Topical Issue Debate

National Parks

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this Topical Issue because it is very important. I want to acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is a Trojan worker in his Department and I respect that very much.

Killarney National Park is being neglected and not enough resources are being put into its maintenance and care. I will be glad to give the Minister of State examples of how our national park is suffering from lack of investment. The rhododendrons are taking over completely despite programmes of work over the years to cut them. The deer population has exploded in recent years. The last survey I could find was carried out in 2008 and it showed that, in the previous 30 years, the red deer population had increased by 565% and the sika deer population by 353%. Have any further studies been carried out since 2008 on the deer population and, if not, is there the intention to carry one out in 2017? Despite the reinstating of the nature trails, many of the markers along the trails are missing and the trails need to be upgraded. Knockreer gardens at Knockreer House have suffered years of neglect. Dinah's cottage and the adjacent toilets need to be opened as soon as possible. Most importantly, the number of park rangers has been reduced from nine to four, with two more to retire next year. This is simply not good enough. I want to acknowledge the excellent work that has been done by the park rangers and the work of those such as the groundspersons who were there in the past.

The resource we have is the beautiful national park in Killarney. We all know Killarney is not the tourism capital of Kerry, of Ireland or of Europe; it is the tourism capital of the world. I want to put that on the record of the House. There is no place better in this world than Killarney and its national park.

I acknowledged the Minister of State at the outset. He is not a good politician; he is a Trojan worker and an excellent politician. However, I want him to become a martyr for our national park by ensuring that the resources it requires will be deployed. It is crying out for maintenance. When trees fall in the national park, they are left to rot. I have raised this issue in the Chamber and I have been told it is good for biodiversity to have them rotting on the ground and to have the snails and creepy-crawlies going through them. That is rubbish. We need that timber to be taken out and for the area to be cleaned up. We need to keep the place nice and clean, as the people long ago did before us. Great resources were put into this before but people are now inclined to think that, when it comes to the national park, we can close the gates and let it go and not maintain the deer population or aggressively attack the rhododendrons.

The rhododendron situation in Killarney National Park has become so bad that nothing short of calling in the Army is going to put it right because so many resources are needed to put it in order. The park is a magnificent resource. It is something Killarney people and other Kerry people have prided themselves on over the years. I want to compliment what I would call the conservationists who have stood up for the national park over the years, people like Kevin Tarrant and others from Killarney town who have given a lifetime of commitment to ensuring the national park is preserved for future generations. I plead with the Minister of State to put in place the necessary resources.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. While I agree with him sometimes, I totally disagree with him about Killarney. As far as I am concerned, the No. 1 place in Ireland, in Europe and in the world is a place called Westport in County Mayo. Anytime the Deputy wants to come down on holidays, he is very welcome to do so and he will see what is really happening down there.

I must begin by strongly refuting the position as set out in the Deputy's statement. My Department spent over €2 million in Killarney National Park last year. In fact, the Killarney House project within the park, including the wonderful ornamental gardens I opened last year, will amount to a to an investment of over €8 million in the park, €5.2 million of which I provided through Fáilte Ireland when I was Minister of State with responsibility for tourism and sport. The spend in 2016 represents a large proportion of my Department's overall budget for our six national parks and 80 reserves and reflects our commitment and the value my Department places on the park. My Department continues to manage Killarney National Park in order to abide by the strict criteria and standards for national parks as set by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in 2015.

With regard to the issue of rhododendron, as signalled in my response to the Deputy's recent parliamentary question, my Department has invested heavily in tackling this invasive species, the control of which is difficult, costly and labour intensive. The management of the dynamic and aggressive rhododendron is a long-standing, ongoing programme in the national park. In the past, approximately 3,000 of the 10,000 hectares in the park were, to some extent, affected. My Department remains of the opinion that the existing management programme has made significant inroads into the problem and that approximately 2,000 of the 3,000 hectares are under effective control at some 40 different sites.

Our ongoing programme of works at this time is composed of four elements: the initial clearance and follow-up maintenance work by contractors, ongoing maintenance work by volunteers and students, a rhododendron management contract and ongoing work by National Parks and Wildlife Service staff, including co-ordination, research and monitoring. Since 2011, the Department has invested over €700,000 to tackle rhododendron clearance in Killarney National Park and, in 2016 alone, the Department spent some €209,611 on clearance. An updated strategic rhododendron management plan is being finalised and the Department hopes to publish this in the coming months. In 2015 my Department appointed a specialist for a two-year period to assist the ongoing rhododendron programme.

