Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Departmental Reviews

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House and know that he has a busy schedule.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, to the House and thank him for coming here today.

My question relates to the status of the review of the Company Law Review Group, CLRG, on the recommendations of the Cahill Duffy report on collective redundancies. What is the Government currently doing with the employment recommendations in the report? I do not need to tell the Minister of State that five years have elapsed since the report landed into his current Department. Obviously the report was a response to the situation that arose with Clerys at the time. We know that with many other companies going into liquidation, and most notably Debenhams last year and Arcadia, and more coming down the tracks we now need to see action by the Government. Last year, we had a lot of commitments and soothing words that the Government was seriously considering the matter.

On 4 November 2020, the two authors of the report, Mr. Kevin Duffy and Ms Nessa Cahill, came before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment and spoke about what they believed needed to be done to implement the recommendations of their report. In particular, they said that the recommendations in the employment law sphere could be implemented, needed to be implemented and that there was no need to do anything on the company law side. The Government in its wisdom decided to ask the Company Law Review Group what company law measures needed to be undertaken and, almost six months on, we still await the review. At this point in time there is yet another delay and distraction in the much needed implementation of the recommendations in the Cahill Duffy Report.

We are all very aware of a permanent contraction in some areas. We know that there are redundancies coming down the tracks in the retail sector and other sectors for which the Government now needs to be ready. I believe that if we had the report in place we could have saved some of the heartache experienced by the workers at Debenhams and the many days they spent outside day after night trying to fight for what was due to them. In particular, there would have been advanced consultation on collective redundancies, which is recommendation No. 1 of the Cahill Duffy report, the strengthening of the ability of the State to recover payments from the insolvency fund, which is recommendation No. 4, and increasing compensation to the affected workers by recognising the terms of their collective agreement, which is recommendation No. 6.

In short, if the recommendations of the report had been implemented before last March or, indeed, now for the thousands of workers who may find themselves in a similar situation that there is a mechanism for recognising the collectively bargained ex gratia payments that are inbuilt into their collective agreement, and a mechanism for paying that out via the insolvency fund but claiming it back from what remains of the liquidation process.

I ask the Government to get a move on with the report because we cannot afford any delay. It will be an appalling indictment of the Government if more workers find themselves in a situation where they are left without their fair compensation package arising from a liquidation if the Government has failed to act.

I thank the Senator for tabling her Commencement matter and giving me an opportunity to update the House on where we are with this important topic. I am aware that she has a strong interest in this area and I share her interest. I am very conscious of the need to introduce increased enhancements to employee rights. That is why there is a clear commitment in the programme for Government to review the current legal provisions surrounding collective redundancies and liquidations of companies to ensure that they effectively protect the rights of workers and do not overly impede enterprise in the conduct of business.

The CLRG's report on its review of legal provisions on liquidations and the rights of workers in the context of company law was received by my Department a number of weeks ago. This will be made available publicly on the CLRG's website once full consideration has been given to those recommendations. The second phase of the CLRG's work, concentrating on the splitting of operations and the sale to connected parties following insolvency, has commenced and the CLRG will report on that work in September of this year.

The Minister of State, Deputy English, and I have jointly looked at the legislative provisions that deal with redundancy and insolvency from the point of view of both employment law, which falls under the responsibility of the Minister of State, Deputy English, and company law, which falls under my delegated responsibilities. The recommendations of the Duffy Cahill report have fed into this process, and in developing our approach we met with the social partners on 4 November last year. They made submissions to inform that process, and our policy response was issued to them on 11 May 2021. We are due to meet the social partners tomorrow evening to discuss this matter further.

As part of our response, changes will be brought in under the recently announced small companies rescue package and will provide for the provision of enhanced information on those remedies designed to secure the protection of employees that are already a feature of the existing legal landscape. In parallel, legislative proposals in the area of company law relevant to the protection of workers as creditors have also been adopted. While I appreciate that this is a minor development, work continues at a strong pace on the substantive review of corporate restructuring, as I mentioned earlier, and the CLRG is due to report back in September in that regard. It is our intention to progress this matter as swiftly as possible once the CLRG reports in September.

As for the two proposals we will bring forward on the small companies rescue package, we have given a commitment that that will be done prior to the summer recess of this year. I also wish to inform the Senator that we have decided to move to establish an independent forum that will consider employment law issues into the future with membership to include stakeholders such as employee and employer representatives, as well as employment law and other legal experts. This forum's remit will go well beyond addressing redundancy and insolvency matters and will work along the lines of the CLRG. The intention is that the complementary range of measures will promote the provision of quality information, enhanced participation and transparency, and provide for continued development of employment law, especially with regard to employee rights.

I hope this information is of benefit to the Senator and I thank her for the opportunity to put it on the record of the House.

I thank the Minister of State for the very detailed response. I am shocked. He is telling me the Company Law Review Group has not one but two reviews ongoing, one that is yet to commence or has only recently commenced and will report only in September. Separately, the Department has to start an employment law review. This is not news to the Government. As the Minister of State said, this is in the programme for Government. We have known for five years now that these recommendations need to be implemented. It is simply not good enough that there is a new process followed by another process followed by another process with no outcome. We need outcomes, decisions and clarity for workers. I appreciate that the Minister of State is engaging through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and IBEC, and that is really good, but we are past the time for new processes. The Minister of State knows what he needs to do and the Government needs to get on with it now.

