Topical Issue Debate

Marine Tourism Promotion

I am delighted the Minister is in the House to take this Topical Issue, and I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for facilitating a deferral of debate on this issue until such time as the Minister was available.

Youghal in County Cork has suffered greatly in the past number of years. It is a beautiful town located on the River Blackwater and has a fabulous four-mile beach, the best salmon fishing in Ireland, and so on. For many decades we have turned our backs to the sea. I am glad to note that the Wild Atlantic Way has been a huge success. Unfortunately, it does not extend to east Cork. Despite the fact that east Cork is also on the Atlantic coast, the Wild Atlantic Way ends in Kinsale. West Waterford is also on the Atlantic coast. However, that is another day's work.

The abolition of the travel tax and the retention of the reduced VAT rate applicable to the hotel and tourism sector were positive measures, as a result of which tourism continues to grow. The recently launched strategy People, Place and Policy: Growing Tourism to 2025 is also a very positive initiative. There is massive potential in marine tourism. In this regard, I reference the study by Carina Ginty in 2010 entitled Marine Tourism Business Sector in the West of Ireland - Capabilities, Performance and Contribution to the Regional Economy, in which she points to a number of issues, including the fact that in terms of tourism policy, there is no lead agency in Ireland responsible for marketing and product development of the marine tourism business sector. In this regard, a person wishing to establish a marina is directed to the tourism section of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, only to be told it is a matter for the marine section of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. When the person then seeks to take up the matter with that Department, he or she is directed to the local authority, Tourism Ireland or Fáilte Ireland. There is no one agency responsible for marine tourism. I suggest that the Minister take this issue on board in the context of the establishment of the tourism leadership group. He might also take on board what has been done in Newfoundland in this regard, which initiative has been a great success.

I put it to the Minister that we have neglected the marine sector for many decades. The Wild Atlantic Way is a first step towards addressing that neglect. The CEO of Fáilte Ireland stated recently that with sound and sensible development there is no reason Ireland should not aspire to increase its marine tourism revenue by 2020 and, ultimately, treble its revenue earnings to €1.5 billion. What I would like to know from the Minister this evening is the point of contact for a person wishing to develop a marina and other ancillary marine facilities in a place such as Youghal or another similar area around the country. Youghal has a lot going for it. There are 7,000 people living in Youghal town and it has great heritage and history. As I have said here previously, Youghal was once so busy it was the second busiest port in the British empire. It is an amazing place, yet there are no berthing facilities there for visitors. Many boating enthusiasts and other people have asked me to whom they should speak in this regard. There is no one agency with responsibility for this.

The Minister needs to get together with other Ministers and the agencies to ensure the establishment of one agency with responsibility for the development of marine tourism. Ireland is an island. It is surrounded by water, which is our greatest asset. We have seen what the Wild Atlantic Way has done for the west. It has been a tremendous success. The Minister should, perhaps, give a medal to whoever came up with that idea. Youghal straddles west Waterford and east Cork and, as such, is caught between two counties. Nothing is happening there. How can we make things happen? What can the Minister do to help? Will he consider proposing to his Cabinet colleagues the establishment of a lead agency to deal with marine tourism? At the very least, can the Minister facilitate bringing all the agencies around the table to discuss what can be done, if not nationally, for Youghal, which is a beautiful, picturesque, historic town.

I thank Deputy Stanton for raising this matter. The short answer in regard to who should deal with this matter is reflective of the broader challenge we face in terms of how we market and develop a tourism proposition for the city and county of Cork. In February this year a group, consisting of representatives from the Cork county and city local authorities, Fáilte Ireland and various stakeholders in tourism, was formed to examine how a single tourist offering and brand for the county and city of Cork could be developed. I will write to the group on the specific point raised by the Deputy and ask that marine tourism form part of its work. That is the best way of addressing the issue raised by the Deputy.

I can confirm that work is under way in relation to the development of a new marketing framework for the south and east of the country, taking into account the success of the Wild Atlantic Way, how Dublin is marketed and how all the facilities in the Deputy's county and constituency, and the county and constituency of Deputy Regina Doherty, can be pulled together into a single framework through which we can market all that that part of our country has to offer. This framework will be ready for launch to the trade at the end of April. I believe this is the mechanism through which the facilities about which the Deputy spoke could be better marketed.