With regard to deer in Killarney National Park, as part of its regular ongoing management operations the Department may carry out localised annual deer culls on State lands, if required. There is a significant challenge in attempting to balance the demands of agriculture, forestry and conservation with the need to ensure that deer populations occupying the same land resources are managed at sustainable levels and in a responsible and ethical manner. My Department commissioned a comprehensive survey and report in the winter of 2016 on the distribution, population and population structure of red deer and sika deer in the national park. The study found that the total estimated red deer population over the entire study area of 13.64 square kilometres was some 708 deer. On foot of the recent report, staff from my Department are currently undertaking a cull of deer in the national park which will be concluded by the end of March.

In conclusion, my Department continues to manage and invest in Killarney National Park and abides by the strict criteria and standards for national parks as set by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

With regard to Killarney House, I want to acknowledge the late Jackie Healy-Rae, who put Killarney House on the political agenda prior to 2011, when the Minister of State's Government took power. The Minister of State forgot to say that Killarney House is still closed. I was delighted to be there to welcome him when he came to Killarney on the open day when a section of the house opened last year, but it is still closed two years after it was due to open and that is simply not good enough. We want it to be fully open and we want the people to be able to appreciate the money that has been spent there.

I acknowledge greatly the money that has been spent but the Minister of State is dealing with two separate issues. The Minister of State is outlining much of the funding that has been spent on Killarney House. I am talking about the fact that the national park is being neglected. The Minister of State rightly sets out the money that has been spent but we are losing the war on the rhododendron and the deer, which have taken over completely. One has to acknowledge there was great management there in the past. There is great management there at present but it is being starved of adequate resources and it needs more help. We need more men and women on the ground. We need more people working there every day, merely doing the ordinary maintenance. That is all I am asking the Minister of State for.

I ask the Minister of State to recognise that. He knows I am not a blackguard. I would not come in here today to tell him that the national park is being neglected unless it genuinely is. I appreciate the Minister of State's reply asking how can I say this is the case when millions of euro have been spent there. Of course, millions of euro have been spent there - they have been spent on Killarney House and rightly so - but I am talking about maintaining the national park and keeping it as a living, breathing space where parents and their children can go to enjoy the amenities.

I acknowledge Deputy Michael Healy-Rae's father may have raised the issue, but we have to give the former Minister, Mr. Jimmy Deenihan, credit as well. The former Minister put a lot of work into this and put a lot of funding into it. In fact, I put more funding into Killarney House when I was in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Deputy should not doubt that I will be down in the middle of the year to open Killarney House. Many Governments, over 30 or 40 years, were looking in the window for years and did nothing about it. In fairness, the Government and its predecessor put the funding into it. That house will be opened and it will be superb.

The Deputy must admit it was a tremendous day when we were down there to open the gardens. It was a great community day. The people turned out and they all asked when the house would be open. I went in to have a look at the house on that occasion and it will be a tremendous asset to the tourism product in Killarney. I look forward to getting down there for the official opening.

Deputy Michael Healy-Rae raised the deer issue. We commissioned a report, which has been completed and we will undertake the cull. We have to be sensitive in that regard. We accept there is a problem and that problem is now being dealt with. That is why the cull is taking place and it will be finished by the end of March.

The Deputy also raised in a previous question the shortage of rangers. When I became Minister of State, the national parks had been starved of funding for many years. I have been fighting to get extra funding and got a little additional funding at the end of last year. I also got a commitment from the Government. The Deputy is quite correct that there is a shortage of rangers. The posts have been advertised and eight positions will be filled. In addition, I got a commitment from Government that whoever retires will be replaced plus the eight new rangers. We need many more rangers. The rangers have a wide variety of work to do. They have to cover much of the countryside and it is important to have them there.

We are trying to tackle the rhododendron problem. I note there have been differences in respect of the way this has been dealt with. I am putting out a call today to the community there to talk to the Department's officials. In Britain, the communities come in to the national parks and work with the Government to keep the national parks open. I am calling on the people of Killarney to sit down with the Department to see what support and help they can give to deal with this serious problem in Killarney National Park.

Passport Services

The number of people living in Northern Ireland seeking Irish passports has increased by more than a third over the past year. This is according to figures I obtained from the Minister's office. The figures show almost 33,000 people in the North applied last year for an Irish passport, an increase on 2015 of 34.6%. In 2015, 25,000 people living north of the Border applied for Irish passports, which was an increase of more than 12% on 2014. Last year, more than 15,000 people born in Britain applied for Irish passports, an increase of 103% on 2015, which saw an increase of only 2% on the numbers applying in 2014. In January this year, applications from the UK were up 74% compared with January last year.