To reiterate, work is well advanced. We met with the key stakeholders, that is, the employers and union representative bodies, last November. The CLRG has already commenced the work and published the first phase of its report.

Two of it proposals will be adopted in the next number of weeks when the small business package is brought before the Oireachtas. This legislation will enable us to implement two of these recommendations.

The second phase will report in September, which is only a number of months away, and relates to the complex area of the splitting of assets, which we want to ensure that we get right. I am giving a commitment that the recommendations will be reviewed swiftly when we receive them from the CLRG and any recommendations that need to be implemented or introduced on a legislative basis will be done without delay. The Senator should make no mistake; this matter is receiving the full attention of both the Minister of State, Deputy English, and me and we are determined to ensure that the relevant safeguards are put in place.

Schools Building Projects

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, for her time. This is a departmental matter and as both the Minister of State and the senior Minister, Deputy Foley, are new in their roles, I will not put the entire responsibility for this on them but work needs to be done in the Department of Education if we are serious about getting our buildings right for the children who spend 183 days of the year in them. Can the Minister of State confirm how many new buildings have completed design stage with the planning and building unit of the Department? In a post-Covid-19 greener future, can she confirm that all these new buildings have been designed with whole-school ventilation, fossil-fuel-free heating systems, sufficient outdoor multi-use games areas and safe active travel infrastructure?

I will deal with each of these four areas briefly. First, we know that these types of viruses are not going to go completely away and I received a response from the Department, which is currently putting new gas boilers into new buildings. That is not good enough in this day and age. At the same time, the Department is also retrofitting gas and oil burners into schools. It seems to be insane to be wasting money on new gas boilers in new schools when we are replacing them in other schools. Gas is a fossil fuel and there are plenty of other options now and the Department itself has been doing research on this for more than 20 years.

Second, on ventilation, many new schools do not have proper ventilation. I have seen a few new school designs for big secondary and primary schools. They have ventilation in the toilets and perhaps in the home economics room but do not have a whole-school ventilation system. The best practice now is closed envelope, air to water or air to air with a heat recovery ventilation system. That is what we want and need. We see that schools currently are not fit for purpose. The heating is on and the windows are open. Those days are over, as this is 2021. This is important because although we tell children that the climate has changed and that we must do everything that we can, we are not putting them in buildings in 2021 that are designed in a modern way, despite 20 years of research from the Department on getting it right.

The third issue I raise is sufficient outdoor space for play. I spent 14 years visiting schools and all too often I saw the lack of outdoor space. I see now these new multi-use game areas which are good for basketball and certain games. In many new schools, however, we do not have new pitches that will be big enough to host any camogie, football or hurling matches. I refer to one in my home town of Ennistymon in particular, where three schools are being amalgamated into a beautiful new school. It will have no pitch big enough to host camogie, football or hurling matches, which seems mad in this day and age because there are many sports for which grass is needed. I am not talking about small AstroTurf or basketball courts but about a proper pitch for the school and the children to be out on and having this space. It is all about the outdoors now and we want our children and teenagers to have access to that kind of infrastructure in all new buildings.

The final item I wish to raise concerns safe travel to schools to access the schools. The Department has been working with An Taisce's Green-Schools: Safe Routes to School, which is a new programme that has come through the Minister for Transport, which is great, but that involves retrofitting and redesigning existing schools. I am talking about new school buildings that do not have the proper infrastructure for active travel.

They see it as a secondary thing. I have seen new designs which have winding roads leading to the school and parallel there is a winding cycling and walking route when we all know well a much shorter route could be put in at much less cost to encourage pedestrians and cyclists. I spent 14 years working full time on behavioural change and traffic jams outside every school in Ireland. We have to get the new builds right. We have to look at short, small infrastructure that encourages walkers and cyclists to see there is a quicker, safer route away from cars. We should not be running them parallel to cars, they cost more and are longer. It makes no sense. I would expect and demand better for our children as we move to a scary future with the new design in the Department.

This is a matter under the remit of the Minister, Deputy Foley, but I am happy to outline the work going on. On the large scale capital building programme, 135 school building projects are ongoing which are at or have completed design stage. These include: Gaelscoil Mhíchíl Cíosóg; Gaelscoil Donncha Rua; Gaelscoil Uí Choimín; Ennis Educate Together National School; Ennistymon National School; Raheen Wood Steiner school; and Mol an Óige Community National School in Clare. There are also in excess of 1,000 school building projects under the large scale and additional accommodation schemes which are across various stages of planning, design, tender and construction in relation to school extensions and refurbishment projects. All new builds have special educational needs facilities for ASD classes, etc., which is a commitment that was given in the building and planning unit.