In regard to the Deputy's question regarding who is responsible for the development of new marine infrastructure for Youghal, I will communicate that information to the Deputy. I can say, however, that all costs in this regard are eventually borne by the taxpayer through either a State body or my Department. To justify the spending of such moneys, we need to have a business case to underpin it. For this reason, I believe the best way to address the issues raised is by way of the group established in February. This group is a response to the challenge of developing a good marketing strategy for Cork. It is the right way to go. On foot of this discussion, I will contact the group and ask that the marine tourism sector be integrated firmly into its work plan.

I thank the Minister for his reply. While what the Minister has proposed is excellent, as are the other initiatives taken in this area, the situation about which I am speaking is different. We need to focus specifically on the marine sector. For many years now we have turned our backs on the sea and ocean surrounding Ireland. With the advent of liners coming into Cobh and other places, there is huge potential in this area. The south coast of Ireland is on one of the busiest sea routes in the world.

In the UK, France and Spain, there are marinas with hundreds of boats and yachts tied up. Why can we not do the same? It is because we did not have a focus or a plan. I am concerned that if it is considered on a county-wide basis the marina will again be sidelined and forgotten. I ask the Minister to consider focusing specifically on the marine element. I am certainly not suggesting ignoring the rest, but we need a specific focus on matters marine and marine tourism.

On the development of marinas, I take the point that it needs a business plan and a cost-benefit analysis, but that has all been done; the Marine Institute has carried out several studies. I understand - the Minister might correct me if I am wrong - the section in the Marine Institute that dealt with that no longer exists, which, if true, would concern me.

I ask the Minister to talk to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, Deputy Coveney, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and others. He should look at what has been done in Newfoundland and other places. Can we have one agency dealing with matters to do with marine tourism? At the moment, if one goes to the local authority one is referred to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, which refers one on to the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, which in turn refers one on to the Fáilte Ireland. One is going around the houses, with nobody responsible. We want one agency to pull it all together, with one head who will take this on, one person who will have the passion and drive to make it happen. As I said in my initial contribution, the potential is huge, but we have turned our backs on matters marine for a long time. We are beginning to focus on the Wild Atlantic Way and we can see how much it has yielded and the fantastic thing it is. There is so much more we can do, but we need leadership and drive. I admit that it will cost money, but it will yield multiple amounts.

A Chathaoirligh, if I may, I wish to ask a question of Deputy Stanton for clarification. When he referred to the scale of the opportunity, does he envisage that Youghal can gain in terms of cruise business, or does he believe there are additional opportunities?

There are huge opportunities in sailing, marinas, kayaking, whale watching, bird watching, angling and fishing tourism; it is endless. However, we have not been focusing on it. We have been touching on it here and there. I am calling for one lead agency, one lead person, to take it on, examine it and drive it. The studies are there, but we have not seen the action. Now is the opportunity, and I believe we also have the Minister to do it.

Regarding the focus on the marine, with all its different opportunities, I would respectfully disagree with the Deputy on one point. I believe the strategy that came from the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, which had the support of the Department of the Taoiseach, regarding harnessing our ocean wealth, provides a very good framework to respond to the opportunities that the marine offers overall. This matter has been progressed by both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine. However, I understand that the opportunity of marine tourism overall does not feature as highly in that framework as perhaps the Deputy would want. The following is being done to progress the need he has identified. Research is under way to consider the development and funding of marina and berthing facilities around the coast. In that regard, Fáilte Ireland is considering an all-island cruise strategy. I know this does not cover all of what the Deputy is referring to, but that work is under way and will be complete by September.

I firmly believe the other opportunities the Deputy mentioned are the responsibility of Fáilte Ireland.

I firmly believe that. If the Deputy is not getting clarity of ownership on this from his contacts in the agency, I will contact it and find out who the single point of contact should be on the development of the sector. If that resource is not available within Fáilte Ireland, it is a different matter on which I will work to see if we can bring it to some conclusion.

