Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Abbey Theatre

Niamh Smyth

Ceist:

34. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to address concerns raised by more than 300 Irish artists about the Abbey Theatre; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [1719/19]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

35. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her views on the letter written by 300 artists about the future of the Abbey Theatre. [1696/19]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Ceist:

37. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if her attention has been drawn to the major difficulties in the theatre, film and arts sectors in terms of insecure employment income and career possibilities in view of the controversy in a theatre (details supplied) and a recently launched campaign by actors and performers with regard to precarious work and ongoing disputes related to insecure employment in the film industry; the actions she plans to take to address these concerns; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [2004/19]

What plans does the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht have to address concerns raised by more than 300 Irish artists about the Abbey Theatre?

I propose to take Questions Nos. 34, 35 and 37 together.

On 7 January I received a letter signed by over 300 theatre practitioners. It raised the concerns of the practitioners about the direction taken by the Abbey Theatre in the past two years. I have huge respect for the theatre practitioners who wrote to me and celebrate the extent and depth of the talent encompassed by the totality of the signatories. While the correspondence from the theatre practitioners raises concerns about the changing artistic model at the Abbey Theatre, I understand more positive outcomes from the changes have also been recognised. I acknowledge the concerns raised by the practitioners, while at the same time recognising the Abbey Theatre's need for artistic freedom to strike a balance in its programming. I also recognise the necessity for a strong working relationship between theatres and theatre practitioners which is vital for the continued success of theatre in this country. The Abbey Theatre and all theatre practitioners are a central part of our national culture. Therefore, I take the concerns of the practitioners very seriously.

I have been informed that the Abbey Theatre had already been aware of some of the concerns raised by the practitioners and is actively working with stakeholder companies to address them. I am pleased to report that it is already making arrangements to meet representatives of the signatories to discuss their concerns. In the meantime, I have written both to the theatre practitioners and the Abbey theatre on the issues raised last week.

I note also that the Abbey Theatre’s statement makes it clear that it pays the actors it employs on terms and conditions agreed to with Irish Equity, the actors' union. In presentation or in-association arrangements the Abbey Theatre does not set the rate of pay, which has been the prerogative of the producing companies. It has stated this is to be reviewed as part of the dialogue with the theatre practitioners.

On Friday the Abbey Theatre issued a press release acknowledging the discussion in the media and stating it was listening attentively and with respect to all viewpoints. The statement went on to indicate that it was acutely aware of the precarious nature of work of those working in theatre as freelancers. I am confident, given these sentiments and the commitment of all parties to dialogue and engagement, that we can look forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome that will deliver the vision for a national theatre at the heart of Irish society that is artist-led and audience-focused.

The Arts Council has informed me that it had been engaging with the Abbey Theatre in recent months on the quality of employment opportunities and remuneration rates that it provides for Irish-based artists. That is the role of the council as the main funder of the Abbey Theatre and other State supported theatres and arts organisations. I am reassured by the fact that the council was already aware of the issues and taking action on this issue with the Abbey Theatre. As with all Arts Council funding, support for the theatre in 2019 will be based on a funding agreement. As has been documented in the media, €300,000 has been withheld pending confirmation that these conditions have been met.

The Abbey Theatre recently launched its five-year strategy, which sets out the key priorities of its vision between 2019 and 2023. It reflects the theatre's core responsibilities to Irish theatre-making, audiences, staff, funders and the community of stakeholders. The strategy has three interconnected strands: art and audience, internationalisation and investment and people and processes. In each strand the theatre identifies and outlines its goals for the five-year period. They include a consistent focus on new work and providing space and time to support artistic exploration and experimentation, alongside the theatre's relationship with established Irish playwrights and artists, as well as a pledge to ensure equality, specifically gender equality, and diversity remain at the heart of its plans and all of its activities.

The Government understands the importance of culture and is committed to supporting it. The Taoiseach has committed to doubling funding levels for culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht by 2025. The announcement of €1.2 billion in capital funding for these areas last year in Project Ireland 2040 and the significant increase in current funding for the arts in budget 2019 are proof of this.

I was pleased to be able to deliver additional supports to the sector in line with these Government commitments. In budget 2019, funding for the arts and culture sector in general was increased by €22.6 million to almost €190 million. That is an increase of 14% on 2018. This funding comprises €148.2 million in current expenditure and €41.7 million in capital investment. It includes an increase in funding to the Arts Council of almost €6.8 million, or 10%, to a total of €75 million. That is made up of €6 million in current expenditure, more than double the increase in 2018. The vast majority of this money goes directly to artists and those working in the arts in Ireland.