Specifically, on a post-Covid greener future the Department is at the forefront of design with respect to sustainable energy in school buildings. This performance has been recognised at both national and international level with sustainable energy awards for excellence in design and specification. The Department's technical guidance document set the benchmark for sustainable design in school buildings with a clear focus on energy efficiency. They are based on solid energy research projects. All new technologies and approaches are tested to ensure compatibility with school design and operational requirements. Successful and repeatable results are then incorporated into all new school designs and refurbishments through the Department's technical guidance documents. The Department's policy is supported by a strong research programme with 53 research projects at various stages, including the energy in education website, a joint partnership with the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. Schools that are designed and built in accordance with the Department's schools technical guidance documents have been achieving A3 building energy ratings since 2009 with current schools typically achieving up to 20% higher performance than required by the current building regulations, along with 10% of primary energy provided via photovoltaics and infrastructure provision for electric vehicle charging.

The Senator asked about fossil-free heating systems. The design guidance also include future-proofing to take advantage of technologies as they become viable. For example: direct modulating high-efficiency gas boiler systems that can support the integration of heat pump systems; optimum envelope fabric that will not require additional enhancement for compatibility with decarbonised heating systems, low water content radiators and operating temperatures for compatibility with decarbonised heating systems; and the provision of space in new school classroom layouts for mechanical ventilation heat recovery units. In the interest of sustainability, the potential of renewables is maximised in school design while ensuring that renewable applications are properly suited to needs and reflective of school opening hours and school holiday periods.

It is also critical that an energy reduction plan is part of any investment in renewable energy applications. The climate action plan, due for publication in mid-2021, will outline how energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions targets are to achieved.

As part of our continued research, the Department is undertaking a further review of current school design principles based on the new focus of moving from energy-demand reduction to energy-related greenhouse gas emission reduction for public sector bodies.

I am afraid I got nothing new from the Minister of State's response, given that I have heard it previously from the Department. I was not asking about the quantity of schools but rather quality, which is why I raised the issue. I know there are many new school buildings and that is brilliant, but we have to get them right. As the Minister of State noted, we will research whatever is viable but we already know what is viable. The research has been going on for 20 years. We are retrofitting schools at the moment with air-to-water and air-to-air systems, yet we are designing new builds with gas heating. That makes no sense.

Current building regulations are of no interest. We want schools to be A3 energy rated, carbon neutral, fossil-fuel free and healthy. We want full school ventilation, not just in some parts of the school. The Department has been researching this for 20 years and it should have figured it out by now.

We have for years been fighting on behalf of schools for the signing of a statutory instrument. It was promised that it would be in place by the first quarter of 2021 but it has not happened. It would stop schools having to apply for planning permission to put photovoltaic and solar panels on their roofs. It is a disgrace that they have to do so. In this day and age, schools should be paid to do this. Not only that, they should be allowed to sell the energy back to the grid during the summer months. Given all the research and so on that has been done, it is not good enough. The Department needs to catch up. With 20 years of research, it should be doing better by now. The new designs are akin to 1990 designs. We are retrofitting some schools while repeating old patterns with new schools.

I have no doubt the comments of the Senator will be brought to the attention of the Department, and I will certainly bring them to the attention of the Minister, Deputy Foley, who is in charge of the building planning unit. There is merit in much of what the Senator said. I have noted her comments on school ventilation, although it is just one of a number of prevention and control measures that are in place to ensure that schools are safe. I accept what she said earlier about having the heating turned on and the windows open. There has to be a better way to do that.

There are practical steps in the Department’s guide for schools for the deployment of good ventilation practices, which was updated in November 2020, and that may be of assistance to the Senator. Moreover, the design guidelines for all new schools provide for the provision of outdoor multi-use game areas. I note what the Senator said about tarmacadam being different from grass. There is not sufficient time for me to delineate all the other points but I will convey her comments to the Minister and ensure that she addresses her concerns.

Road Projects

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. Senators McGreehan and McGahon are sharing time.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I raise two of my favourite topics, County Louth's Cooley Peninsula and the connecting of the two sides of Carlingford Lough. The Narrow Water Bridge, to me, as a local, is a project that has been talked about for so long. It is a symbol of the future and of what can be. It is aspirational, but with the shared island fund, that aspiration has become a possibility. One might say it is infrastructure with various merits, but it is so much more than infrastructure. It is about moving forward through peace and reconciliation, going back to the time when the Vikings travelled up Carlingford Lough and settled in Newry and Carlingford. There is so much positivity around the project. We have been discussing it for about 20 years. There have been delays upon delays and now is the time for action. I hope we can get a positive answer on the matter from the Minister for Transport.

It is shovel-ready. Louth County Council has done incredible work over recent years on this. We need action. It is supported and spoken about by An Taoiseach at every opportunity. Nichola Mallon, Minister for Infrastructure in the North, is also an incredible sponsor of the project. It is important for reasons of morale, tourism and sustainable and active living. I could freewheel from the Cooley Mountains to the Mournes. What better way to live one's life than being able to cross that bridge? One could throw a stone or have a conversation. It is important to start connecting these two.