I was in a different part of the Deputy's county last week at the invitation of some of his colleagues and it brought home to me the scale of opportunity that exists, and the ambition and enthusiasm within that county from the grassroots up to respond to that.

We have run over time. I ask the Minister to conclude.

I will contact the overall co-ordination group on the matter. I will contact Fáilte Ireland about the matter the Deputy has raised and get a response for him.

Cycling Policy

I thank the Minister for attending. I ask the Minister to endorse and support the campaign that has been mounted by cyclist organisations, cycle clubs and even some of our professional cyclists in recent times. If he is not aware of it, I will give some background.

The Stayin' Alive at 1.5 campaign seeks to pursue the adoption of a new law requiring motorists to give cyclists 1.5 metres of clearance when they are being overtaken from the rear. It is a two-pronged campaign that is being undertaken on Facebook and other social media, and more importantly through lobbying individual Deputies. Through that medium it was brought to my attention, and I carried out some research.

The current law in the Rules of the Road only suggests that a driver should give extra space when overtaking a cyclist and makes no mention of minimum clearance. The aim of Stayin' Alive at 1.5 is to have this distance clearly defined as 1.5 m and to replace the word "should" with the word "must". The current law on dangerous overtaking only states: "A driver shall not overtake, or attempt to overtake, if to do so would endanger, or cause inconvenience to, any other person." However, I am not sure that the driver of a 40-foot truck or a very large bus has full cognisance of how intimidating the vehicle is to a cyclist on the road. The very small distance that is currently being observed between drivers of very large vehicles, and even some cars, and cyclists on the road is causing such fear among cyclists that they have mounted this campaign.

I ask the Minister to look at how infringement of the current law is being policed, for want of a better word. I do not believe it is being policed in any meaningful way. I cite a very personal example. I suppose all politics is personal, because it does not affect one until it comes into one's home. A few weeks ago an incident happened involving my husband, who is an avid cyclist, and a very large bus. He felt extremely vulnerable one evening. When they caught up with each other at traffic lights and he went to take a photograph of the bus, the driver of the bus got out and was exceptionally aggressive both verbally and physically with him. That makes the cyclist even more vulnerable. It brought home to me that the drivers on the road do not have the respect for cyclists that they should have. While we are not talking about all people, many people do not see cyclists as legitimate road users. This campaign is aimed at making people realise that cyclists are legitimate road users. They are not just adults; many of them are children, and we need to recognise that they have a right to be on the road. They do not have any less of a right to be on the road just because they do not pay road tax.

We need to recognise that cyclists are vulnerable. The Minister could make a clear statement by changing the law to define the minimum overtaking distance as 1.5 m and to change the word "should" to "must". It would be a clear indication from Government that we respect cyclists and appreciate that they are vulnerable, given their position, and that we will do everything we can to ensure they can use the roads safely.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter with me. As she will be aware, last year 12 cyclists died on our roads. This compares with five in 2013 and eight in 2012, which is absolutely unacceptable. I am very much in favour of promoting the wider use of cycling.

The Deputy is entirely correct that a cyclist on the road is a legitimate road user with the same expectation of safety and respect as somebody in a car. Whether they have paid car tax is not the issue. They are using a road with the expectation of being able to commute safely. That is a right which should be respected and upheld. The other side of the coin is that they have responsibilities, as do other road users. I am confident that the overwhelming majority of cyclists are aware of those responsibilities and discharge them very well. I certainly agree with the Deputy that the cyclist on the road is a legitimate road user who should be conferred with the same respect as any other road user using any other type of vehicle.

There is no single measure which, alone, will work to ensure cyclists' safety. However, the provision of cycle lanes and how we delineate space for cyclists on roads are still a major contribution to responding to some of the issues the Deputy raised. The Road Safety Authority is engaged on an ongoing basis in promoting safe cycling. This involves providing information and campaigning on issues such as the wearing of helmets and high visibility clothing, and campaigns designed to raise driver awareness of cyclists. In that regard, its campaign includes a specific reference to drivers leaving a 1.5 m clearance when overtaking cyclists. Campaigns include information in schools, booklets, advertising campaigns and engaging with cycling groups during the annual bike week. Indeed, I met representatives of a number of weeks ago to discuss this and other matters with them.

