Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Planning Issues

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this Commencement matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, and thank him for his ongoing engagement. I know he and his party, the Green Party, are particularly committed to the issue of engagement with our citizens in the planning process, which is an important point that I want to acknowledge.

The Government is seeking to streamline planning laws and this has been covered extensively in the media, although I am not sure all of that media coverage is accurate. I know the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, and the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, are on record as expressing concern, in particular in regard to the long delays in the planning process. I have no difficulty with reforming all of that and tightening it up. However, what I do not want is a message to go out that, somehow, reform of the planning laws is going to come down the heavy on citizens. I refer, in particular, to citizens in our communities who engage in the planning process and who, in many cases, have objected rightly on planning issues, be it under the Aarhus Convention or with regard to the height, scale and mass of developments, overdevelopment or development that is contrary to the city and county development plans.

I am conscious that city and county councillors are the guardians of their city and county development plans. That is what the citizens look to in terms of councillors advocating for them and in regard to legitimate expectation on the proper planning and sustainable development of their areas, which is an important point to make.

I am also conscious that, in regard to the Green Party in particular, many of the people who are now sitting in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann and, indeed, in the city and county councils, were initially community activists, be it in regard to Tidy Towns, environmental projects, saving spaces, the public realm or advocating membership of An Taisce and various other organisations. Many of my friends and colleagues who are Independent councillors across this country came up from that system. That is no doubt the case for all parties but, particularly in the Independent Group and the Green Party group, many of those people were not politicians first.

They started off as being passionate about their environment, the areas in which they lived and advocated for them. The Minister of State will be aware of the issue of the major road project in Kilkenny. Many of them were involved in planning issues. There are mixed messages out there. My concern is that comments from the Taoiseach, the Government or the Ministers or political debate generally, suggests that streamlining will curtail the judicial review process. I have no problem with streamlining it. I welcome the Government's intention to set up a planning environmental specialist court with expertise. That is really important.

Not a day goes by without opening the newspaper and reading about someone seeking some sort of legal remedy, and that should be the last resort. It should not be ruled out, but it should be the last resort. We need to deal with reform of our planning systems early. Pre-planning discussions and aspects of the Large-scale Residential Development Bill address that. I have concerns about local engagement of elected sitting county councillors. We had that debate in this House and it was rejected by all Government Senators in a roll call vote. I am a democrat. We move on. We accept that as the decision the Senators in this House made on the Government's side.

I will finish on this point. I am trying to ascertain reassurance. I know the Minister of State is committed to it. I have no doubt about that and do not question that at all. I know his party is committed to it, and that gives me great confidence. Many people who voted for the Green Party expected that the Minister of State would be a strong advocate and stand in solidarity with these community and environmental activists. They wish to see proper planning and sustainable development in their communities. Will the Minister of State set out the plan and the vision, in addition to the timeline and roadmap for this reform?

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist seo. We spoke about this earlier this morning as we came into Leinster House and it is something about which both of us feel very strongly and passionately. Senator Boyhan is correct in saying that it is critically important that members of the public have an ability to participate in our planning system and to feel that they have access to environmental justice. The Aarhus Convention is there for that. I was among one of the first plaintiffs to challenge to the provisions in Aarhus a number of years ago. It is certainly a powerful tool for communities to be given parity within the planning system and within access to environmental justice. It is therefore very important.

The Senator also mentioned the central access scheme in Kilkenny. Some 10,000 signatures were handed in to the local authority. There were public marches and still the project went ahead. These are issues about which people feel very strongly. At the same time, even if they lose on a project like that, at least they feel their democratic voice was heard and that they participated equally in the planning system. It is not always the case.

This Commencement matter is important and I thank Senator Boyhan for raising the issue. I take this opportunity to update the Senators on the reform of the judicial review provisions in the Planning and Development Act and the related matter of the proposed establishment of the environmental and planning court, both of which are important commitments in the programme for Government.

The general scheme of the Housing and Planning and Development Bill 2019, which was published in late 2019 and has since been the subject of a public consultation process, sets out an initial outline of the revisions to the judicial review provisions in sections 50 to 50B of the Planning and Developments Acts. The general scheme was incorporated in the Government's legislative programme for the autumn session of 2020 among the list of the general schemes to undergo pre-legislative scrutiny.

My Department has engaged with the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage on pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme. However, given the range of other legislation proposed by my Department for scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, particularly regarding urgent housing legislation, it has not been possible to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny on the general scheme before the end of the year, but I am hopeful it will be scheduled for early in the new year.