Senator McGreehan and I represented this part of the world, namely, the Dundalk-Carlingford area, on Louth County Council. It is a hugely symbolic and important project for the communities of Omeath, Carlingford and north Louth, and for communities on the other side of the Border, like Warrenpoint, Rostrevor and Newry. It is a symbolic thing to connect those communities which have been apart for so long because of issues in the Troubles and everything else. Carlingford Lough is already quite connected through the Carlingford ferry at the mouth of the lough, which goes from Greenore to Greencastle. This is a good way to connect it further down.

It has had many false hopes and false dawns over the years. When I was first elected to the council in 2014, it was very close to getting over the line but, because of mistakes in prices and tenders, it fell short. The project is now shovel-ready and could start tomorrow if the funded was approved. We need Government to approve that funding. The funding is there through the shared island unit, which is looking around to fund projects that are ready to start. This is the perfect example of something we can do with it. That is why Senator McGreehan and I bring this to the Seanad today. We need the final approval and the rubber stamp from Government to go ahead with it.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the late councillor, Tommy Elmore, who put this project on the map 40 years ago. He was the first person to advocate this. The Elmore family are synonymous with the Omeath community. Tommy passed away nearly two and a half decades ago but this was his project. He was the first one to talk about this. He put it on the map 40 years ago when the concept of cross-Border infrastructure was null and void because people were blowing stuff like that up. I would like to remember him today in this debate about the Narrow Water bridge.

I thank the Senators for putting so well the case about the physical infrastructure of the bridge and the symbolism of bridging two communities. Unfortunately, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, are not available, so I am taking this topic on their behalf.

It is important to note there is a Government commitment jointly with the Northern Ireland Executive to progress consideration of options for the development of the Narrow Water bridge project at the North-South Ministerial Council included in New Decade, New Approach. This followed on from a similar commitment in A Fresh Start - The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan.

The proposal for the Narrow Water bridge has to be considered in light of welcome developments with respect to the Newry southern relief road since 2016. That road would provide an alternative route for strategic traffic that avoids Newry city centre and links to the eastern seaboard key transport corridor, the A1-N1 from Belfast to Dublin. The Department for Infrastructure has conducted a community consultation on the Newry southern relief road regarding the preferred route.

The current proposal for the Newry southern relief road is likely to include pedestrian and cycling provision, as well as connectivity, to the B79-R173 Fathom Lane leading to Omeath, Carlingford. I understand that the intention is to have a complete stage 3 scheme assessment of the Newry southern relief road published in quarter 3 of this year by the Department for Infrastructure. As part of the project optioneering, four options are being considered for the Narrow Water bridge, that is, do nothing, a pedestrian cycle bridge only, a bridge that also caters for cars, and a bridge that also caters for buses, coaches and heavy goods vehicles. The overall assessment of the case for the Narrow Water bridge, including in the context of the development of a wider tourism initiative for the region, is not at a stage where it is a clearly defined and a costed scheme. Further consideration of any impact on the R173 of any vehicular bridge would also need to be considered.

I thank the Minister of State for the reply. He mentioned the business case. It might never be achieved if the conversation is around bare economic facts. The Narrow Water bridge project is about a lot more than a bridge; it is about dreaming and looking to the future. There is so much tourism potential in terms of the creation of this product. There is already a bridge and planning for widening it. The Minister of State's remarks are disingenuous because there is a bridge and a plan that is shovel-ready.

I do not think it should be a case of the Newry southern relief road or the Narrow Water bridge. There is no reason we cannot have both. There are many reasons the Newry southern relief road makes sense in terms of vehicular traffic, access and so on, but it should not be a case of one or the other. As Senator McGreehan rightly pointed out, it is the symbolic nature of this project that we should be talking about. It is for that reason this project is being progressed by the shared island unit as opposed to a Department of Transport or Department for Infrastructure.

I understand the Senators' frustration regarding progress on this issue. It is of great importance on both sides of the Border, as has been stated. There are many moving parts in achieving progress on this issue. As I mentioned in my opening statement, the development of the Newry southern relief road is proceeding well. This would have a major impact on the robustness of any business case that would subsequently be developed for a vehicular Narrow Water bridge. It is likely that many of the benefits in the business case that would originally have accrued to a vehicular bridge at Narrow Water will instead flow to the Newry southern relief road. To that end, a cycling and walking bridge of real architectural merit is worthy of consideration. This could tie in with the natural beauty of Carlingford Lough and it would link the Newry to Greenore greenway and create the impetus for a greenway on the northern side of the lough from Warrenpoint to Greencastle where greenway users could access the ferry to journey across to Greenore. This would, perhaps, be worthy of consideration and provide a world-class piece of tourism infrastructure in the region that would bring huge benefits to people on both sides of the Border.

We have seen the transformation of towns such as Newport in Mayo and Kilmacthomas and Dungarvan in Waterford following the development of greenways. Greenways bring hundreds of thousands of users to areas of the country in much need of tourism. They also provide the means of connecting our towns and villages with a sustainable means of transport for every day journeys by foot or bicycle. However, this is just one option. All options are on the table for consideration. I understand that officials continue to work on devising costs for all the options, as well as the wider impact of other developments in the area. I am due to visit the region in the coming weeks and I look forward to meeting the Senators there to discuss the matter further.