I am familiar with the "Stayin' Alive at 1.5" campaign, which campaigns for the adoption of a law requiring motorists to give cyclists a minimum of 1.5 m clearance when passing from the rear. Currently, the law states that a driver shall not overtake, or attempt to overtake, if to do so would endanger or cause inconvenience to any other person. Dangerous overtaking is an offence carrying a fixed charge penalty of €80, with three penalty points on payment of a fixed charge and five on conviction in court. The regulations do not specify overtaking distances in respect of any kind of vehicle, be it a car, pedal cycle, motorcycle or otherwise. Depending on the circumstances, a motorist overtaking a cyclist in dangerous proximity or hitting a cyclist while overtaking could be charged with dangerous overtaking.

I am aware of the campaign referred to by the Deputy, as was my predecessor. However, I am not convinced of the benefits of fixing a passing distance in law. The reason is the difficulty of enforcing it if enshrined in primary legislation. Such a law would only be enforceable in circumstances where a member of An Garda Síochána witnessed a car overtaking a cyclist at a dangerously close distance. Even then, it would be difficult to prove the specific passing distance.

On foot of the Deputy raising this issue, I would be happy to meet the group with the Deputy to respond on the issue. There are genuine difficulties in respect of implementing what the group is seeking, but given that the Deputy has raised the matter I will meet the group with her in the coming months to explain these challenges and to see if there are other ways to deal with this.

I appreciate that and I will take the Minister up on his offer. I am not denying that it would be difficult to pass a law because it would be difficult to police it. However, we have the same situation, if not worse, with the current law.

I am sorry to be personal about this, but the person I am discussing made the complaint to the Garda and was told that unless somebody saw that there were only inches between the cyclist and the bus, it was irrelevant. The fact that the bus driver got out and made the cyclist feel more vulnerable is not breaking the law; it is just a bit of argy-bargy. Until we define what is acceptable practice clearly in the law, so we can make people aware of acceptable practice and change their current practices, there will continue to be vulnerable cyclists on the road.

The cycle lanes, greenways and anything we can do to encourage people to get more active, be it on the road or for pleasure, are wonderful. I know the Minister truly supports that. I will take him up on the offer of the meeting. If the law we are currently seeking cannot be found to be enforceable, perhaps we will find some other mechanism to ensure that people are less vulnerable than they are today, which is the ultimate goal of Cycling Ireland and everybody who wishes people to be safe on the road from a cycling perspective.

I will meet the group with the Deputy. It might not be in the immediate future, but we will meet in the coming months about this.

My overall concern is the difficulty of enforcing a law which might well give a short-term benefit, because it would likely lead to a rise in awareness of the matter if such a law were to be implemented, but in the medium to long term that could be diluted by challenges in enforcing it. The Deputy made the point that the Garda said it could not respond to the incident the Deputy described because it needed a witness or proof. Unfortunately, that illustrates the type of difficulty we face when we seek to implement primary law. Once something is enumerated in primary law, the burden of proof is high. That is why there is a challenge with this matter, which we can discuss.

The "Stayin' Alive at 1.5" campaign makes reference to a law which was implemented in Queensland from the middle of April 2014 for a two year period. This puts in place a minimum distance of 1 m when passing cyclists in a 60 km/h or less speed zone and 1.5 m when the speed limit is over 60 km/h. This law is the first of its kind in Australia and it might well be appropriate to look at the impact of that law and see what evidence it has yielded. The Road Safety Authority has indicated that it will examine practice in this area in other countries.

I see that Deputy Cannon is present and I am aware that he is very interested in this matter. He has raised it with me previously. Perhaps the meeting we have referred to is something we could approach together. I have outlined the challenges that exist but with Deputy Doherty and Deputy Cannon we can engage with the group on the matter.

Public Transport

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this issue. I will be brief as I am sharing time with Deputy Dooley.

