We will now proceed with those matters selected for Topical Issue debate. I ask those Members not participating to leave the Chamber quietly please as the Dáil remains in session.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Drug and Alcohol Task Forces
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this important matter for debate. I wish the new Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, well in his work, which is so important for many individuals, families and communities throughout the country. I have worked with the Minister of State on the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly over the years. We both saw at first hand the value and importance of going out and meeting with groups and communities and hearing at first hand the issues of concern to people.
I say that in the context of the value that I believe the Minister of State will derive from going out and meeting with groups delivering services to people suffering through substance abuse. It is important that the work of the Minister of State is informed of the core issues through the departmental briefing and also through the work of the service providers. As I have done in previous Dáil debates, I wish to highlight the particular challenges facing the Cavan Drug Awareness, CDA, Trust, which provides drug and alcohol rehabilitation services in Cavan and Monaghan.
It has received financial support over the years from the North Eastern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force. The current funding model is fundamentally flawed in that it is static for existing projects. For more than eight years, the funding provided to the CDA Trust has been static. This is a reduction in funding in the face of costs increasing constantly. Some additional funds were made available for new initiatives, but the projects that already operate must do so on a continually diminishing budget and this is not sustainable.
The CDA Trust project in Cavan and Monaghan has had to raise additional funding to remain operational. This is not sustainable, particularly with the difficulties in fundraising now. As a society, we cannot afford to lose such important services. I am very familiar with the work of the CDA Trust and I have visited the centre on many occasions. I know and appreciate the commitment and dedication of the manager, Tim Murphy, and his staff colleagues, as well as the commitment of Padraig McBreen, the chairman of the board, and all his voluntary committee colleagues.
I know many people who have benefited from the services provided by the centre. Unfortunately, many others need that support now and the suffering caused by drugs will not end tomorrow or the next day, sadly. Those community service providers need increased financial support and a new funding model. In society, there are more and more addiction problems and in many areas the only support service providers are community-led groups. We need to build on the expertise of these providers and meet the growing demand for such services. Without increased funding for such projects, they will fail and that will mean a huge loss to many communities.
The task forces are becoming increasingly sidelined. The local partnership model has been eroded and the community and voluntary response to drug and alcohol issues is becoming increasingly HSE-led. I believe this is a negative development. We all know the HSE has more than enough challenges. Why should we not utilise to the greatest extent possible the partnership and voluntary approach, which was the model that was put in place? I appeal to the Minister of State that in reviewing the whole area of the provision of services to help with addiction problems that he will put the task force at the centre of the decision-making process and bring those task forces back to the role originally envisaged back in the mid-1990s. I again wish the Minister of State well in his work
I thank my friend and colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith, for raising this very important matter. Deputy Smith and I have had some very interesting meetings over the years in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. The work that he has done with all the other Members of this Parliament, the Oireachtas and all the stakeholders has been vital. I look forward to meeting people on the ground. The Deputy is right in that there is nothing better than going out and meeting all the various organisations and stakeholders and seeing at first hand what is happening on the ground.
As the newly-appointed Minister of State with responsibility for the national drugs strategy, I take this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to implementing that strategy. Measuring the overall effectiveness of the response to the drug problem is an important objective of our drugs policy. As the Minister of State with responsibility in this area, I believe that State resources should be directed towards interventions and strategies that are most likely to lead to a reduction in problem substance use and an improvement in public health, safety and well-being.
I advise the Deputy that the Department of Health allocates about €28 million annually via drug and alcohol task forces to support 280 community projects aimed at tackling problem drug and alcohol use throughout the country. I am aware that the CDA Trust provides a range of valuable services to individuals, families and the wider community affected by drug and alcohol use and misuse in Cavan and Monaghan. Funding of €937,800 is provided to the North Eastern Regional Drug and Alcohol Task Force annually. I understand that the task force recommended funding of €212,000 to the CDA Trust in 2020.
The HSE has advised that the CDA has been provided with a full-year allocation as per the service-level agreement.
The CDA Trust also received funding from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to provide a drug rehabilitation community employment scheme.
