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Seanad Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 9 Nov 2021

Vol. 280 No. 1

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Coast Guard Service

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. There was a considerable amount of shock across County Clare when the announcement came last week that the Coast Guard at Doolin was to be stood down, effectively, or as is referred to in the business as "off the board". That has upset many people, particularly those whose loved ones have required the services of the Doolin Coast Guard. It is one of the best known coastguards not just in County Clare but right across the country because it has had such a high profile in search and rescue operations on so many occasions. Sadly, it has also played its part in recovering the bodies of people who have ended their lives off the Cliffs of Moher. It is really a difficult and sad position.

We understand there were some internal human resources issues within the group. That is not any different from any organisation, office or business, and of course issues will arise between people. It is really the job of management, specifically at the national level in the Coast Guard, to address such an issue. Efforts have been made along the way and, unfortunately, they have not been good enough to resolve the problem. If this happened in the private sector, the matter would be resolved and brought to a head.

I appeal to the Minister of State to involve at the earliest possible opportunity some independent external expert in human resources to try to find a resolution. Standing the operation down and suggesting the Coast Guard based at the Aran Islands or some other location will fill the void is just not feasible. There are currently 12 volunteers on the base and perhaps there is a way to get them up and running as a service. They certainly have the capacity to do some of the work. I do not want to be prescriptive but the Minister of State and the Department must intervene and bring in an external and independent expert. I hope such an expert could meet willingness on both sides to engage.

Other efforts are being made and we must be careful in this respect. I appeal to the Minister of State to address this at the earliest possible opportunity.

I also welcome the Minister of State to the House. I agree there was shock and sadness in the whole of County Clare last week when we heard the news the Doolin Coast Guard was to be stood down. Much progress had been made, with Doolin getting a pier and a first-class and state-of-the-art rescue centre a number of years ago with the efforts of the now Tánaiste, Deputy Leo Varadkar. The equipment is good and the facilities are excellent. Unfortunately, this problem has been bubbling for some time and it must be resolved.

There is no other way around it but for it to be resolved and it will require the intervention of the Minister and the Department. There is no faith in the Coast Guard directly resolving this problem and, to a large extent, the Coast Guard is seen as part of the problem. As urgently as possible, the Minister must appoint an independent mediator to go to Doolin and engage with all parties because all of the parties involved have worked hard. Some of the past and serving members have given most of their volunteering lives to the Doolin Coast Guard, rescuing many people and recovering many bodies.

We owe it to those people who have volunteered, both in the past and present, to resolve the matter. We owe it to the people they have rescued. We owe it to the families of the loved ones whose bodies have been recovered and brought home by the Doolin Coast Guard. We owe it to the people of County Clare and those who visit the county.

Most of all, we owe it to the people who use the coast to give them confidence that the superb Doolin Coast Guard is there if they get into trouble when fishing, surfing or swimming. When people get into difficulty, there is great confidence that the Doolin Coast Guard has the expertise and experience to come to their rescue. They have the equipment, determination and focus. There is a problem there and it is up to the Government to resolve it.

I thank the Senators for raising this issue. The temporary standing down of the Doolin Coast Guard unit operation is a proportionate response, having regard to significant ongoing attempts by the Coast Guard to address the unfortunate differences that have existed within the unit for a number of years and their impact on the unit. However, attempts to resolve the situation to date have not been successful and I believe there is a role for an independent person or mediator to be appointed to the Doolin unit with a view to resolving the difficulties. I intend to meet with officials in my Department shortly to discuss the next steps in the appointment of such a person. To be clear on the rationale for the action of standing down the Doolin unit, the key objective is to ensure the safety of the volunteers.

The action is being taken in compliance with search and rescue assurance obligations set out in the national search and rescue plan and I have been advised that contingency plans are in place. I am in regular contact with Department officials on this matter. As Senators know, the Inis Oírr Coast Guard unit, which falls under the direct management of the Doolin unit, shall continue to remain fully operational and in the interim, the Coast Guard is liaising with other search and rescue stakeholders in the area to provide full cover for services that otherwise would be provided by the Doolin unit. The Coast Guard is currently deploying various contingencies based on an assessment of risk within the area and, in particular, Kilkee and Killaloe Coast Guard units. All other Coast Guard units, shoreline and cliff rescue services remain in place, along with the four search and rescue Coast Guard helicopters. The RNLI community rescue boats and the Naval Service will continue to assist, particularly in those areas of greatest risk until the issue has been resolved.