In 2017, the Government launched a pilot initiative allowing visual artists and writers to apply for jobseeker's benefit if and when they become unemployed. My Department is currently reviewing that pilot scheme with officials of the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection with the possibility of extending it to other artists, including actors. These initiatives, as well as the increased funding for the arts and cultural sector, in addition to the almost €1.2 billion in capital funding, clearly show that the Government is acting on our commitment to double funding by 2025. I have also asked the Abbey Theatre to give me an update and to keep me informed of progress.

It was not only brave but also inspirational for 312 artists to be prepared to put their heads above the parapet and add their names to this letter. Many of those signatories are young and there is always a concern for an artist that if he or she speaks up too soon or too loudly on pay and conditions that it will have a detrimental impact on his or her career. It is, in no small way, a very brave thing that these artists have done. Some of them are cultural ambassadors appointed by the Minister, so I am sure they will have her ear in expressing the importance and significance of this issue.

We had members of Theatre Forum in here yesterday. Although this question is focused on the Abbey Theatre and the artists who have signed this letter, there is also a broader issue with the precarious situation that actors, playwrights, film artists and visual artists find themselves in during their working career. The Government's approach and response to this issue has been hands off and the silence on this issue has been deafening. The Minister has responsibility for this national cultural institution and she appointed the board. The ethos and objectives of the Abbey Theatre are greatly important and have to be influenced in some way by the Minister. The major issue with the Abbey Theatre centres on doing in-house productions to give opportunities to artists, actors, designers and playwrights.

I accept it was very brave of the some 300 signatories to put their names to a letter to the Abbey Theatre of this nature and seriousness. There is no doubt about that and it is important their views are heard. They represent the acting profession throughout Ireland and the Abbey Theatre is the national theatre. I laud them for that. It is important there is a proper channel of communication between the Abbey Theatre and the actors. If this letter has precipitated that conversation about better communication in the future, then that is a good thing.

I see what the Deputy is saying about the precarious nature of the profession in general for actors and that is why, in my earlier statement, I mentioned the social welfare pilot scheme we have in place for actors. We that will be rolled out once we look at the pilot in more depth. It is under review at the moment and it may be something that is feasible. It would be acceptable to assist artists in the future. On my own role, I have responsibility for setting the overall vision and the strategic direction for Ireland's cultural sector. In the first instance, these issues should be resolved by dialogue between the Abbey Theatre chair, board, directors and the theatre practitioners. I am already encouraged that the dialogue is taking place and that there will be progress.

I thank the Minister for raising some of the issues she mentioned but it is a pity it took more than 300 artists, actors and directors having to take to the national newspapers to raise these issues. They have raised them over the years but they have not been addressed fully. The Minister has urged dialogue but we need to go further than dialogue between those who signed the letter and the directors of the Abbey Theatre. It says something that things have got to this stage. Will the Minister agree that the national theatre itself has a role in setting an example in respect of terms and conditions of employment for actors and those within the theatre profession? Will she also agree there is a need for an ongoing conversation on the role of the national theatre now and in the future? I refer in particular to the commissioning of Irish works which directly employ Irish actors, etc., as well as ensuring there is an employment regime which encourages those who are self-employed in the industry.

The Abbey Theatre certainly has a responsibility to examine the issues raised by the signatories in their letter. I wrote a letter to the Abbey Theatre on 11 January 2019. I stated that I was pleased to note that the Abbey Theatre had taken the concerns raised very seriously and had extended an invitation to representatives of the signatories to meet and discuss those concerns. I also welcomed the commitment by the Abbey Theatre to engage in dialogue and engagement and stated that I was supportive of their collective endeavours to resolve the matters raised. I asked that a report be submitted to me in a month with an update. I also stated that I looked forward to a mutually satisfactory outcome that will deliver the vision for a national theatre at the heart of Irish society that is artist-led and audience-focused.

I also wrote to the theatre practitioners and told them that I publicly lauded the wealth of talent among them. I continued by stating that while I acknowledged the necessity for the Abbey Theatre, as with all theatres, to have a level of artistic freedom with its programming, I also recognised the necessity for a strong working relationship with theatre practitioners and that is vital for the continued success of theatre in this country.