I will respond to the Deputy's particular concerns. I understand the CDA Trust has entered negotiations with Merchants Quay Ireland to place the service provision under the MQI governance structures. These negotiations had to be delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but I can advise the Deputy that the HSE now expects an update on progress in September 2020.
In 2019 the Department provided funding of €190,000 over 36 months until mid-2022 for a strategic initiative to improve access to health services for young people in Cavan and Monaghan whose lives are affected by problematic alcohol and substance misuse. This is for young people substance misuse support services.
The HSE has provided additional funding to addiction services in the Cavan-Monaghan area in 2020 to enhance service provision to the adult and under-18 age groups. The adult services have been provided with funding for an additional counsellor, a nurse and administrative resources. The under-18 service has been provided with funding to recruit a clinical nurse specialist and a counsellor to enhance the tier 3 multidisciplinary addiction team for those under 18 years.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome that the Minister of State is taking up my suggestion to visit and meet the groups and practitioners who are literally at the coalface. I hope the Minister of State will be able to visit Cavan and meet that group early in his Ministry. I expect the Minister of State would be highly impressed by their work and commitment. There are people working there who went through the service and who are now helping to deliver services to people who have addiction problems.
I am familiar with the negotiations between the Cavan project and Merchants Quay Ireland. I know from reading some of the material produced by Merchants Quay Ireland that the organisation is exceptionally good in its analysis of what needs to be done in this country.
I welcome the funding for the new initiatives. We must ensure, however, that annual funding for projects that have been in existence for some time, delivering results for so many individuals and families, is not being reduced in real terms. Let us consider the Cavan project. It has received practically the same funding for the past nine years. In view of increased costs in every respect, this means a reduction in the level of funding available annually. That is not sustainable. Those involved have been under extraordinary pressure to keep these important services going. They have raised money through the usual fundraising avenues. We all know, however, that the fundraising mechanism is not available at present. It has not been available since mid-March. There are serious difficulties for organisations and service providers that depend increasingly on raising funding in the community. It is important that the Minister puts the regional task force back at the centre of the provision of these necessary services.
The model was a good one when it was initially developed. It has worked well over the years. It needs to be rejuvenated and regenerated while working alongside the HSE. We have the expertise and there is a proven track record by service providers. Let us build on that expertise, keep the partnership and keep the voluntary ethos. I know the people on the board in the Cavan project, who are providing services to persons in Cavan and Monaghan, give so willingly of their time, knowledge and expertise. When the Minister of State has an opportunity to meet that group, he will see at first hand the value of this project and the need to ensure it survives and provides the services that are so needed by so many individuals.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. As the programme for Government acknowledges, drug and alcohol task forces play a key role in implementing the national drugs strategy and increasing access at local level to harm reduction initiatives. They also ensure that a co-ordinated approach is taken across all sectors to address substance misuse based on the identified needs and priorities in their areas.
I will examine how the Department of Health can continue to support task forces in identifying local need in communities and support targeted initiatives to address drug and alcohol misuse. These and other related commitments in the programme for Government will be considered in the budget for 2021. The immediate priority is to support the reintroduction of drug and alcohol services in line with public health advice and Covid-19. The Department of Health is working with relevant stakeholders to develop a framework for the safe return of services.
When the time is right and on the basis of public health advice on Covid-19, I would be delighted to visit the area and see at first hand the great work and the challenges and how we can help all the various stakeholders in future. I thank Deputy Smith for the invitation. It is one I hope to take up.
I thank the Minister with responsibility for tourism, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for taking the time to take this important debate. We are here today to discuss Shannon Heritage. It is part of the Shannon Group. We held a meeting with representatives of the Shannon Group in early June. They gave a commitment that they would look to apply for funding to Government to ensure that the Shannon Heritage sites, including King John's Castle in my constituency, could be opened year round. Currently, they are due for closure on 31 August and many of the other sites are not open at present.
There are 350 people employed at peak season and 145 of these are in place year round. We are calling on the Minister to look at the submission. We have already met the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, today as well as officials in the Department to discuss funding and the temporary wage subsidy scheme in particular. It is more than likely the scheme will be extended and this will be included in the costings. We need to get this open throughout the year. It is crucial for Shannon Heritage sites in the region.
