Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Aviation Industry

We have given a double period to the first issue, which is the decision by Ryanair to close its Cork and Shannon bases. We start with Deputy O'Rourke and each Deputy has one minute.

This is a serious issue and I will approach it from an overarching point of view in relation to aviation. Testing has been an absolute dog's dinner and the State needs a plan for aviation for many reasons, including connectivity, regional balance, employment and climate. There are huge groups of workers and areas affected. The airlines themselves, maintenance and repair, leasing and tourism are all dependent on our aviation sector and our connectivity. The sector has been failed by this Government at the July stimulus and at budget 2021. I call on the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to get testing and tracing right at our airports immediately and to include the aviation sector in a meaningful way in the national economic plan.

The Ryanair announcement that it is to reduce its winter schedule at Shannon Airport is yet another in the long list of blows to the mid-west economy. It will affect 155 staff at Shannon and Cork airports. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection must ensure these workers are assisted promptly so they are not waiting weeks if they have to sign on as a result of the announcement. As the Minister is aware, the mid-west region and my constituency of Limerick City are hugely dependent economically on the connectivity afforded by Shannon Airport. Over 55,000 jobs are dependent on a viable airport in the region. While the Ryanair decision is a blow, it is not unpredicted. Dr. Catriona Cahill, chief economist with Limerick Chamber, said on "Morning Ireland" this morning that the Government must intervene now to provide supports and guidance. The Government has committed €5 million to the airport. Does the Minister not realise it is far too little and far too late? The ship sailed months ago. We need proactive and prompt action from the Government, but instead we are getting a reactive response that merely applies a plaster to a gaping wound.

Cork Airport directly and indirectly supports 12,000 jobs in the region, generated over €900 million for the Irish economy in 2019 and is one of the key drivers for Cork. Cork Airport is Ireland's second busiest and best connected international airport, which resulted in it being the fastest growing airport in Ireland in 2019. Why has this Government not stepped in before the situation was left to fester? What is the Government's plan to rescue Cork Airport, its employees and Cork's economy?

Today's news from Ryanair that it intends to close its bases at Shannon and Cork is deeply disappointing. It is a huge blow for workers, for the airports themselves and for the mid-west and southern regions. It is a massive blow for business and for tourism connectivity. The Government has signed up to the EU traffic light system for a safe return to air travel but we must now formally adopt this policy and, more importantly, implement it in full. It is abundantly clear we need to introduce pre-departure testing and rapid testing at our airports and ports. After all, we are an island nation and 140,000 people work in the aviation sector. Therefore, we must follow the lead of other European countries and introduce a pre-departure testing regime. Representatives of Shannon Airport and the Dublin Airport Authority, DAA, told the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks last week that they are in a position to bring about these testing facilities at our airports and it will be done with a private contractor.

Today's announcement by Ryanair that it will stop the service to Cork is devastating news for the workers, Cork Airport and the wider region. Before Covid-19, Cork Airport was Ireland's fastest growing airport and in the face of Brexit and the Covid-19 crisis, now is the time to build Cork Airport up and position Cork as a counterbalance to Dublin. Without an airport, this is impossible so we need the Minister's support. The spin about this week's budget was focused on pro-jobs and pro-business but today we heard that 70 people directly employed by Ryanair, 1,900 directly employed by the airport and over 10,000 employed in the wider area will be affected by this closure. It is devastating news. What will the Government do to step in and support Cork and Shannon airports?

I call Deputy O'Donnell. Níl sé anseo.

Can I speak instead, very briefly?

The question I have relates to testing, which is obviously key. So far we have relied on polymerase chain reaction, PCR, testing. It is the gold standard but the WHO accepts antigen testing can be used when PCR testing cannot be used. Will the Government look at rapid testing and will that be antigen testing or PCR testing? In any event, will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to ensure there is a protocol agreed across the EU on testing so Irish passengers who have been tested are accepted in the country they arrive in?

Today's news came as a devastating blow, first, to the workers and their families, and I hope something can be done even now to salvage these jobs, and, second, to Cork Airport as a whole. There are over 10,000 people whose employment relies either directly or indirectly on it and I have been contacted by many of those people, including people working as baggage handlers, for shops and for different businesses connected to the airport. They are very worried.

