Topical Issue Debate

Rail Network Expansion

In 1862, the Dublin-to-Meath railway line was constructed comprising a branch from Clonsilla to Navan. One hundred years later, Córas Iompair Éireann closed and lifted the line. There is only one functioning line into the middle of the county, that is, the Drogheda to Tara Mines line. Tara Mines is one of the few freight lines operating in the country at present and it takes approximately 40 HGVs off the road every day. The NTA has refused to transform that freight line back into a passenger line stating that due to the journey time from Navan to Dublin via Drogheda, it would not be used, but when one considers the figures I will cite later on, that is debatable.

In 1946, the rail line functioned into County Meath while the population was only 60,000. Now the population of County Meath is 200,000. As a Dublin man, the Minister will be happy to hear that there will be 250,000 of us Meath people living in the country very shortly.

Each morning, more Meath people leave the county to go to work than work in the county. That is the only county in the country where that happens. We have the notoriety of having the highest rate of commuting in the country. Yet Navan is the largest town in the country without a rail line. That has a massive cost for society. It is a major cost on business, it is a major cost on enterprise and it also involves a major cost on families.

For the average family who are commuting from Navan currently, the commute at rush hour takes roughly three hours a day. If one takes that back and forth, it is roughly equivalent to 90 days unpaid work for everybody who is commuting from Navan currently. If one lives in places such as Oldcastle, Athboy or Trim, that daily commute often increases to four hours a day in rush hour - two hours in the morning and two hours back to those places - which is the equivalent of 120 days unpaid work on an annual basis. There is certainly a major cost on business, but the Minister can imagine a mother or father undertaking 720 hours commuting on an annual basis from these towns and how their family life is negatively affected as a result.

There are also major costs to the families themselves. If one lives in Kells and works in south Dublin, one will pay two tolls a day. This involves a cost of €2,350 a year on tolls for anybody in Kells or Oldcastle working in south Dublin. The average cost of running a car is €4,500 on an annual basis. Private transportation is a significant cost for individuals.

There are also massive environmental costs. This has been brought to the fore today, which is a good development. Ireland faces approximately €600 million worth of fines by 2020 if we do not meet our climate change targets. By 2030, we could face €5.5 billion worth of fines in this country if we do not meet our climate change obligations. There is a trend within transportation, of which the Minister has charge, of an increase of between 10% and 16% in the level of CO2 being emitted before 2020. We are going completely in the wrong direction with regards CO2 emissions in transportation at present. That is not only about polar bears. We are talking about an increase in temperature of between 2.6° to 4.8° Celsius, which will lead to untold environmental damage and deaths.

Industry, business, family, safety, environment and health are being radically damaged at present due to the lack of provision of projects such as the Navan-to-Dublin rail line.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue in the House today.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for policy and overall funding of public transport. The National Transport Authority has responsibility for the development of public transport infrastructure in the greater Dublin area, which includes County Meath, and Iarnród Éireann is responsible for the maintenance and operation of the heavy rail network.

The Navan rail link project was included under the Transport 21 initiative and was to be developed in two phases: Phase 1 comprised the Dunboyne rail line project. This involved the reopening of 7.5 km of a railway line running off the Maynooth line, at Clonsilla, to the M3 interchange near Dunboyne. This line opened in September 2010 with park-and-ride facilities with 1,200 car parking spaces available and at Dunboyne with 300 car parking spaces available. Phase 1 was completed in 2013 with the opening of Hansfield Station. The plan for phase 2 involved the extension of the Dunboyne line between Clonsilla and M3 Parkway station, onwards to north Navan. This development, together with a number of other transport projects, was postponed in 2011 due to the economic and fiscal crisis.