I also wish to raise the aviation task force report. Will the Minister put funding in place for route supports out of Shannon Airport, Cork Airport and other airports in the area? This is specifically mentioned on page 6 of the report.
This is a major issue. I congratulate the Minister on his appointment as Minister with responsibility for tourism. Deputy O'Donnell and I met officials in the Department today along with the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton. The Shannon Group has made a submission to Government for supports to keep these vital heritage sites open. We are talking about Bunratty Castle, Knappogue Castle, Craggaunowen, Dunguaire Castle and King John's Castle. These attractions bring people to County Clare and the mid-west. It is crazy and ridiculous that the Shannon Group would close these sites, especially when we are pushing the whole idea of staycations. There is a major opportunity. We simply need to embrace and support it. I appeal to the Minister to do precisely that.
I also support the need for the Minister to back the recommendations of the aviation task force for Shannon. We should use the stimulus package for route development and support for capital development works. We need to get the airport up and running again.
I thank the Minister for taking this Topical Issue matter. The July stimulus package to be announced shortly will, I assume, focus on revitalising our economy, especially the rural economy. The rural economy in the west along the Wild Atlantic Way is highly reliant on the tourism sector.
This year we are, rightly, encouraging our people to stay at home. We are focused on supporting tourism across the nation. To have these iconic heritage sites not available to tourists would be a seriously retrograde step in trying to encourage this type of tourism.
I ask that the Minister, the Department and the Government support Shannon Heritage in ensuring that these iconic sights along the Wild Atlantic Way remain open for the rest of the year to help in revitalising the economy of the west of Ireland.
I am responding to the Deputies on this matter because the formal transfer of tourism functions to my colleague the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, has yet to be completed.
Shannon Heritage is part of the Shannon Group, which operates in the aviation and tourism sectors. In addition to the dramatic fall-off in passengers at Shannon Airport, the closure and restricted openings of some Shannon Heritage sites means that the impact on the group has been particularly severe.
I am acutely aware that tourism is one of the most directly affected sectors in the current crisis. The impact of Covid-19 on tourism globally has been overwhelming and immediate, with unprecedented consequences for Ireland's tourism and hospitality sector. Since last February, officials in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport have engaged with industry bodies with a view to understanding the challenges facing the sector. The Department established a Covid-19 tourism monitoring group made up of industry stakeholders, the tourism agencies and Department officials to monitor the disruption to the sector and assist in formulating the its response to the crisis. My Department has also liaised with other Departments and industry representative bodies to align the economy-wide Covid-19 supports and initiatives with tourism and hospitality needs. The Government will continue to explore the funding potential for all enterprises, including tourism businesses such as Shannon Heritage, as it works through the challenges facing them, including through any mechanisms allowable through the EU state aid framework.
The programme for Government contains a commitment that the Government will publish a series of immediate actions to support the economy through the July stimulus. In this context, the Government will, among other things, consider further additional measures that may be need to support the tourism and hospitality sector. A tourism recovery task force was established on 20 May 2020 to prepare a tourism recovery plan that will include a set of recommendations on how best the Irish tourism sector can adapt and recover in the changed tourism environment. The plan will identify priority aims, key enablers and market opportunities for the period 2020 to 2023.
On 25 June the task force published an initial report recommending a number of measures it had identified that will help to save jobs and businesses across the tourism sector from now to the end of 2020. The task force has already undertaken a widespread stakeholder consultation process whereby all sectors and interested parties could provide constructive inputs and innovative ideas on how this vital sector of our economy can adapt and recover in a meaningful and substantial way. As I understand it, the task force will continue to engage with stakeholders as it seeks to finalise its work over the coming months.
Fáilte Ireland has developed and rolled out a suite of training and advisory supports for tourism businesses to enable them to respond to the challenges and threats now being faced in the sector. It has also set up a Covid-19 industry advisory group which meets fortnightly. The purpose of this group is to provide support to the tourism industry and facilitate the rapid sharing of information and insight to help improve the sector's understanding of and response to the crisis.