Doolin Coast Guard unit is unique compared with the majority of units in the country in that it has had several years of significantly unresolved, internal, interpersonal difficulties. The Coast Guard and my Department have taken these unfortunate differences between the Doolin unit volunteers extremely seriously and have consistently met and engaged with the Doolin unit over the past number of years to try to assist in the repair of the breakdown in relationships that has occurred within the unit. A review was conducted in 2019 by an independent human resources company to examine and consider the root causes. Follow-up actions have included dignity and respect training for the Doolin unit, the facilitation of group and one-to-one sessions with the Irish Coast Guard, IRCG, management and the Doolin unit members. An intensive support package was also put in place with coastal unit sector managers to monitor and assist in supervising the situation. The Coast Guard also very much acknowledges and recognises the strenuous efforts and leadership displayed by many members of the Doolin unit, its management and other stakeholders to address these difficulties. I assure members that the Coast Guard is committed to supporting the 900 volunteers who helped to provide the important life-saving service of the IRCG and ongoing consultation with the volunteers is key.

The Coast Guard volunteers have for some time had a representative body called the Coastal Unit Advisory Group, which represents Irish Coast Guard volunteers and provides advice and input to the Coast Guard under agreed terms of reference between management and volunteers. I intend to meet with the Coastal Unit Advisory Group this week. I am also open to meeting other volunteers.

In 2018, the Coast Guard completed a review of the volunteer code of conduct. This review was conducted with independent, expert input from a human resource consultancy in order to ensure that Coast Guard processes and procedures were fair and fit for purpose for an organisation of its type. The review also involved a consultation process with the volunteers which was managed by the Coastal Unit Advisory Group. That group has also been reviewed with a refreshed structure and terms of reference. My key focus is to ensure we have a process that works and that the concerns of the volunteers are heard and addressed at the highest level.

I thank the Minister of State. That is as good a response as Senator Conway, Senator Garvey, who is in the Chair and whom I know is committed to addressing this issue, and I could have got. On the Minister of State's commitment regarding the appointment of an independent arbitrator, since it is not just a question of the issues at the station and since it involves the wider issue in the context of the Coast Guard, I ask her to consider appointing as mediator Mr. Kieran Mulvey, who has shown a phenomenal capacity to resolve many disputes over the years, including, most recently, a dispute concerning staff in the Irish Aviation Authority. I ask the Minister of State and her Department to consider Mr. Mulvey's name in this regard. I do not know whether he would be available. I have not spoken to him on this occasion so it would be a bolt from the blue for him. The development on mediation is welcome. The Acting Chairman, Senator Conway and I certainly welcome it.

I concur that Mr. Mulvey is certainly a name that one would hope would attract a lot of support and agreement. Regardless of the mediator appointed, I very much welcome the Minister of State's commitment to appoint one. The mediator has to be independent of the Coast Guard because the representative organisation operates under the auspices of the Coast Guard and all the HR staff hired to deal with this were paid for by the Coast Guard. This matter needs to be addressed by the Department. The Coast Guard must not have anything to do with it because its role has been the nub of why a resolution has not been found to date. I ask the Minister of State to ensure that the arrangement will be independent of the Coast Guard in the first instance. Second, she might give us a timeline as to when she hopes to meet her officials and make an announcement on the appointment of a mediator.

It is important to acknowledge that the units continue to actively recruit members from within their communities. They are very keen to enrol volunteers. Once enrolled, volunteers enter a training programme to assist their communities with the search-and-rescue response. In the past two years, there has been no exception. Despite the challenge of Covid, units have been able to enrol new members and advance existing team members in key training requirements.