I talked to people who signed the letter as well as to people who were asked to sign it and made the decision not to sign it. As we can see, there is quite a polarised debate on both sides of this question. To some extent, it is up to the theatre and arts community to sort this out themselves. There has to be a balance between making the national theatre a space for all the people, all the theatre community and all the different theatre companies while at the same time guaranteeing decent terms and conditions of employment and some sort of security for actors and theatre workers generally.

That is what I want to focus on in my question. Will the Minister accept that what is really at the bottom of this situation is that workers in the arts, whether actors, performers or film workers, whose concerns I have raised with the Minister incessantly for the last year, have no security at all? They have no security of employment, no security of income and no security of career path. That is the problem. We take them for granted. We wheel out these workers in the arts for the celebrations of the centenary of the Dáil but we do not care that they are living in poverty and have no security of employment.

It is possible to work in the film industry or the arts sector for 20 or 30 years and not know whether there will be a job next week and an income or if it will be possible to pay the rent or get a mortgage. That is the problem.

I thank Deputy Boyd Barrett for his question and for acknowledging that this is a polarised debate, or perhaps we might say discussion. It is already clear from media reports that there are very different viewpoints to the debate and it has to be said that the direction taken by the current Abbey Theatre directors has been positive in many respects.

Developments that have been lauded include increased audiences, greater diversity of productions, gender balance and financial performance.

I note what the Deputy said about artists and actors in general and the struggle they have. It is not an easy profession. By its nature it is precarious and there is an onus on the Government to try to support their livelihood in any way it can. We are trying to do that through a social welfare scheme. There are currently 46 writers and artists participating in the pilot scheme and over 80 have participated in it since its commencement. As I said, it is under review currently and we are considering, hopefully, trying to extend it. There has also been greater funding for the arts, as I mentioned in my earlier reply.

The letter requests that the Abbey Theatre stages a larger percentage of in-house productions rather than co-productions or buy-ins. It also requests that the performers, directors and designers whose work is used by the National Theatre of Ireland get Abbey Theatre terms and conditions. Does the Minister believe that the balance between co-productions or buy-ins and in-house productions since 2016 is correct? Does she believe that the artists who are performing in the National Theatre of Ireland should be remunerated in line with Abbey Theatre rates? Does the Minister agree with the dismantling of the literary department in the Abbey Theatre?

Does the Minister have a responsibility to examine the concerns and the issues rather than hope that the directors of the Abbey Theatre and the 300 signatories will resolve them? Has she read the playwright Jimmy Murphy's further criticism of the Abbey Theatre which appeared in The Irish Times yesterday? Given the large State funding of the Abbey Theatre I believe it has a number of roles and needs a vision. That vision should lie with the funder, and the funder should ensure it is implemented. Some of that vision is ensuring that people are directly employed, engaging with freelancers in the country, experimenting and encouraging, looking at our history and our future and all the issues that have been raised in recent weeks. However, the responsibility in many ways lies with the Minister, not only to get over this hurdle but also to ensure that these issues continue to be addressed over time rather than just finding a quick answer now.

Many of these issues are complex and nuanced, but one issue that is beyond question is that people involved in co-productions from other theatre companies who work on the Abbey Theatre stage should be paid Abbey Theatre rates. There is a two-tier pay structure. The other point, which the theatre forum people made, is that the smaller theatre companies have been effectively dismantled over recent years because of cuts in funding. We end up with the theatre community taking lumps out of each other in a desperate scramble to get the small amount of work that is available in the Abbey Theatre or in the places where there is funding. The bottom line is we are not valuing arts and culture. I repeat the point made about film as well. There are people working in the film industry, a publicly funded industry, for 20 years yet they have no jobs. It is similar in the arts. Some 80% of our artists are earning approximately one third of the average industrial wage. It is totally precarious and there is no security. Our spending on arts is at one of the lowest levels in Europe. I was talking to somebody who worked in a theatre in Germany.

A question, please.

Theatre workers in Germany, artists, performers and dancers, have permanent jobs. They get six weeks holidays, sick pay and pension contributions. They have real jobs. Workers in the arts in this country have no rights or security.

Deputy Smyth asked about co-productions and the balance in the programming. Under the five year strategy the Abbey Theatre considers many different types of shows and programmes. There are co-produced shows, in association productions, presented shows and other types of shows. The balance has to be right. There must be a correct balance to support Irish artists in a meaningful way. The Deputy also mentioned the literary department. I am not aware of that but I can check it out and refer back to the Deputy.