To assist tourism businesses reopening in line with the Government's Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, Fáilte Ireland has published guidelines for the sector, prepared in consultation with the industry and relevant authorities. These guidelines are intended to assist businesses in meeting the requirements of the return to work safety protocol and are based on the latest health advice. Fáilte Ireland also unveiled its new national domestic marketing campaign, Ireland, make a break for it, to the tourism and hospitality sector industry recently. This campaign involves a major drive to encourage people to take domestic breaks this summer. It has also launched a new Covid-19 safety charter initiative designed to boost public confidence in the safety of businesses as the sector reopens.
I am aware of the devastating effect of Covid-19 on the aviation industry and the Shannon Group in particular. I propose to undertake a thorough examination of the future viability and sustainability of the group and I will consider restructuring measures, financial supports and any other measures that may be necessary and appropriate as part of a wider review of the Shannon Group. I will bring recommendations on this matter to Government in due course. I understand that the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, met local representatives today regarding Shannon Heritage.
I thank the Minister. The Shannon Group is under his direct responsibility. The submission made by it referred to the cost of keeping Shannon Heritage open for a year. We understand that the gross figure is approximately €4 million. Given that the temporary wage subsidy scheme will be extended under the July stimulus, that figure will now be considerably less. We welcome the fact that the Minister is examining the future viability and the restructuring of the Shannon Group. That may involve Shannon Heritage moving to the Office of Public Works, OPW, or individual local authorities. The Shannon Group needs cash to ensure that Shannon Heritage can remain open. Will the Minister give a commitment that he will examine the proposal that was submitted in order that Shannon Heritage can remain open? It is a vital component of the tourism offering in the mid-west.
Fáilte Ireland stated that it is trying to encourage people to holiday here with its Ireland, make a break for it campaign. We are trying to encourage tourism in Ireland this year, in particular. That Bunratty and other sites will be closed at a time when we are encouraging people to stay in Ireland cannot be allowed to happen.
We are reaching out to the Minister to ask him to consider and fund the proposal put forward by the Shannon Group. The temporary wage subsidy scheme will provide a significant amount of the money required. We ask the Minister to support the submission made by the Shannon Group. I understand that Shannon Heritage could be brought under the auspices of the OPW or the relevant local authorities.
I welcome the Minister's commitment to a review of the Shannon Group and to inject the money that is needed to keep the airport going. We need state aid now, and we need the Minister to roll up his sleeves in the interests of the mid-west and Shannon Airport.
Along with my colleagues, I ask the Minister to seriously consider the funding submission made by Shannon Heritage on keeping crucial sites open. The establishment of the tourism recovery task force acknowledges that it is a critically important part of the economy. I am of the view that the temporary wage subsidy scheme is destined to be extended for a number of months. I hope that, along with a minimal investment by the Department, would allow these sites to remain open for the foreseeable future.
I thank the Deputies. They are right. Not only does the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, have an interest in this, I and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, are very aware that the Shannon Group as a whole is in real difficulty, along with the rest of the aviation and tourism sector. I will commit to examining the proposal from the Shannon Group. The Deputies made the point that the indicative cost may include the cost of the wage subsidy scheme, which the State is already covering, and to consider that in particular. As they have suggested, down the line there may be other options involving the OPW or local authorities.
In terms of the immediate issue in Clare and Limerick, I have heard what Deputies said about the particular importance of these sites to the wider tourism industry. As I understand the matter, it is true that the numbers are still very low. The number of overseas visitors is next to nil. I have heard that the domestic numbers are still a fraction of what they were in previous years. We have a particular problem. I encourage our people to visit the fantastic facilities in the region, but that on its own will not be enough. We will have to intervene with the Shannon Group because it is suffering more than any other organisation due to the loss of flights and the effective shutdown of the overseas tourism industry. We have to manage that the situation and I will commit to keeping the Deputies present and other local Deputies informed about what is happening. I will always have an open door in the context of hearing their views on the best approach for us to take. I cannot commit to anything here, but it is very useful to have had this debate.
