big technological companies for what appears to be no tangible benefit but rather a massive environmental cost. Communities, non-governmental organisations and individuals have tried to stand up against these tech giants, as we have seen with the Athenry case, and they demonstrated the faults in the environmental impact assessment. Apart from what we are getting out of this deal, will the Government commit to reviewing the environmental and climate impact of the policies we have that support the proliferation of these data centres?

I thank the Senator for raising this important matter and apologise on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is attending an EU Council meeting today.

The Government's statement on the role of data centres in Ireland's enterprise strategy acknowledges the role of data centres as part of the digital and communications infrastructure for many sectors of our economy. The statement also noted that data centres pose considerable challenges to the future planning and operation of Ireland's power system. Such challenges arise in terms of renewable energy policy, generation adequacy, security of electricity supply and electricity customer costs.

The programme for Government commits to developing efficiency standards for equipment and processes, particularly those set to grow rapidly, such as data centres. The information and communications technology sector must undergo its own green transformation. Earlier this year the European Commission adopted Shaping Europe's Digital Future, which includes an objective to foster an open, democratic and sustainable society. Key actions include initiatives to achieve climate-neutral, highly energy-efficient and sustainable data centres by no later than 2030.

Data centres have, until recent years, accounted for less than 2% of Ireland's total electricity demand. EirGrid, in its generation capacity statement for 2019 to 2028, projects that demand from data centres could account for 29% of all demand by 2028. EirGrid, in its capacity as the transmission system operator, continually models and forecasts the predicted future growth of electricity demand in its published analysis, including the Tomorrow's Energy Scenarios.

EirGrid, the transmission system operator, published an updated data centre connection offer process and policy over the summer in line with the Government policy statement and the climate action plan. While data centres can consume very large amounts of energy, they have a flat and predictable demand profile, meaning they use the same amount of electricity day and night, therefore requiring a range of generation technologies to meet demand.

Significant increases in volumes of generation capacity, including from renewable energy resources, will be required to meet Ireland's electrification objectives and demand from heat pumps, electric vehicles and data centres. The climate action plan set an ambition of 70% renewable electricity by 2030, the majority of which will be met through the renewable electricity support scheme, RESS. The first auction under the RESS has taken place and this will see major upscaling in renewable energy projects connecting to the grid from 2021, with solar energy and community-owned projects supplying electricity in Ireland for the first time.

The climate action plan also provides that IDA Ireland will use its new strategy to fully integrate decarbonisation objectives across its portfolio of clients. This strategy will seek to ensure new large-scale enterprise investments in Ireland, including factors such as location and power purchase agreement opportunities, with alignment to the build-out of the grid to maximise renewable sources.

We have recently seen a number of unsubsidised corporate power purchase agreements, CPPAs, purchased by data centre operators. It is hoped we can encourage more in order to meet the target of 15% of electricity demand to be met by renewable sources contracted under corporate power purchase agreements by 2030. When data centre operators purchase electricity directly from renewable generators, it contributes to the State's objective to decarbonise our electricity system without any subsidy from electricity customers. Work is ongoing in the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, and following from a study by consultants Baringa Partners on policy options for meeting Ireland's targets of 15% of demand to be met by renewable energy sources under CPPAs. The SEAI will launch a public consultation in the coming weeks.

I thank the Minister of State. I note he states that data centres have a flat demand but this means they are more likely to rely on electricity generated by fossil fuels. I wonder if there has been a cost-benefit analysis of the gas generators used as backup for the data centres or the long-term impact of fossil lock-in. Is there any possibility that the Minister will review how the planning system operates?

One current specific problem is that the process does not adequately address the cumulative energy and climate impact of continued data centre development in Ireland. A typical data centre's energy use contributes approximately 0.5% of Ireland's annual greenhouse gas emissions and this might go into an environmental impact assessment as being insignificant but it is the cumulative impact of these data centres that must be taken into account. They cannot be taken into account on a local basis because climate change is a global matter. We must look at the cumulative national impact.

I again thank the Senator for her comments. The Government is committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, with an annual reduction in overall emissions of 7%. This is a challenge and at the same time an opportunity for the Government, agencies and industry stakeholders to work together to achieve a green Ireland.

I have noted the Senator's questions and will take them back to the Minister. Data centres can form part of integrated energy systems as we move forward, as demonstrated by the recently announced and innovative district heating project in Tallaght using waste heat supplied free of charge from a local data centre. It is estimated that once the project is completed, there will be reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in the south County Dublin area by nearly 1,500 tonnes of CO2 per year.

