Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

School Facilities

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. This is a matter I have raised on a number of occasions. It relates to the lack of playing field and sports facilities generally across the Dublin Bay South area, although I have asked a specific question today. There is a serious lack of publicly accessible playing fields and sports pitches in Dublin Bay South, in particular Dublin 6 and 6W.

My question relates to the allocation of funding for the construction of an AstroTurf playing pitch at Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School. As I said, it also relates to the broader context of the lack of playing fields more generally. I have written to the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, most recently in late April, regarding the planning application for permanent accommodation for the new Educate Together secondary school in my local area in Harold's Cross. This followed representations made to me by the school's principal, Mr. Padraig Conaty, on behalf of the board. The school has very much welcomed positive updates on the planning application for permanent accommodation but concerns remain, most notably regarding outdoor play areas.

In particular, the school community is very disappointed to learn the schedule of accommodation has no provision for an AstroTurf playing surface. This will seriously hamper the ability of the school to offer a full range of sports opportunities to children and pupils. As the Minister of State will be well aware, this development is part of a much bigger campus development, including the site acquisition and construction of the Harold's Cross Educate Together Secondary School and an Educate Together primary school. Harcourt Terrace Educate Together primary school is also located there in temporary accommodation.

As part of the overall development of what was the Greyhound Stadium in Harold's Cross, the State is committing a significant amount of funding to deliver the important project. It seems to me and to the school community that it would be a shame, therefore, if, on full development, the campus would still have no space for pupils to play Gaelic football, hurling, soccer or rugby, the four most popular team sports in Ireland for children. Given the lack of public playing fields available in the local area, the school would be very limited in what provision it can make for pupils to play, train and exercise outdoors.

We know there are costings from the Department to convert two of the basketball courts provided for into one large divisible AstroTurf playing area. However, the Department has requested that the schools would have to pay for this and this is not financially feasible.

I ask the Minister of State to consider allocating funding for the AstroTurf finish and to ensure this will be done in one or two of the ball courts. This will provide greater flexibility and enhanced delivery of the curriculum. School officials tell me that at minimal additional cost they could use a dividing mesh curtain to separate and use the two ball courts simultaneously for physical education, PE, activities, outdoor lessons and so on. This would be cost-effective and is standard for many schools and sports facilities around Ireland. The AstroTurf finish, in particular, would enable the school to provide a full PE curriculum involving a full range of contact sports and individual athletic events.

The school is very concerned that without the AstroTurf finish, it will be unable to offer any team sports in a meaningful way, aside from basketball. Its athletic lessons would also be limited. It is concerned about having to rent facilities in the area, which are not readily available locally. This will have a negative impact, even if the school was able to find such facilities, because there would clearly be a great deal of time involved travelling to and from such off-site locations.

The Department has told the school it is not a feasible proposition to provide an AstroTurf finish on one or two of the ball courts. I ask the Minister of State whether it would be possible to find a way to do this that would be feasible.

I have discussed this matter with the Senator previously and I am happy to set out the position today from my perspective and the perspective of the Department and Minister.

Harold's Cross is a co-educational, second level school, which will provide 1,000 post-primary places with four classroom special education needs units to serve the two school planning areas of Dublin 6 Clonskeagh and Dublin 6 west. The school opened its doors for its first intake of pupils in September 2020 in interim accommodation on the site of the former greyhound racing stadium at Harold's Cross. This will be the permanent location of the school. The site will also form a campus accommodating the permanent school for Harold's Cross Educate Together National School, which is also currently in interim accommodation on this site.

The joint building project for both schools is currently in advanced architectural planning and I am pleased to advise the House that the planning application is being lodged with Dublin City Council this week. In advance of lodging the planning application, officials from my Department met the school's representatives on 1 April last to share the plans for their new school. The brief for the school was discussed and it was confirmed that five hard court play areas were being provided. While the standard brief for post-primary schools is six, we are pleased to say that five will be provided in this instance. The school indicated an interest in potentially converting one or two of the ball courts, as the Senator indicated, to an AstroTurf pitch as part of the upcoming project or in the future. It was confirmed that the Department would not be providing this under the building contract as it does not provide funding for AstroTurf pitches. This approach is not particular to this school but is generally the case.

In subsequent correspondence with the school and notwithstanding the question of funding, it was outlined to the school that the possible replacement of a hard play area standard finish with an AstroTurf finish on one or two of the ball courts on this site is not a feasible proposition, as such a development would reduce the area of the available hard play space on what is a constrained urban site and would provide less flexibility in terms of student use and accessibility, potentially compromising the delivery of the curriculum. The Department provides hard play areas as per the standards outlined in the schedule of accommodation insofar as this can be accommodated within the relevant site and having regard to the particular requirements of the planning authority.

By virtue of the fact that there is a scarcity of land in urban areas, it is not always possible to achieve the ideal site size for school buildings. Where some of the elements required for a school site can be provided outside the designated site area, for example, traffic management, parking and playing fields, where it is possible to provide multistorey - above two-storey - buildings and where separation areas can be reduced due to the nature of permitted development on and adjacent to the site, smaller sites can be considered. Constraints in site sizes in urban areas mean that the full suite of external accommodation may not be provided in all cases. In such circumstances, priority is given to the provision of accommodation and services specific to the pedagogical requirements of the school.