Legislative Measures

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the Chamber. I am seeking a statement from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine on the legislation that enforces the removal of abandoned vessels from Irish waters and what plans, if any, there are to strengthen that legislation to deal with the extensive occurrence of vessels being abandoned.

This is an important issue and a legacy issue in many rural communities. There is a blight in our territorial waters.

In many areas, vessels have been abandoned for decades. Unfortunately, legislation has not been strong enough and local authorities have not been empowered with financing and a legislative mandate to ensure that the issue can be addressed.

This matter came to a head a year ago when a major vessel of nearly 2,500 tonnes ran aground at Ballycotton, County Cork. It still lies there. It is a serious issue for the local authority and local community, and how we deal with it will be an important question for Ireland. What happened in Ballycotton is an extreme example, but vessels are constantly being abandoned at piers and in the waters of coastal communities. There seems to be very little progress, if any, on ensuring that they are moved.

We need a genuine debate with the Department about how it will deal with this matter, which is a blight and littering of a different nature. If there were cars abandoned all over our roads, we would not leave them there. We are not empowering anyone or putting financial measures in place to ensure that we can clean up our seas. We have debated removing sea litter from our coasts, but we have had a poor debate about how to deal with this legacy issue of abandoned vessels. I need to see movement from the Government accordingly. That would involve legislation, budgets and a different mentality about how we will deal with the issue. In this Commencement matter, I am primarily trying to ensure that the Government is aware that this legacy issue is affecting coastal communities the length and breadth of our country and that nothing has been done about it for decades. We need to see movement. I hope that we can start a conversation this morning and put appropriate legislation and moneys in place to ensure that last year's extreme event in Ballycotton is not repeated and, more importantly, the legacy issues of recent decades can be cleaned up.

I am taking this Commencement matter on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton.

The relevant legislation that allows for the removal of abandoned vessels in Irish waters such as that referred to by the Senator is the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993, which gives effect to the International Convention on Salvage 1989, to which Ireland is a signatory state. Section 40 of the Act provides that the Minister for Transport, "shall have the general superintendence ... of all matters relating to every wrecked or stranded vessel or other wreck." The Act also sets out the responsibilities of other bodies from an operational perspective. Sections 51 and 52 are of particular note in terms of the duty of the owner and appropriate authorities. Section 51 places the initial responsibility for removing a wreck on the owner of the vessel, stating that, "the owner of the wreck at the time of its sinking, wrecking, stranding, grounding or abandonment shall as soon as possible raise and remove it or otherwise render it harmless." The Act also provides for a number of appropriate authorities - a harbour authority, a local authority or the Commissioners of Irish Lights - to raise and remove the wreck or otherwise render it harmless if they consider it is likely to become an obstruction or danger to navigation or a threat of harm to the marine environment or related interests, including the health of the public.

Separate provisions apply regarding the sale of wrecks and the appointed receivers of wrecks. The Act allows for the receiver of a wreck to sell the vessel where its owner cannot be located. However, the Senator will appreciate that a scenario may arise wherein a vessel in such a condition cannot be sold and holds no significant monetary value and, therefore, its sale is not a viable option. While the Act allows for the removal of the wreck, it does not contain provisions regarding the costs associated with that removal where the sale of the wreck is not possible and the owners of the vessel cannot be located.

The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks 2007 provides a legal basis for the State to remove, or have removed at a ship owner's expense, a wreck that has the potential to affect adversely the safety of lives, goods and property at sea, as well as the marine environment. Ship owners are obliged to maintain insurance or provide other financial security to cover the costs of wreck removal. As the Senator stated, primary legislation is required to ratify the convention. It is intended to progress that legislation as part of the future marine shipping Bill. However, it must be noted that the convention does not cover all wreck removal scenarios. For example, when the owner of a vessel cannot be located and insurance details cannot be found, pursuing the owner for costs is very difficult.

The Senator may be interested to hear that on foot of a recommendation in a recent report published by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board on the grounding of a wreck on the Irish coast in 2020, the Department of Transport has established a working group to explore the risks and potential costs to the State presented by derelict ships entering Irish territorial waters and coming ashore in Ireland and make proposals for means to identify, monitor, track and interdict derelict ships before they endanger other ships and seafarers in the vicinity.

Incidence of wreaks coming ashore on the Irish coast are rare. The Department of Transport will continue to be available to support relevant appropriate authorities in the exercise of its functions as out in the legislation in question.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. It is probably in line with what we have been receiving. The clarity in his response is very limited. In particular, we cannot even find the owner of a ship wreck. That is probably the position currently in County Cork. This is a legacy issue. We have had ship wrecks onshore for decades with no movement to remove them. That is the primary issue. Legislation, debate and a change in ethos on this issue in Government Buildings are needed. The Government view on this is that the vessel is doing no harm and to leave it there. We have moved away from that. If there were abandoned cars in every estate in Ireland we would do something about it. The issue I raised is a feature in our harbours and there does not seem to be any drive from national Government to do something about it. We need to empower local authorities financially and to change the legislation. We need to take on board the 2007 convention that has not been enacted and that needs to be brought forward. A body of work needs to be done. Otherwise, this blight on our marine wildlife and environment will continue due to a lack of clarity and action on this issue on the part of the Government.