The climate action plan also contains a number of actions related to this area, including that IDA Ireland will use its new strategy to fully integrate decarbonisation objectives across its portfolio of clients. I will take the questions back to the Minister.

Just Transition

I thank the Cathaoirleach for accommodating me in respect of this matter, which in one way is not too far removed from the matter Senator Boylan has just discussed.

I thank the Minister of State for being here to speak to the matter. I am sure he is aware at this stage that the closure of the Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations have been a huge blow. I accept that peat-burning stations are going, as this must happen for environmental reasons. I do not want to excite people too much but we could face power cuts in the coming months. This is a time when we really need to make the change but the just transition was supposed to happen over eight years and this process has been very rushed.

We are not going to slow down the process of putting the peat-burning stations back into action. That is gone. It is over.

As the Minister of State will be aware, part of the plan was that the power stations at Shannonbridge and Lanesborough were to be dismantled. I have raised this issue with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. I want them to stall the process, however that can be done, of the power stations being dismantled. If the power stations have to be handed over to the local authorities in Lanesborough and Offaly as a way out of this and it is necessary to seek some type of retention such that they are not dismantled, that is fine with me. We live in a very quickly changing world. We do not know what type of power may come on board in the next two or three years that could be used in those stations.

If the stations are not used for generating power, a significant tourism project relating to the story of the midlands, Bord na Móna and ESB should be developed. The companies provided an economic lifeline to the midlands for 70 years. That lifeline is gone but it should not be written out of history. It was part of our culture and our history. It provided employment. It built villages and towns and kept people in the area. I am sure the Minister of State will acknowledge that the demise of the ESB and Bord na Móna in the area involves the loss of thousands of jobs. Members often speak out about the loss of a couple of hundred jobs. In this case, it is about the shops, the engineering units and all the other services that were involved as part of that process.

As we go forward, I want the power stations to be retained. I know there is a process that must be gone through to retain them. If we go through that process and get feasibility studies, I believe we can bring footfall into the area. That can be done in a very good and environmentally friendly way. It would revive the areas, which is what is needed.

I compliment the groups in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge that have worked so hard on this issue. On behalf of those people, I wish to say that we appreciate the just transition fund of almost €28 million. If we can dot the i's and cross the t's, that will be very significant. This should be a plan for the future. We should not bury the whole situation or accept that the power stations are gone for good. As the operator they are gone, but we can develop new projects and make this a significant success. I look forward to the reply of the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter. I welcome the opportunity to set out the actions being taken by the Government to support the midlands region. Significant funding has been allocated to support workers, companies and communities affected by the closure of the peat-fired power stations and the end of peat harvesting by Bord na Móna. The work of Kieran Mulvey as just transition commissioner in the midlands region over the past year has seen comprehensive engagement with relevant stakeholders, facilitated by the midlands regional transition team, to address the challenges facing the region, Bord na Móna workers, their families and communities which arise from an accelerated exit from peat harvesting. Mr. Mulvey's reports and recommendations to the Minister and the Government have informed actions now being taken to support job creation efforts and create new opportunities for Bord na Móna workers and the wider region.

Last month, the Government approved significant funding of €108 million for Bord na Móna's large-scale peatlands restoration project. The plan will protect the storage of 100 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, avoid 3.2 million tonnes of emissions out to 2050, enhance biodiversity, create 350 jobs in total, deliver significant benefits and contribute to Ireland's target of being carbon-neutral by 2050. The Government funding, which will come from the climate action fund, will be bolstered by an €18 million investment from Bord na Móna, which is committed to a brown to green transition. Many of those employed on the project will be former peat harvesters, who have an intimate knowledge and long history of working on our bogs.

The Government has also announced provisional funding offers, totalling €27.8 million, to 47 projects throughout the midlands region under the just transition fund. The projects represent innovative and inspiring plans from businesses, local authorities and communities in the midlands that are committed to creating a green and sustainable economy for the region. This dedication from the community and targeted support will make the region an attractive and sustainable place to live and work. It will fund training and reskilling such that local businesses and communities can adjust to the low-carbon transition.