I note what the Senator said and I intend to convey her comments to the Minister. I note what she said about a divided mesh curtain being cost-effective and about play, training and exercise. The Department's perspective is that these activities can take place on the five hard play areas. As the Senator said, the State is giving a significant amount of funding to this particular school and we hope it will work out advantageously for all concerned.

I thank the Minister of State for that very full response. I welcome the announcement she made that the planning application is to be lodged this week. As I said, I and the school have welcomed the positive updates from the Minister of State and the Minister on the planning application for permanent accommodation. That is clearly very welcome, not just for the school community but for the local community too.

It is also very welcome that an indoor sports hall and five hard court play areas will be provided and I acknowledge that. However, the lack of provision for an AstroTurf playing area will hamper the provision of a full sports curriculum. I am grateful to the Minister of State for saying she will convey to the Minister the comments I made, in particular around the provision of a mesh curtain, to explore whether there is some way of creating greater flexibility for play areas for the school. If there could be further consultation on this, that would be really welcome.

The standard brief is to provide six playing areas in a school, whereas the new school is only being provided with five. It will be located in a very constrained area where there is a serious shortage of accessible playing pitches for children and sports clubs in the area generally. I think in particular of Ranelagh Gaels, a rapidly growing local sports club which lacks any permanent home to play in. I raised this issue previously with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Colm Brophy. Cathal Brugha Barracks playing fields could and should be developed further and made more accessible for local clubs to use. I thank the Minister of State for her comments and again ask her to take them back to the Minister.

I thank the Senator for her comments, which I will convey to the Minister. As matters stand, the Department does not believe that students' enjoyment of all sports will be hampered by hard play areas.

The rationale for not allowing AstroTurf is that it is not a feasible proposition as it would reduce the area of the hard play space in what is a constrained urban site and would provide less flexibility. The Department does not provide funding for AstroTurf for any school so an exception cannot, unfortunately, be made for this school in the context of 4,000 schools across the country. To do so would set a precedent in that regard and there is only so much funding that can be made available. I am pleased that the application for planning permission from the school will proceed this week and, hopefully, that will result in a positive outcome.

Schools Building Projects

I welcome the Minister of State. I am delighted to speak about schools in my area of Moycullen, County Galway. Some people describe Moycullen as a village but in reality it is a small town at this stage. It was certainly identified as such in the draft county development plan. It is close to Galway city but has its own community close to the amenities of the National University of Ireland Galway, NUIG, Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, University Hospital Galway, UHG, Galway Bay, and the theatre, nightlife and everything else in the city. It is, therefore, a very popular place to live. The growth projections and patterns are going one way, that is, increasing.

Moycullen has a growing population with four schools in the community, Scoil Mhuire, Scoil Cholmáin Tuairíní, Tullykyne and Scoil Bhaile Nua. There are, however, nearly 700 children from the community attending secondary school outside the area. The majority go to Galway city, some to An Spidéal and a small number to Oughterard. For historical reasons and by virtue of its Gaeltacht status, Moycullen is included in the An Spidéal-Indreabhán school planning area.

This is despite the vast majority of students not attending secondary school in that school planning area. Is it normal that the majority of pupils in a village do not attend a school in the school planning area in which the village is situated? It makes no sense to me. Is this preventing the development of a post-primary school?

The present requirement to travel outside the community to attend a post-primary school means buses and cars on the road. It means a minimum travel time of one hour a day, which is five hours per week, for the students. Bus tickets are an added cost that parents would not incur if there was a second level school in their community. If there are two kids in a family, the parents might be paying €600 a year for those two pupils. Most of all, it is a right of children living in an area to be educated in their own community, a right never afforded pupils in Moycullen. It is an example of a community that was once just a crossroads and has, from the 1980s when the first two housing estates were built until today, seen an explosion of growth.

Tá éileamh mór ar mheánscoil i Maigh Cuilinn. Tá formhór na ndaltaí ag freastail ar mheánscoileanna cathrach na Gaillimhe. Níl mórán ciall go bhfuil Maigh Cuilinn mar chuid de limistéar scoil pleanála an Spidéil agus Indreabháin. An cheist atá agam ná an bhfuil sé seo ag cur bac ar sheans Maigh Cuilinn meánscoil a fháil?

People in Moycullen are crying out for a second level school in their community. It is a fast-growing area with capacity for growth in its sewerage system. The sewerage plant is at 50% capacity so there is capacity for additional growth and development. The construction of a bypass, starting this autumn, will make the community safer and more popular. I know the Department is conducting an ongoing study, an updated demographic exercise, on school needs across the country. It was at an advanced stage last year so I am wondering if there is an update on that.

As I said, the community of Moycullen wishes to have its own school and it deserves one. Growth patterns are only going one way, as I have said, that is, towards an increase in population. It is only right and proper that rather than having, as I said, up to 700 students a day travelling mostly to Galway city - and that number is only going to grow - a school should be provided in our area. I look forward to the reply from the Minister of State.

I thank the Senator for raising the matter of school places in Moycullen. It gives me an opportunity to set out my Department's position on school place requirements in the area. The Senator may be aware that in order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data in a way that takes account of the significant local and regional variations in demographic trends and enrolment projections, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas. As the Senator correctly pointed out, Moycullen is in the Spiddal-Inverin school planning area.