The number of volunteer grievance cases remains low. They represent less than 0.5% of the total volunteer cadre. Given the number of volunteers, amounting to over 900 in total, the percentage is very low by comparison with that in similar organisations. I assure the Senators that it is my priority, and that of the Coast Guard and Department, to ensure Doolin Coast Guard unit will be returned to operational readiness as quickly as practicable. A plan is being put in place to ensure this. There is a role for an independent person or mediator to be appointed to the Doolin unit to resolve the difficulties. I intend to progress that as a matter of priority. I will also be continuing to engage with volunteers.

As a north Clare woman, I have been inundated with calls on this matter. The Minister of State understands the enormity of the issue. I acknowledge completely that she, the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and their Department have offered support at every level. There was no shortage of funding for training or mediation. It has not worked to date, unfortunately. This is a serious conflict-resolution issue in respect of which we need to bring in experts on conflict resolution. We have to find a way. The individuals concerned are adults. We need to get adults to start adulting in order that we can move forward and get this Coast Guard unit back up and running.

Covid-19 Pandemic

I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter. We had hoped the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media would be able to do so, but I understand her Department has provided a written reply.

With the vaccination rate at such a high level, it is clear there is a strong appetite among people to get on with living their lives as safely, but as fully, as possible. While many of us are looking at the increasing Covid numbers, or the trend over recent weeks, with a degree of trepidation, there are many who do so with the determination to ensure those working in hospitality, including musicians and staff in pubs, restaurants and nightclubs, will get an opportunity to eke out a livelihood again. The prospect of their having to remain out of work for any longer than they have had to cannot be countenanced.

In the past few weeks, new regulations were introduced to allow for the reopening of the night-time economy. The roller-coaster that the nightlife sector has been put on indicates a shambolic approach. Time and again, we have seen a failure to engage in contingency planning for the various Covid scenarios.

I am not here, however, to go over what has happened but to ask about the review of the guidelines introduced on October 22. A commitment was given then to review the situation within three weeks. We wish to know if that review will commence this Friday, who is going to conduct it, what its scope will be and when its findings are expected to be published. I have talked to nightclub operators, DJs, promoters and bar owners and the key issue that keeps arising is when will they be included in the conversation about the safe operation of their sector. This is important because many of the regulations introduced on 22 October cannot be complied with and are unenforceable. What respect and trust are being shown to this sector? The operators are seeking this review because they want to be able to have some input into the process that will determine how their sector will continue to trade and to survive this winter.

It is important to acknowledge that we have had a trend over several years, in Dublin but also around the country, where we have seen the closure of pubs and nightclubs and we cannot afford to exacerbate that longer-term problem. The operators also want to have a level playing pitch. Again, we have seen coverage in recent days of the patchiness with which vaccination certificates are being requested at certain premises and also of where they are not being requested at all. Operators want to have an input into this process because they want to demonstrate that their sector is safe. Frustratingly, from what I have seen and from what I have been told by those I have spoken to in the sector, we had much media and PR coverage of the pilot opening of nightclubs conducted on 30 September. Antigen testing was used at that pilot event, but since then, however, we have heard nothing about what was learned from the pilot opening. Interestingly, suggestions about using antigen testing at nightclubs seem to have disappeared off the radar.

The other critical reason that we need to see the detail of this review is because community dance halls hosting social and big band dances believe their model of operation is going to be decimated because they are now being forced to sell tickets in advance to allow people to gain access. It totally goes against the grain of how they operate. To summarise, I would like to hear the concrete detail about how this review will be conducted, when we are going to see it published and who will be involved in that process.

I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin. In its decision of 19 October 2021, the Government agreed that the remaining areas of the hospitality, entertainment and night-time economy would reopen with the full range of protective measures in place and the wide and robust implementation of the Covid-19 pass. This represents an important next step towards the full reopening of our economy and society. As we move forward, however, it is more critical than ever to ensure that we are doing everything we can to minimise opportunities for the transmission of the virus.