To respond to Deputy Ó Snodaigh, it is important to point out that the arts community places a very high value on my legal position of having an arm's length relationship with the Arts Council. I provide significant funding to the Arts Council - this year it is €75 million - and it administers this independently. The Arts Council also must be mindful of the integrity of artistic freedom, which is important. In terms of the Deputy's comment that I will just let them have a dialogue about this and not interfere, I am overseeing what is happening. There was a further development yesterday. I received a copy of a letter the Abbey Theatre has sent to the signatories. It is seeking to have a meeting on 1 February and I hope the theatre petitioners will be in a position to do that.

An Teanga Gaeilge

Dara Calleary

Ceist:

36. D'fhiafraigh Deputy Dara Calleary den Aire Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta cén uair atá sé i gceist Bille nua na dTeangacha Oifigiúla a fhoilsiú; agus an ndéanfaidh sí ráiteas ina thaobh. [1728/19]

Táim ag iarraidh a fháil amach cad é an scéal faoi Bhille na dteangacha oifigiúla. Bhí liosta dlíthe nua foilsithe inné agus ní raibh aon scéal faoin mBille nua ar an liosta sin.

Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Teachta as ucht a róil nua mar urlabhraí Fhianna Fáil don Ghaeilge.

Mar chúlra, is iarracht í an Bhille seo, trí na ceannteideil éagsúla, an timpeallacht a chruthú ina mbeidh ról níos lárnaí ag an teanga in obair an Stáit, go mbeidh an teanga níos feiceálaí agus go mbeidh fáil níos leithne ar sheirbhísí trí Ghaeilge.

Agus an Bille á thabhairt chun cinn, cuireadh tréimhse comhairliúcháin ar bun leis na páirtithe leasmhara. Leagadh na ceannteidil faoi bhráid Chomhchoiste na Gaeilge, na Gaeltachta agus na hOileáin agus foilsíodh tuarascáil ag eascairt as an bpróiseas seo roimh samhraidh 2018. Tá an tuarascáil sin scrúdaithe anois ag mo Roinn i gcomhthéacs dréachtú an Bhille.

Beidh sé mar ollchuspóir sa Bhille go mbeidh 20% de na daoine nua a earcaítear don tseirbhís phoiblí ina gcainteoirí Gaeilge, go mbeidh gach oifig phoiblí atá lonnaithe sa Ghaeltacht ag feidhmiú trí Ghaeilge agus go mbeidh comhlachtaí poiblí in ann freastal ar an éileamh ón bpobal ar sheirbhísí trí Ghaeilge. Is í an earcaíocht croí-lár na ceiste, agus táim dóchasach gur féidir tógáil, ar bhonn chéimiúil, ar líon na bhfostaithe le Gaeilge sa statchóras agus ag eascairt as sin, go mbeifear in ann feabhas a chur ar sholáthar seirbhísí trí Ghaeilge, mar is cóir.

Tá oifigigh mo Roinne ag obair faoi Iáthair i gcomhar le hOifig an Ard-Aighne chun Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla (Leasú) a dhréachtú.

Mar is eol don Teachta, tá dul chun cinn sunstasach déanta ar an mBille sin. Tá sé leis na dréachtóirí in Oifig na nDréachtóirí Parlaiminte don Rialtas. Tá siad ag obair ar an mBille i gcomhthéacs na gceannteideal atá foilsithe. Tá oifigigh mo Roinne ag comhoibriú ar an mBille. Níl ach sé Bhille ar an bpríomhliosta a foilsíodh inné. Tá a fhios ag an Teachta cén fáth. Beidh na dréachtóirí ag obair go mórmhór ar na Billí agus ar an reachtaíocht a theastófar ó thaobh an Bhreatimeachta. Sin an fáth go bhfuil liosta an-ghearr againn don tréimhse idir seo agus deireadh mhí an Mhárta.

Gabhaim buíochas as na beannachtaí. Tuigeann gach duine sa Teach seo scéal an Bhille agus cad atá istigh ann. Táimid ag iarraidh go mbeidh muid in ann an Bille sin a phlé agus a chur ag obair sna ceantair Ghaeltachta agus do na daoine a labhraíonn an Ghaeilge. Tá na ceantair sin agus an Ghaeilge faoi fhíorbhrú. Níl an am againn moill a chur ar an mBille seo. Ní leithscéal é Brexit mar gheall ar an obair atá déanta ar an mBille seo. Labhair an tAire Stáit faoi obair an choiste. Tá an obair sin críochnaithe le sé mhí anuas. Bhí am ag an Aire Stáit an obair ar dúirt sé go raibh sí á déanamh aige anois a dhéanamh roimhe seo. Níl sé déanta agus tá moill eile ann. Tá daoine ag fánacht ar an mBille seo. Tá sé an-tábhachtach. Is Príomh-Aoire an Rialtais é an tAire Stáit. Caithfidh sé an tionchar sin a úsáid brú a chur chun go mbeidh muid in ann an Bille seo a phlé sa Dáil agus chun go mbeidh muid in ann leanúint ar aghaidh leis an obair iontach atá leagtha amach sa Bhille.

