Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Garda Investigations

I am glad the Minister for Justice and Equality is present for this important debate. Yesterday morning it was chilling to hear of the barbaric attack on Mr. Kevin Lunney, a decent family man who has contributed greatly to the economic development of the Cavan-Fermanagh area, the much wider Border region and further afield. It was a violent and sinister attack on a good man, whom I have known well for more than 20 years.

Kidnapping and abducting an individual has no place in society. It is most reprehensible and I condemn in the strongest possible terms the deplorable act. Those of us who grew up in a Border community and have had the privilege of representing a large Border constituency believed that the era of kidnapping innocent people, throwing them in the boot of a vehicle, driving them to an isolated place and inflicting serious injuries was long past and that such thuggery, violence, attacks on persons and general lawlessness will not be tolerated in our area of County Cavan and the neighbouring area of County Fermanagh. I appeal to anybody who has any information about the attack or the previous serious incidents to speak to An Garda Síochána or the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI. The thugs, who are obviously dangerous criminals, must be brought to justice without delay.

It is the latest in a series of attacks on members of Quinn Industrial Holdings, all decent men playing an important and positive role in the local community and economy. I am particularly concerned that no arrests have been made to date on either side of the Border. It is a campaign of intimidation. An Garda Síochána and the PSNI must work closely together on a daily basis to ensure that it ends immediately and bring those responsible to justice. The thugs who carried out the deplorable attack on Kevin Lunney must be caught and brought to justice as a matter of urgency. There is a serious moral obligation on anyone who has any information on the incidents to pass it on to the authorities either in our jurisdiction or in Northern Ireland. People in my community of Cavan-Monaghan and in the neighbouring community of County Fermanagh are outraged at the attack on Kevin and condemn strongly the other sinister attacks on his colleagues and the damage to property.

The latest attack is very worrying in light of the many other violent incidents of recent years. I wish Kevin Lunney a speedy recovery from the horrific injuries inflicted on him. I think of him and all his family, his friends and colleagues, during what must be a frightening time. I reiterate that the reprehensible thugs must be brought to justice and feel the full force of the law, whether here or in Northern Ireland. As I noted, it was chilling to hear the reports yesterday morning of Kevin's abduction. Reading the newspapers today was even more terrifying in view of the injuries inflicted on an innocent, decent, good man who has contributed handsomely to the development of our country.

I acknowledge the importance of the issue and thank the Deputy for raising it in the House. People on both sides of the Border were appalled when news of the vicious attack on the Fermanagh-Cavan border emerged in recent days. The Deputy, along with all other Deputies, will understand that the incident is now the subject matter of a significant investigation by the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. It would not be appropriate, therefore, for me to engage in detailed discussions at this stage, although I clearly and unequivocally condemn the utterly disgraceful attack that took place on Mr. Lunney. It was a reprehensible and cowardly act by barbarous thugs who have no regard for human decency or the rule of law on either side of the Border. I assure the Deputy and the House that An Garda Síochána and the PSNI will leave no stone unturned in seeking to identify and bring to justice those responsible for the sinister and reprehensible act. I take the opportunity to wish Mr. Lunney and his family well as they begin the process of recovery from the horrific and traumatic incident.

Over the past 24 or 30 hours I have spoken to a number of people in the community. I agree with the Deputy there is widespread revulsion at what has taken place in his constituency. The Garda Commissioner, Mr. Drew Harris, addressed the matter briefly yesterday at the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and I have been in contact with him directly.

I have asked him to keep me fully informed on the progress in this important investigation. I appeal to anybody who may have information on this terrible incident to please contact An Garda Síochána or the Police Service of Northern Ireland as soon as possible in order to assist their inquiries and investigation. I ask Deputy Brendan Smith to use his influence in his constituency to spread that message, and I know he will do so. Gardaí may also be contacted by using the Garda confidential line at 1800 666111.

I am aware that the question of Garda resourcing has been raised. Yesterday, at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, the Garda Commissioner, who is responsible for the deployment of Garda personnel and resources, confirmed there has been a major uplift in capability in the Cavan and Monaghan division. The northern region, like other parts of the country, continues to benefit from increased Garda recruitment. As of 31 August this year, there were 372 gardaí assigned to the Cavan and Monaghan division, supported by 43 Garda staff and eight members of the Garda Reserve. Over the past three years and due to Government funding for ongoing recruitment, Garda strength in the northern region has increased to approximately 1,500, which is an increase of 150 since the end of 2017. These gardaí are supported by approximately 150 Garda staff in the region, compared with 116 staff at the end of 2016, meaning there has been an increase of almost 30% in Garda staff in the northern region over the past three years. This means additional gardaí can be and are being redeployed from administrative to operational policing duties in the region where their training and policing expertise can be used to best effect.