For the region as a whole, if we are serious about Cork being the fastest growing city in the State and the island over the next 20 or 30 years, we need to have a viable international airport with serious international connectivity. There are serious concerns for the future and the connectivity of the airport off the back of this. It is clear the testing regime is a big problem here. We have not been able to get a handle on it. A lot of time was lost over the summer and we need to get this right now and to ensure these airports get back on an even keel as soon as possible because they are crucial for regional development and for all the jobs that rely upon them.

The Minister is very much aware of the struggles being faced by Shannon Airport and the impact on the wider region in recent months. I have raised the issue with him on numerous occasions but every time I come back into this House on this matter it is with further bad news. This is seen as being directly down to the apathy from the Minister and his Department. On Tuesday, there was a commitment to additional capital funding for Shannon and Cork airports and a commitment to sign up to the EU traffic light system and here we are, just 48 hours later, waking up to this bad news. We cannot continue to allow our international airport in Shannon to be failed time and again. We need action from the Government to address the issues in Shannon and ensure we have an airport on the other side of the pandemic and we need such action now. The workers and staff at Shannon Airport need certainty and assurances for there to be any kind of confidence at this time.

I call Deputy O'Donnell. I am sorry we missed him.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for being so gracious to allow me in and I thank my colleague for stepping in in my absence.

It was very good of him, all right.

This is an issue we are all united on. I will set out what I want from the Minister. First, in terms of the Limerick and Shannon region, Shannon Airport is vital to connectivity. We accept that we are going through a pandemic. When will the Government bring in the new traffic light system that has been passed by the European Commission? We want to see that implemented in full. When will it be implemented? Second, testing is coming front and centre in terms of the way airlines and airports operate. Where do we stand on a proper rapid testing system for airports in Ireland? We all accept we are in a pandemic. However, the airline business employs 140,000 people. We are an island nation and we need connectivity.

We must think outside the box. I will conclude by asking a question about the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, which does fantastic work. Have we now reached the point where its remit needs to be broadened and do we need to bring in experts in testing? The Minister might reply to those matters.

I thank the Minister for being here to respond to this important matter.

It is indeed a critical and serious issue not only for Cork and Limerick but the whole region and country. We need international connectivity and our aviation sector so I thank the Deputies for raising the issue.

Ryanair's decision to close its bases at Cork and Shannon airports for the winter is very disappointing. Unfortunately, the closure of these bases is part of a wider decision by Ryanair to cut capacity on its flights right across Europe. We should note today that Ryanair is also closing its Toulouse base for the winter and making significant base aircraft cuts in Belgium, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Vienna. Indeed, given the low forward booking rates to the end of this year being experienced by airlines right across Europe, this development is not entirely unexpected. According to the latest Eurocontrol data, these reductions in services are consistent with trends across Europe as we head into the winter season. In the circumstances, most airlines are now reducing capacity and Ryanair is no different, although it remains the busiest carrier.

This is, of course, a commercial decision for Ryanair and it is understood that the airline will continue to serve Cork and Shannon airports, although with fewer destinations served and reduced frequencies. The Government recognises that today's news will be a blow to staff at Cork and Shannon airports, Ryanair staff and other affected workers, and the wider regions involved. Cork and Shannon airports have excellent management teams in place and are doing all that is possible in difficult circumstances. The efforts made by staff and management to date are acknowledged and fully appreciated by the Government.

The Government is fully alert to the devastating impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on international travel and appreciates and acknowledges the important role of Ryanair and Shannon and Cork airports to the economies of the mid-west and south regions, respectively. While it is often said, it is worth repeating that as an island nation Ireland is particularly dependent on air connectivity, both socially and economically. Aviation plays a critical role in our economy. Cork and Shannon airports are key players in delivering high-quality international connectivity in their respective regions. The Government fully recognises this and is committed to ensuring that both airports are well positioned to aid our recovery and continue to play their parts in maintaining Ireland's core strategic connectivity into the future.

Unfortunately, it is expected that it will be some time before it is possible to permit a large-scale return to air travel. The Government is committed to ensuring appropriate supports are in place to allow the aviation sector to maintain the necessary core capability to maintain strategic connectivity and respond quickly when circumstances allow.

Budget 2021 included a provision of €10 million to help to address the challenges facing Cork and Shannon airports. This is in addition to the €6.1 million in emergency funding provided to Shannon Airport in June this year to complete a safety and security project.