Caithfidh an obair sin a bheith sna ceantair atá ag fanacht le haghaidh an Bhille.

Aontaím le gach uile dhuine go bhfuil an Bille seo fíorthábhachtach. Tá a lán obair shuntasach déanta air ach, ag an am céanna, tá an reachtaíocht a theastaítear ó thaobh an Breatimeacht de níos tábhachtaí. Tá sé sin ag barr an liosta agus beidh na dréachtóirí ag obair ar na Billí sin so ní bheidh mórán dul chun cinn déanta ar aon Bhille eile seachas na Billí a theastaítear ó thaobh an Breatimeacht de. Bhí mé ag súil go mbeadh an Bille seo réidh roimh an Nollaig agus is mór an trua gur theip orainn é sin a dhéanamh. Tá dul chun cinn suntasach déanta, mar sin féin, agus beidh na feidhmeannaigh sa Roinn Cultúir, Oidhreachta agus Gaeltachta ag obair as seo amach chun a bheith cinnte go mbeadh an t-eolas go léir curtha chuig Oifig an Ard-Aighne agus na dréachtóirí. Go dtí go bhfuil cinneadh eile déanta ó thaobh an Breatimeacht de, áfach, is é an fócas atá ag na dréachtóirí ná reachtaíocht maidir leis an mBreatimeacht. Beidh moill ar gach uile Bhille eile mar gheall air sin.

An mbeidh sé foilsithe roimh an Nollaig nó an mbeidh orainn fanacht le haghaidh bliain nua le go mbeidh sé foilsithe?

Beidh na dréachtóirí críochnaithe ag deireadh mí an Mhárta leis an reachtaíocht ó thaobh an Breatimeacht de agus b'fhéidir go mbeidh cinneadh eile déanta ag Rialtas na Breataine agus go mbeidh liosta nua reachtaíocht againn i gceann coicís nó trí seachtaine. Bheadh sé sin go hiontach agus bheadh Bille na dTeangacha Oifigiúla ag barr an liosta sin go cinnte. Sin geall má tá liosta nua, ach beidh liosta nua i mí an Mhárta ar aon nós don seisiún idir mí an Mhárta agus an samhradh, agus beidh sé ar an liosta sin agus beidh sé foilsithe i bhfad roimh an Nollaig. Mar a dúirt mé, tá a lán obair thábhachtach déanta air agus teastaíonn an Bille seo. Tá an Teachta ceart go bhfuil a lán rudaí maithe sa Bhille agus tabharfaidh mé deis don Teachta agus do na hurlabhraí eile chun suigh síos leis na feidhmeannaigh i mo Roinn chun dul tríd an dul chun cinn atá déanta.

Question No. 37 answered with Question No. 34.

Hare Coursing Regulation

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

38. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if her attention has been drawn to the very serious concerns of animal welfare groups in relation to the so-called coursing trials; and if she will reconsider the issuing of licences. [1695/19]

My question to the Minister is if her attention has been drawn to the very serious concerns of animal welfare groups in relation to the so-called coursing trials and if she will reconsider the issuing of licences.

I thank the Deputy for her question. My Department issued the Irish Coursing Club, ICC, with licences in August 2018 on behalf of its affiliated clubs to capture and tag hares for the 2018-2019 coursing season. These licences included conditions relating to the reporting of coursing trials. Until recently the organisation and monitoring of these trials has not been included in the licences issued by my Department to the ICC and its affiliated clubs. However, in the light of concerns expressed, a revised licence was issued to the ICC in October 2017 for the 2017-2018 season with additional conditions to strengthen the regulation of trials. These conditions for trials are also included in the licence issued to the ICC for the current coursing season. It is now a condition that only one dog, as opposed to two, can be used in trials and vets are required to be present.