In most places, school planning areas were based on traditional school catchment areas where all primary schools were assigned to a post-primary feeder area which was typically a population centre or town containing one or more post-primary schools. The school planning areas were developed for use with my Department's geographic information system in 2008 and, with the introduction of small areas in census 2011, these areas were amended to align with census small areas. The current school planning areas take account not only of local groupings of schools but also of natural boundaries, census small areas and other local conditions.

My Department's anticipation of post-primary school place requirements within each school planning area is based on the level of enrolment at each standard class in primary schools and the historical transfer patterns between primary and post-primary schools. Information supplied by the local authorities in respect of current or planned residential development activity is also considered. Where data indicate that school place requirements are increasing, the availability of existing or planned unused capacity within existing schools is considered in the first instance. If sufficient unused capacity is not available, provision may be made by extending the capacity of an existing school or by providing a new school.

An analysis of the transfer patterns from primary schools in the wider Moycullen area to post-primary schools indicates that the majority of such pupils enrol in post-primary schools in the Galway city school planning area, which is immediately adjacent to the Spiddal-Inverin school planning area. The Department has identified a significant volume of current or planned unused capacity in schools in Galway city. This includes a number of major capital projects which are providing additional capacity. This capacity across schools in Galway city is expected to be sufficient to address projected emerging requirements in that school planning area as well as to facilitate a continuation of the enrolment patterns from primary schools in the Moycullen area. In that context, my Department has determined that there is currently no identified requirement for the establishment of a new post-primary school in Moycullen. Nevertheless, it will continue to keep school place requirements across the country, including in the Spiddal-Inverin and Galway city school planning areas, under review. Furthermore, my officials will continue to engage with officials in Galway County Council and Galway City Council in the context of their development plans.

It may be interesting for the Senator to note that according to the demographics about which he inquired, there is an anticipated population increase of approximately 18,655 for the general Galway area between 2021 and 2028. The 2016 population of Moycullen, as the Senator is probably aware, was 1,704. There is an anticipated growth of 350 by 2028. There are, according to Galway County Council, 272 housing units with planning permission in the Moycullen area but they are not yet complete. It is not expected that the full number of these will be delivered in the short term and their impact on school place requirements should be considered in the context of a distinct downward trend in demographics at planning level which will roll forward to post-primary level over the medium term.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I am somewhat disappointed that I have not received a hard copy of it but I am sure it will be circulated or I will get one later.

The Minister of State said there is no identified requirement for additional school places. This is the issue and problem. Moycullen has always sent its students to Galway city because there has been no other option. A small number of students go to An Spidéal and a small number to Oughterard. The population is continuing to grow and people have to pay the added cost of bus tickets into Galway city to attend the secondary school, a distance of 6, 7 or 8 miles, depending on the family's location in the parish. That is not fair.

I ask the Department to look again at the growth projections because I believe they underestimate the levels of development and planning permission and, as I said, the capacity for growth in the community. It is only going to go in one direction and we need to plan now to ensure there will be a secondary school in Moycullen. I ask the Minister of State to re-engage with the local authority and local politicians to assess and discuss the need for a secondary school in the area.

I thank the Senator. I will take his comments back to the Minister, Deputy Foley, and the Department. I hear what he is saying and his concern that the growth projections are underestimated. The 2020 demographic projections, being the most recent, indicate a projected demand for approximately 50 additional post-primary places in the Spiddal-Inverin area by 2024. An increase of approximately 1,000 post-primary pupils by 2024 is projected in Galway city. In summary, over the longer term, it is anticipated that Galway city will be a primary centre for growth whereas future demand for school places in Moycullen is not likely to increase significantly. I understand from what the Senator is saying that he takes issue with that assertion. I can give him a breakdown of those demographics. I have heard his concerns and what he has said about Moycullen and the fact that it is growing, in his view. He has explained that it would be nice if children could go to a school that is in their particular area. I will bring that contribution back to the Department.

Railway Stations

I wish to ask the Minister for Transport to outline his plans for the redevelopment of Ceannt and Oranmore stations in Galway.

In terms of the Ceannt Station redevelopment, which was announced during the term of the previous Government, will departmental and National Transport Authority funding be made available to Iarnród Éireann? What is the expected timeline for such redevelopment?

On Oranmore Station, what is the timeline for the construction of a second track? I ask because Oranmore and its surrounds are currently serviced by the Galway to Dublin and Galway to Limerick trains. Oranmore has a population in the region of 15,000. My colleagues on Galway City Council and Galway County Council, councillors Alan Cheevers, Albert Dolan and Martina Kinane, who represents the Clarenbridge-Maree area, have consistently raised this matter at local level. I am seeking to discover the timeline for the second track and the position with regard to commuter trains for the area. This matter needs to be prioritised. Naturally, in the current climate, we need to continue to invest in public transport. I know from occasionally using the train from Oranmore that it is an excellent way to transport a large volume of people into the city. There is a huge willingness on the part of people in the Oranmore electoral area, whether it is in Maree, Clarenbridge or Oranmore itself, to use public transport. As Senator Kyne said earlier in connection with Moycullen, there has been a major increase in the population. I am well aware that the census has been postponed until next year but I am sure it will show a further increase in population, so we need to plan for the next number of years. A train service is essential.