On the issue of the closure of the ESB peat-fired power stations, it is important to state that the management of the ESB-owned facilities is the responsible actor in terms of this issue. The decision of the ESB in November 2019 to close west Offaly and Lough Ree power stations followed the July 2019 decision by An Bord Pleanåla not to grant permission for the operation of the west Offaly plant at Shannonbridge with biomass and a subsequent extensive review by the company of options for continued operation of the existing plant based on the key planning, climate and commercial factors associated with generation at the sites. Notwithstanding this, ESB is committed to the future use of both sites and is currently undertaking further feasibility work to assess the best use of the sites in the long term, taking account of their location, infrastructure and future requirements of the electricity market. We should recall that this work reflects a specific commitment in the programme for Government to assess the potential for a renewable energy hub in the midlands using the existing infrastructure. This remains a key objective of the Government.

I very much welcome the comprehensive reply of the Minister of State, but in situations such as this, the Government will have to lead. I know the Government is very anxious that we rebuild the economy in the area. The Minister of State probably cannot give me a direct answer today but I have spoken to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about this issue and he has committed to come to the area and meet the people involved in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge. Obviously, that will not take place until the new year. This issue needs a hands-on approach from the Government, working with the people affected to ensure the moneys they have been granted facilitate the reinstatement of bogs and the re-employment of people. That will happen as part of the bogs project. For that to happen and be a success, we need a real hands-on approach from the Government. I do not think we can be left out at sea on our own. There is a significant tourism project there.

One must remember that, apart from turning the stations into museums, the area is home to the River Shannon and Slieve Bawn. There is a significant combined project that we could do together. Tourists visiting the bogs and learning about their flora, fauna and history could all be part of that project. We should not let that opportunity go. It would create significant extra jobs. I thank the Minister of State for his engagement on the matter.

The Senator's point is very much taken. The ESB recognises that the closure will impact on the midlands region. However, this does not mark an end to the long relationship of ESB with the region. The company has extensive ongoing operations, which include ESB Networks depots in several areas and the ESB Networks national training centre in Portlaoise, which provides training to 280 apprentices from all over Ireland. It also owns and operates several renewable energy wind farms across the midlands, each of which contributes significant revenues. In a joint venture with Vodafone, it has brought fibre broadband to 50,000 homes and businesses in many towns across the region. The ESB is ambitious for the region and its economy into the future and it is actively exploring options in investing in renewable energy projects. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about this issue last night. There is a window at the moment to do something with the sites and he is very open to ideas and engagement on that. I expect the Senator will see him on site at some stage.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I wish him and his family a very happy Christmas.

I thank the Acting Chairman and wish her a very happy Christmas.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad to discuss this issue. I compliment her on the work she has done in recent months. It is truly refreshing to see the proactivity and the new approach that is being taken in the Department with regard to specials needs. I wish her every success. I know the Seanad will continue to support her.

I wish to raise the issue of the urgent need for provision of a permanent school building for St. Michael's House Special National School in Skerries, north County Dublin. It is a co-educational special school under the patronage of St. Michael's House, with 30 pupils, many of whom have a diagnosis of autism or are on the ASD spectrum. Some of them have very complex additional needs. For many years, work has been under way to build a permanent and purpose-built school and home for St. Michael's.

It is currently based in a very old converted house and faces all of the challenges that come with that, mainly being overcrowded and always oversubscribed. With the support of the Department, the school is currently at stage 1 of the design and build process and is hoping to move on to the next stage early in the new year. A very successful and long meeting was held yesterday, which gave some succour. This is a hugely important milestone and is an impressive achievement for a small school at this stage.

While we are all pleased to see this part of the build process moving forward, there is an issue, a blocking and an impediment when it comes to the site acquisition. This process has been under way for four years now, but unfortunately seems to have completely stalled in the Chief State Solicitor's office. I want to ensure this delay does not begin to impact on the subsequent stages of the design and build process, which we will now move into. We need action on this now. The site acquisition needs approval and sign-off and that needs to be done now. We have waiting for far too long. The school has enormous support in the community. The Minister of State will know from her work over the last few months and visiting special schools that they are taken into the hearts and minds of the people who live around them and it is no different in Skerries. All sides are in favour of the purchase of the site and so there should be no issues. The delays in the Chief State Solicitor's office are proving quite disappointing.

The future of St. Michael's House in Skerries is bright. Its transformation from an old house to a 16-classroom purpose-built campus will do wonders not just for the area, but for all the pupils and their families. It will greatly enhance the school experience for those students and their families. It will also allow the school to cater for students with more serious and profound needs in our community. At the moment the school is constricted to those with moderate needs and the children with more severe needs have to be sent outside of their own community.