The Deputy may be aware that the NTA, which has statutory responsibility for development of public transport in the greater Dublin area, GDA, included an examination of the Navan to city centre rail corridor in the preparation of its transport strategy for the GDA for the period 2016-2035. The NTA concluded that, based on current population and employment forecasts, the level of travel demand between Navan, Dunshaughlin and various stations to the city centre is insufficient to justify the development of a high-capacity rail link at this time. Instead, the authority proposes to develop an enhanced bus service along the route and to develop a bus hub in Navan. This position will be kept under review taking account of future developments in the catchment area and the NTA recommends that the corridor identified for a rail link to Navan should be protected from development intrusion.

Exchequer funding for public transport projects is set out in the Government's capital plan. The transport element of the plan covers the period up to 2022. I have previously outlined that my Department's first priority under the capital plan is to ensure the maintenance of our existing transport infrastructure at steady-state levels in order that it remains safe and fit for purpose. Based on the funding allocations for public transport under the capital plan, we should achieve steady-state levels by 2020. In view of the current constraints on availability of funding, the priority for the heavy rail network under the plan is to improve efficiency and maintain safety standards rather than expanding the network by opening new lines or stations. A mid-term review of the capital plan is under way and I will seek to improve the funding available for public transport in that context.

If additional funds were to be made available, there would be many competing demands within the public transport sector. All projects would be subject to robust analysis and would require strong business cases to justify their value and demonstrate how they would significantly improve the public transport system. The House will be aware that the role of heavy rail in Ireland's transport sector is under review. A public consultation process on the rail review document prepared jointly by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and larnród Éireann concluded on 18 January. The NTA is preparing a report about the process which I intend to bring to Government in due course. The public consultation process gave the public and all interested parties the opportunity to give their views and contribute to the debate on the future of heavy rail in Ireland. No decisions on any changes to the rail network will be made until the outcome of the public consultation process has been evaluated and the NTA's report considered. I thank the Deputy for raising this matter.

With due respect, the Minister will not even be happy with the answer provided because the first third of it was a civil servant's potted history of the rail line itself. I welcome robust analysis. No project should ever happen in the Department without robust analysis, but how is this for robust analysis? Meath has roughly the same population as Kildare, a higher population than Wicklow and a higher population than Louth, yet both of those counties are well served by regular rail services into Dublin.

The Minister said he is responsible for policy and that the NTA and Iarnród Éireann are responsible for transport and heavy rail lines, but he is responsible for those two organisations as well. It is not the case that he shares the Department with them. He is in charge of all those organisations. The NTA said the people of Meath should have buses, but the fact is there is no continuous bus route from the centre of County Meath into Dublin. The bus lanes have massive pinch points along the way and traffic regularly gets snarled up.

Not only is Navan the largest town in the country not to have a rail line but the bus service is the most expensive one in the country. The cost works out at 26 cent per kilometre compared with the Dublin to Drogheda route which costs 16 cent per kilometre. We are not talking about a massive distance. We are only talking about 30 km on an alignment that already exists.

There are two variables that will determine whether this project goes ahead. The first is population. As we discussed, Meath has roughly the same population as comparable counties. The second variable is political will. The issue is whether the Independent Alliance has the political will to build the necessary infrastructure in this country. The truth of the matter is that capital investment in this country is second from the bottom in the European Union. The only country beating the Minister with regard to low investment is Romania. Until that changes, the Minister will not be fulfilling his responsibility.

I thank Deputy Tóibín, who makes a very good case. I do not dispute that for a second. It is fair enough that Navan is the largest town in the country without a rail line. Some town has to be the largest town in this country without a rail line. Someone was going to make that case at some time. However, the Deputy makes a good case and provided he makes a good commercial case, the project will not be ruled out.