Finally, I ask the Minister for Transport to come back to me with the information. Like Senator Kyne, I think it would be great if I could get the written response when I conclude. Also, there are a number of trains for people to travel to Dublin and Limerick but the problem is that in the evening, the second last and last trains do not stop in Oranmore. That is another issue for the people who live in the Oranmore electoral area because there is no point getting the first train to Dublin in the morning and then having to go into Galway city because one's car will have been parked in Oranmore. The logistics need to be worked out and there needs to be better communication with the public. Overall, the train service is excellent but it needs to be enhanced and further investment is required. Can I have a copy of the written response, please?

I am here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to answer the Senator's questions on transport, particularly in the context of the Oranmore and Ceannt stations in Galway.

The Government recognises the importance of expanding sustainable mobility in the Galway area. I am glad to say that this recognition has been backed up by funding to ensure that this translates into reality. We want to deliver expanded active travel networks across the city. We want to improve bus services and infrastructure through the delivery of a BusConnects Galway programme. We also want to deliver improved rail services and infrastructure.

The good news is that there have been positive developments on all fronts in recent months. We want to see that development continue in the coming years. Under the national development plan on active travel, Galway will benefit from the increased funding now available to support working and cycling. Funding of almost €12 million was announced earlier this year to support projects in the city during 2021, and another €6 million has been allocated to Galway County Council also in 20201.

On bus transport, we have seen welcome progress on two of the Galway BusConnects corridors with both the cross-city link and the Dublin Road corridor out to public consultation towards the end of last year. Both of these corridors are hugely important for the city's transport future and the cross-city link in particular is fundamental to improving public transport in the city. I understand that the cross-city link will move into statutory planning process later this year, which will be a really important milestone.

Finally, the Senator highlighted two current rail projects. First, there is the proposed redevelopment of Ceannt station. This will expand the capacity of the station and improve passenger experience at the station itself. The project will be co-funded by the urban regeneration and development fund, URDF, and the Department of Transport as part of the National Transport Authority's regional cities investment programme. I am informed that a multidisciplinary design team has been appointed by Iarnród Éireann, and that the team is currently undertaking detailed design development and the preparation of tender documentation for the construction stage. It is expected that tenders for the redevelopment work will be sought in the final quarter of this year with the contractor expected to be appointment mid-2022 and construction should finish during 2024. As the Senator will be aware, full planning permission for the project is in place.

Second, in terms of rail, there is the proposed improvement to Oranmore station. This project will see a new 1 km passing loop constructed at Oranmore. This will mean that trains will be able to pass each other and a new second platform will be constructed at the station. As with the Ceannt station project, these works will be co-funded through the URDF and the Department of Transport. I am informed that design work for the project is still at a relatively early stage and a full project timeline is under development. However, it is expected that all works will be completed during 2024.

The Senator is likely aware that the new Athenry to Galway rail corridor is being examined generally in terms of what other improvements might be necessary to expand its capacity up to and including, possibly, double-tracking into the city. As he conceded, there is significant activity under way to improve sustainable mobility in Galway. It is important that this activity translates into delivery on the ground and that Galwegians begin to see projects move from planning to construction. The latter is a move that I believe we will see emerge over the next 12 months.

The Minister of State has delivered welcome news. With the pandemic, there have been delays and it is my duty, as a public representative, to hold the Department to account. I welcome the good news and I would appreciate if the Minister of State would speak to the Minister for Transport about the timeline.

As the Minister of State and the Government are well aware, there has been a major increase in the population of the Oranmore and Athenry area. I welcome the investment in Athenry but there is great concern about the parking constraints in both areas. Again, I thank the Minister of State for his response and welcome the news.

I take the Senator's point about the importance of timelines. I will speak to my ministerial colleague about the matter.

The national development plan is being reviewed at the moment so the various projects are being examined and appraised. I can see how the population of Oranmore contributes to its deserving nature and there are problems with transport. I am not from Galway but when I visit, I can see that it is difficult to move around the city easily. It is difficult to get out of one's car and find a practical alternative unlike where I am in Dún Laoghaire where I have many options, and I availed of one of them this morning. I appreciate that there is an issue but the national development plan is being reviewed. Almost €11 billion is being spent on capital projects and a much large amount over the coming five years so I expect that there will be positive developments in the area. The Senator is welcome to contact me if he has issues about this in the future.

Departmental Funding

The Minister of State, as a good Kildare person, will know all about the racing business but without horse and pony racing, there would be no Irish racing industry to enjoy. This business is the essential foundation for all young jockeys to learn the skills and competencies to enable them to become top-class jockeys in Ireland and abroad.

It is a sport for males and females from all walks of life. People start at the age of eight or younger, and there is no upper age limit. It is good for people's well-being. It creates a great love of animals by many young people. It is not just people from the farming community who enjoy horse and pony racing. Many families from urban areas enjoy this wonderful sport. All of the people involved in it are volunteers. We all know of the race meets around the countryside that bring so much enjoyment each year, for example the races in Loughrea, the Dingle races, Frenchpark in Roscommon, and Geesala in Mayo. The meets are huge for the local communities. Of course, because of the pandemic this has all been hit. The volunteers who run these race meets are now looking forward to getting it all up and running again. They do not get any funding.