The Government is anxious that the legislative process on reforming the judicial review provisions can be activated and progressed as soon as possible. This follows on from the programme for Government commitment. It is important that the regime is working effectively, given the increasing number of judicial review challenges being taken against planning decisions with the knock-on implications for project delivery, including required increases in housing supply and strategic infrastructure developments under the national development plan required to meet the demands of a growing economy. I assure the House that it is intended the proposed reforms of the judicial review provisions would be in line with EU and international law obligations on public participation under the Aarhus Convention. An important aspect, therefore, is the establishment of the proposed new environmental and planning court, simultaneous to the coming into effect of the judicial review reforms. It is intended that this will be established as a division of the High Court.

My Department has already engaged with the Department of Justice on the legislative and practical aspects associated with the establishment of the new court, which will require the resourcing of dedicated judges upon establishment. However, it is primarily a matter for the Department of Justice to progress the establishment of the new environmental and planning court.

I agree wholeheartedly with Senator Boyhan in that a legal remedy should be the last resort. At pre-planning and planning stages, communities should be able to participate with parity in our planning and environmental system. That is fundamental to the Aarhus Convention.

I thank the Minister of State and take three key points away from his response. I agree with him in terms of Aarhus being such an important piece of legislation. It is a tool to assist people in the context of their environmental, planning and sustainable development rights, and advocacy. I am particularly happy that he is very much part of this. I never doubted that for one minute. I also take away that it is a primary issue for the Department of Justice. There is an overlap between the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Department of Justice in the reform of the courts system. I note it is on track. Time is against us in terms of legislative time. It is important that it is happening and that key messages are communicated about this issue. This is not about coming the heavy on citizens. This is about supporting people. It is about tightening the timeframes, which is fair enough. It is about ironing out some of the difficulties. This is a roadmap so that people will have their voices heard. I am particularly pleased, happy and confident that the Minister of State is in the mix in keeping an eye on this really important legislation. I thank him for his time.

In summary, again, I agree wholeheartedly with the Senator on this matter. We see how strongly members of the public and communities feel about environmental and planning issues when we see them out on the streets protesting against a planning decision or a particular development. That is an important part of our democratic system. Equal to that, they have to have parity to be able to participate in our planning system and to have the knowledge and expertise at their disposal and to be able to give fair and informed opinions. What is of huge value is their deep concerns. People in Ireland, in general, have a real passion for the environment and good planning and sustainable development. In that regard, it is important that they have that important role. As the Senator said, this is about ensuring there is a good judicial system in place for environmental planning courts. In the planning system itself at local authority level, they should have the right and the ability to take part in the preparation of development plans. In addition, they should be informed when planning applications come in. They should know they can participate in an open and transparent system.

Defective Building Materials

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for being present in the House for this discussion. I welcome the Government decision in recent days to significantly enhance and increase the grant scheme to people who are affected by mica in Donegal, Mayo and Sligo. It is the right decision to try to put people back in good stead, but the reality is that the issue of defective blocks is not confined to Donegal, Mayo and Sligo. It is an established fact that pyrite is present in concrete blocks in the county from which I come, County Clare. It is an established fact that it has had an impact on many homes. It is an established fact that the blocks are crumbling and that significant cracking has taken place in houses. The appropriate testing has been done on five homes.

Results have been received from the UK on the materials involved and as I said at the outset, it is an established fact that pyrite is present. Clare County Council, on behalf of the Department, was asked to submit a report with all the appropriate information required in the standard set out, that applied to Mayo and Donegal. It did that and I understand the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage has resorted to what I can only describe as time-delaying tactics. I want to see this brought to a head because it is an established fact that homes are crumbling. It is an established fact that it is as a result of pyrite. We do not need any further procrastination from Department officials, through the council, to delay this process. Two people have headed up the Clare Pyrite Action Committee, namely, Dr. Martina Cleary and Mary Hanley, and they have done sterling work. I have spoken to them over the past few days and they are disheartened because of the approach of the Department. Of course there are details that must be resolved and worked out. We are all prepared to work through that but some certainty should be shown to the homeowners in County Clare, and wider afield, where such materials are in blocks. In the first instance, the Department should be made to show respect to these people and to let them know they are going to be part of the scheme. Everybody knows there will be details to establish and work out. Nobody is expecting to have their home repaired before Christmas this year, nor next year either in many cases. Everybody accepts that this will go on for years, but the Department should stop messing about on the fringes. This is classic Civil Service activity, namely, dotting the i's and crossing the t's when the bottle of ink has spilled all over the page. It is not good enough. It does not show respect to the people.