As I pointed out in my initial contribution, "This position will be kept under review taking account of future developments in the catchment area and the NTA recommends that the corridor identified for a rail link to Navan should be protected from development intrusion." That should be taken by the Deputy as encouragement at a time when new railways are not being built, for good reasons, namely, because of the financial constraints upon us. It is fully explained that the existing transport infrastructure is being kept "at steady-state levels" for the moment, and that is the absolute imperative for us. It is all very well to say we are undercapitalised and we have the lowest capital investment of any country in Europe, but at the moment we do not have any capital. That is the reason. We do not have capital for such projects, but when the mid-term capital review is completed and when more capital is available, which will be 2019 to 2020, I would have thought the project in question would be one of the first to be considered. As Deputy Tóibín so helpfully said, I am sure I will not be in office at that time, but someone else will and it is a project that would be looked at seriously. The fact the NTA has said not to build or develop on that line indicates to me that it is one of the projects being considered for the future.

Road Projects

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important issue for discussion in the Topical Issue debate. The upgrade of the N4 bypass to Roosky is very important to the Longford-Westmeath constituency. The road is currently operating at 120% above capacity, which is a significant problem for infrastructure in the area. It gives rise to a major safety issue in terms of traffic travelling on the road and there have been a significant number of accidents in the area. I recently met the chief executive and the executive team of Longford County Council. They made very clear to me that it is difficult for the IDA to sell Longford abroad because one of the main IDA sites in Longford, the Abbott site, is almost sterilised because of the corridor that is this road. In other words, the compulsory purchase order, CPO, process has not yet been approved, and because of that, there is no certainty. We need to provide clarity on the issue as soon as possible because to get it to the CPO process would not take much funding. In capital terms it is approximately €5 million. In the context of the mid-term review of the capital budget and in terms of the major projects in the country, it is amazing that the only significant piece of motorway north of a line east to west from Drogheda is the M1. We really need to invest in the bypass.

My Fine Gael council colleagues in Longford are in touch with me day and night about the issue because they see how important it is to attract investment to Longford and to ensure the county gets its fair share. When Dr. Brian McCann appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport recently, he spoke about the national planning framework and said it is a key piece of infrastructure which we need to get across the line urgently to develop the north west as a region.

It is important to note we need accessibility in the midlands. We need to ensure it is conducive to people going there and doing business. The N4-N5 is a key artery which has been mentioned recently in terms of the mid-term capital review and the bypass is a key component of that. I have been advocating the project to the office of the Minister, Deputy Ross, through parliamentary questions. I have also been in touch with the Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan. I am trying to make the case for this very important issue and to get funding for it in the capital plan.

Deputy Griffin is chairperson of the Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport. A number of chambers of commerce came together to present to the committee on the importance of this piece of infrastructure to the midlands as a region. Anyone can tell the Minister connectivity is very important in modern Ireland. It is very important that people can get to towns quickly to do business and that they are not subjected to the current infrastructure.

The country is on course to break even in 2018. More money is becoming available. That means more tough decisions have to be taken because there are many competing projects, but drawing a line east to west from Drogheda, there is no project with as strong a case as this upgrade. It is a key piece of infrastructure in terms of the national planning framework to 2040 that would open up the north west. People are crying out for this vital piece of infrastructure.

If Sligo is to obtain city status in future, this is a key avenue for that to happen. I appeal to the Minister to give this matter strong consideration. I am hopeful that we can deliver it and get it to the CPO process, thus giving certainty to Longford, Westmeath and other counties in terms of the planning process. After that, we will hopefully get the full operation to motorway status.

I thank Deputy Burke for raising this important issue. I am familiar with the site as I visited it recently with the Deputy's colleague, Deputy Moran. It is useful to have this debate again with Deputy Burke.

As Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding in relation to the national roads programme. Within its annual budget the planning, design and implementation of individual road projects, such as the N4, is a matter for Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, under the Roads Acts 1993-2015 in conjunction with the local authorities concerned.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance and improvement of national, regional and local roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and on the Exchequer. Because of the national financial position, there have been large reductions in Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure over the past number of years.

Within its capital budget, the assessment and prioritisation of individual projects is a matter in the first instance for TII in accordance with section 19 of the Roads Act. The Government’s Capital Investment Plan entitled Building on Recovery - Infrastructure and Capital Investment, provides the strategic and financial framework for TII's national roads programme for the period from 2016 to 2022. As Minister, I have to work within the capital budgets included in the plan and TII in turn has to prioritise works on the basis of the funding available to it.