The night-time and live entertainment sectors have been particularly hard hit during this pandemic. The Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, and her officials have been engaging with the various sectors to address some of the challenges faced during the past 20 months, in the run-up to the Government decision and also following it. The extensive stakeholder engagement has resulted in the production of an updated set of guidelines entitled, Updated Guidelines for Nightlife and Entertainment, to provide for the safe operation of the sector as Covid-19 is still circulating in our communities. Tourism and hospitality sectoral guidelines, aligned with the Work Safely protocol, have also been developed collaboratively to assist businesses to apply the guidance to their operations. The guidelines are informed by the latest Government public health advice and regulations carefully tailored to specific tourism and hospitality sectors. The operational guidelines aim to support business owners and management every step of the way as they work to stabilise and recover.

The guidance, which is updated regularly, contains a range of advice on areas including ventilation, hygiene, management structures and face coverings. As we are still in the middle of a pandemic, and in light of the epidemiological situation which has emerged over recent weeks, it is imperative that we carefully manage reopening. There will inevitably be nuances and differences in how we do things.

The Department of the Taoiseach hosted a meeting today with the hospitality and live events sector. That was attended by officials from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Health. It has been emphasised in advance of that meeting and continuously that their co-operation is critical if we are to avoid a further deterioration in the epidemiological situation. This was emphasised strongly again today, and it is clear that the sectors' representative groups are very conscious of their role in driving compliance and reinforcing the behaviours that will help to keep us all safe. Today's meeting provides a very important context for the three-week review that was signalled at the outset, and we will continue to engage with the sector bilaterally after the meeting as part of that review process. The review will, of course, be critically informed by the wider public health situation. In addition, official engagements will take place this week with the live entertainment sector. Subsequent to that, an update will be provided for consideration by Cabinet colleagues.

The Government's aim has been to allow as many businesses as possible to reopen in the safest possible way. This is why we need certain regulations in place as well as robust guidance to assist businesses to reopen safely and, importantly, to stay open. Central to these guidelines is a commitment to adhere to best practice in infection prevention control measures, which are necessary to protect individuals and society, and to support our continued progress towards a full return to operation of various sectors. Compliance with these measures should not be considered best practice but rather the minimum standard required to protect our communities. Individual businesses need to risk-assess proactively their premises to calibrate mitigating measures in a bespoke way for their business.

We know that countries across the world are working through the challenges of reopening society while the pandemic continues. These countries are all different and the way they develop their reopening plans will be different from ours. We have to try to balance a welcome reopening of businesses with the protection of public health.

I have run out of time. The rest of the reply is in the written statement circulated in the Chamber.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit. The question was what the scope of the review will be, who will conduct it and when we will see it. Unfortunately, we have not heard from the Department today an answer to any of those questions. We hear there will be bilateral engagement and that the Cabinet will be updated. To be frank, whoever wrote this script was trying to lecture those of us who take the nightlife sector very seriously. The sector takes its responsibilities very seriously in opening as safely as possible in the context of this pandemic. That does not need to be said. What it needs to be clear on, however, is that it will be involved in the review, that there will be an outcome to the review and that it will not be an interminable process with no detail. I ask the Minister of State to relay back to the Department that there is a failure to answer the questions we have sought in this regard.

I will relay the Senator's comments back to the Department and see if it can give her any more information on that review. I will certainly pass on the Senator's comments to the Minister and the Department.

I thank the Minister of State for coming in to take the Commencement matters. We appreciate her time.

Electoral Process

I thank the Cathaoirleach's office for choosing this Commencement matter.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan.

The census was due to be held this year but, of course, it has been postponed because of Covid-19. It is now due to be held on 3 April 2022. In April of this year, the Central Statistics Office estimated the population at 5.01 million. This means that the population has risen above 5 million for the first time since the 1851 census, when the comparable population was 5.11 million, or more than 6.6 million for the island as a whole. Some of the reasons for the increase in population are more Irish nationals returning to live here, with 7,300 more than those who left, and births exceeding deaths by some 22,800 in the year ending April 2021.