Is the Minister taking the next matter?
Football Association of Ireland
I thank the Ceann Comhairle and wish all of the new Ministers well in their portfolios. It is nothing personal; this is business.
As the Minister knows, the memorandum of understanding, MOU, with the FAI is a Shane Ross production.
His ghost is very much alive as we see. It was very much drawn from the same ether as his failed judicial appointments Bill, where he wanted everybody under the sun to be independent without the appropriate expertise to run the show. Naturally, as a Parliament we prevented that proceeding. I am sure the Minister played a part in that himself and it is important that he did. Thankfully, that ridiculous and absurd legislation did not proceed.
It seems, however, that this memorandum of understanding, MOU, is proceeding. I am a bit confused whether the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan is in charge or whether it is the responsibility of the Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin or the Minister of State, Deputy Chambers. In any event, I took some solace and encouragement from a media report last week when the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, first took up his post in the Custom House. The media report said he assembled the assistant secretaries, the Secretary General and all the senior staff and told them how things were going to be. I was very encouraged and delighted to see that approach.
Meanwhile, however, in the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and whatever else is in there, the Secretary General assembled the Ministers and told them how things were going to be, because they signed a letter telling the chairman of the FAI they would stand 100% behind the MOU. This is the same MOU that wants the same ridiculous absurd independent majority to run football, which puts the FAI as an outlier in the world so that people can pull the strings from afar. Instead of the corruption of the past, it will be a new form of corruption. Spurious allegations are going around at present about tenders being given for Covid-19 testing and how the chairman, the interim CEO and the deputy CEO were put into their respective positions. Of course, all three were members of the visionary group.
I have raised many questions about this. Before he was Taoiseach, the Fianna Fáil Party leader suggested to me that if in government, we would review the MOU. I agreed 100% and promoted it in the media as such but the engine had not gone cold in the Minister's car when he went into the Department to ensure the Shane Ross lunacy is going to continue.
Why did the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, not sign the letter if he was in charge? Can he answer that question? It prohibits good hard-working directors who served in the past, who stood up to the previous regime and were thrown under the bus under the eyes and blessing, no doubt, of Sport Ireland, from serving on any committee in the future. The last thing we want is a bit of expertise around the place that knows about football.
In any event, the main crux of this issue is I believe the chairman acted beyond his authority in signing this on behalf of the FAI. Now the Minister has gone ahead and has lent €212,000 per month. Three payments have been made thus far, in January, February and March, perhaps illegally and perhaps exposing the State to never getting paid again. Article 3(8) of the constitution of the Football Association of Ireland states that the board of management shall not at any time borrow any sum in excess of €1.27 million without the express sanction of the council in line with section 158 of the Companies Act 2014.
Here is the situation. We have lent out, thus far, €632,000. As the FAI did not give authority to the chairman to borrow that money, theoretically, we are losing money; we might never get paid.
Thank you, Deputy. Before I call on the Minister, I note you made reference to the constitution of the Football Association of Ireland. Whatever about that, we have our own well-established procedures here. You have made reference to three individuals who can be readily identified. I assume on your behalf that no aspersions are being cast in any way on the three identifiable individuals. I trust you are not using the privilege of the House to cast any aspersions on anybody outside the House. That would be unlike you.
To clarify, privilege is a vitally important rule within the House and sometimes it must be used. I mentioned nobody by name but as State funds are relevant to this, I am well within the rules to highlight the three people in question. Absolutely there are no aspersions about them as individuals, without prejudice to them or to impugn their good characters in any way. However, their appointment and how it was carried out was beyond what I would call good governance.
That is a valid point to make as long as it is clear we are not casting any aspersions on them personally. I call the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.
I thank Deputy MacSharry for raising this important matter. The Deputy will recall that since the scale of the governance of financial mismanagement within the FAI became clear over the past year, the FAI has been in a financial crisis the likes of which has never been faced by an Irish sporting body. On 30 January, the then Government took the decision to ensure the survival of the association by approving an agreement to participate in a joint funding package for the FAI. The MOA which was signed by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross, and Mr. Roy Barrett, chairperson of the FAI, was an important and necessary measure in enabling the Government to participate in that financial support package.
