Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Northern Ireland

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this very important Commencement matter. Indeed, he was one of the many people who travelled to Belfast on 30 August. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for coming in to address this Commencement matter. I am very conscious that this is an important and sensitive issue, and therefore I have given some consideration to my comments.

Senators and Deputies as well as representatives of the five parties in the Northern Executive met a cross-community group of victim campaigners in Belfast City Hall on 30 August 2021. This was a meeting of cross-community groups and all political parties on both sides of the Border. In July of this year, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brandon Lewis, announced that he planned to introduce a statute of limitations banning prosecutions of Troubles-related killings and other crimes as well as all legacy inquests and civil cases before April 1998. We met victims' groups and the North's five main political parties which, along with the Irish Government, are all opposed to these proposals. One of the things about this issue is the great unity on the island of Ireland in regard to it, and indeed in certain quarters in the UK. We discussed the issues and concerns. There was a view that this was a de facto amnesty, and it is something people have major concerns with.

Representatives from the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party, the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Mark Daly, Senator Emer Currie and myself, along with Deputies Howlin, Costello and Lawless, signed a document of support stating that we totally reject the British Government's proposals for dealing with the past, including amnesties for those who committed murder, and supported the victims' campaigns and their efforts to stop the British Government's proposals. No individual group, organisation, state forces or agents can be immune from prosecution. Murder is murder and must be treated as such. Investigations, prosecutions, inquests and civil actions cannot be abolished and due process must take place, which the document we signed clearly states.

Listening to the campaigners, the common thread throughout was that they do not want the British Government closing off or closing down their opportunity to get truth and justice for their families, neighbours and loved ones. Subsequent to that, 35 US Congress members, including Mr. Brendan Boyle and Mr. Brian Fitzpatrick, signed a letter to the British Prime Minister calling for the UK Government to reaffirm its commitment to the Stormont House Agreement, which is critical to this debate and to these discussions, and they asked that the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson, to scrap his proposals to ban future prosecutions in relation to the Northern Ireland Troubles. US legislators expressed concern that the proposed legacy laws would strain the British-Irish relationship and cement widespread feelings that justice is being denied. The US politicians went on to say that it is a serious mistake by the British Government to renege on its commitment clearly laid out under the Stormont House Agreement in the search for justice and reconciliation.

The British Prime Minister said that this amnesty would allow Northern Ireland to draw a line under its Troubles. One can never draw a line under the Troubles when people to not have the right to an inquest, to take civil actions and so forth to address this issue. It must be clear that everyone must be held to account, including military veterans as well as ex-paramilitaries. We simply have to reject the British Government's proposal. The pathway to truth, justice and reconciliation must not be blocked.

I will be asking the Minister of State to take this back to the Government. Legal rights under European law and the Good Friday Agreement must be protected and vindicated. The Taoiseach is exceptionally supportive of this issue. That is encouraging and it encouraged the people we met in Belfast City Hall. They were highly impressed by the Government and the Taoiseach's solidarity with their plight and their concerns.

The Taoiseach is in the United States at the moment.

The campaigners have asked that the Taoiseach and Government use their influence in respect of their European colleagues and the US Government.

I am also calling on the Cathaoirleach to write to our counterparts in the House of Lords and ask them for their support for the campaign for justice and truth. Many of us deal with them through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. They are our counterparts in the British Parliament. I know we have many supporters in the House of Lords. We should reach out to them and engage with them. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.

I would like to start by thanking the Senator for raising this most important matter. I wish to pass on the apologies of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, who is out of the country at present and unfortunately unable to attend this debate.

As the Senator has outlined, the legacy of the Troubles continues to impact upon many families and communities across the island and beyond as they continue to seek truth and justice for their loved ones. It has been the consistent position of the Government that each of those families should have access to an effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. The Stormont House Agreement, agreed by both Governments and the political parties of Northern Ireland after intensive negotiations in 2014, sets out a comprehensive and balanced framework based on the essential pillars of truth, justice and reconciliation. Where the British Government is proposing significant changes to that framework, these must be discussed and agreed by both Government and the parties to the Northern Ireland Executive.

Only through a collective approach in line with international human rights obligations can we hope to deal with these issues comprehensively and fairly. As the Senator will be well aware, the Government has joined with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland in a process of intensive engagement on these issues, with discussions beginning in early July which are ongoing. Importantly, this process has engaged fully with victims representatives and civil society. The intention is to find an agreed way forward that will allow implementing legislation to be introduced in both the UK and Ireland by the end of the autumn. As part of this process, we are committed to working with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland to address the painful legacies of the Troubles. We must find a way forward on these crucial issues to support wider societal recognition, build greater community confidence in policing and meet the legitimate needs of victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland.

The Government has made very clear that any approach based on a general statute of limitations that would see an end to investigations and prosecutions of Troubles-related incidents would represent a very radical departure from the Stormont House Agreement. It is one that we cannot support. This view is shared and has been strongly expressed by every party and victims group and by people from all communities and with a wide range of experiences. It is for the British Government to take that response on board now. We have cautioned it strongly against unilateral action.

I welcome the work of Senators Boyhan, Currie, An Cathaoirleach and all the other Members of this House who engaged in that meeting in Northern Ireland. All of us working collectively from across the political spectrum get to make that point. It is a point that needs to be made loud and clear, because whatever the intentions behind the proposal, a proposal like this will not work if it does not have the support of all of Northern Ireland. It will undoubtedly be challenged in the courts, and if it fails, it will only add years of uncertainty and heartache for families with no gain.