Airports generally, as well as the airlines, will continue to benefit from the economy-wide support measures that the Government put in place at the beginning of the pandemic for companies of all sizes, including those in the aviation sector. Companies can avail of grants, low-cost loans, waivers of commercial rates and deferred tax liabilities. Larger companies, including those in the aviation sector, can apply for liquidity support through the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund pandemic stabilisation and recovery fund. Ryanair and airports around the country, including those at Cork and Shannon, have been able to avail of some of those measures, in particular the Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, the Covid-19 unemployment payment, the commercial rates waiver and deferred tax liabilities.

The Government has agreed to adopt the EU traffic light system for international travel and a decision on how we are going to implement this new system is expected to be taken at a Cabinet meeting next Tuesday. As it has in the past, the Government will seek to ensure an appropriate balance between allowing travel and protecting public health. The goal is to give airlines and the travelling public certainty as to what they need to do to be able to travel.

While the decision by Ryanair to close its bases at Cork and Shannon airports for the winter is a commercial decision, it is hoped that the measures already put in place by the Government, from which Ryanair has benefited, and the further measures being considered as part of our response to the coronavirus pandemic will help all players in the aviation sector to return to growth in the not too distant future.

The Minister has not addressed the issue of testing. We have for months been listening to a debate about what are false negative and false positive Covid-19 tests and the performance of different diagnostic assays. There are international examples. The DAA is ready to go with 15,000 tests a day. What are the Minister and the Government doing in that regard?

The game has changed around aviation. There is an opportunity for the State to step in and deliver a strategic future for the sector which would make a significant difference to tourism, connectivity and the climate. I appeal to the Minister to make that leap.

In response to my call in this House a number of weeks ago for Shannon Airport to return to the control of the DAA, the Minister said that would not solve the underlying strategic issues at the airport. With almost 90% of routes going to Dublin Airport, would he not accept that Shannon Airport, as a stand-alone airport, is one of those strategic issues that needs to be addressed?

The return of Shannon Airport to the DAA umbrella needs to happen and while it will not be a panacea for all the airport's problems, and nobody has ever said that, it would be a first step in addressing some of the issues at the airport. The wrong political decision was taken in 2012 and I call again on the Minister to reverse the decision. The ball is in his court and it is time to get into the game on this issue.

I thank the Minister for replying, though not for the content of the answer. I welcome the traffic light system. In my opening contribution, I did not mention any airline but did mention Cork Airport three times. It has 12,000 employees and Cork's economy is worth €900 million. The Minister mentioned Cork Airport in his reply but I am disappointed that he did not address those other issues. What do we go back and tell the 12,000 people affected about what will happen to their jobs next week? What do we do with Cork city and county councils? Where are they going to find the €900 million they have lost this year? What will the Government do to replace that money?

Our airports are economic drivers. Shannon Airport sustains 46,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. It is more than just an airport. We need to rebuild confidence in air travel, as we are doing by signing up to the EU traffic light system. We need to implement that system in full. I want to hear what the Minister has to say about introducing a testing system at Shannon Airport and our other airports because until we do that, we will not rebuild that confidence.

I asked what the Minister is going to do to keep Cork Airport open and ensure its connectivity. The airport is vital for the region and the economies of Cork and the wider region. Will the Minister and the Government consider measures to support Cork and Shannon airports? As my colleagues have also asked, will the State now step in to support the airports and regions? Without State support, we will be left in need and in dire straits.

Has the Minister sought a meeting with Ryanair and Aer Lingus? If not, when will he do so? I welcome the fact that the Minister will bring in the European traffic light system. When will it be implemented? Will the Minister be looking at providing State support for strategic routes? There is no Aer Lingus route from Shannon to Heathrow at the moment. To reiterate, has the Minister met representatives of Ryanair and Aer Lingus? If not, when will he do so? Will he put in place State supports for strategic routes?

Much of the Minister's reply was not incorrect but it largely amounted to a statement of regret for the situation we are in and an acknowledgement that things are bad in aviation. It seemed as if the Minister was asking, "What can we do?". That is not good enough. An awful lot of jobs are relying on the industry. Entire regions look to these airports as crucial to their futures.

Aviation is not like other businesses. We are not talking about a factory in Cork or Shannon that might be difficult to relocate. Once those aeroplanes are gone, there is no guarantee that they will ever come back to Cork or Shannon. There is no guarantee that these routes will ever be based out of these airports. We need to hear a vision from the Minister. We need a vision for the future of aviation and testing is at the heart of it.