Horse Racing Ireland has a budget of €76 million. I understand, however, that it cannot fund them. Brian Kavanagh and Denis Egan from the Jockey Club sympathise with these small racing volunteers but, as far as I am aware, they cannot fund them. We need to look at this to see if there is some way we can get some funding for groups like the midlands horse and pony association, the north-west racing committee, the southern racing committee, the Dingle races, and the people in Frenchpark in my county. Sponsorship has disappeared because of the Covid close down.

The aspect of well-being is a very important point in all of this, and especially for young people. It is an open air sport, which is very important when we are moving out of Covid restrictions and being told to get outdoors as the safe way to go. For those people to get up and running and to re-establish themselves, they need funding now. They have very little money left in their accounts. Many of the people involved are using their own money to get much of the work done. There are huge costs involved with insurance and the chipping of animals. All of this is being done very well and is very well looked after by the people in control. One can imagine, however, all of the cost there.

This sport is really the foundation that opens up avenues for the likes of Rachael Blackmore, Barry Geraghty, Bryan Cooper, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh. It goes on and on. Just look at the successes those people have had. Look at the pride they have brought to Ireland. They all started at those pony and horse races up and down the country. The Minister of State will understand this very well. I believe it is vital and important that we as a Government look at this issue and that we try to organise a funding stream that will back this up. Again, I put it to the Minister of State that all of the people involved are volunteers. It does not just open up avenues for jockeys. It also opens up opportunities for owners of horses and for stable people to go on and make a good career. This is the training ground and the base. This is the rock on which our racing business is founded and we must support it. If we do not, then these volunteers will disappear and the ability of people to enjoy this outing will be gone.

I thank Senator Murphy. It is my pleasure to welcome my good friend the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon. This may be the first official opportunity I have had to congratulate him. It may be a bit late, but it is never too late.

I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach too. It is good to see him in the Chair.

I first must apologise that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, was unable to make it to the House today. I am happy to take this Commencement matter on the Minister's behalf.

Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, is a commercial State body established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, and is responsible for the overall administration, promotion and development of the horse racing industry.

The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, is the regulatory body for all horse racing in Ireland. The board is a company limited by guarantee. The Turf Club and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee transferred their regulatory functions, together with related assets and liabilities, to the company under a business transfer agreement on 1 January 2018.

Under Section 12 of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, my Department provides funding to HRI on an annual basis. My Department has allocated €76.8 million to HRI to assist the horse racing and wider thoroughbred industry in 2021. This is an increase of €9.6 million or 14% on the 2020 allocation of €67.2 million. HRI has informed me that it has never provided funding to pony racing as the sport does not fall within its remit, the equines involved are not thoroughbreds, and these meetings have not been recognised by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB.

Horse Racing Ireland and the IHRB have indicated that they are in dialogue with the various pony racing organisations. The issue of pony racing was also discussed at a recent HRI board meeting. HRI and the IHRB are due to meet with representatives of pony racing organisations again in the coming weeks.

To date, HRI has had a number of virtual meetings with representatives of various pony racing organising committees around the country in response to requests for a closer and more formal relationship than exists at present. Such a relationship would involve some form of recognition by the IHRB, including the removal of the ban on attendance at pony racing for licensed individuals and some form of financial assistance through Horse Racing Ireland.

Before Covid-19, approximately 40 pony race meetings were held mainly between the months of June and September. The pony racing circuit has been a fruitful source of talented jockeys, as Senator Murphy has outlined. The Senator has named many of the famous jockeys who now grace the largest of international stages and who represent Ireland extremely well at Cheltenham and all of the big race meetings across the world. I accept that many of those riders started in pony racing. It is acknowledged that, historically, many top riders have had their first experience of race riding on the pony racing circuit.

The board of HRI has informed the Minister that discussions on the matter will continue, but it must be stated that ultimately pony racing is outside HRI's remit, which is confined to activities on authorised racecourses. Any involvement will be limited to a discussion and advisory role only.

I have attended pony racing in Dingle while there on a family holiday. I have seen the excitement and the enthusiasm of the people. I do not for one minute discount the passion that Senator Murphy has displayed on the matter. Pony racing has a long history where it has stood on its own two feet. This is always a challenge for such an organisation that has survived for such a long period, notwithstanding the role it has played in providing jockeys to us.

I very much welcome the engagement by HRI and the IHRB with the pony racing associations for the discussions and advisory support they can provide into the future.

I appreciate that the Minister of State has given such a comprehensive reply. I am delighted there will be discussion and a recognition of how important the matter is.

If we do not support the sport now it will die out. It will affect Irish racing hugely. No young talent will get the chance to become a jockey. No disadvantaged child will get the necessary training he or she would need, unless they can all afford to own their ponies, which is impossible. I know where the Minister of State's heart is on this. I know the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will deal with this. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, to go back to ensure that in some way we can get a small amount of funding for this group.

I have done some research on this. David Egan, who started out pony racing earlier this year won the €20 million Saudi Cup. Only a few short weeks ago Rory Cleary from the Athlone region, won the 2,000 Guineas on a horse called Mac Swiney. Again, he and his family have been huge supporters of pony racing, which is where they started.