Decisions on the transport elements of the capital plan 2016-2021 were framed by the conclusions reached in my Department’s Strategic Investment Framework for Land Transport. Based on the findings in that report it is envisaged that maintenance and renewal of the road network will continue to be the main priority over the next period and the bulk of the roads capital budget, approximately €4.4 billion, is earmarked for such essential work, with a further €600 million allocated for implementation of the PPP road programme which is already under way.

The transport element of the capital plan, Building on Recovery, makes provision for a limited number of development projects which are targeted at removing critical bottlenecks or upgrading inadequate sections of road, including the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin upgrade scheme. It was not, however, possible to include a range of projects, including the N4 Mullingar to Longford section which incorporates Roosky.

As regards the N4 Collooney to Castlebaldwin project, I understand that land acquisition and advance works for that project are under way and TII has provided an allocation of €7.5 million to Sligo County Council this year to advance the process. As regards the possibility of additional funding within the plan period for national road projects, the capital plan review process is under way and my Department is making a strong case for extra funding to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, including the development of a project pipeline for national road schemes.

The final decisions on allocations are, however, matters for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Government as a whole. However, I do consider the case the Deputy has made to be a very strong one.

I welcome the fact the review process is under way and that the Minister is making a strong case for funding under this capital plan. The key is investing in infrastructure because when we do so it unlocks our potential. Since I was elected to the Dáil, my Fine Gael councillor colleagues in Longford have been on to me morning, noon and night stressing the importance of this issue. It is also important to give certainty to those who have land along the route, as well as State investments such as IDA parks. Investors from abroad require certainty about building units of certain specifications on sites. We must also ensure that our road network is safe. Operating roads at 120% capacity is unsafe, so we need finance to improve that.

If the Longford to Roosky N4 bypass could be included in the capital infrastructure plan it would provide a significant boost for the midlands. We have learned from past mistakes in terms of how much investment went into the greater Dublin area where the economy took off. Rural areas must be given a fair chance to compete also, but they cannot do it without the necessary infrastructure. We must therefore invest in infrastructural projects in order to achieve that.

I thank the Minister for attending the House to deal with this Topical Issue. I have also raised this matter with the Minister of State, Deputy Patrick O'Donovan, who is also here. I have spoken to other Ministers about the issue too. We have to keep the pressure on in order to deliver this project and thus ensure that the midlands will have a fair chance to compete for investment on the national and international stage.

I take the Deputy's point about road safety, which is particularly pertinent. Safety has certainly been compromised in many places. One of my prime objectives as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is to reduce the number of road deaths and non-fatal road collisions. I will advise Transport Infrastructure Ireland of this particular project which the Deputy has raised and will ask them to consider it as one of the areas to be targeted for safety. The TII has been relieved of VAT on some of the money it collects in tolls, so that will now be targeted for road safety projects. The TII has identified four such projects for this year and several for 2018. While it is not certain, more funds might become available for the TII from a decision of the European Court on VAT. I hope the TII will use those savings to remedy accident black spots, including the Longford to Roosky N4 bypass project referred to by Deputy Burke. I ask the Deputy to bear that in mind and let us hope that what he has done today will bring us closer to safer roads and fewer road deaths and non-fatal accidents. If this particular project is considered in that light it should perhaps be given a higher priority than others.

Forest Fires

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Canny, for taking the time to be here for this debate. As he knows, substantial tracts of land have been destroyed by fire in County Sligo recently. I am sure that Deputy Connolly will outline what is happening in County Galway. Given the weather in recent weeks, some 4,000 acres in Sligo have been destroyed around Killery Mountain. I appreciate that the Government may well be considering some compensatory package to deal with the damage caused and the loss of income for local communities. One specific case in Sligo concerns the destruction of about 500 m of the Sligo Way, which is a substantial 34 km walk from Dromahair in County Leitrim to Coolaney in County Sligo.