I am grateful that the Department has been so supportive of this project in recent times and I look forward to that support continuing. The completion of the site acquisition process should remove the last of any significant challenges we face in getting this school built and getting boots on the ground. I urge the Minister of State to sign off on it as soon as possible. I thank my local councillor, Tom O’Leary for highlighting this issue. I note in particular the dedication of the principal, Karen Byrne, who joined the school in 2018, and her predecessor Pat Price. The members of the board of management are all local and have given much time and commitment to this long sought after project. We want to see it come to fruition. We want to see a happy outcome and for any obstacles in the Chief State Solicitor's office to be addressed and cleared in order that we can move on to stages 2 and 3 and get this school built.

I thank Senator Doherty for her strong interest in the area of special education. She has always been a very strong advocate in this area and I appreciate the work she has done to date, particularly in trying to bring this school into the spotlight. As she noted, there was a very long and productive meeting on this matter yesterday.

As regards the site acquisition, I understand there are some small issues in the Chief State Solicitor's office that still need to be rectified. I assure the Senator that as Minister of State with responsibility for special education, I will be speaking with the Department about this on a regular basis to ensure it does not delay the acquisition of the site any further. There are sometimes complex legal issues that need to be sorted out when dealing with a site acquisition of this nature. We want to ensure there is no delay in this project progressing to planning and in order for there to be no delay, that needs to be sorted out. The site acquisition is in the process of being finalised by Fingal County Council and no issues are anticipated, other than the small issues arising through the Chief State Solicitor's office. Meanwhile, the design work is continuing and stage 1 work has commenced, which includes things like site investigation, site suitability and the design options. On 16 December, I received the very first submission report. We are now reviewing that and we will then come back to the board of management of the school. There is also an external professional project manager in place to co-ordinate all the various components of a project of this nature.

The Senator has quite eloquently set out the school and its main purpose, which is to provide an educational facility for children with special needs. From an overall perspective, I am pleased that this school will be moving to Hacketstown, which is in the immediate environs of the St. Michael's House Special National School in Skerries. It will provide 16 classrooms and two ASD classes. There will be a new deputy principal's office, a nurse's office and a multisensory room. I visited St. Martin de Porres National School in Tallaght this morning and it would really like a multisensory room. That will be provided in this instance, as will a home economics room. The design team was appointed in May 2020 and it has done a significant amount of work since that date. The architect, the quantity surveyor, the civil and structural engineer, the mechanical and electrical engineer and all the others have worked hard to present this stage 1 submission report to the Department, and we are currently reviewing it.

The needs of children with special needs is of paramount importance to me and I appreciate the Senator's comments at the outset of her contribution. This is the very first time there has been a Minister of State with responsibility for special education and we are getting €2 billion, or one fifth, of the overall departmental budget. That is badly needed in order that we can ensure children with special needs receive exactly the same type of education as children without special needs. That is the bottom line and we cannot have them in a building that is sub-optimal or is not providing them a proper service or a proper education.

It is heartwarming to hear how much attention and personal commitment the Minister of State will give this matter. One can see from the level of detail and ambition that has been put into the design in stage 1 of the process how ambitious the staff, the families and the community are for the students in this school. Of course we want the absolute best for our children. We want to be able to expand that service. I am grateful for the update the Minister of State has given me and for the attention and the level of detail she is going to give those issues that still remain in the Chief State Solicitor's office. I hope we can get over them very quickly.

I do not mean to put her on the spot but does the Minister of State have any idea of the timelines we could be looking at to move to stage 2 and stage 3, to get the school doors open? That would give some hope and some renewed impetus to the people who have been working so hard.

On a wider issue, would it be possible to conduct a review of special educational needs across the wider Fingal area? We have an awful lot of schools that do not have ASD units but definitely have special needs children. Would the Minister of State consider doing a special audit across Fingal?

In the Senator's original contribution she noted that the school was in an old converted building. That is below par for children with special needs so from an overall perspective, it is going to be of benefit to those 30 children, and hopefully more, when they move to the new building in Hacketstown.

From a timeline perspective, as a solicitor and lawyer I know things can get bogged down in legal detail and that can take time. I am not in a position to give the Senator an exact timeline but suffice it to say I will be giving this matter my absolute attention. It will be prioritised as far as I am concerned and we will be closely connecting with the Chief State Solicitor over the next number of months and weeks to see if we can expedite the process. The Chief State Solicitor obviously has to be satisfied that all components and the rigour of the law are tested before moving to the next stage. I will give this my full attention.