I take on board fully the points made by the Senator and he is correct in what he said. Particularly as we move towards legislating for marine protected areas, there is an opportunity not only to introduce legislation but to make sure it is aligned on the protection of our marine environment.

In particular regarding the MV Alta, it was washed up on 16 February 2020 and Cork County Council took the lead in dealing with the wreck under the 1993 Act, as appropriate. The ministerial powers under the 1993 Act are indirect and refer to the appointment of authorised officers. It is the role of the appropriate authority, in this case Cork County Council, which has taken a number of steps to discharge its responsibilities under the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 by removing stores, including fuels and lubricants, from the vessel and engaging consultants to carry out a number of reports on the vessel. These included reports on the wreck compiled by a marine surveyor, an environmental and ecological impact study and an assessment of hazardous material, but I take on board the points made regarding the Nairobi convention, which will require a specific item of legislation for its enactment. It is timely and useful the Senator raised this issue here this morning.

Air Services

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, to the House. I am sure he is aware of the serious blow inflicted by Aer Lingus on Shannon Airport last week with the announcement it was going to close its base there permanently. Like others, I fully understand Aer Lingus is in a perilous situation financially, having lost €360 million last year and €100 million to date this year. However, this undermining of its commitment to Shannon is a further deterioration in the status of Shannon Airport.

I would point to the decision on the Shannon stopover in the early 1990s, the sale of Aer Lingus and the controversy over the Heathrow slots. Shannon, which is and has the status of an international airport with a fantastic terminal building has been continuously completely undermined. As an island national, connectivity is extremely important. In light of Brexit and that we will be in a post-pandemic era, we will have to battle for our economic survival and development.

We need proper, effective connectivity in order for the mid-west to flourish. There are many foreign direct investment companies based in the mid-west, particularly in the Shannon Free Zone and the surrounding area, that very much rely on an Aer Lingus presence, and particularly on connectivity between and Heathrow daily.

The announcement by Aer Lingus last week that it was going to close its base certainly does not augur well for the airline's commitment to Shannon. Without a base, one has to assume that we will not have early-morning flights to Heathrow whereby people who wish to do business in the City of London can fly there, do a day's business and come back that night. People who wish to fly to London and take connecting flights to other parts of Europe, to Asia and to the rest of the world will not have the option of early-morning flights.

Through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, Aer Lingus has already received a loan of €75 million. I understand it is in the process of drawing down a further €75 million. This will amount to a loan of €150 million from the fund. I also understand that Aer Lingus is in negotiations with the Government regarding a €150 million bailout in order for it to survive. The company must survive. It is critical from an Irish perspective and to secure connectivity. If, however, we are to write the cheque, it cannot be a blank cheque. We need commitments. First, we need a long-term commitment from Aer Lingus that it will keep the Heathrow slots to create and maintain connectivity between Shannon and Heathrow. Second, we need a commitment from the airline that it will continue the flights to Heathrow and continue its transatlantic services to connect the mid-west region to North America. This connectivity has been critical to the foreign direct investors based in the mid-west and doing business in Shannon. It is also important from a tourism perspective. The whole mid-west benefits enormously from American visitors, particularly those from North America but also those from the rest of America. They spend billions of euros in the mid-west every year. This is critical. Aer Lingus will have to guarantee it in the long term if it gets the bailout. Third, and equally important, the airline will have to be persuaded to reverse its decision to close its base in Shannon. These are three requests I am making of the Minister of State in return for the Government giving Aer Lingus the €150 million plus it needs to continue operating.

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton. I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address the ongoing crisis in the aviation sector, particularly the recent announcement made by Aer Lingus concerning certain cost-cutting measures in light of the cumulative impact of Covid-19 over the past 15 months. First, I acknowledge the unprecedented challenges faced by Aer Lingus and its staff during this difficult time. The entire aviation sector is experiencing its most challenging crisis in its history. Analysis undertaken last week by EUROCONTROL, the European organisation for the safety of air navigation, suggests air traffic across Europe is not expected to return to 2019 levels before 2025. Here in Ireland, the sector has been particularly impacted by Covid-19 and Irish airlines continue to face major financial challenges. As a consequence, all airlines have previously issued capital, raised further borrowings, drawn on Government supports and undertaken measures to reduce their cost base.

In that context and in light of the continuing pandemic, it is acknowledged that Aer Lingus has little option but to take unpalatable measures to reduce its cost base. It has also noted that many other European airlines are also implementing significant cost-saving measures in light of the circumstances currently facing the industry. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that Aer Lingus has decided to close its cabin crew base at Shannon Airport and to temporarily close its base at Cork Airport, as well as embark on a review of grounding-handling arrangements at those airports. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, met the CEO of Aer Lingus to discuss details of the announcement made by the company last week. They reiterated the Government's commitment to supporting the industry and acknowledged the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of employment supports beyond the end of June.

The Minister and the Minister of State also reassured the airline that there will be no cliff edge in supports for the airline or for the wider aviation sector. Their meeting with the CEO also focused on future operations of the company in Ireland and they outlined their hopes for a resumption of travel from Cork and Shannon when the situation allows. In that regard, the Minister welcomed confirmation by the CEO that there is no strategic attempt to reduce connectivity at either Cork or Shannon, while acknowledging that restoration of services depends on market circumstances.