I ask the Minister to open a satellite passport office in the north east or in one of the other Border counties to cope with this demand. The increase in applications is due to fears over the consequences of Brexit and the pending UK departure from the EU.

While we all are hoping and will be fighting to retain free movement of people after the UK leaves, we just do not know if that will be the case. There is still huge uncertainty about what exactly the situation will be post Brexit. I have established without any doubt that there has been a significant increase in passport applications from Northern Ireland and Britain because of Brexit and I appeal to the Minister to open a satellite passport office for the convenience of those applicants and many others who are inconvenienced by having to come to Dublin. I have been advised already, by way of reply to a parliamentary question, that the vast majority of passport applications from both sides of the Border are made through the post office networks on this island. I have been advised that this remains the most efficient and cost-effective way to apply and applications can be submitted at some 70 post offices in Northern Ireland and at more than 1,000 post offices in the State.

However, I have been dealing with ever more cases in which problems have arisen with applications for one reason or another and where there is an urgent need for a passport to be issued. It is extremely inconvenient for these applicants to have to make an appointment to attend at the passport office in Dublin. I have been advised that the Minister feels that the online service for booking such appointments works well and that he is satisfied with the overall service currently in operation. However, the numbers say otherwise.

Applications from Northern Ireland and the UK will only continue to rise and it is imperative that the situation be reviewed and the necessary improvements be made to the service to accommodate this expected significant increase. We are no longer talking about a relatively small number of applicants. The largest number of Northern Ireland passport applications last year came from County Antrim, where more than 13,000 people applied. The numbers of applications from counties Derry, Down and Armagh were almost 6,000, over 5,000 and over 3,500, respectively, while almost 2,000 applications came from County Tyrone with a not dissimilar number from County Fermanagh.

I have been told that the passport reform programme, which is well under way, will deliver further significant customer service improvements in the coming years. I ask the Minister to make it a priority that a passport office be opened either in Dundalk or elsewhere in the Border region to make it convenient for those applicants from outside the jurisdiction to attend for appointments. As the Minister will be aware, one cannot beat face-to-face service to resolve issues. Considering that there is a lack of a decent broadband service in many Border regions, forcing applicants online to make appointments is not the way to go. The best way to ensure a full level of service is to open a passport office in the Border region.

I thank Deputy Breathnach for raising this important issue.

More than 733,000 passports were issued last year, which represented an increase of more than 9% on 2015 and the strong demand has continued this year. At present, my Department forecasts further growth of 7% in passport applications in 2017. Last year saw an increase of 26% in applications from Northern Ireland and almost 41% from Great Britain. I expect this trend to continue.

Even with these increases, passport applications from the UK still represent less than 20% of total applications. Our growing economy has led to many more people travelling and we witnessed strong growth in outbound travel in 2016. Indeed, the CSO statistics show that there were 7.4 million overseas trips by Irish residents in 2016 compared with 6.9 million trips in 2015 - an increase of 7%. A growing population is among the other relevant factors which have significantly contributed to the growth in demand for Irish passports in recent times. The pressures are very real but I am satisfied that the passport service continues to have the capacity to meet its service commitments. The 15 working day target for passport renewals was met in almost 90% of the cases last year and it continues to be met this year. The turnaround time for first-time applicants is 20 working days due to the additional anti-fraud measures that apply. The integrity of our passport booklet is of key importance and Members will appreciate the care taken to protect its reputation.

To address the increased demand for passports, the passport service is employing over 230 temporary clerical officers during peak season this year to assist with the processing of passports. These staff have been hired and the roles are currently being filled.

The vast majority of applications on both sides of the Border are submitted through the post office networks on this island. This includes more than 70 post offices in Northern Ireland and more than 1,000 post offices in the State.

Over 90% of passport applications from the island of Ireland last year were submitted through the postal service. No Irish citizen needs to travel any significant distance to renew a passport routinely.

We are all keenly aware of the importance of our post office network on this island and I acknowledge the valuable role it plays in administering the passport service. I also want to acknowledge the importance of the post office, especially in rural areas. Public counter services for passport applications are the exception rather than the norm. In some cases where citizens find themselves without a valid passport, the offices in either Dublin or Cork offer an appointment service. These appointments can be made online.