I acknowledge the importance of the new operating model for An Garda Síochána announced recently by the Garda Commissioner, as this will see more gardaí on the ground protecting and supporting communities. I thank Deputy Smith for raising this matter and I join him in appealing for anybody with any information on this heinous crime to come forward to the PSNI and An Garda Síochána.

I thank the Minister for his reply. During numerous debates in this House on legislation from the Minister's Department and during Question Time, we have discussed the unique policing demands of a border region. We do not know if those criminals were from our jurisdiction or North of the Border. I do not know at any rate. Wherever they are from, they must be brought to justice. Mr. Kevin Lunney is a senior executive in a company that provides 830 jobs in the Cavan and Fermanagh area. It is a very considerable level of employment. He and his colleagues must be assured that they can be safe going to work and people must feel safe in their communities. Recently, the High Court in Belfast was told of many incidents, including attacks on Mr. Lunney and his colleagues, as well as the property of the company.

I hope the Minister can address satisfactorily the concerns that have been expressed by the chairman of Quinn Industrial Holdings. He states it is "inexplicable that not a single arrest has been made north or south of the Border despite dozens of incidents". I know a large number of the 830 people who work in those companies. They are decent and honourable people who do an honest day of work. They want to be assured that no threats will be made to enterprises or colleagues going about their daily work.

I know An Garda Síochána, with limited resourcing - that is, unfortunately, always the way - is working assiduously in the Border region to deal with criminality, whether it arises from people in our jurisdiction or those outside it. I repeat that there must be a conscious decision made when resources are being allocated by An Garda Síochána that there are unique policing demands on a border Garda division. Please ensure that An Garda Síochána have the relevant personnel, equipment and resources to root out this criminality and deal with these thugs.

These thugs have no support in the communities that I am privileged to represent in this House. I come from that immediate area. I know where Mr. Lunney was abducted in Kinawley and where he was dropped off in Cornafean in Cavan. I know the area very well. I speak for those communities and they will not tolerate that behaviour. They are absolutely appalled by what has happened to a decent man.

Deputy Brendan Smith from Cavan-Monaghan and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle from Donegal would be more aware than most people that policing the Border region has always presented unique challenges that necessitate a collaborative approach to policing within law enforcement agencies north and south of the Border. Fortunately, we have never seen such a positive relationship between the PSNI and the Garda Síochána and I am confident that this close co-operation will enable both to continue to combat the threat posed by criminals who seek to exploit the policing challenges posed by the Border.

I am very much aware of the concerns that many communities close to the Border have about recent criminal-related events and the impact of Brexit. There is no question about the lethal terrorist intent of paramilitary groups and the persistent threat they present, as well as the cross-Border efforts of mobile organised crime groups responsible for multiple incidents, including burglary. This is the wider context for the increase in Garda resourcing in the area that I referred to earlier. It is also the context of the Garda Commissioner's operational decision to establish another armed support unit in Cavan. The Garda Commissioner has now established armed support units in all Garda regions to provide an armed response capacity on a regional basis to support and supplement the national emergency response unit. In the northern region, armed support units are based in Ballyshannon and Dundalk, and arrangements are now in train to provide for the establishment of a unit in Cavan.

I know everybody in the House appreciates the very serious impact that a crime like this can have on both a victim, his family and the wider community, as outlined by Deputy Brendan Smith. I take this opportunity to wish Mr. Lunney all the best in his recovery and I assure those who live in the Border region, including Deputy Brendan Smith and his constituents, that their safety is being given the highest priority by the State in this regard.

Road Network

In 2018, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Shane Ross, fought hard to get funding for the Ardee bypass. He issued a press release welcoming it. I do not know if the Minister can hear me but I ask him to listen to me as I cannot think of anything more important in my constituency. This is very important for Ardee. The Government has increased its investment in Ardee and the town will grow from a population of 5,000 now to more than 8,000 over the next number of years. Planning permission has been given for hundreds of houses and the town is chockablock, held to ransom every day by hundreds of heavy goods vehicles coming through, which affects the health of the people, delays business and prevents normal commerce and social interaction.