The Sligo Camino is a significant walking event which takes place in July every year with substantial numbers of people already booked to participate. In order for the event to go ahead, this 500 m stretch of timber boardwalk needs to be repaired urgently. Perhaps some funds could be diverted for this purpose from the minor works scheme which is normally used to repair coastal erosion and flood damage.

The affected area is relatively small and would not require a large amount of money to restore it. The Sligo Camino is of national standing in terms of the tourism it creates. The Coolaney Development Association, which organises the event each July, is offering volunteers and any help it can give to carry out this work. Some funds will be required, however.

I am asking officials from the Minister of State's Department to make contact with Sligo County Council's CEO, Mr. Ciarán Hayes, to get specific details of what is needed.

In the grand scheme of things it would not be very much at all. It is 500 metres of what is known as the Sligo Way. It threatens the Sligo Camino, which is to take place and for which up to 1,000 participants have already pre-booked. Notwithstanding a broader package of measure to deal with the tragedies that we have had in Galway, Sligo and in other counties, I ask the Minister of State to deal with this specifically.

Go raibh míle maith agat a Cheann Comhairle agus go raibh míle maith agat as ucht an ábhair seo a phiocadh. As I stand here raising this matter the fire service, the Army, the Air Corps, Coillte staff and local people are out on the ground trying to bring a raging forest fire under control. Already, more than 1,500 ha of forestry and 2,000 ha of bogland have been destroyed. I understand from the local media that is an area five times the size of the Phoenix Park. That is happening as I stand here. The forest fire is raging from the Oughterard side of Galway over to Inverin on the other side.

I raise this issue first to pay tribute to the staff on the ground, but also to ask the Minister of State what are his and his Department's plans in respect of this matter. I understand that the loss of productive timber and its replacement alone will be at a multi-million euro cost, not to mention the loss of wildlife, the damage to the environment, the serious threat to people's houses and livelihoods and so on. This fire is in the Cloosh Valley which is the biggest forest in Ireland as I understand it, covering more than 4,000 ha. That means that, already, 25% of the forest has been destroyed. These figures are difficult even for me to comprehend, but are even more difficult for the people on the ground where the fire is raging as we speak. I was on the Aran Islands on Monday with the Joint Committee on the Irish Language, the Gaeltacht and the Islands, and we could see the smoke from there. I have a number of questions to which I will return after the Minister of State's response, but the first is how could this have happened? What fire assessment was carried out? What risk assessment was done? The biggest wind farm in Ireland is right in the middle of the forest. How was it allowed to go in there? When it was allowed to go in there, what assessments were carried out?

I thank Deputies MacSharry and Connolly for raising these matters. Forest fires have a significant impact, as we are witnessing. Deputy Connolly has set out the scene that is taking place at Cloosh Valley in Galway, a place I know well as I am from Galway.

Responding to these fires and to public safety is key at this time. Forest fires can destroy habitats, wildlife, farm land and farm structures and can threaten homes and lives. They bear a huge cost not just to physical property, but also the cost of disruption to normal emergency services operations. On behalf of the Government, I acknowledge and pay tribute to the tremendous work of the emergency services and the co-operation of other State agencies, including the Army, the Air Corps and Coillte in keeping these fires under control and attempting to extinguish them. I take this opportunity to remind and urge the public to follow the advice of the emergency services and to stay away from any areas affected by the fires. Any uncontrolled or unattended fires should be reported to emergency services.

I understand the Sligo Camino follows the Sligo Way through some of the finest scenery in the west of Ireland. The route is a challenging mixture of tracks, trails and forest paths. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has today informed my office that the part of the boardwalk on the Sligo Camino that was damaged by the gorse fires is not on Coillte land and is not afforested. I am advised that the boardwalk damage is located on privately owned commonage, which was developed jointly by Sligo County Council and the Sligo Leader programme.