I have great sympathy for those who have not allowed sufficient time for their applications and we endeavour to assist where possible. I emphasise that it is fundamental for applicants to choose the correct mode of application when applying for a passport. People should also ensure their passports are in date before booking travel.

I am progressing a programme of passport reform. A new online service will be launched in the coming months for adults, whether they are based on the island of Ireland or overseas. This service will be extended to all applicants, including first-time applicants and children, by 2019. People who cannot or do not wish to apply online will continue to be able to submit application forms through a service provider with an extensive network of contact points throughout the country.

The introduction of the online service will result in reduced turnaround times and fewer demands on the passport offices in Dublin and Cork. The efficiency gains will help my Department to manage the large volume of increases. The rationale for additional passport offices is not obvious and any new office would, in any case, need to have the capacity to provide a rapid renewal service to applicants with urgent travel requirements such as the service available through the Passport Office. This would require a passport production machine on site in a specially controlled and secure environment. The cost of a new passport printing machine would amount to €1.7 million.

I thank the Minister for his response. I acknowledge and laud the staff in the Passport Office as well as those in the Minister's office in respect of their work with difficulties with passports. I recognise the importance of the integrity of the passports.

As public representatives, we all know about the panic that gets into people when their passports go out of date. The difficulty of getting in to Dublin is increasing. The Minister is aware that were it not for the public representatives in this House and the Seanad, many people would not be in a position to avail of many of the services.

The printing of passports takes place in Balbriggan. The Minister referred to the costs involved in providing a satellite service. I believe the service could be provided in a secure environment, possibly at that location. That is why I did not indicate an exact location.

In the past, a direct helpdesk was available to Oireachtas Members. The extension of such a service to all public representatives is desirable. We are dealing with these requests daily and local authority councillors have the same difficulties. The problem is not going to go away and the numbers are going to continue.

I accept that the passport express service is ideal when circumstances are not difficult. Unfortunately, I am referring to cases where circumstances are difficult. The Minister referred to a 15-day turnaround. That is the indication for 2015 turnaround times in the Passport Office. The reality is that in November 2016 the turnaround was seven days because of the lack of pressure. The Minister indicated that there are 230 staff and some temporary staff as well. I believe the Minister is going to have to look at this sooner rather than later. I encourage him to take a further look at it.

I wish to assure the Deputy and all Members that this issue frequently becomes the subject matter of parliamentary questions, committee discourse and Topical Issue matters, as is the case this evening. I assure Deputy Breathnach that we will continue to keep matters under review to ensure we can provide the best possible service to the citizen.

The passport express service works effectively in offering access through local post offices. I do not believe that the opening of a new passport office is an appropriate response. The future service provider network will ensure that strong outreach is available to people who need assistance with online applications. The passport reform programme will allow for online application for all renewals. I am satisfied that this will greatly improve the situation.

Reference was made to a new passport office. There would be a considerable and significant financial outlay. I do not believe that would be the best way forward. Rather, I am confident that the changes under way in the passport services under our three year reform programme will provide far-reaching benefits for citizens in terms of access to the service, reliability and security. This will be the case regardless of whether people are based on the island of Ireland. I assure Deputy Breathnach that I will continue to keep matters under review.

Veterinary Inspection Service

There is considerable confusion at the moment. In 2015 a review of veterinary laboratories was carried out. Ongoing reviews are under way in Sligo, Athlone and other parts of the country. There is much disquiet and the relevant members of staff do not know what is happening.

The importance of these laboratories for farmers in the areas cannot be overestimated. Approximately 50% of the cattle in Ireland and 85% of the total sheep flock are based along the west coast from Donegal to Clare. This is of the utmost importance. The west has gone through a rough period over several years. It is good to see that employment figures have started to go up. We do not want to see a loss of services at this stage from Sligo, Athlone and such areas. They are of the utmost importance to the people in the area.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for taking this important item. I wish to highlight the real concerns and fears of the farming community in the entire north west over the potential closure of the regional laboratory in Sligo. I understand that during 2015 and 2016, a total of 3,140 animal post mortem examinations were carried out.

In recent weeks and months I have had several meetings with staff of the laboratory as well as farmers from my area and IFA representatives. I have listened to their concerns. It is clear the service is working well in County Sligo. The service is in a key location in the region and helps farmers from the north west. It covers Donegal, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo and Roscommon. I put it to the Minister of State that there is no need to fix something that is not broken. We have spoken about a long-term review. The laboratory and the staff are providing a vital service to the farming community in the region. I imagine the Minister of State can appreciate the need to put this issue to bed once and for all for everyone involved.