I might hazard a hypothesis, with the greatest respect. Had the civil servants in the Department addressed the situation in counties Donegal, Mayo and Sligo a couple of years ago with more vigour and zeal and with more interest in getting a result, this would have been resolved a lot more quickly and cheaply. Time will bear that out. That is based on my conversations with people in the Donegal area. Quite frankly, had they been treated a little bit better and sooner, we would not be in the mess that we are in today. I appeal to the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Noonan, as a man who understands this well and who is a compassionate man who understands people, the environment and what it is like to see your home crumbling around you. He should see his way to bringing some common sense to bear in the Department. The people should be told that they are going to be part of the scheme, now that the presence of pyrite in the blocks has been established, and the Department can then move on with the detail. We can all hammer that out afterwards.

I thank Senator Dooley. Similar to the situation right across other counties, it is a hugely traumatic time for these families and I acknowledge that. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, has been deeply committed to resolving this since taking up office. He has acted with a great sense of purpose in establishing the working group. That working group is not directly representing the families the Senator refers to in County Clare, but it is a representative group that has brought the issues to light. Similarly, if owners were to apply under the existing defective concrete blocks, DCB, scheme they would not have got this enhanced scheme. There are positives to be seen in what has been a very progressive and positive resolution to this, or certainly, the start of a resolution to this, in the scheme announced by the Government this week. It is a very expansive scheme, with 100% redress as requested. There are some concerns about the sliding scale but it contains many other elements that I hope will lead families in counties Sligo, Mayo and Donegal to see this as a very positive development. Hopefully then we can apply this to Country Clare. I will give the Department's official response but there has certainly not been procrastination. A huge amount of work has been done since this Government was formed. I recognise the trauma it has caused the Senator's constituents.

As the Senator is aware, the Government has agreed to fundamentally overhaul the defective concrete blocks scheme with a number of major improvements for affected homes. Details of these changes were published on Tuesday, 30 November. Not only will this improve the scheme for local authorities currently within scope of the scheme, namely, those in Donegal and Mayo, it will also benefit those local authority areas that come into the scheme in the future as a result of the extension beyond Donegal and Mayo. In this regard the Department received a submission from Clare County Council, dated 23 July 2021, requesting the extension of the defective concrete blocks grant scheme to County Clare. A response issued to the council on 3 August 2021 indicating that the Department would review the submission and seeking a detailed breakdown of costs associated with the report. A breakdown of costs associated with the report was received on 28 September 2021. In order to progress matters, a meeting was held on 9 November 2021 between officials from the Department and Clare County Council to review issues contained within the submissions, which required further elaboration in order to evidentially support an extension of the defective concrete blocks grant scheme to County Clare.

I thank the Minister of State. The devil is in the detail. Some of the response states that an assurance will be given on receipt by the Department on clarifications sought. From talking to engineers who were involved in submissions from both Clare and Mayo, my understanding is that the submission was in line with the standards set out and the information provided that allowed Mayo and Donegal to enter the scheme. The engineering people who I am talking to are at a loss to understand what further clarification is required. There is, as I said, an established fact that pyrite is present in the blocks in Clare. It is an established fact that this impacts on the ability of people to live in their homes. We can fiddle around the edges with detail and try to delay this. My concern is that there is a reticence within some aspect of the Department. At political level there is certainly a desire to make it happen. Notwithstanding the commitment of the Minister of State, which I know is fulsome, wholesome and genuine, and the same is true of the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, who has visited the homes in Clare, I am still concerned and I would like better information to understand why Clare County Council is expected to provide something different to what Mayo and Donegal county councils provided in establishing their bona fides to enter the scheme. It may not be something the Minister of State can provide me with today but I hope that those within the Department who have access to that information could make it public, let us know what it is, and let us move on.

I will give that assurance again. The Senator is absolutely correct in saying there is a deep commitment by the Department at ministerial level and at official level to resolve this. The Donegal and Mayo scheme was to set a template for other counties. The fact that we now have an enhanced scheme gives the opportunity for Clare County Council to work with the Department to ensure that County Clare is included as soon as is practicable. That is what we all want to achieve. We want to give some assurances and hope to these families, coming up to Christmas, that they can now see a way forward with a scheme that is very expansive with 100% redress, albeit there is a sliding scale. There are many good provisions within that scheme and I believe families in County Clare certainly will welcome this once they are included. What I would ask the Senator to take back is to work with Clare County Council in order that Clare County Council engages, now that the enhanced scheme has landed, and that we try to move this forward as soon as we can.