Today's announcement will affect approximately 155 staff in Shannon specifically, and will have far-reaching implications for approximately another 55,000 jobs in the region.

The enormity of the situation calls for intervention.

I have specific questions and if the Minister does not respond now I ask him to respond in writing. Can he give us clarity today on the review of Shannon Group? He said the airports would be well positioned. Can he elaborate on that? Can he commit here and now that he will do all in his power to ensure that Shannon Airport is saved?

Will the Minister give a concrete reply on testing and the development of a protocol that is respected across Europe so that passengers can travel? If antigen testing is not used, what type of testing will be used?

I ask for the latitude of the Ceann Comhairle because there are a significant-----

I have given Deputy McNamara great latitude all day. You might as well go on.

Deputies O'Rourke, McNamara, Carey and others asked about testing. It is an important part of the solution. It is what we need to do and I hope we get agreement in Cabinet next week. Agreement was reached on Tuesday in the European General Affairs Council on the European approach. As we discussed at the committee last week, it left it to national governments to decide what approach they would take.

I will seek support from the Government for the introduction of a testing regime which will allow passengers coming into this country to waive the restriction of movements rules that apply at the current time. Currently people flying in from countries on the red or amber list are subject to a two-week restriction of movements. That is a real impediment and difficulty for a lot of the airlines and others, including people travelling. Having a testing regime will address a lot of those difficulties and will, it is to be hoped, give people confidence to be able to fly and know it is safe.

In respect of the debate here with the public health authorities, I have said this will give us better public health outcomes. Currently, approximately 15,000 people a day are travelling in and out of our airports. We are supposedly monitoring their restriction of movements, but it is not possible to do that. Therefore, we do not have as much control in the current system as we would have if we had a proper testing system.

I would like to see a range of different testing systems. To be honest, we will have to be cognisant of the WHO, ECDC and the European Union, which is working on this as we speak, in terms of which testing systems will be validated. Our intention is to introduce a similar validation system to that in other countries which will allow us to achieve better public health outcomes so passengers do not have to restrict their movements for two weeks on arrival in Ireland.

In answer to Deputy O'Rourke, testing could be done at the airports or in other locations in advance of people flying into Ireland. The current PCR system used in Germany, for example, allows a test to be carried out 72 hours in advance of travelling and has a certification system which allows it to accept passengers into the country.

As Deputies have said, the DAA has done significant work in that regard to try to make sure it would have the capacity for testing in a way that would not impede or affect the national capacity for testing for coronavirus. This is a screening rather than a diagnostic system. There are different testing regimes.

In regard to Deputy Quinlivan, the issue of whether Shannon returns to the DAA is a separate issue to the immediate problem we have in respect of Ryanair in Shannon and Cork. The Seanad debated the issue and our reply to that is not ruling out certain measures. There are difficulties. Such a move will not address the strategic issues we have to address in Shannon. It is not something the Government is saying "No" to explicitly. Rather, it is separate to the issue we are facing today. I agree with Deputy Buckley that the airport is important for the region. The reason for concern is because this decision affects people directly involved in the industry, tourism and connected industries, such as the industrial estates around the airport, and the possible impact on foreign direct investment in the future. It is a critical issue for the Government and all concerned because of the implications for Cork and Shannon.

Deputy Gould referred to keeping Cork open. Cork Airport will stay open. There will still be Ryanair flights in and out of the airport. The number of flights will be a fraction of the previous number. The pandemic is causing the current difficulty. Even if all flights were open to all destinations, over 80% of the journeys that typically come into the country at this time of year would, if they were happening, come from countries which are currently red listed because of the high number of coronavirus cases. That is one of the fundamental problems in terms of restricting people from travelling. We need a testing system to overcome that difficulty. Cork Airport is remaining open.

To go back to what Deputy Ó Laoghaire said, I hope it is not too late. There may be a possibility that if we get a system in place some confidence will return. One would imagine that would happen within the next month or two. It will not be easy because we are at a high level of alert in terms of coronavirus, not just here but across Europe. We need a six to nine month plan to try to create the conditions which can see the return of flights to Cork Airport.

I will write to Deputy Wynne directly, as she requested, in terms of the review of Shannon Group. The same issue affects it. The Shannon industrial estate around the airport is very much connected to the aviation sector. The aviation industry is a large part of that industrial base in that area. Shannon faces a real challenge.