As regards a review, the National Council for Special Education will undertake a review of all areas but I will ask it to look at Fingal in particular and to ensure we have enough special classes and ASD units. There are 200 building projects going out in 2021 and 111 of those will provide ASD units. Obviously, if there is a deficit in Fingal I will look at that very closely.

I thank Senator Doherty for raising this question. I know of the great work Karen Byrne, the principal of that school, does. It is an important subject for all those in special education. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for coming in and wish her and her family a very happy Christmas.

Defence Forces

The terms of reference for the Commission on the Defence Forces were published some days ago. Why has the Department of Defence been excluded from the commission given the strategic role it plays and the input into and control it has on all matters relating to our defence forces? It seems like a glaring omission from the commission's terms of reference. It is a specific request from the representative associations. They are deeply frustrated and disappointed by the omission. I ask the Minister of State to relay to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that he might reflect on the decision, review it and amend the terms of reference to include the Department.

The representative associations have put it eloquently when they describe this as a once in a generation body of work. The Commission on the Defence Forces is very welcome. It gives us the opportunity to examine all aspects of the Defence Forces, not just pay and conditions, which will form an integral part of the work, but also how we operate our Defence Forces and how we can make them more effective and resource them properly. A point made to me by the representative associations time and again is that we often get a very small, miserable defence budget and try to jam defence policy to fit the budget when it should be the other way around. We should devise a defence policy that is properly resourced by the Government to deliver on it. That has not happened to date.

Fianna Fáil has long supported our Defence Forces; we need to show that support again now. We need to amend the terms of reference to include the Department of Defence so that we can get full buy in from all stakeholders. If we do not have the representative associations on board, it will not work.

I thank the Minister of State for being present to take the matter but I must express my disappointment that the Minister for Defence is not here to listen to our points and give us the basis for his reason to not include the Department of Defence from the terms of reference. When this commission was announced it was good news. It was in the programme for Government and it was something that we in Fianna Fáil had fought for. I am grateful to those who have agreed to serve on the commission and give their time, experience and expertise. However, not including the Department of Defence in the commission's terms of reference was a glaring omission. In all the conversations we have had over the years with Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, RACO, Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, and the Wives and Partners of the Defence Forces WPDF, it was always very clear that the Department was a big part of the part of the problem in the workings of the Defence Forces. The commission is examining recruitment and retention along with pay and conditions and the excellent service given by Defence Forces personnel and seeing how that can be promoted, but to not include a review of the role and workings of the Department is quite wrong. It was a very specific request by those in the Defence Forces and was the basis of much of the complaints we have had over the years, such as the Department's oversight, that it is in charge of policy and its control of the purse strings and its refusal to allow the military leadership the appropriate resources or ability to make decisions for the Defence Forces, which is wrong. Senator Chambers and myself are asking the Minister of State to ask the Minister of Defence to reverse this decision.

I thank the Senators for raising this. I know their commitment to the Defence Forces well. Senator Chambers served in the Reserve Defence Force for many years and Senator O'Loughlin has constantly been a strong advocate for the Defence Forces publicly and within the parliamentary party. I take my colleagues comments very seriously indeed.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister for Defence. He is also the Minister for Foreign Affairs. It is quite busy at the moment for him, and for me, and we are all trying to help each other out, so I agreed to take this for him today as there is a lot happening.

The Minister was delighted to announce last Tuesday that the Government has approved the establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces. The Government also approved the terms of reference and the membership of the commission. The decision taken at Cabinet yesterday follows a specific commitment made in the programme for Government, as agreed by the three parties, to establish a commission on the Defence Forces before the end of the year.

The establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces underpins the Government’s commitment to ensuring that the Defence Forces are fit for purpose, both in meeting immediate requirements and in seeking to develop a longer-term vision. In establishing this commission, which contains impressive national and international high-level expertise and experience, the Government is seeking to ensure that the outcome of this process will be a Defence Forces that is agile, flexible and adaptive in responding to dynamic changes in the security environment, including new and emerging threats and technologies.

The membership of the commission has been carefully chosen to ensure the optimum range of expertise in key areas including management, human resources, security policy, public service, as well as both domestic and international military expertise. The commission will be chaired by Mr. Aidan O’Driscoll, a former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, and previously Secretary General of the Department of agriculture, and will be supported by an independent secretariat under the direction of the chairperson.

The terms of reference require that the commission’s overall approach will be guided and informed by both the White Paper on Defence 2015 and the White Paper Update 2019, which set out Ireland’s overall defence policy approach. This is against a backdrop of the high-level defence goal which is to provide for the military defence of the State, contribute to national and international peace and security and fulfil all other roles assigned by the Government. This fits within the broader context of the protection of Ireland’s defence and security interests nationally and internationally.