Last night I was researching the Geesala races. One comment came up from an attendee at the 2019 event: "I'm still discovering the delightful gems in my own area - 50 plus years on. The Geesala races today was an absolute delight". I rest my case.

I thank Senator Murphy. I have given him the discretion that goes with Roscommon people when I am in the Chair. Will the Minister of State say a last word?

Senator Murphy is right that pony racing gets to the heart of the rural pursuits that are so intrinsic to so much of our history. It is so important. That is why the engagement that is happening between the HRI and the IHRB about strengthening those connections matters because, for a long time, pony racing has stood on its own and managed without support but also without that close contact. Any dialogue taking place about its future and which gives the opportunity for the pony racing organisations to highlight and verbalise exactly where they see the threats to the future of the organisation is very much to be welcomed. The briefing back to the Minister on this point has been that there will be further engagement between Horse Racing Ireland, the IHRB and the pony racing associations. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.

Departmental Reports

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy James Browne, to the House. I have been asked to bring this matter to his attention by Councillor Paddy McQuillan of Louth County Council. As the Minister of State knows, in 2020 Mr. Vivian Geiran carried out a scoping exercise in Drogheda as a direct result of the gang feud that had terrorised the town. He spoke to all relevant agencies and bodies directly and indirectly involved with the feud. The comprehensive report was finalised and submitted to the Department in January 2021. The report put forward over 70 recommendations to improve the community safety and well-being of the citizens of the town. The report was publicly released by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, on 26 March, when she stated that, "Over the next few weeks engagement will continue with relevant departments with a view to finalising the implementation plan by the end of April." Councillor McQuillan is very disappointed that there has been no real move on this implementation plan. We are now at the first day of June and I would be grateful if the Minister of State could update me on the current status of the report and its lengthy list of recommendations.

The implementation of this report is essential to improving the safety, well-being and development of Drogheda. The first and most important recommendation of the report is that the high-level oversight group, consisting of members of seven Departments, is responsible for signing off on an agreed plan of action. I would like to know if it has been signed off and an agreed action plan put in place. I understand that the chief superintendent has stated that he has a team in place ready to go but has not had any contact from the Government to date. Other agencies directly involved are also anxiously waiting to engage on the recommendations.

While the commissioning of the report was welcomed by the people of Drogheda, it will have been a wasted exercise if it is not acted upon soon. I have been assured that the people of Drogheda do not want to see this report sitting in the Department gathering dust while people’s lives continue to be seriously affected by the ongoing problems. With the summer recess getting closer there is real concern locally that failure to implement the very first recommendation augers badly for the remaining 69 recommendations. As the Minister of State can appreciate, local groups are really anxious to get going on this report and its recommendations. We must remember this activity is seriously affecting citizens' everyday life, safety and well-being. Time is of the essence and I hope in all sincerity the Minister of State will have answers to the three questions that I have posed today.

I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter concerning Drogheda. The Scoping Report into Community Safety and Well-being in Drogheda was commissioned by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, in 2020 following a number of violent incidents in Drogheda. The purpose of the scoping report was to gather and assess information relating to ongoing challenges and community needs in Drogheda, and to identify actions to support communities and connect relevant services. Mr. Vivian Geiran, a former director of the Probation Service, was engaged to prepare the report, which makes over 70 recommendations on short- and long-term responses to challenges the community faces, including around crime prevention, youth services, drug addiction, education, infrastructure and community development. The recommendations highlight the need for improved interagency co-operation in the administration and delivery of State services in Drogheda, as well as the need to resource public services or provide additional services in certain areas in particular.

The scoping report was approved for publication by the Government on 13 March 2021 and published on 26 March. Briefings were organised by the Minister, Deputy McEntee, the following week for community groups and services that had met with Mr. Geiran, as well as for Deputies, Senators and councillors from County Louth. The implementation plan for the key recommendations arising from the report is currently being developed and will identify the relevant stakeholders for each recommendation and outline next steps for engagement. Engagement with all relevant Departments, agencies and the Louth County Council is ongoing to ensure a comprehensive implementation plan. For example, early action has been taken to engage with the Department of Education on the provision of additional supports to the three schools identified in the report. Engagement has taken place at official level and the Department of Education is positive about providing additional supports to schools in the area, including those identified in the report. Additionally, engagement has taken place with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with regard to addressing the impact on Drogheda of the county boundaries of counties Louth and Meath. My officials are also in direct contact with Red Door, the HSE, the Department of Health and the local drugs and alcohol task force to advance the recommendations around funding to addiction-related support services in the community. This engagement is necessary to ensure funding is maximised and to avoid duplication in the delivery of services.

With regard to the co-ordination mechanism proposed by Mr. Geiran in his report, the Department is currently in discussions with relevant Departments and agencies, as well as Louth County Council, to develop a proposal for a co-ordination structure that will enable engaged participation from relevant stakeholders while being in line with the Government's wider approach to community safety and community development. This engagement will continue with a view to finalising the implementation plan in the coming weeks for submission to Cabinet, with publication occurring shortly thereafter.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. In a town like Drogheda, or indeed in any town or city in Ireland where such problems are identified, immediate action is what the citizens must see. They must see action on the ground. I appreciate the Minister of State has outlined a number of engagements that are taking place but real action must be seen publicly to be taking place. Citizens in a place like Drogheda do not necessarily understand that all of this administrative work, engagement and meeting must take place. What they really must see is action. Living in a dangerous situation like that, they need to know the Government is with them. I therefore ask the Minister of State to expedite whatever is going on. I thank him for taking the time to come here and debate this matter.