Disability Services

As the Acting Chairperson and Minister of State know, this is disability week and tomorrow is International Day of People with Disability. It is an opportunity to celebrate how far we have come in the world in terms of people with disabilities and what has been achieved, as well as to celebrate their successes and the massive contribution they make to society. It is also an opportunity to reflect on how much more needs to be done. Some 10% of our population have disabilities and they and their families make a huge contribution to and are of benefit to our society. There are many inequalities in Ireland, however, such as in respect of transport.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. She will appreciate where I am coming from. Transport is critically important for people with disabilities, not just in terms of connectivity but giving them the opportunity to access employment and so forth. There is significant disparity in access to transport for people with disabilities in rural Ireland compared to urban Ireland. While everything is not right in urban Ireland in terms of access to transport people for with disabilities, it is far from right for people who live in rural Ireland. There may only be three or four options a day, depending on the town and village in which people live, to connect to a more urban area for work. There are many towns and villages in this country where there is no connectivity at all. Even getting to work is an issue and sometimes does not happen.

In terms of employment, as far as I am concerned this country is a laggard when it comes to employment opportunities for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, nearly 80% of the blind and visually impaired community in this country are unemployed and rely on State support, which is totally unacceptable. I commend the National Council for the Blind of Ireland, NCBI, which has produced a well-thought-out employment strategy to improve access to employment for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The reason I have tabled this Commencement matter is because of Ireland's commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. It was a great day in 2018 when the last Government ratified that convention because it meant that Ireland, along with the world, was recognising the important contribution people with disabilities make. Unfortunately, the optional protocol still has not been implemented. When does the Government intend to ratify the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities? Can she give us a timeframe? Can she explain why, almost four years on from Ireland's ratification of the convention, we still have not implemented the optional protocol?

Before I call on the Minister of State, I wish to acknowledge Senator Conway's enormous work in advocacy for the disability sector generally. He has been an amazing advocate, and a strong and vocal champion, for the NCBI, the National League of the Blind of Ireland Trust and the Irish Guide Dogs for the Blind. What better and more powerful way to be an advocate than in the Houses of the Oireachtas, playing a real role in terms of legislation? I do not want to let this opportunity go without acknowledging that fact.

I want to echo the words of the Acting Chairperson on the role Senator Conway plays here in the Upper House. In his engagement at all times with me, as a Minister of State, on not just a single issue but a multitude of them, he is a strong and powerful advocate. I also want to wish him luck in his recent appointment to a position on a European board representing Ireland. I have no doubt but that he will fly the flag very well for persons with disabilities and Ireland. The Senator has asked three valid questions of me. It would be remiss of me not to address all three of them. I will use my time appropriately to do that.

He referred to transport and the challenges for persons with disabilities and how it is not just an urban issue but that there also is a real rural issue in this regard. When he mentioned there might be two or three services a day, I commented under my breath, "If you are lucky". It highlights the inequality for people who want to participate in education and employment. They cannot do so unless they have the tools to get to where they need to go.

We have fantastic proposals regarding transition planning out of education. Great work is going on with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, regarding the various skills levels within SOLAS to allow young people to transition. However, in the case of some people living in certain parts of rural Ireland who not have a transport mechanism, those opportunities may not come their way.

Yesterday, I met the Department of Transport, along with members of the national disability inclusion strategy, NDIS, to have a conversation on transport and Rural Link regarding expanding the service and ensuring it is inclusive. I must acknowledge the role of Rural Link. Its services are 93% accessible but at the same time, that is not available everywhere. We hope that will be something we will progress. We need to acknowledge the role of the Ombudsman's recent report in that regard.

The NCBI is doing wonderful work in terms of employment for the blind and visually impaired. I am aware of the Senator's recent advocacy. The Tánaiste attended a function with him in that regard. Employment for everybody, in particular persons with disabilities, is challenging. Progressive work is being done on the comprehensive employment strategy across all Departments to ensure that Departments and semi-State organisations understand the very basics about accommodation and support for people with disabilities.

I also wish to acknowledge the work the Tánaiste's office is doing on the strategy for digital hubs and ensuring that they are completely inclusive and that persons with disabilities can work close to home and break down barriers around transport. There is a lot of good work there.

The most important issue of the day is the optional protocol. The Senator asked for a timeframe. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, and I are completely committed to it. The Government and I have always been mindful of the need to able to meet and honour the obligations arising from international commitments. The ratification of the optional protocol requires progress in key areas of legislation in order that Ireland can move closer to full compliance with the UNCRPD.