With population changes come the dreaded boundary revisions and reviews. This can exercise voters. When county boundaries are breached, in the case of Dáil elections, people feel disenfranchised as has happened previously in Leitrim, Carlow, Cavan and Tipperary and as is happening at present in Meath, Mayo, Donegal, Roscommon, Laois and another part of Tipperary.

It is speculated that on foot of population changes, a constituency boundary commission will established and that it may report in 2023 in advance of a possible general election in 2024 or 2025. Will the Minister of State advise on timelines for this, when a Dáil commission might be established and when it might report? What are his views regarding the breaches of county boundaries, which are particularly worrying and annoying for many constituents when small numbers of district electoral divisions, DEDs, are excluded from the county and put in with a larger county or set of counties?

Considering that the next local elections and European Parliament elections will take place in 2024, does the Minister of State feel that there will be insufficient time to hold a boundary review of council electoral areas in advance? Is it his view that there would be a boundary review in advance of the next local elections or would the timeline be too short for that? I am not urging one way or the other, but as the Minister of State is aware, politicians like to know what the boundaries would be. What is the view regarding the number of seats in the EU Parliament? Ireland currently holds 13 seats. Is this set in stone for the new elections to the Parliament in 2024?

For sitting politicians and would-be candidates for parties and for Independents, having advance or timely notice of these things is extremely important for their campaigns in the context of boundaries and configurations. Timely decisions are hugely beneficial to all in terms of preparation. I would appreciate a response on this issue, which perhaps might not exercise the general population a huge amount but which is extremely important for politicians in the context of their jobs and plans over the coming years.

I agree. This is an important issue, certainly politically for candidates but also for the right of constituents to exercise their vote in their areas and DEDs. It is critically important.

Article 16 of the Constitution sets out clearly and distinctly the overarching requirements that apply to the membership of Dáil Éireann. In addition, and complementary to the constitutional provisions of Article 16.2 in particular, Part Il of the Electoral Act 1997, as amended, provides for a review of Dáil and European Parliament constituencies following each census of population and establishes, among other things, the terms of reference for a constituency commission in respect of the undertaking of such reviews.

In very broad terms, the publication of preliminary census results triggers the establishment of a constituency commission under section 5(1) of the Electoral Act 1997 with the commission required, under section 9(1) of that Act, to present its report on Dáil and European Parliament constituencies to the chairman of the Dáil within three months of publication of final census results.

This will be undertaken in compliance with our constitutional requirements and will be completed in accordance with the statutory timeframe currently set out under the Electoral Act 1997.

Unlike the position for Dáil and European Parliament constituencies, there is no constitutional or legislative requirement for the revision of local electoral areas at a particular point in time, such as following the publication of preliminary or final census results. Nonetheless, section 23 of the Local Government Act 2001, as amended, empowers the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage to divide a local authority area into local electoral areas and to amend those areas. In advance of deciding to make an order under section 23 of that Act, the Minister must in accordance with the provisions of Part 5 of the Local Government Act 1991, as amended, request a boundary committee to make a report having regard to such matters as may be specified by the Minister. The Minister must publish the report of the boundary committee and must have regard to the report of that committee when deciding to make an order on any amendment to local electoral area boundaries.

As matters currently stand, no decision has been taken on the review of local electoral area boundaries in advance of the next scheduled local elections in 2024. The Senator will be aware that earlier this year the Government circulated the general scheme of an electoral reform Bill to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage for pre-legislative consideration. The general scheme addresses a number of commitments in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future, including the establishment of a statutory electoral commission. The electoral commission will be independent of Government and will report directly to the Oireachtas. Following its establishment it will, among other matters, take several existing statutory electoral functions from the outset, including the work currently undertaken by the Constituency Commission and local electoral area boundary committees.

I also wish to assure the Senator that we have had very good pre-legislative consideration of the electoral reform Bill. In our discussions around the early establishment of the commission, we probably think that it will be established in the second quarter of 2022, once it obviously goes through its legislative journey. It is critically important that among its early tasks will be looking at those electoral events, the most immediate of which will, hopefully, be the local and European elections of 2024.