We have consistently said that we are ready to engage with concerns or issues in respect of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, but any such changes must be discussed by the parties and both Governments. The Government is also committed, as was the case at the time of the Stormont House Agreement, to fully play our part in collective efforts that will deliver for the legitimate needs of victims and survivors across both jurisdictions and for society as a whole. Go raibh maith agaibh.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive response. It is certainly something that I will send to the relevant people this afternoon. I wish to thank the Cathaoirleach for his support, and that of the Irish parliamentarians who went to Belfast. It was a very significant meeting. As the Minister of State will be aware through his many years of experience in politics, it is unheard of for there to be all-island, cross-party and none political unity on reaching a resolution.

When I left Belfast, having listened to and engaged with the people, my abiding thoughts were that I could have nothing but the height of respect for their patience, grace and determination to seek the truth. There were many tears shed in Belfast City Hall that day and many stories told on all sides of the fence and all sides of the Troubles.

There were many heartaches, many sorrows and many stories of loss, hurt and disappointment. We must stand in solidarity with the people on all sides of this island and the islands we share. I know we will. I will take this opportunity to say that, since we met, Pat Hume, the wife of former SDLP leader, John Hume, sadly passed away. That was on 2 September, only two days later. She was an incredible person who was influential in many aspects of the peace process. I pay tribute to Pat for her commitment, courage and compassion in the service of peace and reconciliation for the island of Ireland.

I note the Senator's comments, which I very much welcome. The irony is that the British proposals have managed to create more unity on this island than Britain might have expected. This has been very positive. All of us, across all sides, have a shared hurt irrespective of our political viewpoints and different backgrounds. Through the Stormont House Agreement, we also have a shared approach as to how to deal with that hurt in an inclusive way. There is an onus on all of us to see real progress for victims and survivors of the Troubles across the island. If we fail to do so, we allow grief to be deepened and that burden to be passed on to the next generation.

There must be a framework for dealing with the past that meets the legitimate needs of families, that provides a real pathway to reconciliation and that, crucially, upholds other human rights obligations, including those under the European Convention on Human Rights. Achieving this requires a collective approach and such an approach is already set out in the Stormont House Agreement. Progress on implementing a framework that is consistent with the framework and fundamental principles of the Stormont House Agreement is critical to ensuring that these issues are dealt with comprehensively and fairly, providing a route to truth and justice for those who have already waited far too long.

I thank the leader of the Opposition, Senator Boyhan, for raising the matter of the victims of the Troubles and their search for justice. I also thank Senator Currie for going to Belfast that day. It was truly a historic event given that it was the first time in the history of this island that all of the major political parties signed one document. It was a truly historic event in that respect but it was sad that it related to a cause that should not have to be fought for. The fact that Congressmen Boyle and Fitzpatrick, along with other members of the US Congress, signed a letter to the British Prime Minister asking the British Government not to go ahead with this legislation, that would deny justice and truth to families, shows the level of international outrage regarding this proposal. It should be borne in mind that a UK university has analysed this legislation and 300 other amnesties given since the 1990s and has described it as "Pinochet plus". It has said that it is a broader and more comprehensive amnesty than was given to the Chilean dictator, General Pinochet, and his troops who committed atrocities during his reign of terror in Chile. I do not believe the UK Government wants to be associated with that type of historic record. As Senator Boyhan has said, the families deserve truth and justice. I thank all Members for participating in that event in Belfast on that day. We were delighted to be invited by Raymond McCord, who was leading the effort to prevent this legislation being enacted. I thank the Minister of State for coming in and outlining the Government's response.

Defence Forces

I am sharing time with Senator O'Loughlin. We will take two minutes each. The issue I want to raise relates to the documentary "Women of Honour" broadcast on RTÉ's "Saturday with Katie Hannon" programme a couple of weeks ago. It was with shock and horror that we listened to the accounts of the women involved. They were former serving members of the Irish Defence Forces. They spoke about horrific ordeals including sexual assaults, discrimination, rapes and many other injustices they suffered when they were serving members of the Irish Defence Forces. These were perpetrated by other members of the Defence Forces. It was even worse to hear how they were treated subsequently when they raised those issues with their commanding officers and tried to bring them up the line of command. Their words fell on deaf ears. There were too many instances to be considered one-offs or rarities. Unfortunately, it seems to have been quite common, particularly in the early years when women first joined the Defence Forces.

As a former member, who spent 13 years in the Reserve Defence Force, I can attest to there being quite a macho culture within the organisation but I was still extremely shocked to hear what those women had been through. We have to listen to the victims and we have to frame our response by taking into account what they are looking for in terms of redress and a resolution to this. What we cannot have is the Defence Forces or the Department of Defence investigating themselves. There must be a fully independent inquiry into all the allegations and the culture in the Defence Forces, with a view to stamping out and eradicating that culture and providing closure, compensation and resolution to the victims.

I also take on board that these women have the full support of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the National Women's Council of Ireland for that independent review, one where they are fully involved in choosing how it takes place. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that the Government will initiate, through the Department of Defence, a fully independent review in consultation with the women of honour.

As the Minister will be aware, the documentary programme, "Women of Honour", sent shock waves through the military and defence community right around the country, particularly in south Kildare where many members of that community reside. This documentary was a damning account by female operatives, both active duty and retired. These women detailed sexual assault and harassment from their male colleagues and supervisors in addition to a level of job discrimination against female members of the Defence Forces, especially those with children. These are not new allegations. Similar allegations have been made in the past. Recently on KFM Radio, Dr. Tom Clonan detailed his experience as a whistle-blower within the Defence Forces when he released his research into sexual misconduct in 2000. His allegations were not baseless or random but were contained within a full doctoral thesis that included in-depth interviews with more than 60 women who were soldiers, sailors and air crew. This research was presented to the Chief of Staff 21 years ago and nothing was done. Not only was nothing done, Dr. Clonan was treated like a pariah.