Fully commencing the Assisted Decision-Making (Capacity) Act 2015 is a priority for us in this regard. I sent the heads of a Bill to the Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth on Tuesday. If the timeframe of enacting the legislation and having decision support services in place by June is met, I am looking at a parallel process to deliver on the optional protocol.

I thank the Acting Chair for his very kind comments and I thank the Minister of State for her very kind comments and good wishes.

Important legislation to facilitate the implementation of the protocol is to be passed by June. The key message is that the necessary legislation will be passed in 2022, which then means that we can implement the protocol in that year, which will be a good day's work. On this day, which is the day that recognises people with disabilities internationally, we have to recommit ourselves to the challenges. Access to transport is extremely important. It means people have the liberty and freedom to go places, do things, participate in leisure and access employment.

The one equality issue in this country is access to work. If someone has access to work, they are in a position to earn money, pay taxes and live independently. That is what everybody in society aspires to and it should be available to people with disabilities as well. Anything the Government can do to facilitate people with disabilities accessing employment should be done. I thank the Minister for her genuine commitment in the work she does.

I would like again to underline the Government's commitment to implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Much of the work for the year ahead will involve advancing the measures needed to implement the convention so that Ireland is in a position to ratify the optional protocol as soon as possible. As it is Disabilities Week and tomorrow is International Day of Disabilities, the Senator is right. The way out of poverty is through employment and education. Awareness, training, breaking down barriers and creating a society where we have equality is what the Government and the two Houses aspire to. I think sometimes for certain Departments, everything needs to be depoliticised. I refer to the area of disability being included in the new Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth under the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. We need to break down all the barriers to ensure progress is made at speed.

Further and Higher Education

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Harris, to the House.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. I know he is extremely busy. It shows his commitment to Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT, and the Dundalk region. It has been very disheartening to see all of these technical universities, TUs, starting up yet Dundalk is not there. The reason is very well known. I am not here today to cast blame on individuals as to why we are not at that standard. I am here to try to find a way forward with the Minister for the future of DkIT and higher education in the north east. There are a couple of key questions I am hoping to get some clarity on from today's debate. The first concerns section 38. This legislative provision was originally made to allow for an IT to join an existing TU. One of the fears I have is that the Department never really envisaged section 38 having to be used for a considerable time. The concept was that TUs are a really good thing and every IT in the country would want to be getting on board. For reasons outlined previously, DkIT has been slow to grasp that nettle. I am hoping for clarity from the Minister or from the HEA that the procedures behind section 38 are in place and when an application comes in from DkIT for a TU, the Minister and his Department will be standing ready and willing to assist DkIT in joining up with a TU.

When we live in an era of misinformation and sound bites it is disingenuous for politicians anywhere to try to suggest that DkIT could be a stand-alone university. There is no such thing as stand-alone universities in the legislation. The TUs are combinations of ITs, not stand-alone universities. We have to be very clear about it in Dundalk as well. To be blunt, 4,000 students is not the critical mass for a stand-alone university. It is totally disingenuous to suggest otherwise and doing so demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the whole process.

On the shared island funding, with Dundalk a Border town, a fear may exist that we might miss out on any potential funding from the shared island unit, which might go to TUs, and that DkIT could be left behind until it joins a TU. It would be great to get confirmation from the Minister that while DkIT is in this transitional stage before it joins a TU, it will not be overlooked for any shared island funding from the shared island unit.

I would like to take the opportunity to praise the Minister for the work he has done on this. He has met Oireachtas Members from counties Louth, Meath, Cavan and Monaghan so many times over the last year. He has met stakeholders involved with DkIT and has been able to meet me at any stage to discuss DkIT. I thank him for that. I would like to invite him to DkIT at some stage in the next couple of months, early in the new year. This would allow him to meet stakeholders directly, see the campus for himself, and have people who are involved with everyday life in DkIT outline their ambitions and where they see it going with the TU.

I would really appreciate some clarity on section 38, on how DkIT will never really be able to be a stand-alone university and how it is disingenuous to suggest it could be, on the shared island funding, and on the Minister perhaps coming to DkIT at some stage in the future.