People could be forgiven for asking when the attack on rural Ireland is going to stop. I do not intend to have a political moan in the normal way about the issues, although I could do so.

The scientific concerns expressed by the Veterinary Officers Association of Ireland stand up to scrutiny. This laboratory is of strategic importance to the entire north west. It is of strategic importance to achieving the complete surveillance system envisaged by Food Harvest 2020. The veterinary officers association has said that our enviable animal health and food safety reputation will be put at risk and that this could have a severe impact on the many farmers throughout one third of the country. The association maintains the contingency plan for exotic disease control needs a response time of less than two hours. Reducing the number of laboratories with the closure of Sligo would seriously hamper the potential to meet this requirement. We have an issue with any proposed collection service. The Minister has indicated that it would be based on the Netherlands, which is a far smaller country with full-time intensive farmers rather than our part-time farmers. We have infrastructure that can facilitate those people. There will be issues with regard to cross-contamination in any collection service. There will be issues in terms of a helpline filtering out animals that deserve post mortem examination.

There could be zoonoses or other conditions which, if detected, could protect against a serious outbreak of disease. It defies logic from the scientific, agricultural and farming support points of view. It also adds a further nail to the coffin of rural and regional Ireland. Notwithstanding the fact that some issues in this report might have to be addressed, the best way to deal with them is not through the closure of this laboratory.

I am a little hoarse so I hope the Members will forgive me. I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. It is obviously very important to the region they represent.

The laboratories are an integral part of the Department, providing scientific evidence and expertise which allow the Department to function effectively as a regulator to deal with new and emerging risks and to respond rapidly to disease outbreaks and food safety incidents. The laboratories also provide valued services and advisory support to the farming community, the food industry and wider society.

My Department promotes and regulates an agrifood industry that has ambitious targets for growth and development over the next decade, as set out in Food Wise 2025. Sectoral expansion is already well under way, export trade is increasing year by year and new markets for Irish food are being continually accessed. The integrity of our national offering as a food island must be underpinned by robust systems that protect and enhance our reputation as a producer of safe and wholesome food and we must respond to this challenge by developing and enhancing our capabilities, safeguarding the food chain and public health and ensuring that our food production systems are both economically and environmentally sustainable.

In this context it is essential that we develop a long-term strategy for our laboratories that builds on existing capability and expertise in animal health, food safety and plant sciences and ensures we achieve both operational and scientific excellence. This was the primary reason for tasking a working group led by Professor Alan Reilly with undertaking a comprehensive review of our laboratories. Having considered the current and future needs of the Department and its external stakeholders, this working group presented a report to my Department late last year which makes recommendations on oversight and co-ordination of the laboratories' activities, reorganisation of structures and functions within the central laboratory complex, options for the future development of the regional laboratories with a view to improving disease investigative and surveillance capability but with the overriding imperative of maintaining and enhancing services to farmers and human resources management within the laboratories with a focus on grading structures, career development opportunities and workforce planning.

The Department’s laboratory management team is now consulting with relevant stakeholders, including staff in all of the laboratories, on these recommendations. It is important to emphasise that a decision on any of the working group’s recommendations will await the outcome of this consultative process. In the case of the regional veterinary laboratories, including the Sligo laboratory and its provision of laboratory diagnostic services and surveillance coverage for the north west, any decision will be informed by a cost-benefit analysis of the various options that have been proposed.

I wish to emphasise that a key objective of the strategy we are developing for the laboratories is to improve on our existing capability in surveillance of animal diseases at a national level so as to maintain the reputation of Irish food and food production systems. While delivering on that wider good to the farming community, the Department is also exploring how access to veterinary laboratory services can be maintained and improved on a nationwide basis.

Will the Minister of State give reassurance, especially to the Deputies from Sligo, that the Sligo operation will stay as normal and be continued? It is of the utmost importance. That is also the case with the laboratory in Athlone in my constituency. The west wants to know if the Minister of State will give the assurance that it will be kept going. I will give the other Deputies time to speak.