Deputy O'Donnell mentioned other supports. We are considering other supports. I hope we can-----

What about strategic routes?

We have to be careful in terms of the nature of the supports. We do not want to introduce supports that would contravene European law or support various companies in the industry. They are the sort of mechanisms we are considering. That will need to be done in conjunction with a testing regime. I will be honest. The testing issue is critical because in the absence of that the passenger numbers would stay very low and any supports would be marginal as a result. We will seek to introduce a more holistic package next week.

I do not think I will be able to impose any time limits-----

-----on the next two Deputies that ask questions.

Broadband Infrastructure

Deputy Michael Moynihan wants to discuss the provision of high-speed broadband throughout north Cork. I presume Kiskeam is top of the list.

Absolutely. Kiskeam is the centre of civilisation as mankind knows it. I am glad the Ceann Comhairle clarified at the very start that we can speak at length on the issue.

Do not get too carried away.

Over the past number of months as the pandemic wreaked havoc in our society and the world, we have seen a societal change in terms of how people have conducted themselves since the first week of March. A significant number of people are now working from home and have adapted enormously in that regard. Students, from primary school children to university students, have worked from home. Those working in State jobs, multinationals, local and indigenous companies and manufacturing and everything else have adapted. Society has changed.

The great enabler of that has been the Internet and a good and positive connection to it. Therein lies the challenge for rural and urban Ireland. Parts of Ireland are classified as urban, but do not have great connectivity to the Internet. One of the great enablers of work is a connection to the Internet. Each and every day people from across my constituency contact me to ask when there will be an upgrade and what they can do to ensure they can continue to work from home and be engaged in education and society.

This is not just about work or education; there is a purely social aspect. With further restrictions added today, many people are keeping in contact through Zoom and every other mechanism available to them to try to maintain connectivity. The previous Topical Issue was about the connectivity of people. This is about connectivity to keep all communities going.

What are the plans to ensure there is a proper roll-out of broadband in the short term?

As we head into the winter of this pandemic, who knows where we are going to be in the weeks and months ahead. We want to ensure connectivity right across the country. The great enabler to ensure that there is balanced regional development is broadband.

I thank the Deputy for this Topical Issue matter. The national broadband plan, NBP, contract was signed with National Broadband Ireland, NBI, in November last to roll out a high speed and future-proofed broadband network within the intervention area which covers 1.1 million people living and working in over 540,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms, along with 695 schools. The NBP will ensure that citizens throughout the country have access to high-speed broadband and nobody is left without this vital service. The NBP network will offer users a high-speed broadband service with a minimum download speed of 500Mbps from the outset. I should point out that this represents an increase from the 150Mbps committed to under the contract.

The current deployment plan forecasts that premises will be passed in all counties within the first two years and over 90% of premises in the State having access to high-speed broadband within the next four years. The high-speed broadband map, which is available at www.broadband.gov.ie shows the areas in Cork which will be included in the national broadband plan State-led intervention as well as areas targeted by commercial operators. There are 273,548 premises in Cork, of which 79,424 will be provided with high-speed broadband through the State-led Intervention. A further 194,124 premises are areas where commercial providers are either currently delivering or have plans to deliver high-speed services. Government investment in County Cork in the national broadband plan will be €314 million.

As of 13 October, over 103,000 premises across 24 counties have been surveyed by NBI. Of this figure, some 13,000 premises have been surveyed to date in Carrigaline and Midleton, and network designs have been completed to deliver the new fibre to the home network there. NBI crews have started initial works for the build covering approximately 4,000 houses in the Carrigaline area, including Cullen, Templebreedy, Carrigaline, Ballyfoyle, Douglas, Ballyphehane, Glasheen, Mahon and Kilpatrick. Laying of fibre should start shortly with the first fibre-to-home connection expected around December this year.

Further details are available on specific areas within Cork through the NBI website which provides a facility for any premises within the intervention area to register their interest in being provided with deployment updates through its website www.nbi.ie. Broadband connection points, BCPs, are a key element of the NBP, providing high-speed broadband in every county in advance of the roll-out of the fibre to the home network. As of 13 October, 166 sites have been installed by NBI and the high-speed broadband service will be switched on in these locations through service provider contracts managed by the Department of Rural and Community Development. The 51 BCPs have now been connected with high-speed broadband in places around Ireland. The following BCPs in County Cork are now connected and the public can avail of public Wi-Fi at the following locations: Ballindangan Community Centre, Lissvard Community Centre, Aghabullogue Community Centre, Castletownkenneigh Community Centre, Whitechurch Community Centre and the T.O. Park Labbamollaga Community facility. Bere Island Heritage Centre has been installed by NBI and is awaiting connectivity. Further BCPs are due for installation by NBI in the coming months at locations including Aubane, Mealagh Valley, Glash, Courtbrack and Sherkin Island. Further details can be found at https://nbi.ie/bcp-locations/.