In addition, my Department is to be notified in advance, which was not done previously, and reports of all trials are to be submitted to my Department. Those reports and any monitoring undertaken by the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, will also be taken into account in the consideration of the renewal of licences. Where resources allow, local NPWS conservation rangers and other staff attend coursing meetings to conduct on-the-spot checks and to monitor compliance with the licences issued to the Irish Coursing Club and its affiliated clubs. My Department monitored six of these trials during the 2017-2018 season given that these trials had not been monitored previously and these reports are available on the website of the National Parks and Wildlife Service of my Department.

For the current coursing season, and taking account of staffing constraints within my Department, my Department has concentrated its efforts on monitoring regular coursing meetings and to date has monitored some 32 coursing meetings compared to a total of 35 coursing events during the 2017-2018 season. I would intend that some trials will be monitored before the end of the current coursing season at the end of February.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

My Department will be appointing additional conservation rangers during 2019 and it would be my intention that more coursing meetings and trials would be monitored during the next coursing season. If I can in any way improve the welfare of the hare in the context of coursing activities, then I will endeavour to do so. I must say, in fairness to the Irish Coursing Club, that it has worked with my officials in making these very important changes to the licensing, reporting and monitoring regime. I would point out, as I did in response to written questions in this House yesterday, that I have no role in relation to the payment of any fees relating to these trials. That is a matter entirely for the ICC and its affiliated clubs. I would stress, however, that trials are trials and I would certainly not understand them to be revenue raising opportunities.

I thank the Minister. There were some positive aspects to her reply. I want to stress the term "so-called trials" in my initial question because condition 23 of the licence is that it gives an opportunity to familiarise hares with the most direct route for escape and that there would not be more than one dog at any particular trial run. Somebody who rang up to book their dog in for one of these trial runs was told that the hares had been well trained. That indicates that any of the hares that had escaped are being kept in captivity to be used again. I stress that these trials are not for the benefit of the hare and to give it a more level playing field, as it were, when it comes to escaping, but rather for the benefit of the greyhounds so they will better be able to chase the hare. The Minister gave the report about how the coursing clubs and events are monitored but this just shows that this industry cannot be regulated. There is growing opposition to coursing and it is time for a ban. I do not believe the Minister supports activities where animals are badly treated and tortured.

I certainly do not support any type of sport or hobby that would in any way prejudice the welfare of an animal. The concerns of the animal welfare groups relate to the fact that they do not consider that trials are organised to familiarise hares with the most direct route to the escape, as the Deputy said, as per condition 23. The Department understands that in order to familiarise hares with the layout of the coursing field and the location of the escape in advance of coursing meetings, hares in the hare park, the enclosure in which they are kept prior to the start of the coursing meeting, will have access for some time to the coursing field. The specific inclusion by the Department of trials in the licence issued to the Irish Coursing Club since the 2017-2018 season made it a condition that the primary purpose of trials was to train hares for the regular coursing meetings. Given staffing constraints within the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Department has concentrated its efforts on monitoring regular coursing meetings and we have managed 32 to date.

I will go back to the monitoring of the coursing events. Through a freedom of information request, it has been found that there were some conflicts between the evidence given by the vets who were hired by the Irish Coursing Club and the rangers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The divergence in the evidence is being used by the Irish Coursing Club as a reason to ignore the ranger reports and not make the ranger reports available. Surely it is instead grounds for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to have its vets at these meetings so that the evidence can be collected there. I know that is not the Minister's Department but part of the problem when it comes to animal welfare issues is that it falls between several Departments and there could be a conversation between the Minister and the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine about the use of vets from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and there would be no conflict of interest there if, as I have pointed out, the reports from the National Parks and Wildlife Service rangers are going to be ignored.

I appreciate the point the Deputy has raised. We can certainly have a conversation with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in relation to any vets that it can provide. It is of paramount importance that we keep the welfare of the hares as our primary concern, and indeed the dogs as well. It is important to say that the EU Habitats Directive has found that the Irish hare is widespread and common, which is good to report, and none of the identified threats, such as the changing practices, is considered likely to impact on its conservation status in the foreseeable future. The future prospects of the hare were deemed favourable and that can only be a good thing. It is important that we monitor the trials. The number of rangers dropped to 60 from 72 at the end of 2018 owing to some retirements, promotions and exits, but the monitoring of these meetings allows the National Parks and Wildlife Service to be present for the release of hares after coursing, which would not have been the case with trials, and it is also important to note that 99.3% of hares are put back into the wild after coursing events, which is quite a high percentage.