The MOU enabled Sport Ireland to restore funding to the FAI of €2.9 million per annum and to provide additional annual funding of €2.9 million for football development up to 2023. It also provides for a repayable grant of just over €7.6 million to the FAI to pay its license fee for the Aviva Stadium up to 2022.
The MOU sets out the conditions for receipt of this funding including necessary constitutional and council reform and corporate governance and financial reforms. The conditions were accepted by the FAI and the other relevant stakeholders, namely, UEFA and the Bank of Ireland. Sport Ireland remains in communication with the FAI in matters relating to its governance and financial management. It has established a process to oversee and review adherence by the association to the commitments given in the MOU.
The FAI has committed to implementing certain recommendations on governance reform and Sport Ireland expects to be in a position to restore funding to the association when these commitments are verifiably honoured. To be clear, the conditions in the MOU must be implemented in full. There will be no renegotiation of the terms of the MOU. The FAI must convene an extraordinary general meeting, EGM, this month to implement rule changes to provide for an increase to six independent directors on its board and for those members of the FAI council with more than ten years' service to stand down. If these rule changes are not implemented Sport Ireland, will be unable to disburse any funds to the FAI, including the Covid-19 support funding approved by the Government last month.
The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Catherine Martin, and the then Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Calleary, wrote to the chairman of the FAI last Thursday to confirm that the new Government would not reopen any discussion on part of the MOU agreed by the previous Government. We confirmed that the conditions for governance reform were essential to rebuild public trust and to enable the disbursement of the funding package set out in the MOU and we confirmed our support for Sport Ireland to liaise with the FAI and to verify implementation of the governance and financial control requirements as agreed in January.
While we respect the autonomy of the national governing bodies of sport, we cannot tolerate a situation where the mismanagement of a funded body brings its very survival into question. The FAI board and council ultimately failed in their duty to the association and its members, the grassroots clubs and volunteers, to hold the executive leadership to account. This is why the Government had top step in to provide additional funding to safeguard the future of Irish soccer and the livelihoods of more than 200 people employed by the FAI. We could not ignore the findings of the KOSI auditors that the FAI in its previous form was not fit to receive public funding. We will be monitoring carefully the progress on reform and if there are any concerns we are seeing a return to the old FAI, we will not hesitate to suspend funding once again.
Irish soccer, like all sport in Ireland, has faced an unprecedented challenge this year and the return to sport will not be easy. That should be the focus of everyone involved in Irish soccer and I encourage the FAI to make all the necessary reforms without delay.
It pains me to say it, but the Minister has gone native already. There will be no change and the former Minister, Mr. Ross, is enjoying the irony out in the leafy hills of Enniskerry. The MOU says that the offer of the Minister should in no way be regarded as a binding commitment in the context of a contractual agreement etc. and the MOU will be underpinned by a series of relevant legal documents. The reality is State funds, some €212,000 per month since January, have been given to the Aviva Stadium in the name of the FAI, which it is supposed to repay. Under its own constitution it has not approved this at any meeting of its council. Therefore, the first point is the State is now exposed to the repayment of that money. The second is that if the forthcoming EGM declines to give approval to borrow this money then, arguably, the signatory is potentially on the hook but it will not be the FAI because those concerned were acting above their authority in any event.
All the Minister has done is read the same dribble that we are all used to. We all supported the Government supporting the FAI in cleaning it up. Nobody wants it to be cleaned up more than the grassroots ordinary five eighths, but we have shipped in total elitism. A small group of people have designed their version of what good governance is. It is a disgrace.
The Minister spoke about the clubs and the grassroots. Honestly, if he stands over what he said, he does not give a twopenny damn about the grassroots. What we have now is an MOU which has no legal status. The Minister has already started to pay out on it, even though many of the recommendations that he said must be met have not been met. They have not even been formally put to the council yet. The chairman, whoever he is - exceptional, professional, brilliant at his job and above reproach - did not have the authority under his own rules. We sent in two Ministers to sign a letter, presumably at the behest of the Secretary General, which potentially put the State on the hook for millions of euro without even the approval of the organisation itself. If the Minister calls that governance, I fear for the future.