One of the most concerning aspects of this story is the alleged attempt by senior personnel to quash allegations of misconduct. It is clear the culture within the Defence Forces needs to be reformed and a more open and transparent mechanism is urgently needed to review allegations of any sexual misconduct. I acknowledge the announcement that an unbiased review will be conducted but it must be independent and transparent. That includes the personnel chosen to review the allegations. This review must have the confidence of every member of the Defence Forces and must be open to public scrutiny. The days of quiet back room dealings are over. The review must be transparent, must be public and must deal with the allegations effectively.

I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Defence who, unfortunately, cannot be present. The Minister, who is currently out of the country, has asked me to pass on his apologies to the House. On his behalf, I welcome the opportunity to respond to Senators Chambers and O'Loughlin on what is an important matter. The Minister and I have listened with concern to the women who recounted their experiences on the "Women of Honour" programme broadcast on RTÉ Radio 1 on 11 September 2021. Like many others, I was deeply struck by the personal accounts given in that programme. The Minister has reiterated in the strongest terms that all members of the Defence Forces have the right to be treated with respect, equality and dignity, and to carry out their duties free from any form of sexual harassment, harassment or bullying.

As the Senators will be aware, progress has been made since the 2002 report of the external advisory committee on the Defence Forces, The Challenge of a Workplace. There have been three reports from the independent monitoring group, IMG, since the publication of the report in 2002, the latest in 2014. Practices and procedures have been put in place within the Defence Forces to address allegations of inappropriate behaviour, including sexual harassment, harassment and bullying. These practices and procedures are set out in regulation and policy documents. Support services have been put in place for members of the Defence Forces. Trained designated contact persons are available to provide confidential support services to personnel.

In addition, a range of other support services are available to personnel and their families, including the personnel support service and the Inspire 24-7 helpline.

It is accepted, however, that further work needs to be done in this area. Extensive discussions have taken place in recent months on the terms of an independent review. This will examine the effectiveness of current policies and procedures for dealing with workplace issues such as dignity, bullying, harassment, sexual harassment and discrimination. As recently indicated by the Minister, the independent review will be conducted by independent and unbiased personnel. The draft terms of reference are being examined in light of the recent RTÉ programme, "Women of Honour". As the Senators may be aware, the Minister sought to meet the participants of the show, and he is very pleased they have accepted his invitation to meet them. A meeting will also take place this week between some of those participants and the Secretary General and senior officials in the Department of Defence. These meetings will provide an opportunity to hear the views of the women involved.

The Minister again urges those who may have suffered a serious wrong of a criminal nature, whether recent or historical, to report their concerns to An Garda Síochána, which has the lawful authority, skills and resources to investigate such matters. The Minister, the Government and the defence organisation are committed to providing a safe place of work for all employees. The proposed independent review and the outcome of the Commission on the Defence Forces, whose work is under way, will be important tools in fulfilling this commitment.

I very much welcome the fact there will be a meeting this week. Ultimately, those involved in "Women of Honour" will decide whether they are happy with the terms of reference and the review group that has been set up. We will take our lead from them, as I hope the Minister will as well. It is important to note that while the vast majority of the defence community love the organisation, they are disgusted and appalled by what they have heard, and they stand with those women, including all the representative organisations such as RACO, PDFORRA and RDFRA, which I hope will also be consulted and brought on board.

The power dynamic between a young recruit or cadet and somebody in a senior officer position is very unbalanced. What we heard in those stories was an abuse of that power, of authority and of rank. They have brought shame on the Defence Forces as an organisation and on those who have served and are still serving, and that needs to be addressed. We have to take our lead from the victims and ensure that whatever process is put in place is to their satisfaction, and then we will support it.

I would appreciate if the Minister of State could outline what specific support services he mentioned have been put in place. While I welcome the meetings that will take place between those involved in "Women of Honour" and the Secretary General and senior officials, it is important the issue of attempts by senior personnel to quash allegations of misconduct would also be discussed. What are Minister's intentions in regard to dealing with that?

I assure the Senators the Minister, the Government and the Defence Forces are committed to providing a safe place of work for all employees. It is important the Minister meets the programme's participants to listen to their views. I very much welcome that and take on board the points raised by the Senators in that regard. I reiterate that, irrespective of when such matters of a criminal nature may have occurred, the Minister has been clear in his advice that such serious allegations should be reported to An Garda Síochána, which has the powers and expertise to undertake the necessary investigations. I strongly urge anyone who may have been subject to any such alleged abuse or harassment to seek professional help and guidance, which is available from State agencies such as the HSE and from registered charities that specialise in this area.

To respond to Senator O'Loughlin, the designated contact persons within the Defence Forces are also available to support personnel. In addition, the personnel support service, PSS, within the Defence Forces assists members and their immediate family with the provision of information and advice on areas including stress management, counselling and referral options. I take on board the points raised by the Senators, and I am delighted to get the opportunity to have this matter aired in the House. I assure them of the process that lies ahead. It is important, in light of all the concerns raised, that the process concludes soon.

Transport Policy

I thank the Minister of State for attending the House. One of the reasons I bring up the concept of high-speed rail is that I have been a rail user for the past seven or eight years, commuting from Dundalk to Dublin. We have various issues with the rail infrastructure in this country. It is good to see a renewed focus from the Government in the programme for Government and in recent statements from the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and indeed the Minister for transport in Northern Ireland, Nichola Mallon, in relation to our all-island economy and a review of our all-island railway tracks.