When one looks at a map of this country, one can see where the other laboratories are located. Beneath a line from Galway to Dublin there is the large laboratory in Backweston in Dublin and the laboratories in Athlone, Limerick, Kilkenny and Cork. The only laboratory above the line is in Sligo and it serves that part of the country. I met some of the laboratory's staff members during the last two weeks. Sean McFadden has served for a long time in the laboratory and has worked extremely hard with Francis Gonley and J. J. Feeney. If the laboratory is closed, which they cannot even envisage, their concerns are about decreased surveillance, inadequate case histories, huge transport costs, cross-contamination, carcase quality, biosecurity and spread of disease. They say an investment in the regional veterinary laboratories is required to provide capital funding to improve and modernise the existing regional veterinary laboratory facilities, proper staffing and resources to achieve accreditation and an upgrade of the laboratory information management system, LIMS, to allow more efficient data analysis and integration with other data systems. Investment in the regional laboratories is an investment in the future of Irish agriculture.

To continue Deputy McLoughlin's point, north of the Dublin to Galway line there has been consistent negligence by consecutive Governments in the provision of services. We did not vote to leave the EU or Ireland, but sometimes it feels like it when one considers the neglect. It is easy to write a report or criteria for closing things down. The Minister of State said it will be down to a cost-benefit analysis. What cost does he put on equality of services to the farming families of the north west and to the biosecurity of the part of the country that produces 40% of the country's weanlings? What cost do we put on correctly managing the surveillance of disease outbreak? Deputy McLoughlin and Deputy Fitzmaurice have spoken on this. This is a cross-party matter. It is not parish pump politics or looking for the Sligo Olympic bid to be successful and supported by the Government. We are seeking continuity of services and some level of geographical equality so people can get to the services. This is not the Netherlands. Ireland is not as small as the Netherlands and it does not have the road infrastructure to allow a collection system to work effectively. I appeal to the Minister of State to listen to his colleague, Deputy McLoughlin, and to Deputy Fitzmaurice and me on this issue.

I wish to point out that I have received representations from people in the County Clare side of Limerick relating to the veterinary laboratory there as well. Obviously, we would strongly oppose its closure. However, I welcome the update from the Minister of State that there will be no closures in Limerick.

I appreciate that this is a strongly-held, cross-party opinion. It is based on people's loyalty to, and concern for, their region. I cannot give Deputy Fitzmaurice a straight answer to his question. I wish I could, but that would pre-empt what will emerge from the consultative process.

At present, there are approximately 12 laboratories, including regional veterinary laboratories, dairy science laboratories and blood testing laboratories. Some of them are co-located and some of them are quite close to each other in other parts of the country. I take on board everything that has been said about the geographical distance. Each regional veterinary laboratory has an effective catchment area for voluntary carcase submission where 90% come from within a radius of 65 km. That is approximately a one hour drive with a car and trailer, which would be the typical type of presentation to a laboratory. Incidentally, I have travelled to Backweston and it has taken me longer to travel there with a carcase than an hour or an hour and a half on a bad day. We had an outbreak a few years ago. We are not even 65 km from Backweston. I probably would have been in Kilkenny quicker.

I take the points on board and the consultation will have to reflect them. Yes, a cost-benefit analysis is part of it, but only part of it. Deputy MacSharry is suspicious that it is tailored to close places but if it is a holistic cost-benefit analysis, it will take account of the cost of collection and transportation, if it is proposed, as opposed to voluntary drive-in. This is about trying to improve the service, not to take from it. It is worthwhile that the Deputies have raised this matter today because they have articulated a view. Deputy Neville also put in his oar for the mid-west.

The challenge is to do the right thing and to make sure the service is maintained for all the regions of the country equally, with an improving reputation that we can maintain for the industry.

Greyhound Industry

Earlier this month the gates of Harold's Cross greyhound stadium were locked, the traps and other equipment were removed, and after almost 90 years greyhound racing in Harold's Cross came to an end. Last week, I, Deputy Jackie Cahill and others met owners, breeders, those who had an interest in the industry and those who used the facilities at Harold's Cross. They were not consulted nor do they support this decision. The lack of support from the industry in this decision is evident in the protests at Shelbourne Park.

We are told that the Irish Greyhound Board made this decision because it has a debt and it wants to sell the lands at Harold's Cross to pay the debt. The primary cause of the debt was the overspend on the development in Limerick. Harold's Cross as a racing track is a profitable, successful venture, and in the absence of a wider plan by the Irish Greyhound Board, selling a profitable element of its organisation does not make sense and does not enjoy the support of owners, breeders and those involved in the industry. It is a historic and cultural part of life in Dublin for more than 90 years, dating back to 1928.