We are all concerned and looking to support the grassroots and the future development of Irish soccer. The way that has to be done is for the MOU to be agreed in full. That will require the FAI to convene an EGM this month to implement rule changes to provide for an increase to six independent directors on its board and it will require those members of the FAI council with more than ten years' service to stand down. That has to be delivered.
That is the message coming from the Government, not from any one Secretary General or any one Minister or the other. That is the collective agreement. It is what needs to be done with the MOU. It is important the FAI gets that message in clear, direct terms because it is critical.
The success of the FAI is critical to all of us. It allows us not only to have our international team, but also to have every other team right down. Thirty or so teams play in international competition representing us. The development of the clubs right across this country and the development of every aspect of soccer is something we want to see succeed. The MOU is critical to that. Central to that is the creation of a board, as has been agreed. The FAI will have to do that before we can make progress on anything else.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this item, which might be described as a niche issue but potentially affects tens of thousands of people across the country.
As the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, may be aware, a vote was supposed to take place today at the European committee on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, known as the REACH committee, on a draft Commission regulation which would essentially see the banning of lead shot bullets. According to the context of the regulation, this prohibition would apply specifically in wetlands, but the provision is so broad that it would essentially mean the ban would apply across the board. The fundamental problem I have is that the vote was to take place today. Most of the people who would have been affected by it had absolutely no idea that it was due to take place. It has been postponed now. I urge the Government to ensure, first of all, that a consultation with those people who would be affected by this regulation takes place - I had been calling on the previous Government to do this for a number of years - because the costs and the impact could be quite substantial.
In the first instance, can the Minister of State confirm that the Government will follow on from the previous Government's intention to vote "No" on this regulation when it comes before it? When it gets the opportunity, will it reject this regulation? Will the Minister of State outline what the Government has been doing to defeat this regulation, knowing that it is unworkable and unthinkable and would add a hugely significant cost to farmers, who account for half of the ownership of guns in the State, and game club members? These are precisely the people we need on board if we are to ensure these types of conservation policies work. Enacting such a proposition without any consultation for them is counterproductive when it comes to promoting good conservation policies.
I am not at all surprised that the European Commission has been unable to get support in the REACH committee due to the fundamental problems with the proposals. Did the European Commission forget about the presumption of innocence? An extremely important principle in EU law is that the burden of proof is on the prosecution, yet these proposals would have seen that burden move to the person. The person would have been responsible for proving that he or she had been outside wetlands when he or she used lead shot. There was nothing in the proposal to give a clear and precise understanding of people's rights and obligations and nothing in it to require the courts to ensure those rights and obligations are observed.
The definition of wetlands under the Ramsar Convention could not be less clear. It includes peatlands - all of them - and a 1 sq. m area of temporary water. Where I come from, they are called puddles. They come from rain, and then they disappear. When one adds on to this the 100 m buffer zone, not only does one get widespread confusion but one gets something that is completely unenforceable. That definition meant wetlands would literally change with the weather. Bizarrely, the proposal meant it would have been perfectly fine to fire lead shot towards a wetland as long as it was 100 m away.
It is also strange that there was no reference in any way, either explicit or implied, to the use of lead gunshot by military or by the police falling under these regulations. It seems to be one of many oversights in the proposals.
I thank the two Deputies for raising this important issue. If it is okay, I will provide the House with some background information in relation to it.
The Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, AEWA, was developed under the UN Convention on Migratory Species. Ireland signed up to the agreement in 2003. The agreement includes a commitment that "Parties shall endeavour to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands as soon as possible in accordance with self-imposed and published timetables." Ireland's position is to support the AEWA commitment to phase out the use of lead shot over wetlands. Separately, the European Commission published a set of draft regulations in early 2019 for consideration by member states on the use of lead shot in and around wetlands. The draft regulation has been discussed by member states at some meetings of the REACH committee.