Dublin to Belfast is about a two hour and ten minute journey, if you are going well. There are about eight direct trains between the two major cities on this island. For comparison, Liverpool to Manchester and Edinburgh to Glasgow are similar distances. They have up to 30 to 40 direct trains per day. What are the Government's plans for high-speed rail? How ambitious are we about introducing high-speed rail on this island? What do we see as some of the pitfalls of it? What lessons can we learn from high-speed rail on the Continent, in China, Japan and Spain? They have faced issues we can use and take into the report that is being launched by the Government. I am keen to know how long the all-island report announced in April by both Ministers will take.

As research and preparation for this Commencement debate, I spent the past day or so reading up on high-speed rail around the world. There are so many benefits. Clearly, there are environmental benefits. High-speed rail is comfortable, safe, flexible and, most important, gets people out of cars. It provides a safer transport alternative. The other issue is economic viability. The concept exists around the world that high-speed rail is a money pit but that is not the case. It has been profitable across the Continent and in Japan, which was the birthplace of high-speed rail in the 1960s. It creates jobs and provides a huge stimulus boost to local economies when it is being built. That is important to bear in mind. Naturally, there are energy savings associated with it.

By way of comparison, China has 26,800 km of high-speed rail, Spain has 3,100 km, Japan, 3,041 km, France, 3,220 km, and Germany, 3,038 km. High-speed rail provides a fast, reliable mode of transport. If we are to be serious about our climate commitments and the targets we have set for 2030 and 2050, high-speed rail has to play a part on this island. For me, that goes from Belfast, Dundalk, Dublin and then on to Cork. I would like an outline from the Minister of State and the Government of our views on high-speed rail, where we see it going and what we hope to achieve with it.

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, I thank the Senator for the opportunity to address this issue in the House.

The Government is committed to a fundamental change in the nature of transport in Ireland. As the Senator is no doubt aware, the Minister for Transport is a firm believer in the positive potential of increased and expanded sustainable transport options and the potential role for rail in that regard. The Minister has announced the all-island strategic rail review, which will be conducted in co-operation with Northern Ireland's Department for Infrastructure. This review will examine all aspects of interurban and inter-regional rail on the island of Ireland, including the Dublin to Belfast line. As committed to in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the review will consider the potential for high and higher speed rail across various corridors, including the Dublin to Belfast line, and examine how to improve regional rail connectivity. The review will also consider the potential for rail freight on the island and examine the rail networks' connections to our international gateways, ports and airports. Another area of particular focus for the review will be examining the potential of rail to better connect the north west with the rest of the island.

I am informed that the review has just commenced and will be completed by this time next year. I understand the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, Nichola Mallon, held a joint ministerial meeting with the consultants recently and both Ministers are hugely enthused about the review.

When completed, this review will provide the strategic backdrop to investment in our inter-urban and inter-regional rail network for the next 20 years or more and will be a hugely important piece of work. In the coming months, there will be a public consultation process as part of the review and I encourage everyone to make their voices heard during that process.

The review is not the only area in which Departments North and South are co-operating. As part of the development of the European Union's new PEACE PLUS programme, the Department of Transport, in co-operation with its northern colleagues in the Department for Infrastructure, submitted a proposal to expand and replace the existing Enterprise fleet on the Dublin to Belfast line. This is the largest single project included within the draft PEACE PLUS programme. Earlier this year, the Special EU Programmes Body proposed an indicative allocation of €165 million towards the project, which makes up almost 18% of the entire PEACE PLUS funding available over the period to 2027. The project will see the Enterprise fleet completely replaced and expanded and facilitate a move toward an hourly service, which I know will be welcomed by all who live along the route.

The final PEACE PLUS programme is yet to be approved by the European Commission. However, I understand there is optimism that the strong support shown from both Departments and the Special EU Programmes Body should assist with the project being included in the approved programme. The timelines of that programme mean that, if included, we should see the new and expanded fleet on the network by 2027.

I look forward to hearing the Senator's views on what I hope we can agree are exciting developments in the context of North-South transport infrastructure. The longer-term framework to be established by the all-island strategic rail review provides an opportunity for us collectively to develop a vision for rail's potential on this island, while the shorter-term investment planned in the new Enterprise fleet will enable more and more people to choose sustainable options when travelling between the two largest cities on the island.

That is a really excellent response from the Minister of State. I thank him for taking that to the House today. I will point out two things. We want to move towards an hourly service. That is exactly what we want to do and that is why it is so important that we have the review on inter-regional rail as well. For the Minister of State's constituency in north Dublin, the issue with the rail traffic coming from Belfast, Newry, Dundalk and Drogheda is the number of commuter trains that start in Laytown, Bettystown and Balbriggan. The problem is early morning commuter trains. Those commuter rails in the north Dublin and south Meath area block up the train line, which then slows down the intercity rail at the moment. It is, therefore, also about trying to resolve that issue in the wider context of this review. If we can resolve that, and one of the ways of doing so is through high-speed rail, it would make the issue easier for everyone involved.

The final point is that this is not just about providing faster commuter times from places like Dundalk or Drogheda into Dublin. It is about going the opposite way as well. We have very good companies and good jobs in the north east and if we can provide high-speed rail, we can attract people from Dublin out of our cities to live in our regions. That is the most important thing behind this whole debate.