The decision last week to sell Harold's Cross racecourse was the last straw for many. The board of Harold's Cross were not consulted. Those who have contributed to the industry for generations are sick and tired of the way the Irish Greyhound Board is running this industry. Frankly speaking, it is running it into the toilet. It is a basket case at this stage. The level of debt is incredible, but also the decision-making process is wrong. I would urge the Minister of State to not act like his predecessors, who made the mistake of saying that it would sort itself out and that it is a separate organisation. It is now time for this board to be dismissed and time for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to take over the running for an interim period until it gets to the bottom of what the hell is going on in this organisation.

On Monday, 13 February 2017, on the eve of St. Valentine's Day, a most disastrous, cowardly and devious act was carried out against the greyhound industry in this country, especially in the greater Dublin area. Bulldozers have since been sent into Harold's Cross greyhound stadium to make it unraceable. Directors at Harold's Cross were not informed. Owners, trainers and breeders were at a loss, and continue to be in a state of shock. There were no talks between any of the stakeholders, just downright acts of scheming, lying and betrayal by those who carried this out. What makes this attack on the industry all the more astonishing is that it was carried out by those who claimed to be running the industry. It is these same people at the top level of the Irish Greyhound Board who have brought this great industry to its knees. It is clear that the closure of Harold's Cross is as a result of the appalling decision-making of the Irish Greyhound Board over the past ten years. The closure of the Harold's Cross greyhound track is because of the excessive overspend and the debt that was accumulated during the construction of Limerick greyhound track.

Harold's Cross is one of only three tracks in Ireland to make a profit consistently down through the years. It has had a clear and defined customer base for many years from a defined proximity. To presume that the customers, breeders, patrons and staff will relocate their livelihoods to Shelbourne Park is based on speculation and poor judgment. Shelbourne Park is more associated with the bigger trainer and the higher calibre of race. It is unlikely that they will now be able to handle or cater for the influx of extra races coming from Harold's Cross. This results in livelihoods being destroyed.

I do not mean to be flippant but this is one that has had me running around the track for a while.

Running away, maybe.

I am not running away, Deputy. Do not worry. I have tried to engage with everybody as best I can.

I appreciate that.

Bord na gCon is a commercial State agency responsible for the control, promotion and operation of greyhound racing. In this context it owns a number of commercial greyhound tracks, including Harold’s Cross. The operation of those tracks is a matter for the board and its subsidiaries. Bord na gCon also regulates the industry and provides a range of supports to the sector, including through the provision of funding for prize money and the allocation of grants to improve amenities at tracks. It is no secret, as has been articulated here already, that the board has been operating in an extremely difficult financial environment for a number of years now, with the pressures of the recessionary period, reducing tote receipts and attendances exacerbated by a very significant debt burden.

In 2014, against the background of reducing income for the organisation across a range of headings, my Department commissioned an independent report into certain matters relating to Bord na gCon, including its financial performance and prospects. That report, by lndecon economic consultants, recognised the very difficult situation in which the board found itself and provided a roadmap for the sustainable development of the greyhound sector. In particular it recommended a number of asset disposals, including Harold’s Cross stadium, to reduce the debt burden. The report was accepted by Bord na gCon. I understand that the board, having considered the matter, and having regard to the recommendations in the Indecon report, has decided to close Harold’s Cross stadium to initiate the process of putting it on the market. Its objective is to reduce the financial burden of servicing its debt, with the ultimate view of increasing its capacity to provide support and assistance to the industry. While this is very regrettable, the view of the board is that there is no other option if the burden of debt on the organisation is to be reduced in any meaningful way.

It is clear that this is a very difficult decision for the board, and of course there is significant opposition to it from greyhound people whose views are heartfelt and sincerely held, and indeed I have met them. This is to be expected and is completely understandable. There is a strong cohort of greyhound people, particularly in Dublin, who have a particular association with Harold’s Cross greyhound stadium. I understand that the intention of the board is to transfer the Harold’s Cross racing schedule to Shelbourne Park and that all staff at Harold’s Cross will be offered redeployment.

There has already been significant Government commitment to this sector in recent years, with the contribution of the taxpayer through the horse and greyhound fund having increased from €10.8 million in 2014 to €16 million in 2017. The greyhound racing industry simply would not survive without this public funding. However, the board also has an obligation to improve its own financial standing, and I do not consider it appropriate that this should always involve further recourse to the taxpayer. This is a sector that faces many difficult challenges, not just financial but also regulatory and reputational. I believe that the board, in very difficult circumstances, is working its way through the issues identified in Indecon and other reports with a view to addressing these issues.

I should also say that my Department will very shortly be bringing forward legislation to improve the governance and regulation, and ultimately the reputation, of the sector. I very much look forward to the input of colleagues across the floor to this important exercise.