The Minister and Minister of State also met with the CEO of Shannon Group and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, met with the CEO of Cork Airport last week to discuss the situation. The Minister and Minister of State reiterated their support for the airports and their important role in regional development. Similar engagements took place last week when the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, met with unions and employer representative groups in her capacity as chair of the aviation subgroup of the Labour Employer Economic Forum. This subgroup has been investigating the option of a specially extended wage subsidy scheme for the aviation sector and this work will continue.

I assure the House that Government is committed to supporting the aviation sector. We recognise the importance of providing clarity on the extent and duration of supports beyond the end of June. Throughout this pandemic, Government has provided a significant level of general support to the economy, with at least €300 million provided to the aviation sector alone. The bulk of this support is in the form of wage subsidies which were designed to maintain the link between employers and their workers.

Approximately €32 million is also being provided in supports to Cork and Shannon Airports this year. Additionally, the Department of Transport is assessing applications for funding to State Airports under the €20 million Covid-19 supplementary support scheme and expects to be able to provide funding to Cork and Shannon Airports under this scheme soon. This support will allow the airports flexibility to provide route incentives and airport charge rebates to stimulate recovery of lost connectivity this year.

While acknowledging the primacy of the protection of public health, there is clearly an increasing need for a strategy for international travel that can serve as a basis to both protect existing jobs insofar as is possible and to plan for recommencement of operations as soon as is practically possible. I confirm the Government will set out a pathway for the reopening of international travel following its meeting next Friday.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome the fact there will be a significant announcement on aviation in the coming days. The survival of Aer Lingus is critical to Ireland and to the mid-west, in particular, but any bailout it gets must be a return journey. If it gets €150 million, which I understand it is seeking, we need three commitments from it. First, it must maintain the Heathrow slots in and out of Shannon. Second, it must commit to long-term to strategic routes, transatlantic and in and out of Heathrow, because that is what is required from a foreign direct investment and tourism perspective, particularly with North America. Third, it must reverse the decision it made last week to permanently close its base in Shannon.

Aer Lingus should get the money it is looking for, but it cannot come without conditions. We cannot give a blank cheque. We must get those commitments in return. I call on the Minister and the Government to ensure that happens.

Again, it is important to note that the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, chairs the aviation subgroup of the Labour Employer Economic Forum and that subgroup is continuing its work in investigating a specially extended wage subsidy scheme for the aviation sector. That work is ongoing.

Specifically, in relation to the Heathrow slots, Aer Lingus still holds its portfolio slots at London Heathrow Airport, LHR. The slots are protected and are unaffected by the recent announcement by Aer Lingus of cuts at its Shannon and Cork bases. Certain connectivity commitments are agreed with International Airlines Group, IAG, when the State sold its residual shareholding in 2015. These are currently suspended under the force majeure provisions under the agreement. The connectivity commitments expire in September 2022 and Aer Lingus cannot dispose of those slots without prior consent from the Minister for Finance.

Getting international travel back up and running is vital for the continued economic well-being of this country and remains a Government priority. However, this can only be accomplished through consideration of the progression of our Covid-19 national vaccination programme, developments at EU and international levels, and public health advice. As stated earlier, the Government will set out its position very shortly.

Electoral Reform

I thank the Minister of State for taking this issue, which I know he feels strongly about. In 2013, the constitutional convention recommended that we reduce the voting age to 16. The programme for Government negotiated among our three parties had a very clear commitment around ways in which we can look at enhancing the role of young people in society and how we can support youth participation. One of the specific commitments was that we would look at learning from the Scottish experience where the voting age has been reduced. It was reduced in 2014 for the Scottish independence referendum but we have seen it maintained for local and Scottish parliamentary elections, including the recent elections. It was also extended for the Senedd elections in Wales, which took place earlier this month. The Isle of Man, which was the first territory in the world to extend the right to vote to women in 1881, has allowed those aged 16 to vote since 2006. The case of Austria is often cited. It was introduced there for local elections from 2000 and extended to general and other elections from 2007. Malta has reduced the voting age to 16 and the age is the same in Estonia and a number of German Länder. The voting age in Greece is 17. The Belgian Government has now said that it is going to extend the right to vote to 16 and 17-year-olds for its local and European elections from 2024. The European Parliament and the Council of Europe have recommended that we look at voting at 16.

Over the course of the pandemic, we have seen the contribution young people have made to Irish society in so many ways. In particular, I am thinking of the role of the Irish Second–Level Students' Union but it also relates to so many other young people. We had a very good debate in this House last week about the role that young people have played.

It is not the silver bullet. Other things need to happen as well. We need a very strong programme of political education right through our education system and beyond. We need to look at ways in which we can resource Comhairle na nÓg, youth organisations and volunteers who are engaging with young people, but we must be serious about looking at ways of allowing young people to participate in that most important right, which is the right to vote.