I thank the Senator. Again, on behalf of my colleague, the Minister of Transport, I assure the Senator that the potential for high-speed rail between Belfast, Dundalk and Dublin will be fully considered as part of the strategic rail review. As mentioned earlier, rather uniquely, this strategic rail review will be conducted on an all-island basis, in full co-operation with our colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive, and will provide a holistic overview of the potential of rail, not just on this particular corridor but on the island. Importantly, it will also identify how we move our inter-urban and inter-regional rail services off fossil fuels and towards a decarbonised future, as we must, by 2050.

Having recently announced Arup as the successful consultant, work has now commenced on what promises to be a very important piece of work, and particularly so for the Belfast-Dundalk-Dublin rail corridor. The Senator should be assured that in the meantime, there will continue to be investment in the rail network on this corridor, be it through the previously referenced PEACE PLUS programme or indeed, the DART+ programme, which includes electrification of lines and services north of Dublin to Drogheda.

In conclusion, it should be noted that an important element of new projects in the years to come, including any developing of the Dublin to Belfast line and services, will, of course, be the revised allocations, as will be set out in the new national development plan. In this regard, a strategic rail review will act as an important framework to take the new projects forward in the year to come.

Rail Network

I thank the Minister of State for coming here today. I wish to discuss with him the DART+ west upgrade.

This is an extremely positive and essential project. It involves electrification of the line and an upgrade to the DART network which will bring services from the city centre to Maynooth, serving places such as Ashtown, Coolmine, Castleknock, Clonsilla and Hansfield. Capacity on the line will increase and the frequency of service will increase from six trains per hour to 12 trains per hour in each direction. Of course, it sets Dublin up as a sustainable city for housing development and economic development. It will also address the issue of the cost of congestion. The monetary value of the time lost to the economy is €350 million per annum and could increase to €2 billion by 2033.

There were reports last week of potential delays to MetroLink and DART+. I am seeking reassurance that the DART+ west project will go ahead as scheduled, that is, with capacity and frequency upgrades in 2025-27. That is really important.

Progress is not always straightforward and this project will involve the closure of level crossings. The report states that the closures are essential but it is very difficult for communities to potentially have parts of the community cut off by the closure of the level crossings or to have big infrastructure coming into the area and having an impact. As such, it has to be handled sensitively and transparently.

The first public consultation was held from 26 August to 21 October last year. That was in the middle of level 2 and level 3 restrictions. Only one of the areas that I engage with really mobilised as a community around those proposals because awareness of them was low and, of course, members of the community could not engage with each other. They did so under a cloud of stress. Of all the consultations I have engaged with, this was the one about which people were most stressed about because they were not allowed to meet or to knock on doors. The awareness generated by the leaflet was not very detailed and the devil is in the detail. How does one mobilise a team in those circumstances? The particular community to which I refer did so and two options were added post the consultation. That shows the importance of two-way engagement.

I was hoping that the importance of two-way engagement would be taken on board as part of the second public consultation. Unfortunately, it was launched during the summer. It started on 27 July and was to end at the beginning of September. The consultation period has been pushed out to 29 September but only because a lot of fuss was caused. The people who were not as involved in previous consultations may not have known that it was likely that the closing date would be pushed out, as has been the case for other public consultations. The Seanad is only just back from the summer recess and this is my first opportunity to raise this issue.

Many in the communities affected are relying on people who own businesses in the area, such as Ashtown Stables, to act on behalf of the communities. This is a community that is just getting to grips with the changes that are being proposed but the members of the public who attended a public consultation meeting that was arranged last week were muted, so there was no facility for engagement apart from chat. I cannot tell the Minister of State how that made people feel. Many people in the areas cannot use the Internet to access information and they cannot meet up in the way they are used to doing. The consultation took place during the summer holidays and now they were muted for the second extended consultation. I would value the thoughts of the Minister of State on that.

I thank the Senator on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for the opportunity to address this issue in the House. The DART+ programme will transform rail services in the greater Dublin area. It will double capacity and introduce DART-level all-day services across the network, stretching from Drogheda in the north to Maynooth and Hazelhatch in the west, with improvements also planned on the coastal line. It is important to note that the overall DART+ programme is made up of several projects, each at different stages of development and moving at different speeds.

There are five major projects - DART+ west, DART+ south west, DART+ coastal north, DART+ coastal south and DART+ fleet. Of the various projects, DART+ west and DART+ fleet are the most advanced.

There are two key impending milestones. First, there is the Government's approval of the preliminary business case and, second, there is the submission of a railway order application in respect of DART+ west. On the first milestone, I understand the Department of Transport has received a preliminary business case and that the preliminary business case is under review, as required by the public spending code. For major projects such as DART+ the public spending code requires a Government decision and the Minister for Transport expects to bring the matter to the Government for its decision in the fourth quarter. If approved by the Government, that will allow the contracts to be signed in respect of DART+ fleet and will also allow DART+ west move into the statutory planning system, subject to the completion of the necessary planning and environmental documentation. The second impending milestone is the submission of the railway order application. As I mentioned, that application requires the finalisation of an extensive set of documentation, including environmental impact assessment reports. That work is ongoing.

In addition, Iarnród Éireann has been engaging with communities and stakeholders as part of the non-statutory public consultation process to better inform the development of DART+ west. Issues raised during this consultation process need to be fully considered by the company and appropriately addressed. This can take some time to complete. Following the first non-statutory consultation process on the emerging preferred route, Iarnród Éireann used the feedback received from citizens and public representatives to inform the design process for the preferred option, which is currently subject to another round of public consultation. I understand particular issues have been raised as part of this round of public consultation which will require further consideration by Iarnród Éireann before it will be ready to finalise the railway order. I am informed that the public consultation process is continuing to the end of this month. After that, Iarnród Éireann will reflect on the issues raised and consider an appropriate response.