Clogagh and Ballycroneen National School will also be connected for educational access as part of this initiative. My Department continues to work with the Department of Education and Skills to prioritise other schools with no high-speed broadband within the intervention area in Cork for connection over the term of the NBP. While substantial progress has been made to date, the Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on the delivery of the fibre network. The extent of this impact is currently being assessed and NBI has committed to put in place measures to mitigate the impact in as far as possible.

The Minister has outperformed the inimitable Deputies Healy-Rae in the number of townlands and villages he has mentioned-----

I am only warming up.

-----but he did not mention Kiskeam. I am sure that Deputy Moynihan will be concerned about that.

He did mention Glash which is about 1 mile from me and about 2 miles west of Newmarket, which the Minister would know well, and about 9 miles north of Knocknagree, with both of which the Minister has ancestral links.

If I may explain please, a Cheann Comhairle, my great grandfather walked-----

I know the area.

-----down from Knocknagree to meet my great grandmother in Newmarket and would have known Kiskeam well as he would have passed through it.

It is hard to outdo the Deputies Healy-Rae.

Speaking of Kiskeam, some of the areas that were on the area national broadband plan and have been dropped off it are the areas I want to zone in on. The private operators, wireless etc. have moved in to fill a vacuum that is there because people want to get connectivity immediately. They are talking to their bosses and to their schools during this pandemic and asking how they are going to get broadband. There are places that are not getting broadband. The plan for the areas that would find it difficult to get connection may take three to four years. Is there a seriousness at Government level to try to move it more quickly because society has moved way beyond the political scene in the past number of months with working from home and so forth. It has made that leap. The State is duty bound to ensure that we have a proper roll-out of fibre broadband. I appeal to the Minister to see how we can move this more quickly. Can the intervention that is needed by the State be delivered through the various stages as fast as is humanly possible to empower all of the citizens of the island, whether they are from Kiskeam, Newmarket, Knocknagree or anywhere in between, to ensure this happens? Everybody has the experience of people who are working from home in various Departments and in various positions. We should be looking at everything to empower that to continue into the future. Gabhaim buíochas.

I am absolutely committed, as is the Government, to try to accelerate this programme to ensure it does deliver right across the country. If I can take Kiskeam as an example, my understanding is that one of the proposals there is that the post office may become the local connection point, where one could have a working hub for remote working in a social community-centred sort of way. As it happens, I met the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, coming in here this evening and one of the items in her budget that I was very pleased to see agreed on Tuesday was €5 million for the provision of remote working centres within the centres of community where we could do exactly what the Deputy is suggesting, which is to try to create these working hub centres. I will follow up with An Post and with the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, to see if this is such a suitable venue.

Taking this as an example, we should use this moment right across this country to change and transform from a position of real difficulty and to accelerate positive things, particularly in rural Ireland. The remote working approach is very real and is happening now with hundreds of thousands of people. It will work best where there is a social aspect to it and has an enterprising crossover aspect that will come when one gets people working together and using community facilities. This will bring life back into the centre of villages and towns. Critical for that is the provision of broadband infrastructure. Without that nothing can happen. The national broadband plan will be transformative and will be seen in the end as being of historic consequence for this country because it provides the infrastructure of the future. It will be rolled out in the next four years and by definition has to go to every area and cover every single house. Beyond that we should be looking at how we can build up communities and that is what I sense from Deputy Moynihan and I fully support that.

Agriculture Industry

We welcome the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, to the House. It is my first time to meet her in this capacity and I want to avail of the opportunity to congratulate her on her appointment and to join with all the other Members of the House to wish her nothing but success in her role.

I welcome the Minister of State.

I wish to speak today on horticultural peat harvesting. This sector makes a major contribution to the Irish economy.

There are 6,600 people directly employed in this industry and a further 11,000 in indirect employment. Many of those jobs are in the midlands, which have been particularly hard hit by industry closures and growing unemployment.