I will not give any specific views on the seats in the European Parliament but I certainly believe that it is important that the boundary review would take place to give us sufficient time to prepare for local and European elections in 2024. Gabhaim buíochas.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. Based on his reply and the census that is taking place in April, one can therefore say, again, depending on the Central Statistics Office, CSO, that the preliminary results will be published in the summer of 2022. The electoral commission, if it has been set up, would have 12 months after that to report, and for this to be confirmed within three months of the publication of the final census data.

On the local elections, I again urge that timely decisions are made on these because we cannot have a situation whereby a commission is organised or has decided to review boundaries that leaves the minimum amount of time for candidates, sitting councillors or would-be councillors, to prepare for them. It is important that those decisions are made in a timely manner in advance of the 2024 elections, which we know are taking place on that date. The general election may be slightly different as we obviously do not know when exactly that will take place but we know the date of the local and European elections.

I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator and it is critically important. If one looks at where we are now, it is going to be a very short time once the commission is established. As I have said, it is going to be tasked with quite a significant body of work from the outset but this part of that work is going to be critically important, given that there will be an electoral event in 2024 and, we hope, a general election in 2025.

It is important that political parties and prospective candidates have certainty as to where they are running. I certainly know that many of the political parties are all very active in this space in beginning to put candidates forward, or certainly in having electoral area representatives already active on the ground. We need that certainty to give an opportunity, particularly to new candidates, for a run-in to the local elections in 2024. From my own perspective we will be doing all we can to ensure that the commission is in place by the middle of next year and that among its early tasks will be to give due consideration to electoral boundaries and all of the other associated work that requires to be done there. I thank the Acting Chairman.

Animal Diseases

This Commencement matter is in the names of Senators Casey and O'Loughlin. How do the Senators propose to share their time?

We will split it. Senator Casey will go first.

The Senators are taking two minutes each.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank my colleague for sharing this Commencement debate with me. It relates to an ongoing challenge facing west Wicklow and my own area of east Wicklow, in the uplands area. The figures speak for themselves. There is tuberculosis, TB, in one in every six herds in Wicklow. Some 4% of herds nationally have TB and have had restrictions placed on them whereas this figure is 18% in Wicklow, four times the national average. Some 5.4% of the cattle herd in Wicklow are reactors. The figure nationally is only 1.8%. These figures come from the Department. As I have said, this is an ongoing issue. Some 16% of the deer population carry TB.

I will quote a farmer in west Wicklow, Tom Stephenson. He has said:

Farmers in this area have been completely abandoned. There is what can only be described as a plague upon us and we have no way of ridding ourselves of this scourge. We can restock time and time again after a lock-up but the same thing just happens again. It’s a heart-breaking way of operating which just can’t continue.

We all know that the number of deer in Wicklow continues to increase. We see them grazing farmers' fields every day. Coming from one of the most scenic areas of Wicklow, where I have the pleasure of walking the mountains, it is quite frightening how close we, as humans, can come to the deer population. The deer will not move even if people come within 1 m or 2 m. In my own valley of Glendalough, we are now feeding deer by hand outside the hotel. This is frightening because it is not a natural occurrence. It is having a severe impact on the lives of farmers and their families. I will now give way to my colleague, Senator O'Loughlin.

I thank Senator Casey for giving us those very stark statistics regarding the impact of deer in Kildare and west Wicklow. As somebody who lives in Kildare, I have ongoing engagement with the Irish Farmers Association branches covering Kildare and west Wicklow. This issue has come up quite a number of times. Only recently, about three weeks ago, there was a consultation meeting on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, in Kilcullen and farmers from west Wicklow brought up this issue. At a subsequent meeting last week, I asked about one of those farmers and was told that he had lost 25% of his herd to TB the week before because of the overrun of deer in the area. That is absolutely shocking.