In respect of my own office, under the minor flood mitigation works and coastal protection scheme, referred to by Deputy MacSharry, the Office of Public Works provides funding to local authorities to undertake minor flood mitigation measures costing less than €500,000 each to address local flooding and coastal protection problems within their administrative areas. Funding of up to 90% of the cost is available for approved projects with the balance being funded by the local authority concerned. Local authorities submit funding applications in the prescribed format, which are then assessed by the OPW having regard to the specific technical, economic, social and environmental criteria of the scheme, including a cost benefit assessment. With regard to the latter, proposals must meet a minimum benefit to cost ratio of 1.5:1 in order to qualify. The scheme operates to fund works to mitigate flood risk. Repairs to forest trails destroyed by forest fires do not qualify under this scheme.

While today we are seeing the Government's proactive response to forest fires when they occur, the Government is also very active in its management of the risk of fires, including through issuing fire danger notices. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has issued a number of fire danger notices to the forestry sector since the beginning of March, including elevating the risk to red on 2 May in advance of the recent spate of fires. These fires are monitored through a combination of EU Copernicus and US NASA data streams which have detected over 50 illegal fire locations using satellite data up to 21 April of this year.

The Government has also legislated to prohibit burning on land that is not cultivated. It is an offence under section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976, as amended by section 46 of the Wildlife Act 2000, for landowners or the public to burn any vegetation growing on any land not then cultivated from 1 March to 31 August in any year. Individuals who are found to burn vegetation within that prohibited period are liable to prosecution by An Garda Síochána or by the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

I assure the Deputies that the Government will continue to work closely with the emergency services, local authorities, An Garda Síochána and the National Parks and Wildlife Service, as well as with farm organisations and the forestry industry to try to address the problem of uncontrolled fires and will act on any incidents cross-reported to it, as appropriate.

I urge all forest owners, farmers, rural dwellers and other countryside users to be vigilant to the threat of fire, to report any suspicious activity to An Garda Síochána, and to report any uncontrolled or unattended fires immediately to the fire and emergency services via the 112 or 999 service.

I thank the Minister of State. Unfortunately I do not hear any good news in his response about funds being available. I ask the Government to look at a package of measures, particularly in Galway where there is a substantial amount of damage. I am talking specifically about an area in Sligo. The Minister of State himself mentioned that the Sligo Camino is on privately owned commonage. It is a public amenity. The private owners of whatever areas of commonage facilitate it. It would not cost a huge amount of money. I said in the wording of my Topical Issue that the minor works scheme might not be appropriate, and the Minister of State has said that it is not, but there are other funds there. It is not a huge amount of money. I appeal to him to speak to his colleagues to see if some few shillings can be found to rectify this situation because we are talking about tourism. Some 1,000 people from all over the country, and beyond, are coming to the area for this event, which will have to be cancelled. We are talking about 500 m. Surely we can knock our heads together to come up with the small level of resources needed to deal with this matter, notwithstanding the need for a larger look at the whole issue, particularly in Sligo and Galway where there has been substantial damage and ultimately a loss to the State in terms of revenue.

While I appreciate the Minister of State's attempt to give an answer I am shocked that in the five pages there is no mention of Galway.

This is an emergency. An emergency should be declared. I have pointed out the figures - between 1,000 and 1,500 ha of forestry alone are gone along with 2,000 ha of bogland. They have been burned. There is a serious threat to people's lives and, as has been outlined, to wildlife and habitats. At the very least I would have expected to have heard what the emergency response from the Department has been. Has the Minister of State or any Minister gone down to inspect the area and talk with the services on the ground? What interim report has come back? What are the Minister of State's long-term and intermediate plans? I would have expected that at the very least. This is a most serious fire. An area five times the size of the Phoenix Park has been destroyed, and there is nothing in the five pages about Galway.