What has happened? It has taken 20 years for a Minister to be successful at the Cabinet table in announcing funding for the Ardee bypass and I welcome the work done by the current Minister. We need his help and support now. Never has Ardee and County Louth needed a Minister more than at this moment. The decision made by the Minister with the Cabinet to make this road "a strategic investment priority" has been overturned by a bureaucrat in Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. He has taken upon himself a decision to stop this road and put the plan into cold storage without reference to the Minister, his Department or the chief executive of Transport Infrastructure Ireland. Yesterday, I heard a rumour that the Ardee bypass plan was being put into cold storage and I got the facts indicating that at the very minimum it would be 2020 before the road plan could proceed. According to TII, "the design of this road is safe and compliant in every respect."

It meets all the requirements and would have been built before now but the money was not there until the Minister, effectively and efficiently, got it for us. It must go ahead and there must be no delay or procrastination.

Some people had real and serious issues at two important intersections. Those were discussed with Louth County Council and the council commissioned this report of which the Minister's Department no doubt has a copy. It is a response to the submissions of the people from Mullanstown and Coole. One of the key reasons for not proceeding with this road was, according to the bureaucrat in question, because of the increased commitment to meeting the needs of vulnerable road users coupled with an increase in walking and cycling, creating different desirable outcomes to be achieved by the design. That raises the question as to exactly how many people cycle and walk on these junctions. This report is very clear on that point. There is a weekly average of 13 two-way pedestrians and 15 two-way cyclists on the junction at Townparks Road and, on the Mullanstown Road, there is a weekly average of 11 two-way pedestrians and 15 two-way cyclists. The sums do not add up at all.

There is an agenda somewhere in Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, to take this €34 million away from Ardee and spend it somewhere else and TII confirmed that is what will happen if the Minister does not overrule TII on this matter. This money will not be spent in Ardee. We heard what the Green Party said about this road yesterday and, if there is a general election, this project may never proceed at all. It is important that the Minister uses his power to get the funding for the road and delivers it.

I thank the Deputy for introducing this topic and the passion he has shown for his area and for this road. I would like to explain that, as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have responsibility for overall policy and funding for the national roads programme. Under the Roads Acts 1993 to 2015, the planning, design and construction of individual roads is a matter for the relevant road authority for local and regional roads, or for TII in conjunction with the local authorities concerned for national roads.

That is not to suggest that the Deputy is wrong to raise the matter here; I am just telling him the procedures that are exercised when there are individual decisions of this sort to be made and where the power lies.

The project scheme in question consists of 4.5 km of single carriageway providing a western bypass of the town of Ardee. The proposed scheme will be a type 2 single carriageway and comprise six road junctions, including a proposed roundabout on the N2, and two river bridge structures. The benefits of the scheme include the bypass of Ardee, road improvements for the town, reduced journey times and traffic and enhanced access to the north west region.

As recently relayed to the relevant Oireachtas committee by TIl, Louth County Council, in January 2018, provided the preliminary overall plan for the project to various stakeholders, including residents. As a result of the information provided, residents from the Mullanstown-Coole community convened public meetings in April 2018. At those meetings, concerns were expressed about the impacts that the scheme might have on local traffic movements. Of particular concern was the closure of the Townspark Road west of the new bypass and the closure of the Mullanstown Road east of the new bypass, on the Ardee town side, and the consequences of these closures.

While the design of the scheme was completed in 2004, there have been significant changes since then, such as the construction of a number of additional houses, the growth in membership of, and activity around, sports clubs. These changes and increases in walking and cycling activities create different desirable outcomes to be achieved by the design. In September 2018, Louth County Council identified a number of options for possible changes to the junctions on the scheme. All the options require an amendment of the planning permission and additional land if they are to be progressed.

On 29 August, Louth County Council sought the approval of TII to commence the tender competition for the construction of the 2004 design that complies with the planning permission and fits within the acquired land. Local residents had indicated support for this progression to construction on condition that there was a commitment from TII and Louth County Council that subsequent amendments to the junctions would be subject of a new planning procedure. Following the consultation with residents and the concerns raised by them, TII decided not to grant approval for the 2004 design and instead requested Louth County Council to undertake a review.