I am really concerned that the Government has no long-term plan to protect the lands and livelihoods of those who live in this area and that the deer population will be allowed to remain unsustainable. There is no doubt that the surge in the deer population is impacting on our grasslands and our crops and aiding in the spread of bovine TB. The implementation of the wildlife control programme in Wicklow by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not to the standard required. The Minister of State committed additional resources in the budget to the wildlife control programme for next year. Will he assure farmers in Kildare and, particularly, west Wicklow that this money will be fully utilised in providing the staff resources necessary to implement a timely and effective wildlife control programme on the ground? This is very important. Senator Casey spoke about deer coming right up to the hotel. There is no doubt that they are encroaching further each year and mixing with cattle, thereby contributing to the level of TB in the herd.

Gabhaim buíochas leis na Seanadóirí. I thank both Senators for raising this really important issue. While the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department licenses the hunting of deer and actively manages deer on its property, it does not own the deer population nor is it responsible for cordoning it into specific areas of land. Deer populations are mobile by their nature and have home ranges that are not constrained by land ownership boundaries.

These home ranges are normally defined by physical landscape features such as mountains, lakes, rivers, built-up areas and the availability of suitable habitat within that home range.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, is committed to the active management of the deer species within State-owned national parks and nature reserves, and as part of its regular ongoing management operations, the NPWS carries out regular surveys, censuses and reports on deer on our sites. Where appropriate, and depending on the annual counts, or where it is evident that damage is being caused by deer to habitats, particularly woodland, culls may need to be carried out to ensure that deer populations do not reach levels that would have negative ecological consequences. Such culls are undertaken by NPWS staff.

In summary, I have met with the Irish Deer Commission and other interested parties regarding this issue. I am very keen, as I know the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is, to see the establishment of a forum to deal with these issues. It is critically important that we understand and appreciate the scale of the challenges that we are facing regarding deer management from a biodiversity point of view, and the spread of disease.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. In all fairness, it is a bit repetitive. I could refer the Minister of State to the joint approach to deer management of 2010, the County Wicklow deer management project 2018 and a number of pilot schemes in between. None of them are addressing the situation. The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage is the largest landowner in the Wicklow Mountains because it owns the Wicklow Mountains National Park. The second largest owner is another State body, Coillte. The Department therefore has the ability to manage and cull the deer herd. There is no natural predator for the deer. I am not proposing to rewild the Wicklow hills and introduce wolves, but if we did so, the deer population could be controlled. There is no natural predator to manage deer in Wicklow, so we have to do it.

From what the Minister of State said, I feel that he has a grasp of the situation and he understands it. It is good that the licences have been given out and that the Departments are looking at re-establishing the Irish Deer Management Forum. Those actions are important. The Department within which the Minister of State is based must take responsibility for deer when they are associated with a TB problem. I accept that farmers can go so far in terms of licensing and hunting, etc., but when there is a TB problem and it is impacting on the national herd that we hear so much about, it is vital that the Department and the Minister of State step in.

I ask the Minister of State to step in and meet the farmers of Kildare and west Wicklow to discuss this matter. A meeting is needed and I really would appreciate if he would agree to meet IFA representatives for Kildare and west Wicklow.

I agree with Senator Casey. During the summer we spent a bit of time on the Wicklow Mountains after some of the fires with Wesley Atkinson and his team. It is critically important that the deer population is sustainably managed on which I am sure we all agree. This initiative will take hold. The streamlined issuing of licences is critically important and we have issued a significantly larger volume of licences this year so we need to do that.

In terms of meeting IFA representatives from counties Wicklow and Kildare, correspondence has come into our Department on the matter. Certainly, I know that officials will be more than happy to meet.

There is a responsibility from our perspective and that of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in terms of TB. We give a commitment here that this forum is the best place to address these issues. We also give a commitment, and I know this from speaking to my officials, that we want to address the issue because, as I said, it is not just an issue that both Senators have spoken about in terms of TB - it is also an issue for biodiversity because there has been significant damage, particularly to forestry. We have seen the impact in the national parks where deer have caused significant problems when we have tried to regenerate native woodlands in this country. I give a commitment to both Senators that certainly we want to work collaboratively to address the range of issues that we are dealing with in terms of deer management in Ireland.

I thank the Minister of State.

I thank the Senators and the Minister of State.

Sitting suspended at 3.22 p.m. and resumed at 3.34 p.m.