Following a discussion at the most recent REACH committee meeting in June 2020, the Commission submitted a draft set of regulations for a vote by member states by written procedure. The main proposals in the regulation published in June 2020 on the use of lead gun shot in and around wetlands would involve a transitional period of 24 months for those member states banning the use of lead gun shot in and around wetlands. The transition time for member states with wetlands that exceed 20% of their territory would be extended to 36 months, as long as they ban the purchase and use of lead shot in all their territory and not just wetlands. The regulation also proposes that there would be fixed buffer zones of 100 m around wetlands, where lead shot possession and shooting would be prohibited. Finally, as Deputy Clarke has mentioned, it is proposed to adopt the definition of wetlands that is used in the Ramsar Convention.
I fully support the underlying thrust of the regulation and its protection for the environment and water birds. Like some other member states, we currently have no restrictions on the use of lead shot over wetlands. In those member states which have already introduced some national regulation, gun owners would already have non-lead ammunition and the lead-in time set out in the draft regulations would seem appropriate.
However, as we currently have no restriction, statutory or otherwise, in place on the use of lead in gunshot, we would be placed in the most difficult position of having to catch up to implement and properly enforce a new EU regulation in 24 months in an area in which other member states are already advanced in respect of national regulation on the transition to new weapons, of compliance and of education of the public, and gun users in particular. The guns of many Irish farmers and hunters are not capable of using lead shot substitutes. These farmers and hunters would need to purchase new guns. In addition, the proposed definition of wetlands is that of the Ramsar convention on wetlands of international importance, which includes peatlands. This would cover extensive areas around the country. Unfortunately, these Ramsar areas are not all mapped and, given the scale of wetlands in Ireland, this would take some time so action on enforcement would present real problems.
While the Commission has proposed to progress this measure, I believe it is time we received some support on this matter. Although Ireland is supportive of the aims of the regulation and is committed to implementing them, the lead-in time proposed by the Commission would present Ireland with difficulties and we will seek to have this addressed.
Beidh nóiméad amháin agam agus nóiméad ag an Teachta Clarke. What the Minister of State has outlined would probably make sense were it the case that some consultation had taken place. The Government cannot take anything other than outright opposition to this regulation prior to consultation with those people who will be affected by it. As is the case with any legislation, and particularly with EU regulations, there are always unforeseen consequences that only people at the coalface will be able to address. There is a major financial implication but there are also major conservation implications for those who are carrying out very positive conservation functions for us all in their local areas. I again request that the Minister of State commit the Government to opposing this at every turn and, in the interim, carrying out a full consultation process with those who will potentially be affected by its inaction.
I have heard and listened to what the Minister of State has said. The problem, however, is that the Ramsar convention, when applied to Ireland, takes in everything but the kitchen sink. It is not designed to be used at a local level. It is designed to be used on a broad, global scale. I ask the Minister of State to commit to come to the midlands and to meet with groups like the National Association of Regional Game Councils. As a result of today's delayed vote, we have been given an opportunity to engage with such groups. They know these areas like the back of their hands. These are the real experts on the ground. Will the Minister of State engage with them? Will he listen to what they say to him and take it on board?
I thank Deputies Carthy and Clarke for raising this issue. I accept the points they have raised. As I have already stated in my response, my Department is fully aware of the difficulties hunters and landowners may encounter in sourcing alternative ammunition or guns should the Commission regulation come into force. We are fully supportive of the ban on the use of lead shot in and around wetlands given the environmental threats posed by lead in the environment. At the same time, my Department has liaised directly with farming and hunting stakeholders and is acutely aware of the challenges involved. In addition to the challenges I have already outlined, the Commission's proposals for buffer zones of 100 m around wetlands add difficulty in trying to resolve these issues and enforce new restrictions.
We believe that the transition period of two years proposed by the Commission before the regulation comes into force in member states is too short, given that we are one of four members states that do not currently have any restrictions. Given the difficulties in terms of implementation, Ireland has argued that the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals, REACH, committee could push for a longer transition period. I cannot specify how long that period would be but we will continue to seek a longer transition period to incorporate the regulation. I will certainly take up Deputy Clarke's offer. I am more than happy to meet with the lobby on this issue.