I thank the Senator for tabling this important debate today about Dundalk IT and crucially about ensuring we have a technological university for the north east of the country. I also thank the Senator for keeping this item on the political agenda and for all the engagement and discussions we have had on it. Let me be really clear. The north east is not going to be left behind. The Government, my Department and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that the north east has a technological university or is part of a technological university. The north east needs a technological university for a whole load of reasons, including access to university status within the region. It also needs one in terms of balanced regional development and ensuring people can invest in the region. From an investment point of view, a rural Ireland and regional development point of view, a Border point of view and an educational point of view, this needs to happen.

We all know the reason it has not happened to date. We are not going to get into that today other than to note it is a statement of fact that no Minister has an ability to create a technological university without an application being submitted, and rightly so. I will be extraordinarily happy to receive an application in respect of DkIT becoming part of the technological universities. I fully recognise and value the very important contribution of Dundalk Institute of Technology. I want to thank everybody in DkIT for what they are doing. It is continuing to make a very significant and positive impact in the north east, in Dundalk and Louth and throughout the region. In order to achieve further progress, I remain strongly committed to enabling the institute's participation within a multi-campus technological university. It is now, as the Senator said, one of only two institutes of technology not part of a technological university and not in the process of development of becoming one.

If we had been having this discussion a couple of months ago, we would be in a very different place. I am pleased to say we are in a position to report significant progress. Dundalk IT has published its vision earlier this year, which states that it wants to become a dynamic, accessible, student-centred campus within a multi-campus regional TU. A stand-alone university is not its vision, nor is it legally possible. This is its vision. Every politician and stakeholder in Dundalk needs to get on board with this. Dundalk IT, the staff, students, governing body and management team, have come together and put out this vision for what they want. This, in and of itself, marks meaningful progress on the proposed trajectory towards achieving TU status.

I am delighted to say also that the elaboration of this vision provides certainty and should enable staff, students and wider stakeholders to be assured of the direction of travel of their organisation. The debate over what will happen and where we want DkIT to go is kind of over. Once that strategic vision of all stakeholders in DkIT was published, we had that certainty.

I am pleased to report that the institute has put in place a structure to drive on this project. There is a project team, a steering group and a lot of really good work going on. I am also very pleased to say that we are now providing Exchequer funding. Even though it is not yet a TU, we are providing funding through the technological university transformation fund. We are putting our money where our mouth is in terms of advancing this agenda. That fund is administered by the Higher Education Authority.

In addition to the funding, we have now provided a dedicated special expert adviser to DkIT to drive this project. This has been key to delivering technological universities in my experience. I thank Dr. Ruaidhrí Neavyn for the work he is doing providing technical knowledge and advice to the institute. I understand as recently as yesterday that this work is going well. Funding is in place. An expert adviser is in place. A shared vision is in place.

Let us visit DkIT, and let us also meet stakeholders more broadly in the economic and societal set-up of the north east. We are going to get there, but we need those in the region to prepare by determining how they can harness what could be a real powerhouse for growth and education.

I thank the Minister for that. That is exactly the kind of clear sense and thinking I was hoping to get from this debate. I very much appreciate it.

It is important that the Minister has outlined the concept of a stand-alone university. It is not legally possible, nor is it even part of the strategic vision of the people involved in DkIT. It is clear, in black and white, that they want to be part of a technological university. The Minister mentioned Dr. Ruaidhrí Neavyn, the expert adviser. It is important that we are already assisting in the transition towards a technological university. In this whole debate, I took heart most from the Minister's clear commitment that once an application comes straight from DkIT to his ministerial desk, he will be ready and willing to approve it and start the process officially. I very much look forward to welcoming him to DkIT in the near future.

I thank Senator McGahon. When people look back on 2021, they will see it as a very significant year for making progress for the north east in respect of education, including higher education and the future of DkIT. It will be the year in which there was an agreed plan based on the vision, in which funding was put in place and in which the expert adviser was appointed.

I should have said in my comments on section 38 that there will be no blockages in my Department or the HEA in progressing any application that comes forward. In fairness to the HEA, it has a really good track record on this. It has had a very busy year of assessing technological university applications. I thank it for that.

My final point echoes the important point the Senator made on the shared island fund. I will be spending Sunday and Monday in the North having conversations about greater collaboration. There may be no institutes better positioned than those in Letterkenny and Dundalk to engage in cross-Border collaboration and co-operation. I am looking forward to having a conversation, when I visit Queen's, on interim measures that may be capable of being put in place to ensure greater student mobility north and south of the Border. The shared island fund, administered by the Department of the Taoiseach, is available for all collaborations. DkIT will not in any way miss out at this transition point. I really look forward to 2022. We can make a lot of progress for DkIT and the north east.

Sitting suspended at 11.23 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.