As I noted in my opening remarks, it is paramount we ensure that whatever co-ordination structure is put in place in Drogheda links in with the Government's wider approach to community development and community safety. The Department has developed a policy on community safety which has informed the general scheme of the policy and community safety Bill, which proposes local community safety partnerships to ensure co-ordination on safety issues at a local authority level. In addition, we are working with the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Rural and Community Development and the Department of Health to ensure community well-being focused initiatives are complementary not duplicative and to enable stakeholders and service providers to actively participate in an efficient and effective way. We will ensure the strong emphasis on co-ordination in the Drogheda scoping report is reflected in the implementation plan in a way that is sustainable for the community in Drogheda, going forward.

I assure the Senator we are absolutely determined to get this right for Drogheda. The report is very comprehensive and very detailed. However, we want to ensure the implementation plan is not a few short-term, one-hit wonders, if I can put it like that, but is instead sustainable to ensure the core issues in Drogheda are addressed in the medium and long term. The fact the plan will also be brought back to Cabinet shows the seriousness with which the matter is being taken.

Sports Funding

I raise the issue of the sports capital programme. I am the treasurer of my local club, with which I have been involved for the past 30 years. I have also been involved in a number of successful applications for the sports capital programme. The programme was launched in 1998 and more than 10,000 projects have benefited from funding, bringing total allocations to approximately €1 billion. This year, the programme closed on Monday, 1 March, and by the closing date more than 3,000 applications had been made seeking more than €200 million in funding. This is the highest number of applications since the programme began.

The sports capital programme is the Government's primary vehicle for supporting and developing sports facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment. Increasing participation in sport is a central aim of our national sports policy and forms part of the programme for Government, which sets a target of 60% adult participation in sport. To achieve this objective we have to have the appropriate sports facilities in place. The vision of the national sports policy is a country where everyone can regularly enjoy taking part in sport and physical activity for life. This is now more important than ever as recent findings, according to data published by Sport Ireland, have noted that the gender gap in active participation in sport is now at its lowest level. If we are to achieve our ambitious targets on sports participation we need to continue to invest in facilities, and in particular target areas with low levels of participation and areas with huge increases in population.

The sports capital programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every town and village. The facilities that have been funded range from sports equipment for the smallest clubs to national centres of sporting excellence. The vast majority of grants go to voluntary organisations and I take this opportunity to thank all those volunteers associated with these clubs for their tireless work and commitment to improving their facilities for the benefit of all their members. Significant changes to the programme have been implemented to make the process more user-friendly, including the simplification of the application form, giving applicants an opportunity to correct applications during the assessment stage and the introduction of an appeals system for unsuccessful applicants.

The programme aims to foster an integrated and planned approach to developing sport and physical recreation facilities throughout the country. In particular, its objectives are to assist voluntary and community organisations, prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas in the provision of facilities and encourage multi-use of local, regional and national facilities. In 2019, €37 million of public money was allocated and 37 different sports benefited. Dublin received the highest amount, at €7.5 million, and my county of Longford received the lowest, at €290,000. Over the past three programmes, Longford has received the lowest average per capita funding in the country of €20.99. County Westmeath received funding of €25 per capita over the same three years. This compares with an average of €33 per capita throughout the country. This is why when decisions are being made we need to ensure this imbalance is addressed.

We know it has been a tough year for sports clubs as a result of Covid-19. Clubs have been unable to do their normal fundraising. This new round of the programme will provide opportunities for clubs to make improvements. I understand it would be impossible to fund all applications received in 2021. Given the large number of applications received, I ask the Department to prioritise in 2022 or 2023 any validated unsuccessful application made this year. If this were done, it would enable applicants to begin planning for 2022, whether through fundraising or finalising planning applications in anticipation of receiving funding in the following year. This would reduce the delay in projects being completed, and the Department has to give a large number of extensions.

Everybody involved knows the importance of the sports capital programme and the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised how important sport is to our society. As well as the pleasure and excitement of watching sport, actively engaging is critical for our physical and mental well-being. I dealt with a number of application for this year's programme. Longford Tennis Club had to apply because its facilities were overused during Covid-19. Longford Rugby Club brought in all the children every Sunday morning, including my young lad, for training during the off-season. However, there is always more that can be done to make sure everyone, no matter their age or background, and whether male or female, has an opportunity to participate in sport in some capacity. This is why the funding is vital this year and will be important in the years to come.

I apologise on behalf of the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Chambers, and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, who are caught at a Cabinet meeting and unfortunately cannot be here. I thank the Senator for raising this very important matter. We are acutely aware of the importance of sports capital grants to our local communities.

The sports capital and equipment programme is the primary vehicle for Government support for the development of sports and recreation facilities and the purchase of non-personal sports equipment throughout the country. More than 13,000 projects have benefited from sports capital funding since 1998, bringing the total allocations in that time to more than €1 billion.