First, I did mention Galway in my response. The kernel of Deputy MacSharry's issue is funding to replace a small section of the Sligo Camino. As that was installed by the local authority with Leader funding, if the local authority looks at it, appraises it and sees what the costs involved would be, it can submit those to the Government and we will see what we can do. I am saying, honestly, that money used for flooding cannot be taken and put into something else. That cannot be done.

It is ironic that we have responsibility for flood relief and here we have a drought and fires. In China, the relevant minister is responsible for floods and drought.

Going back to the question raised by Deputy Connolly, emergency response is dealt with by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The reason I am answering the question is that the Deputy was looking for funding from minor works flooding to deal with it. I will bring her concerns back to Government regarding what can be done. All of the emergency response units are there dealing with it and people are being told to keep back from the fires. All of the warnings have been issued. The satellite pictures show how many fires are happening at the moment. It is incredible that the fine weather we have had and the wind have created a huge number of issues. There is more than one Department involved in this - including the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and others - so there must be a whole-of-Government response to it. Right now, the emergency services are dealing with the issue and are trying to bring the fires under control.

The Deputy asked who started the fires. We do not yet know who did so. Hopefully, the cause of the fires will be found but the most important thing right now is to get them under control and ensure they are put out. We are working on doing so.

Middle East Issues

I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade for taking this issue. As he might know, 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are on hunger strike. The strike is in its 23rd day and has been named "Freedom and Dignity". The prisoners are only accepting water and salt to sustain themselves. The reason why the prisoners are on strike is the continuing brutalisation of Palestinian prisoners in Israel. I include 300 children who are not on hunger strike but who are in the prison population. I will read out the demands of the hunger strikers because they are crucial to understanding why the prisoners are on hunger strike. They include an end to the denial of family visits, the right to pursue higher education while in prison, appropriate medical care and treatment and an end to solitary confinement and detention and imprisonment without charge or trial. The prisoners are subjected to solitary confinement, torture, medical negligence, abuse, withdrawal of phone calls to their family members and violations of their basic human rights.

Over the past 23 days, some of the prisoners have been moved to other jails by the Israeli authorities, which is highly suspect. The Israeli Government has even stated that it is willing to force feed some of the prisoners, which I find unbelievable. I thought this was probably an exaggerated statement but apparently it happened in the 1980s with other Palestinian prisoners on hunger strike in Israeli jails. One of the prisoners' leaders, Marwan Barghouti, has been in solitary confinement for the past 23 days, which is quite outrageous. The Israeli Government has refused to negotiate with the prisoners on their demands and refers to the prisoners as terrorists. I would refer to them as political prisoners.

There is growing international solidarity with and support for the prisoners. In general, Ireland has a very good record of showing support for Palestinian rights and statehood. We had a similar situation in the early 1980s with hunger strikers in Northern Ireland so we know what people have to do to demand their rights and the extremes to which they will go to highlight their issue. I am asking the Minister to highlight this issue and summon the Israeli ambassador and tell him to negotiate with the prisoners because it is only a matter of time before some prisoners die.

The position of Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israel is an issue which Ireland has consistently raised over recent years in our dialogue with Israeli authorities. This has included contacts both here in Ireland and in Israel as well as in our discussions at EU and UN level. Our concerns have related to both the incidence and the conditions of detention. This has included the increased use of administrative detention without trial and our concern that detention is in some cases being used to try to deter activists from engaging in peaceful and legitimate protests against the occupation and related policies. Of course, we must also acknowledge that many Palestinian prisoners, including some now on hunger strike, have been convicted of very serious offences, including involvement in violent attacks.

Issues raised under conditions of detention have included physical conditions, medical issues, legal processes and family visits. It is only fair to recognise that we could express similar or stronger concerns about prisoners in many other jurisdictions in the region as well as in Israel. Within those representations we have made to Israel, there has been a particular focus on detention of children and Ireland raised this question in our intervention at the universal periodic review of Israel at the UN Human Rights Council in 2013. We have also engaged with the Israeli authorities on some specific issues relating to children and there have been some improvements such as the raising of the age at which young persons are treated as adults in the judicial system.