These consultation processes have been held online as, obviously, they have had to adjust to the Covid restrictions imposed upon society over the last 18 months or so. There are those, including the Senator, who say online consultation is no substitute for in-person events. The Senator may well have a point, but the alternative would have been to postpone all progress on the project. I do not believe people were advocating that. However, I will refer the Senator's specific point regarding the inability to interact fully on the online forums to the Minister. Once a railway order application is made there will be further opportunities for citizens, public representatives and stakeholders to make their views known during the statutory planning process.

Projects such as DART+ are transformative because of the change they will introduce to our lives and I assure the Senator that this Government believes in properly and positively communicating that change to citizens and communities. I encourage everyone to participate fully in these consultation processes and in the later railway order process.

This is about having confidence in the process. I agree that the restrictions meant that changes had to be made to the process. Irish Rail showed that it was listening to the concerns of Coolmine after the first consultation process. Although that has not solved all the problems, it has got us to this point. However, this is serious. People do not just want to know that one has listened, but also that one is listening. If there is a visible mute and a person is muted in a meeting where there should be engagement, that gives all the wrong messages.

The cost of making a submission on the railway order is €50. If this goes through in the planning application as part of the railway order, the community has to pay €50 for a submission. That is a huge amount of money. At present, the community is leading this, such as the people in Ashtown Stables, Navan Road Community Council and the community of Coolmine. It is too much pressure at a stressful point in everyone's lives, coming through Covid, during Covid and after Covid. The best thing to do is to extend this by another month and engage with them properly. If it is possible to do something similar to BusConnects, where there is a room that people can visit under Covid restrictions, with people fully vaccinated and managing the numbers, that might be a way to regain the confidence of this community.

I believe we can all agree on the importance of DART+ and the importance of improved and expanded public transport generally. DART+ represents the largest ever investment in our rail infrastructure and services.

The Minister for Transport will soon bring a memorandum to Government seeking approval for that programme to enable it to move forward to the next decision gate under the public spending code. This will be a significant step forward. Along with DART+ fleet, DART+ west is the most advanced element of the programme and the Minister will seek Government approval for it to enter the planning system. DART+ west is fundamentally important to the overall programme and is the key enabler of the rest of DART+. This is why I ask all interested parties to engage with the ongoing public consultation process to inform and be informed as regards the preferred option.

Once the current public consultation process is over, Iarnród Éireann will consider the views expressed by citizens and public representatives before it finalises its railway order application. With DART+ fleet at an advanced stage and the progression of DART+ west ongoing, the benefits of the overall programme, particularly as regards the capacity and availability of DART services, will soon be evident to all. In advance of the Maynooth line, train users will start to benefit from 2023 from the arrival of new carriages to the existing fleet, which will also be warmly welcomed by residents in the area.

I look forward to seeing the DART+ programme progress in the coming years in respect of the development of and the progressing of DART+ west as much as, I am sure, the Minister and the Senator do. I will bring her specific request in respect of public consultation directly to the Minister.

Water Pollution

I wish to raise the contamination of the water supplies at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace recently. The Minister of State will be aware of the report of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which was quite damning of the failures of the relevant authorities. What is particularly important is the need to restore public trust in our public water supply.

I will refer to the incidents in Gorey because I experienced them. From engaging with people in the local community, I know exactly what happened. It is now clear that between 19 and 24 August, following a systems failure at the Creagh water treatment plant in Gorey, contaminants entered the water and in subsequent days, significant numbers of people became ill. We understand that there can be systems failures but the difficulty in this instance was that as the illnesses began to be reported to Irish Water and Wexford County Council and as a number of local councillors and I also began to report them, we kept being told by the relevant authorities that there was no problem, the water was safe and there was no issue. We placed our trust in those agencies, yet, at the same time, we knew the evidence on the ground was mounting. It was clear it was coming from the western side of town, which was serviced by the Creagh plant. We knew from local GPs and hospitals. Pharmacies were selling out of Imodium tablets. We knew the stories were mounting. It was only towards the end of August and into early September that there was finally an acknowledgement that there was a problem. We have heard the reports about the 52 people who presented to GPs and hospitals but that does not capture the full story. These people are family and friends. There are people with whom I grew up and whom I know well who were seriously ill during this period, including pregnant women, a father and husband who is undergoing chemotherapy, elderly and vulnerable people who were simply coming for family dinner at various houses and people who had cramps and were vomiting and passing blood, which are the most horrible of experiences. I have been talking to people who have been experiencing all of this.

There were people who, on the basis they were told there was no problem with the water, went and got Covid tests, assuming that they had Covid. There was a period when people were being told the water was fine and there was no problem. Subsequently we discovered there was a case. While the systems failure was bad, the failure in communications was particularly appalling. The difficulty now for those of us who, for a long time, have defended agencies on the basis that we place our trust in professionals is that the trust is not there. What happened in Gorey could happen in any other part of the country.

We have met the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. In fairness to him, he seized the issue and has ordered a review of all of the plants. There is now a serious question on the lack of public trust in our public water supply, certainly in the Gorey area, and how Irish Water and local authorities manage this. I am particularly concerned as more powers are going to be transferred to Irish Water that if instances such as this arise in the future what level of accountability we as elected representatives will have from this utility. This is something about which there is still considerable anger in my community. I certainly hope it would never be experienced by any other local area.