The Minister will be familiar with the outcome of yesterday's discussions between the transport unions, the Department, the National Transport Authority, CIE, Dublin Bus and so forth regarding the forthcoming proposal on the privatisation of 10% of routes. The Minister's predecessor was also involved in this issue. I hope the Minister will agree that it is regrettable that yesterday's discussions broke down because, one way or another, this issue must be resolved. The bus workers have legitimate concerns about what might happen where 10% of routes are privatised, notwithstanding the fact that Dublin Bus, in the case of Dublin, can apply and will no doubt win some of those routes. The point is that the worker is faced with the threat of a change of employer and issues about their pensions, pension rights and so forth.

There are other issues as well. We should be concerned and avoid getting into the situation where these talks are now going. SIPTU and the National Bus and Railworkers Union are in discussions about a ballot on strike action. This is an opportunity for the Minister. I know his views on public transport. With the Minister's intervention we should get the talks started again.

Like my colleague, I believe it is important that the Minister involves himself in this debate. It is regrettable that the National Transport Authority is pushing ahead with the privatisation agenda without the agreement of the unions concerned. The NBRU has set out a clear position. It has identified that section 52 of the 2008 Act gives exclusive rights to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann to operate existing routes and, therefore, any privatisation can only be on new routes.

It is highly regrettable that a representative body finds itself with no alternative but to resort to the protection of the courts to vindicate its rights. It is particularly disturbing a time when the Labour Party forms part of the Government. The Minister will recall that in the formation of the current Administration the Labour Party sought and achieved a Minister of State portfolio with responsibility for public transport. Sadly, the Labour Party realised that it was losing the battle and allowed that post to be shelved when the then Minister of State, Deputy Alan Kelly, was promoted to a full Cabinet position. That was all done rather quietly but not without the recognition, in particular by the people who work in the public transport sector, that the Government had in effect turned its back on public transport workers. This is especially disturbing with the Labour Party still at the Cabinet table.

I believe the Minister is a fair-minded individual and someone who has a balanced approach to all aspects of public transport. He has not seemed to push the right-wing privatisation agenda of some in his party. I appeal to the Minister to talk to the NTA, ask it to postpone its agenda of putting routes out to tender and try to get consensus among the worker representatives. It would be appalling if a representative body had to seek redress in the courts while the Labour Party forms part of the Government.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. Since this is such an important matter I am pleased to have the opportunity to brief the Dáil. It is disappointing that unions have withdrawn from discussions being facilitated by the Labour Relations Commission. I understand the discussions had been progressing with several employee concerns being addressed.

The National Transport Authority has the statutory responsibility under legislation for judging how best to balance direct award and tendered public service obligation bus services. The NTA decided in late 2013 that 10% of the existing PSO bus market should be tendered following a wide-ranging consultation process. The NTA was proceeding with the public procurement process while participating in an LRC-facilitated process to address CIE employee concerns on the implications of this market opening. The talks have been adjourned following the threat of litigation by the NBRU and trade union withdrawal yesterday.

I reiterate that there has been intensive engagement for some time on employee issues. It is the Government view that these LRC discussions would allow employee concerns to be addressed satisfactorily. Indeed, there has been a particular focus on facilitating existing employees to remain in either Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann if either company did not succeed in the tendering process. I understand that strenuous efforts were being made within the talks process to facilitate as many existing employees as possible to stay in their respective companies, arising from forecast growth in the PSO market under the Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann direct award contracts.

The introduction of competitive tendering has the potential to save taxpayers' money, encourage cost competitiveness and enhance service quality. The international experience indicates that competitive tendering is beneficial in providing subsidised PSO bus services or socially necessary non-commercial bus services.

This year, 2015, for the first time since 2008, the level of PSO contribution for bus and rail services is being maintained at the same level as the previous year. Moreover, I secured €110 million for public transport as part of the 2014 Supplementary Estimate. Improved public transport, whether new services or increased frequencies of existing services, will require additional funding. Our support for improved services should be given in conjunction with an appropriate degree of competitive tension within the market in the interests of quality and cost-effectiveness for commuters. This is why I am committed to the 10% tendering of bus routes.