The scheme is now under review. TII has advised that it is anticipated that the review will delay the project by a period of 12 to 18 months. However, this review has the potential to incorporate significant benefits as it is intended to address many of the concerns of residents and to improve on the previous plan devised back in 2004, some 15 years ago. Louth County Council has suggested that a non-statutory public consultation process be undertaken. This will provide the opportunity for all stakeholders to have an input.

Louth County Council's first priority will be the preparation for, and organisation of, the public consultation events. It is anticipated that these events will be open to the public towards the end of this year or early next year. The most appropriate technical option will then be progressed to a part 8 planning process.

If planning approval is secured and additional land is required, a compulsory purchase order will then be submitted to An Bord Pleanála. In parallel, the works already commenced on the ground will be concluded and Louth County Council will engage with relevant service providers to ensure that the necessary diversions have been progressed. The business case will be updated and submitted for review and, subject to all the necessary approvals being received, including Government approval, Louth County Council then will aim to go to tender with the revised scheme.

There will be a general election. The Minister's certainty that the proposal will go ahead would be one thing if he knew he was going to be in government for the next five years but policy changes are coming for our national road network and that is a different thing altogether. Ardee cannot afford to take that risk. It cannot afford to wait because it has waited for 20 years.

The Minister has provided the money. TII is saying that no one wants to delay this project but it does want to delay it despite having stated that the design is safe and compliant. The money is there and there is absolutely no reason for this project not to proceed. The Minister has much experience in this House and the Seanad and he knows damn well what is going on here. Somebody has an eye on this €34 million and intends to take it from Ardee and put it elsewhere. The people of Ardee will not allow that to happen and the Minister must intervene to ensure that it does not.

An economic and social case can be made for the project. Is the Minister telling me that strategic investment priorities decided by him and the Government can be overturned without reference to him, without his even getting a note or knowing about it? Is that what is going on? That is not a version of the Minister that I like or that the people expect.

TII made reference to sporting clubs as part of its decision to review the scheme and that is unfair and unacceptable. It undermines the support those clubs have given to the bypass. I have already identified the issues about pedestrians and the very small number of them that we are talking about.

Notwithstanding those concerns, there is an existing road network adjoining the proposed motorway. Louth County Council should improve and widen those roads, and improve the access to them, if those things are issues. If the Minister and TII decide to delay this project, it will mean that this project, which now costs €34 million, will probably cost in the region of €40 million or more in the future, if it is to be built at all. Spending €2 million or €3 million now to improve the road network around the proposed bypass would meet the requirements.

I call on the people who have objected and have made their cases to TII to withdraw those objections and decide to allow construction of the road to go ahead. I will certainly commit, as a local politician, to assist in organising for money to be spent on the adjoining roads.

If in the future other things can happen, they will happen then. However, if it does not go ahead now it will never happen. There are people at work in this House who will make sure that it will not. That would be appalling and a disgrace. Ardee must come first. The money is there.

The Minister is the key person in this. I am seeking a meeting with him through his private office to discuss other issues which arise. I ask him to stand up and be the Minister we want him to be. He provided the funds, he put it on top of his press release. He must not let it go to the bottom of the pile.

I thank Deputy O'Dowd for some of his kind words. I recognise the difficulties in which he finds himself and his frustration at the delay. I should reiterate that it is not my job to interfere in individual matters of this sort or individual decisions. My job is to set policy which I have done. The Deputy is correct in saying that I very strongly welcomed this project when it was announced and I still welcome the fact that it will go ahead. I would be very distressed if I thought for one moment that there was any sinister or untoward motive by anyone in delaying this project. According to the information I have, TII has taken the pulse of local residents. The design of this project goes back to 2004. They have taken the wishes of local residents into account, including the presence of sports clubs which have been set up and the changes that have taken place. They have not abandoned the project and I would be very surprised had they done so. What they have said is that because of the length of time which elapsed it is necessary to review some of its conditions and so it will do that. That is in response to residents who have made some very good points. Regrettably, the result will be a 12 to 18 month delay. There is absolutely no intention of which I know that this project will be abandoned but they have decided it would be wise to take into account developments over the last 15 years which seems reasonable, if very frustrating.

I will certainly meet the Deputy privately on this and will convey the views of that meeting and his remarks this afternoon to TII.