Regarding the current situation, some 1,500 prisoners were reported to have begun a hunger strike on 17 April. We cannot support the use of hunger strikes as a means of exerting pressure. There is a real risk of attitudes hardening on either side leading to tragedy. We do not want to say anything that could add to that risk. We are all aware here, of course, of the danger of a hunger strike leading to increased tensions and clashes on the streets as we have seen in the past. For these reasons, I will not comment on the specific issues which the strikers have raised. However, I would reiterate our essential position, which should be an obvious one, namely, that detained Palestinians should have the same protections and conditions that Israel affords its own citizens when detained. I would also stress that since Palestinian prisoners should under international law be held within their own territory, when Palestinians are being held in Israel, special attention must be given to ensuring that family visits are realistically facilitated.

My Department raised this issue with the Israeli ambassador on 9 May. We also raised it yesterday with the Israeli mission to the EU in Brussels. The EU missions in Palestine, including Ireland's mission, issued a public statement on Saturday concerning the hunger strikes and issues related to conditions of detention and calling on Israel to respect fully the rights of prisoners. I am aware that previous hunger strikes have been resolved allowing a tragic outcome to be avoided. I very much hope that this will also be the case on this occasion. More generally, issues regarding prisoners will continue to be followed closely by my Department.

The Minister should take sides because these are not ordinary prisoners. Most of them have been incarcerated against their will. As the Minister stated, 300 children, who are not part of the hunger strike, are in Israeli prisons. Palestinian prisoners are subjected to the most inhumane treatment Israel can mete out. If it mirrors what Israel does on a larger scale - how it treats Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and Israel - it is a terrible reflection on the state of Israel. It is important for the Minister to contact the Israeli ambassador and state that he is extremely worried about the ongoing issue of political prisoners in Israel. It is very important that he relays that message. Only recently, it was reported in the news that Ireland bought military drones from the Israeli military. I find it extraordinary that the Irish Government buys military hardware from a country with an appalling human rights record - a horrendous, obnoxious, racist state such as Israel.

The Minister says he is not going to take sides. That is the problem. He needs to take a side. He needs to see that an oppressor is oppressing the Palestinian people. These men are on hunger strike to highlight that they are being brutalised in Israeli jails. I would do the same as them. Out of solidarity not only with Palestinian prisoners but also the Palestinian people, we should tell the Israeli ambassador that this situation needs to be dealt with before people die.

I will not comment on specific issues which have been raised by the strikers as I do not regard it as appropriate. I assure the Deputy that Ireland will continue to be active on this issue. Officials from my Department yesterday spoke to the Israeli ambassador in respect of this matter.

What did he say?

We have been active for many years in regard to prisoners' issues. We have raised directly with the Israeli authorities the current situation of the hunger strikers. These contacts are being kept low key. I do not want to do anything that might exacerbate the situation. European Union missions in Palestine, including Ireland's, are aware of the situation and are actively engaged. We have issued a public statement of concern in this regard, in the course of which we have reiterated the call by the European Union for Israel to respect fully international humanitarian law and its human rights obligations towards all prisoners. The detention in prisons in Israel of Palestinians who qualify as protected persons under Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is in contravention of Article 76 of the convention. Access by family members to the detainees should be facilitated rather than impeded in any way. The heads of mission, including Ireland's, have reiterated their long-standing concern about the extensive use by Israel of what the Deputy has described as administered detention without formal charges.

There are many issues of concern. I assure the Deputy of Ireland's interest in this matter. He mentioned the issue of force-feeding specifically. I am opposed to its use. Israeli doctors' organisations have long said they would refuse to co-operate with force-feeding. I assure the House and the Deputy that Ireland will continue to play a role in this matter.

Sitting suspended at 4.33 p.m. and resumed at 5.13 p.m.