I recognise, however, that trade unions have concerns about the impact of our existing legislation post-2019 when the direct award contracts granted to Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann are due to expire. I am advised that the legislation, which was enacted by the previous Government, was carefully crafted in accordance with EU law. This legislation has recently allowed the NTA to renew the direct award contracts of Bus Éireann and Dublin Bus subject to arrangements being made for the tendering of 10% of the PSO bus market. However, in light of trade union concerns, my Department has recently agreed to seek legal advice on specific aspects of the compatibility of our legislation, in particular with regard to the post-2019 scenario, with the provisions of EU law. Despite this agreement, the NBRU decided to withdraw from the talks yesterday.

The NTA is satisfied that it has the necessary powers under existing legislation to continue with the tendering process and will defend any threatened litigation by NBRU as necessary.

Notwithstanding what the Minister said at the end about the process going ahead, my principal concern having spoken to the various trade union representatives is that we are allowing or could allow a situation to evolve in which we will have an unnecessary strike or a cessation of Dublin bus services over something that is avoidable. Anyone with knowledge of industrial relations would understand that unless the parties concerned are talking to each other, there will not be progress.

I appreciate that this process has gone on for some time, although not for too long in the overall context. It is part of the European process. Notwithstanding that, for the National Transport Authority to state casually that it is going ahead with the tendering process is, in layman's terms, like a red rag to a bull. We can understand the reaction from workers and their unions. They see a situation in which they are going to be forced into a position where they have to make a stand. That should be avoided. That is my principal case to the Minister. That should not be allowed to unfold. Sometimes strikes happen by default. No worker wants to go on strike; they are not always beneficial. No one should be put in that situation. A strike is always a last resort for people in trade unions. Again, I urge the Minister to do whatever he possibly can.

I have taken note of Deputy Dooley's contribution. He spent most of his two minutes talking about privatisation and the Labour Party. His memory is short. He should consider Aer Lingus as well as what he and Fianna Fáil did to the subsidy to Dublin Bus, Bus Éireann, etc. He should check some facts before he contributes to Topical Issue debates.

While I thank the Minister for his response, unfortunately, it still does not address the serious issue we now have. It appears we are heading towards a scenario where the workers' representatives are seeking the protection of the courts while the Labour Party remains in government.

I am somewhat confused that the Labour Party is not doing more at Government level to support public transport. I am also concerned at the serious impact industrial action will have on the travelling public. It is incumbent on the Minister to address the concerns of the workers, which in essence will be addressing the potential concerns of the travelling public. The NTA needs to move back. Asserting its legal position at this stage is unhelpful. This can still be done around the table. Of course, I recognise the supremacy of the Labour Relations Commission and the Labour Court in attempting to find an appropriate solution. It is unhelpful that there will not be an opportunity to allow that to be dealt with in a calm and collected way. We have to try to pull back from the courts and the NTA has to pull back from its procurement process and try to find a solution that meets the needs and concerns of all at this time.

One of the reasons I have a very strong commitment to delivery of a 10% tendering of existing routes is because of my commitment to ensuring we have a growing bus market in the future that is more active, has more services and has the ability to respond to the travelling public. I am the Minister who, before Christmas, brought in a Supplementary Estimate of €110 million, the sole purpose of which was to support the development of the CIE group and meet its financial needs. I did that because I recognise the very important role public transport has to play in responding to and meeting the needs of passengers, in many cases where the private sector will not do so or is not in a position to do so. That is why our public transport companies, particularly our bus companies, are important, and it is one of the reasons they received such support from me before Christmas.

With regard to the Labour Relations Commission, I reiterate that what happened yesterday is disappointing. Many of the issues that have been raised by the unions as being important and which they raised with me before Christmas would have been resolved within the labour relations process. There are key issues in regard to the impact on workers and the future of the bus market. I am confident that if the process had been allowed to continue, these matters would have been dealt with and, therefore, what happened yesterday is disappointing. I reaffirm that the Labour Relations Commission, the supremacy of which Deputy Dooley acknowledged, is the forum in which matters like this should be dealt with. I am confident the legislation that is in place is robust. The NTA has indicated its intent to defend that legislation if it were to be challenged in the courts by the NBRU or another party.

Human Rights

I welcome to the Dáil today two of the sisters of Ibrahim Halawa, Nusaiba and Somaia, who are waiting patiently in the Visitors Gallery. I ask the Minister to please understand the enormous stress this family are under because of what has happened to their brother and son.