There are fears that if we extend the right to vote to those aged 16 and 17, they will vote in a particular direction and for all sorts of crazy candidates. The evidence is that this is not the case. The evidence from Austria, where it has been in place for over a decade and a half, is that the younger generations tend to follow the broad patterns of other generations except that the issues are different. There is often a lot more focus on issues that are of direct concern to young people and the political system and political parties adapt in due course.

I have a Bill before this House calling for the change to be introduced for the local and European elections in 2024. It provides enough time for a lead in to deal with all of the issues and engage in that programme of political education. The Government is committed to the introduction of a much-needed electoral commission, which is being championed by the Minister of State, but as part of that, I would love to hear him give a commitment in this House that we would move towards a situation where those aged 16 and 17 would have the right to vote in the local and European elections in 2024 because it only requires legislative change.

I am conscious that I am taking this Commitment matter on Bob Dylan's 80th birthday. The times they are indeed a-changing. From a political perspective, I very much welcome the Senator bringing this issue to the House because it is really important. At the outset, it should be noted that the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future contains a broad range of electoral reforms, including a commitment to establish an independent statutory electoral commission by the end of this year. The programme also contains an explicit commitment to examine the Scottish experience in reducing the voting age in order to draw conclusions.

Against this background, in December 2020, the Government approved the drafting of an electoral reform Bill. The Bill's general scheme has been circulated to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for pre-legislative scrutiny. The general scheme, which was circulated to the committee on 8 January 2021, addresses a number of Government commitments, including proposals relating to the establishment of an electoral commission.

As I have stated previously in the House, one of the electoral commission's initial functions will be to conduct research on electoral policies, procedures and administrative practices, with a view to providing advice to the Oireachtas on request, as my Department may be required to do from time to time. Examining the issues in respect of reducing the voting age is a good example of the type of research that could be carried out by the commission, when it is established, and is something I would very much welcome.

The House may recall that the Convention on the Constitution examined this issue extensively over the course of its debates. Three ballots took place to inform its proposals on this issue. In the first ballot, there was a small majority in favour of the proposal that the voting age should be reduced. In the second ballot, the members were asked to consider whether to reduce the voting age to 17 or to 16 years, with the stronger support for the latter reduction. A third ballot was also held on whether the voting age should be reduced for some types of elections only, for example, local elections. The overwhelming view of the convention did not support a reduction in the voting age for specific types of elections only, with 68% of convention members voting against this proposal and just 28% voting in favour of it. In line with the majority opinion of its members, the convention recommended that a referendum should be held to amend the Constitution to reduce the voting age to 16 years of age for all elections.

Separately, and complementary to this work of the convention, the Citizens' Assembly, in its 2018 report, The Manner in Which Referenda are Held & Fixed Term Parliaments, also recommended, among other things, that the voting age should be lowered to 16 years as a means to increase voter turnout at elections, something we all want to see. While the assembly voted by 80% in favour of a reduction in the voting age, it did not specify the election or elections to which reduced voting age would apply, although it did refer briefly to the deliberations of the Convention on the Constitution on this matter.

The Senator can rest assured that my Department is committed to having this important issue examined. The establishment of an electoral commission is currently a multifaceted project in my Department's key electoral reform priorities. Following its establishment, the electoral commission will be well-placed, if requested, to examine, among other matters, the prospect of reducing the age at which a person should be entitled to vote, having particular regard to the experience in Scotland, as well as in other countries that the Senator has referenced, where a reduction in the voting age has taken place. I again welcome the tabling of this matter.

I would certainly favour the extension of voting at 16 to all elections but, as the Minister of State is aware, that will require a constitutional amendment whereas the scope is there, on a legislative basis, to change it in time for the local and European elections. The evidence again suggests that, along with political education, if we encourage young people at 16 and 17 to vote, they become habitual voters and they do engage.

The Minister of State referred to Bob Dylan and to his song, "The Times They Are A-Changin'". He will be aware, of course, that one of the verses opens with the line, "Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call". I ask that the Minister of State heed the call of young people and of an increasing number of people in this House and the Lower House to the effect that we look at allowing those aged 16 and 17 to vote. The time is there to allow us to plan for it properly for the local and European elections in 2024. I welcome the Minister of State's commitment but I would love to hear him say that he envisages those aged 16 and 17 going to the ballot box in 2024.

To finish that quote, Bob Dylan said, "Don’t stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall", so he was probably referring to giving an opportunity to everyone to take part in our political system. I am conscious the Senator rightly highlighted the role of young people in recent years, particularly as the climate Bill is now being brought forward. It was the climate strikes, it was the Fridays For Future, it was those young people who brought about this transformational change and demanded change from us, as politicians. It is only right that we give due regard to that.

I met with the Irish Second-Level Students Union and I gave a commitment to its representatives that we would examine the matter, given that it is only a legislative requirement, as we move towards the 2024 local elections. We are also committing to a citizens' assembly on biodiversity, at which, hopefully, Comhairle na n-Óg will have a specific role in the context of a youth assembly on that. Young people are becoming front and centre and, as in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they should be consulted and should be part of the process. It is vital that we give due consideration to that.

I welcome that this issue had been brought forward. I give my full commitment that we will explore every avenue to try to make it happen.

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