In accordance with a commitment made in the programme for Government, the Minister for Defence consulted widely on the terms of reference, involving a wide stakeholder group comprising the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence, the Defence Forces representative associations, the Defence Forces veterans associations, the unions and associations representing Department of Defence staff and civilian employees, the Defence spokespersons of Opposition parties, the Institute of International and European Affairs, the Royal Irish Academy and all other Departments. In finalising the terms of reference, all submissions were carefully considered, in the context of what we agreed in the programme for Government.

The establishment of the commission is a significant opportunity to address the issues agreed in the programme for Government. The Government and the Minister want the work to the commission to take a visionary but practical approach to a range of issues and the Minister is very anxious that the commission is not deflected in this task. He is aware that others have suggested that the scope of the commission be widened but he wishes to keep its remit within what is envisaged within the programme for Government. In giving priority to the matters in the programme, the Minister took account of the position that like other Departments, the Department of Defence, has been subject to a wide range of review and reform measures both internally and through the Civil Service reform and wider public service reform. In 2021, it will be subject to an organisational capability review. In recent times, the Department has led action 10 of Our Public Service 2020 to embed project and programme management across the public service. It has led out on the adoption of the provision of shared transactional HR and payroll services and is currently participating in the programme to deliver shared financial services across the Civil Service.

In concluding, the Minister has asked me to stress that, in observing some of the external commentary about the Department of Defence and its approach, it in no way accords with his experience. He makes this point based on his leadership as Minister for Defence and in seeing at close hand over an extended period what the Department does and the sustained commitment of officials to ensure the best outcomes for the citizen. There will always be alternate views, however, this kind of difference of view will always feature in every area of public policy. The commission’s focus is targeted precisely on the issues identified in the programme for Government for urgent but positive attention.

The Commission on the Defence Forces has a mandate from the programme to report within 12 months, and given the wide ranging and comprehensive scope of the detailed tasks set out it has a challenging job ahead. I understand arrangements have already been made for the inaugural meeting of the commission to be held early next week, and the Minister looks forward to receiving its report this time next year.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply but, with respect to the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the fact that he has had a good personal experience of the Department of Defence is beside the point. Having looked at the terms of reference, the defence community have questions over the independence of the commission and questions as to why the Department was excluded. There are members of the commission who have clear links to the Department of Defence. If there is not buy-in from stakeholders and if there is an air or degree of suspicion around this process before it even gets started, we are nobbling ourselves before we even get going. The whole point of this was to work with the defence community and to take on board its recommendations and ideas. This has not happened in the way it should have.

One of the key requests made by RACO was that the distribution of decision-making throughout the defence organisation be looked at and assessed. How can decision-making throughout the organisation be assessed if one arm of that organisation is not included in the terms of reference? It is a glaring omission which needs to be addressed. There should be nothing to hide and nothing to fear. This is not about targeting any one individual. It is a root-and-branch review of our defence organisation with a view to improving conditions for members and improving how we run defence in this country.

May I just come in for a moment?

The Senator may have 30 seconds.

I appreciate that. The relationship between a Minister and his or her Department is completely different from the relationship between a Department and those whom it purports to serve. It is not good enough for the Minister to simply state he has always had a good experience. If this issue is not addressed, the commission will be made unworkable. I accept the point the Minister of State made with regard to the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I know it is a very busy time for both. On behalf of all of us in the country, I wish them well in the talks on Brexit.

I again thank my colleagues for their sentiments, which I take very seriously indeed and which I will certainly relay to the Minister and to the Taoiseach. I will, however, take the opportunity to remind the House that the establishment of an independent commission on the Defence Forces follows a very specific commitment made in the programme for Government, as agreed by Government parties, to establish such a commission before the end of the year. The continuous review programme of the Department of Defence will continue in 2021, when the Department itself will be subject to an organisational capability review, which I hope might address some of the issues Senator Chambers raised in her latter contribution. The commission has been given wide-ranging and challenging terms of reference, which focus on ensuring that our Defence Forces are agile, flexible and adaptable in responding to dynamic changes in the security environment including new emerging threats from technology. The Minister has stated that the commission is going to proceed with its important task and we look forward to the completion of this work.

I thank the Minister of State and the Senators. I wish the Minister of State, Ann and the children a very happy Christmas.

Sitting suspended at 1.23 p.m. and resumed at 1.32 p.m.