Ibrahim has been jailed in Egypt since August 2013 for participating in a peaceful protest. He is recognised by Amnesty International and Reprieve, two major NGOs, as a prisoner of conscience and they also fear his life is in danger. Let us be clear about the nature of the Egyptian regime in 2015. It is a vicious military dictatorship which is trying to reassert control after the Arab Spring revolution that has been taking place, which routinely mass-sentences hundreds to their deaths after sham trials and which represses not just the Muslim Brotherhood but also others, for example, a female socialist was shot in the street in recent weeks for participating in a peaceful protest. It crushes all opposition.

We and the family are asking not just the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, but at this stage the Taoiseach himself to intervene in this case. Given the situation Egypt, this should not be just Minister to Minister. The Taoiseach needs to intervene with the Prime Minister and the President to demonstrate beyond any doubt that the Irish Government is doing its utmost to get released an Irish citizen in a foreign prison.

I do not know how many Irish people are in foreign prisons at the moment but I certainly do not think sufficient of what needs to be done is being done by the Government. A man's life is in danger. Ibrahim has been tortured, whipped, electrocuted and shot in the hand. The stress on his mother is enormous. She has had to move to Egypt to visit him, and she was eventually allowed to see him on Saturday. He has been moved to the prison of Wadi al-Natrun, which is a notorious torture chamber. He said to her on Saturday: "Mum, take me out of here, they are killing me here". I cannot emphasise enough that if the Government does not intervene at the highest level, we could have a tragedy on our hands.

What I am asking the Minister to do is this. So far, it would seem the Minister has been making representations to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr. Shoukry, and he has done this three times, as reported in The Irish Times today. The Irish ambassador in Cairo has also taken an interest in the case. All that is not disputed. However, what has been asked by the Minister is for a review of Ibrahim's case or for him to be given a fair and separate trial. There is no fair and separate trial possible in this situation. It is a mass trial of 500. They will not take out one person and give him a fair trial. We need the Irish Government to recognise he should not be in jail because he does not have any case to answer, as has been well-investigated and documented.

What is being done is not working. This is a dictatorship, not a normal Government. One month ago, a presidential decree was submitted by lawyers for Ibrahim but, one month on, nothing has happened. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, report back to us? The Taoiseach himself has to act on this presidential decree because that is the only way it will move from the prosecutor's office to the Prime Minister's office. It will only be done if there is a push and pressure at the highest level. This is how Peter Greste, the Australian who shared a cell with Ibrahim, was released. This is how the Canadians and the Turkish have had their citizens released.

I would finish by raising a question mark. The Minister of State, Deputy Deenihan, is responsible for the diaspora abroad. Are there two tiers of citizenship in this country? We have given citizenship to many people. Ibrahim was born, bred and educated here. He has played GAA, in which the Minister of State has an interest. He is as Irish as anyone else. Are we serious about the new Irish or do we just think that Irish people are homogenous and only white and Catholic? That is a very serious issue. The family feel, and I certainly feel, that if his name was Paddy or Mick and if he was white, a lot more would have been done. I ask the Minister of State to put aside any concerns about the beef trade or any other concerns he has about the Egyptians and to please get the Taoiseach to intervene.

I thank Deputy Coppinger for raising this matter. I also welcome the sisters of Ibrahim to the Visitors Gallery. If I get an opportunity, I will speak to them afterwards.

I am replying to this Topical Issue matter on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan. Any suggestion that the Minister or the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are failing to act because of Ibrahim Halawa's name or because of his Egyptian heritage is unfair and unfounded, and is completely contradicted by the record of actions to date in this case. Such suggestions are utterly untrue and entirely without foundation, and I would like to put that on the record of the House before taking this opportunity to update the House more generally.

The postponed preliminary hearing of the case involving Ibrahim Halawa took place in Cairo on Sunday, 29 March. Officials from Ireland's embassy attended, including our ambassador Ms Isolde Moylan. This hearing was different from previous postponed hearings. All the defendants were present and the judge indicated that he would accept oral or written submissions from the lawyers present on behalf of their clients.