I thank Senator Byrne for his Commencement matter on this very important issue. In a letter to the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage last week, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, outlined two serious incidents in recent weeks that occurred in drinking water plants. These were in the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant which serves parts of Dublin city, and the plant that serves Gorey in County Wexford, as the Senator referenced. In the case of Gorey, the incident included illnesses detected by the HSE in the community served by that water supply. It is important to note these incidents have been rectified and the water supply from the two plants is now safe to drink.

In its letter, the EPA stated an abject failure in management oversight, operational control and responsiveness at two public water treatment plants had allowed unsafe water to enter the public drinking water supply and endanger public health. As the Senator quite rightly pointed out, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the Government find the failures identified by the EPA unacceptable. People's safety is paramount. Following receipt of the letter, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, met the managing director of Irish Water as well as the chief executives of Dublin City Council and Wexford County Council at the weekend. The Minister has requested that Irish Water immediately undertake an audit of water treatment plants throughout the country. It will prioritise the largest 20 treatment plants, visiting each of them to ensure proper processes are in place to deal with and escalate any incident that may arise. This is key to having public confidence in our water treatment plants.

Irish Water's managing director and the local authority chief executives assured the Minister of their full co-operation and that their organisations would work together in full co-operation to put in place any urgent and necessary corrective measures. Irish Water will work with each local authority in the coming two weeks to conduct refresher training on incident reporting for all plants throughout the country. Where appropriate, Irish Water will put its own staff on site to ensure the continued safety of water treatment plants.

Ultimately there are limitations to the current working arrangements between Irish Water and local authorities and this is impacting on the delivery of services. One of the first initiatives the Minister advanced on taking office was to develop a Government policy paper on the steps required to transform Irish Water into a proper unified national utility. A process is under way with the Workplace Relations Commission to deliver transformation of this service. The Minister has also requested that Irish Water and local authorities take further steps to improve Irish Water's control of all water service plants in the immediate term pending the implementation of the agreed longer-term operational and staffing arrangements. On 4 October, the Minister will again meet Irish Water and local authorities on this very question.

I thank the Minister of State, who is aware that reports will come quite soon from the HSE on the scale of the medical problems that arose in the course of this period. We know that at least 52 cases have been reported but there may be more. I hope the report will be published as quickly as possible.

It would be appropriate at that time for the Minister of State or the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, to come to the House to discuss the report's findings.

I was on "Morning Ireland" on RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday and I heard the chief executive of Irish Water respond on the matter. There seems to be an effort there to try to shift some of the blame to Wexford County Council. I have spoken with the chief executive of the council and I hope there is no effort to shift the blame to Irish Water. The affected people want full accountability and a full explanation of exactly what happened and why, when all the evidence was mounting, their voices were not heard properly. They also want to know the measures being put in place. That report from the HSE should be published as quickly as possible and either the Minister of State or the Minister should come to this House to present both that report and the findings of the full review of the audit of all the water plants around the country. That would restore confidence.

I thank the Senator for his comments and for, quite rightly, pointing out the difficulties in this matter. I agree with him on the question of transparency and when the report is delivered it should be scrutinised by these Houses. I also mentioned the importance of people having confidence in our water supply and I can assure the House that everything is being done through this audit to ensure those processes are in place.

I also agree with the Senator about the chief executive of Wexford County Council. I have heard great reports about him and I know the local authority sector is doing major work in responding to many issues. We have witnessed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic how that sector has protected the most vulnerable people in getting community calls up and running within 24 or 48 hours. It was incredible work.

I am sure we can all work together with Irish Water and the Wexford and Dublin chief executives and their organisations. We will resolve this. That commitment is firm because public confidence and safety is paramount when it comes to our watercourses.

Childcare Sector

It is nice to see the Minister and I thank him for coming in. He will recall that last year I thought we had a good exchange on the crisis in the childcare sector and the urgent need to address overall funding and particular funding directed to worker wages in that sector. Currently, it costs parents €186 per week per child in childcare, which is a shocking amount. At the same time we have the worst-paid childcare workers in Europe. It equates to the most expensive childcare and the worst-paid workers in Europe.

Right now 55% of early years assistants are paid just €11.91 per hour. We can compare that with Germany, where rates vary between €18 and €30. In the Netherlands, the rate is €26 and, in France, it is €19. We are consistently bottom of the league when it comes to childcare. I commend the Big Start coalition, which comprises my union, SIPTU and a host of other actors, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Association of Childhood Professionals, the National Women's Council of Ireland and others. They have come together to address this matter.

This is my sixth year before a budget standing up to demand action on childcare, particularly for front-line childcare workers. The most recent survey from the Big Start coalition makes one thing clear, and it is something on which we disagreed last year. The Minister told me the sector was not in crisis but it most definitely is. The most extensive survey yet by the Big Start coalition tells us that right now the turnover rate is 40%. We can think about the impact that is having on the quality of childcare. A total of 44% of workers said they will not work in the sector for long and they are actively looking to leave. Worse than that, 80% have said that unless things change in the next year, they will leave as well. Let us make no mistake but that the sector is in crisis. Right now, unfortunately, there are crèches working below the required minimum staffing ratio. There are crèches that are, unfortunately, hiring staff that are not qualified. That is the extent of the crisis happening right now.

The good news, which I acknowledge, is that the Minister has been engaged in setting up what I hope will be a joint labour committee, JLC.

That is crucial and the Minister mentioned that to me last year. I want to understand something about this budget. Some six years on from me raising this issue and ten years on from the start of that campaign, is the Government going to deliver for childcare workers and is the Minister going to ensure not only that the JLC is set up for these workers but that adequate funding is in place? The asks are simple and I ask the Minister to confirm that the Government will meet these asks in the upcoming budget. The ask is that we lift all childcare workers out of the range of being paid below a living wage. That is an easy task to accomplish. It will cost €75 million.