The programme has transformed the sporting landscape of Ireland, with improvements in the quality and quantity of sporting facilities in virtually every village, town and city in the country. The programme is also an important element of the national sports policy in delivering increased participation in sport. Grants are available to voluntary, not-for-profit sports clubs, community groups, national governing bodies of sport and local authorities. Third level colleges, education and training boards and schools may only apply for funding jointly with sports clubs or organisations.

The programme's objectives are to assist sporting organisations to develop high quality, accessible, safe, well-designed and sustainable facilities in appropriate locations and to provide appropriate equipment to help maximise participation in sport and physical recreation, to prioritise the needs of disadvantaged areas and groups, such as people with disabilities, in the provision of sports facilities, and to encourage the sharing and maximum use of sports facilities. The programme for Government commits to continuing the sports capital programme and prioritising investment in disadvantaged areas.

On 30 November last, the Minister, Deputy Martin, and the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers, announced that a new 2020 round of the programme was opening, with applications being accepted from 11 December until 1 March 2021. By this closing date, 3,106 applications had been submitted seeking more than €200 million in funding. This is the highest number of applications ever received.

The scoring system and assessment procedures have been finalised and published. All applications are now being assessed in accordance with these procedures. Given the large number of applications received, this assessment process is likely to take a number of months. As soon as this process is complete all applicants will be informed of the outcome of the assessment of their application. The sports capital and equipment programme only funds projects that are sporting in nature, whether competitive or recreational. All applications are assessed against six published criteria. These criteria are the likelihood of increasing participation, including female participation, and improving performance, whether the proposed facilities will be shared with other users, the level of socioeconomic disadvantage in the area, using the Pobal deprivation index, the technical merits of the project, the level of own funding available, and the amount of funding previously allocated under the programme. At least €40 million is being made available and it is planned to make allocations in tranches throughout 2021 as batches of applications are assessed, starting with applications for sports equipment in the summer followed by applications for capital works later in the year.

I welcome the Senator's genuine and passionate interest in the programme. However, the suggestion that allocations to applications under this year's round of the programme could be made over a three-year period is problematic for a number of reasons. The sports capital programme assessment process is competitive and rewards the projects that are more likely to deliver on the programme's objectives of increasing participation, prioritising disadvantaged areas and groups and encouraging the sharing of facilities. The Senator's proposal could be seen to reward inferior projects that do not score sufficiently high marks this year to secure funding. The proposal would disadvantage new and worthwhile projects that intend to apply for funding under future rounds of the programme and it would effectively mean no new applications for the next three years.

For these reasons, while I thank the Senator for raising this important matter, I am not in favour of making the changes to the programme that he has proposed. As demonstrated by the number of applications this year, there is very strong ongoing interest in developing local sports facilities throughout the country and it is important that the opportunity to apply is not curtailed and that investment continues to be made in the best projects that will make the most impact.

I thank the Minister of State. The departmental officials might have taken me up wrong. This was not in any way a proposal that there would be no new applications. It is with regard to applications that are validated but may not have scored as highly as other applications.

If, as a club, we were not successful, we would have to reapply and go through the whole system again. Department officials would spend months going through the same application again. If we knew that we had a validated project and our funding application would be successful, we could be much better prepared and far more fundraising could be done. The officials in the Department will confirm that the reality is that they often have to grant extensions of a number of years to projects because many clubs are struggling to finish the projects due to a lower percentage in funding being awarded. My point is that we should award a higher percentage of funding, particularly during the Covid pandemic, to ensure that those projects are delivered. That will mean that the clubs can prepare themselves, get the funding put in place and know that the applications for future projects will be successful, so that they will not have to go through the process all over again with all the red tape involved.

Fair enough, updated bank statements, etc., will be needed. However, I would not place restrictions on applications being submitted for new projects. To be honest, we are creating more bureaucracy in a system that is already clogged up. There are over 3,000 applications in the system. That is five times over the limit of the fund. There will be a significant number of unsuccessful applications. If we are going to hit the targets that we have set as a Government, we need to put more funding into sport. I felt that this proposal was a way around the problem and a way to cut down on the bureaucracy and deliver the facilities.

It would appear that perhaps there has been a misinterpretation of the Senator's proposal. I take the Senator's point that the intention is not to prohibit future applications. As I understand it, current applications will remain valid for the next round of funding, so that organisations do not have to go through the entire process of reapplying in that situation.

I will certainly bring the additional points to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I will ask the Minister of State if perhaps a representative from the Department can engage directly with the Senator to determine whether his ideas could be teased out further and could in fact be considered.

I fully agree with the Senator. The work in these clubs is done by volunteers. I was out with a local club, Cloughbawn, in Clonroche, last night. I have seen all of the work that is put in by volunteers in various clubs. It is getting more difficult to get volunteers to become engaged with the organisations. Younger people are living such busy lives that the number of core volunteers who have to do a lot of the fundraising is reducing each year. That is the case across all sorts of organisations. I certainly understand the Senator's point. I will bring the additional points to the attention of the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. I will find out if the Department can engage further with the Senator on this most important issue.

Sitting suspended at 10.13 a.m. and resumed at 10.30 a.m.