Ibrahim Halawa's lawyers formally presented an application for his release on bail and specifically referred to his youth, student status and Irish nationality. Among the documents submitted was a formal diplomatic note from the embassy confirming the support of the Government for the application and other documents supporting the application that had been sourced with the assistance of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The fact that the Irish ambassador was present in the court was noted. The trial was then adjourned until 26 April to allow for consideration of the petitions made.

I was genuinely horrified over the weekend to hear the reports in the media that Ibrahim Halawa was being tortured. The welfare of an Irish citizen imprisoned abroad is a matter taken extremely seriously by the Government and immediate action was taken by the consular division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the embassy in Cairo. The ambassador, Ms Moylan, made an urgent consular visit to Ibrahim Halawa yesterday. She met prison officials and had a visit during which Ibrahim Halawa was able to talk to her freely.

While imprisonment abroad is traumatic for any young Irish citizen, based on the facts established by the ambassador through direct contact with the citizen, the reports of torture were discovered to be unfounded, nor had he been housed in a death penalty cell as had been suggested in some reports over the weekend. Unfortunately, these inaccurate reports may also have been damaging to our ongoing efforts in this case as they attributed to the Egyptian authorities a level of maltreatment and abuse that is not accurate.

Where Irish citizens are charged with offences abroad, it is the foreign court which decides matters such as bail and release. Just as politicians here cannot interfere with legal cases ongoing before the Irish courts, Ireland cannot directly interfere in cases before foreign courts. Given that a petition for release is currently being considered by the Egyptian courts, the Government does not intend to make further extensive comments on this case at this time. I encourage all Deputies to be similarly judicious in their comments. However, we continue to give all appropriate support to Ibrahim Halawa, as we would to any Irish citizen in his situation.

Everyone is glad that the Irish Government had a representative at the so-called trial. Does the Government recognise that there cannot be a fair trial in Egypt at the moment? I ask the Minister of State to address that in his supplementary reply. If the Government believes there is any possibility of a fair trial, which is suggested in the response, that would be very dangerous.

In regard to the Minister of State's claim that reports of torture were unfounded, we have to take what Ibrahim and his mother, who has visited him, have said. I do not know why the Minister of State is making that claim but he has said it in the Official Report, and therefore it is quite serious. The Reprieve organisation in Britain, which follows up the cases of prisoners, said that Wadi el-Natrun is known as the torture prison in Egypt by activists and prisoners. Many deaths have occurred as a result of people being in it. Amnesty International, which is well-respected, has said his life is in danger.

The Minister of State is suggesting that there is an over-the-top reaction. This young boy was 17 years of age, a child in legal terms in our country. In case there is any suspicion of anything, for people from Egypt to go back there to visit and then participate in a protest is absolutely and utterly natural. It would be like people from Ireland returning to Ireland and going on a water charges protest or any other political development which was taking place in a country.

There is no proof or suggestion anywhere that there was any wrongdoing or violence involved. Therefore, he should not be in prison. Will the Minister of State ensure the presidential decree that was submitted and used to get the release of other high-profile prisoners of other nationalities is obtained? Other governments got it via this route. Why is the Irish Government taking a different route?

The Government's actions in this case must be guided by the fact that there is a young Irish citizen in prison abroad who is subject to a foreign judicial system. I would ask Deputies to keep in mind that, however well-meant, injudicious or intemperate statements made or actions taken here in Ireland may have a negative impact on Ibrahim's plight. Rather than assisting the situation, such action may in fact be contrary to his best interests. Unfounded reports of torture and unfounded allegations of bias against the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are doing nothing positive for this case.

The key consideration for the officials working on this case at all times has been and will continue to be to ensure the action taken is in Ibrahim Halawa's best interests. I would also like to acknowledge that this is a very difficult time for the Halawa family, as it would be for any family in these circumstances. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is keeping them fully informed of developments and will continue to work co-operatively with them to make positive progress towards our shared goal, which is Ibrahim's return.

I am also aware of various calls for additional action by the Government. We keep all aspects of this case, including the Department's approach, under review. At all times, the key consideration for the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and the Department has been, and will continue to be, to ensure action taken is in the citizen's best interests.