In so far as Harold’s Cross is concerned - it is an important point to make, if the Ceann Comhairle will indulge me - any sale will ultimately require the consent of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Any specific proposal for its sale will be considered, having regard to the Indecon recommendations, the value to be obtained, the need to avoid any further burden on the taxpayer and the need to reduce the significant debt burden.

We are badly over time. I will ask the Deputies to be very brief.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but I want to return to the Irish Greyhound Board. It is some €20 million in debt and has now made a decision to sell Harold's Cross, which will only clear a proportion of it. Harold's Cross is a profitable entity in its own right. It does not make good business sense to sell off something that is making a profit and to retain other elements that are loss making. The debt that is on the books of the Irish Greyhound Board goes back to previous decisions it made, primarily around the redevelopment of Limerick, and in that regard I would ask the Minister of State to make it known to the Irish Greyhound Board that the prospects of ministerial approval for this disposal are nil.

The Irish Greyhound Board needs to wake up and come up with a much more viable and proactive business plan rather than saying the only way out of this is to sell assets. It is a lazy way and does not address the issues. If it continues running the same business model without developing the business, then the sale of this will be futile. I am absolutely opposed to it. I ask the Minister of State and his colleagues to make that known to the Irish Greyhound Board at an early stage.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He is one of the most honourable people in here, but the reply supplied by his Department is the same garbage that departmental officials supplied to me, Deputy Burke and others at last week's Committee of Public Accounts meeting. It does not get to the nub of the issue. It is washing its hands of it. It is letting down the owners, breeders, trainers and patrons. There is a fundamental problem with this organisation, its board and the executive that is running it. It needs to be rooted out and dealt with. The Department simply cannot wash its hands of its responsibility. There has been no representative of the Department on the board of the Irish Greyhound Board for some time. There is no accountability.

I very rarely come in here and speak like this. The people I reference here will not stop until they get accountability. The Minister of State has an opportunity to ensure that happens. It starts now by taking over this organisation, taking over the board on an interim basis, finding out what has been going on and putting in place a plan for the future. The Indecon report is nearly four years old.

With all due respect, I hope the Minister of State is not going down the same road as the Minister, Deputy Ross. The Minister of State is the major shareholder of Bord na gCon and has a big say. The industry is in a crisis. The prize money has sharply reduced in recent years. If the prize money goes down, attendances go down and that is where we have a problem. The board needs to be held accountable. There must be some mismanagement there if the prize money has been reduced by half over the past five or six years.

I am a greyhound owner and the director of a greyhound track. Our industry is in serious bother. There has been a dispute for the past three weeks and as far as I can see the Department is washing its hands of it. Our premier track has had no racing for the past three Saturday nights. Last Friday only six dogs turned up to race at Shelbourne Park. This dispute is doing our industry irreparable damage. We need to get all sides at the table and get discussions going. We need to get racing resumed. The closure of the Harold's Cross track and how it was handled must be addressed.

I appreciate all this. I am as anxious as anybody to let this new legislation get into the committee so that every stakeholder including those representing the Harold's Cross track will get the opportunity to have their say. Timing is critical here. I hope this can be put into the committee's schedule in the next couple of weeks. I have notified it so that the members can plan to have it on their work programme. In my previous role as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine we had the same process for the horseracing legislation.

This is a legacy debt that precedes my time and that of my two predecessors over two Governments. It was decided in 2014 that proper due diligence was not carried out over the development of the Limerick track. However, that is water under the bridge, unfortunately, and the debt continues.

I agree with what Deputies Curran and Kelly said about a business plan. That has to be the main focus of the organisation. I ask people to bear in mind that I answered parliamentary questions a couple of weeks ago asking if it was fair to put €16 million of taxpayers' money into a declining industry, which is a fair question. However, the background to that was a different agenda. Some Members of this House have a completely different opinion and they are not all from the city, as one might expect.

At the outset I specifically requested to meet the representatives of the Harold's Cross track on their own. If there was any way we could prevent this from happening, I would be happy to hear it. To go back to Deputy Kelly's point about the makeup of the board, how they will be filled and how their terms will operate, over the course of the discussions on pre-legislative scrutiny it will be important to stress having ministerial and departmental presence on that board all the time.

It provides regular budgetary updates on its trading position, which is actually quite healthy. However, to deal with the legacy debt will take a very ambitious plan. At the moment the only one seems to be the recommendations of the Indecon report.