At the same time, it is also imperative that the Government cuts the cost of childcare for hard-pressed parents. The ask from SIPTU is for €75 million to cut the cost of childcare by just €35 per week. That is a reasonable request in these circumstances. I was chatting to colleagues in the Council of Europe last week and they told me how childcare operates across the rest of Europe, where the state steps in, there is a national model of childcare and the average cost to parents is as little as €150 to €200 per month. We are paying that amount per week. We urgently need action.

The key point is that I hope the Minister will be able to tell us that he will deliver this year. I know he has put some of the building blocks in place but we need to see a JLC set up and we need to see childcare workers being able to negotiate their own pay and conditions, including sick pay. The Minister should not forget that so many of these workers have to suffer the indignity of signing on every summer. Let us bring that to an end. We have waited too long already. I am hoping that the Minister will give me positive news ahead of this year's budget and the negotiations the Government has had already and that the Government will deliver for childcare workers across this State.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue, which my Department is monitoring on an ongoing basis and through formal reviews. The level of pay in the sector does not reflect the value of the work that early learning and care and school-age childcare practitioners do for children, families, society and our economy. I am doing all that is in my power to address this issue.

However, as the Senator knows, my Department is not the employer, it does not set wage rates and it does not determine working conditions for staff working in the sector. That said, my Department has, over a number of years, provided a range of supports to service providers to enable them to improve wages and working conditions. These include a year-on-year increase in State funding, higher capitation payment rates for graduates working in the sector and support for school-age childcare to make it easier for providers to offer full-time and full-year employment contracts. The most recent published data from Pobal indicate that the average hourly wage in the sector was €12.45 in 2020, which was 4% higher than in the previous year. However, I am also aware that there is considerable variation in wages in the sector, and approximately 56% of early learning and care practitioners earned less than €12.30 per hour in 2020. As we know and as the Senator referenced, many such practitioners work part-time or on temporary contracts.

In order to see how we can address this, last December, working in conjunction with SIPTU and Childhood Services Ireland, which is an IBEC trade association, I began a short process in which interested parties were invited to discuss how best to address pay and conditions in the sector and how a JLC might support this. I appointed Dr. Kevin Duffy, former chair of the Labour Court, to be the independent chair of this process. Dr. Duffy made a clear recommendation that the JLC was the way forward. On foot of Dr. Duffy's report, I wrote to the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy English, recommending the establishment of a JLC. At the end of June, the Minister of State, Deputy English, signed the establishment order for a JLC for the early years sector. I see that as a significant and welcome development. That move has been welcomed by both employers and the trade unions in the sector. In addition to the JLC process, and following two years of in-depth work, an expert group is due to report this November with recommendations for a new funding model which will structure investment to deliver on the objectives of affordability, quality, inclusion and sustainability. The expert group's recommendations may offer new avenues through which the State can support service providers to improve pay and to meet the requirements of any future employment regulation order that may arise from the JLC, as well as addressing the issue of parental fees, which the Deputy focused on.

We discussed the question of sick pay last year. The best approach is the one the Government is taking in terms of a worker-wide approach to the issue of sick pay. As the Senator knows, on 9 June this year the Tánaiste announced details of the Government's plan to introduce legislation to give all workers the right to paid sick leave.

It is to start next year with three days, and this is to increase to five days in 2023 and seven in 2024. That is a positive step for this sector, but also for all workers.

Childcare is a priority for me in my engagement on the budget this year. My officials and I were engaging very significantly with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this particular issue. Obviously, as the Senator knows, I cannot tell him the outcomes of my engagements here today but the priority is a key one for me. I have met the Big Start coalition. I have had significant engagement with SIPTU on this issue, which I believe it would recognise, but all of this is subject to a budgetary process of which we are still very much in the middle.

I thank the Minister. I acknowledge that it is a good, positive response from him. It is really important to acknowledge when Ministers engage fully and sincerely with workers and their representatives. I acknowledge that the Minister has done that.

Let me outline my key ask. The Minister has put the building blocks in place. A joint labour committee is essential. That is how we address the issue of low pay in the sector in a way that allows for the establishment of a floor in terms of wages and decency for the very first time. The key negotiation now for the Minister is with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance. I put it to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth very directly that he has to deliver. All the work he has done is significant but if the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is going to say "Not this year, not this time", it will be too late for the workers in question, who have already waited too long. I am aware the Minister said addressing this is his top priority, and I believe him in respect of that, but he needs to deliver because there will be no hiding place for the workers at the front line in the sector if he does not deliver on this budget.

I hope we can continue to grow the very significant amount of investment the State already puts into childcare. We have to remember that €638 million is going into the sector right now, plus the supports-----

Bottom of the league in Europe.

-----we are providing in the context of the employment wage subsidy scheme, in respect of which, as the Senator knows, I was able to negotiate a sector-wide exemption. The Senator is absolutely right, however, that we are not putting enough into childcare as a country. We started investing in childcare only ten years ago. Those countries that the Senator rightly makes a comparison with identified years ago, as part of their social model, the importance of childcare. That has happened only recently in Ireland. Therefore, we are running to catch up from a standing start. Previous Ministers have brought us to a position where we have €638 million. I want to ensure that future investment is giving us outcomes, those outcomes being better wages for those in the sector, affordability for parents and quality. That the expert group on the funding model will be reporting in the coming months will give us a mechanism for achieving these.

Sitting suspended at 3.48 p.m. and resumed at 4.05 p.m.