In 2018, the horticulture industry had a farm gate value of €437 million. It had exports valued at €229 million. Its employment value was just shy of €500 million at €497 million. Sectors directly supported by this industry include mushroom growing, vegetables, protected fruits, nursery stock and tree saplings. Its cost base would be greatly impacted by the proposed changes and it would put all those businesses under significant pressure.

The work this industry does has very little environmental impact in the grand scheme of things. Only 24% of total peatlands are used for horticulture peat harvesting. The CO2 emissions from horticulture peat harvesting are a mere 0.52% of potential Irish emissions for 2020.

Current legislation prohibits all peatland owners, including Bord na Móna, from carrying out any work whatsoever on bogs until planning permission is granted and a valid EP licence is received. As a result of that, Growing Media Ireland, GMI, and Bord na Móna ceased all peat harvesting on 16 June 2020. GMI and the industry are now in a legal limbo as to whether they can harvest peat moss for the industry. Failure to do so will result in this industry collapsing in the very near future, resulting in major job losses and economic output.

If this issue is not addressed by the relevant Department, this industry is facing the reality that it will run out of peat moss supply in Ireland by July 2021. If the industry is not permitted to harvest peat for horticulture, it will be imported from other parts of the EU. That does not make any sense, either economically or environmentally. As we speak, peat is being imported into this country. It is laughable in the extreme that we would import peat. How does it make sense to say we cannot have peat moss for the sector for environmental reasons but we can afford to ship it from other countries, which results in even more emissions and environmental impact? I call on the Minister of State to take a common sense approach. She should sit down with the industry, sort out these issues and save jobs.

I would like to quote from one paragraph in the report of the Just Transition Commissioner. It states:

... some fast-track, 'one-stop-shop' arrangement needs to be considered for planning, licensing and regulatory compliance. Greater cohesion and co-ordination needs to be developed. [He recommended] that this issue be addressed as a matter of urgency.

He stated that this will ensure a just transition that does not result in the destruction of local communities and will also ensure that measures are put in place to secure appropriate aftercare, including the rehabilitation of very valuable post-harvesting peatland habitats. I stress that the habitats that will exist after harvesting can also be greatly beneficial to the environment.

We are talking about a small proportion of Irish bogs but a vitally important industry to the country. If we do not allow harvesting in this country, we will completely undermine the cost base of the mushroom and the vegetable growing industries. They have enough problems with Brexit and trying to maintain access to the UK market but if we destroy their cost base in this fashion, they will find it virtually impossible to survive.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Senator Pippa Hackett)

I thank the Ceann Comhairle and the Deputy for their nice welcome.

Peat is traditionally a very important component of the national horticultural and amenity plant sector. Approximately 60% of the value of Irish horticulture is dependent on peat as a growth medium, with the mushroom amenity and soft fruit sectors most reliant on peat. As the Deputy stated, the horticulture sector is a large agrifood sector. It is the fourth largest agrifood sector in this country behind dairy, beef and pigmeat. The industry continues to progress and develop. Of the peat that is extracted for horticultural purposes only 10% is used here in Ireland and 90% is exported.

My Department is not involved in the regulation of peat extraction as this is a planning process under the remit of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. In this context, as an action under the national peatland strategy, the Department published a consultation document entitled A Review of the Use of Peat in the Horticultural Industry. That consultation invited written submissions from stakeholders across the sector. On 7 September 2020, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage and electoral reform, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, published a report on the review of the use of peat moss in the horticultural industry. The report was prepared by an inter-agency working group following on from the submissions from stakeholders. Following the publication of the report, the Minister of State will set up an independent working group to consider the impacts on the sector. It is proposed that this working group will represent Departments, including my own, and there will be representation from State agencies, environmental NGOs and industry stakeholders. The working group will address the key issues raised in the report including the future use of peat by the horticulture sector.

The position of chair for this independent working group has been advertised and the closing date for receipt of applications is 23 November. Once the chair is in place, the selection of working group members is expected to take place.

I commend Deputy Cahill on raising this matter and allowing me an opportunity to contribute. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his latitude in this matter.

I raised this matter previously with the Minister of State's party leader, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his answer in respect of the job losses that would be caused to the Monaghan mushroom industry and the associated peat extraction industry was that they will need to diversify. He spoke about solar panels as being one option. The difficulty with solar panels, and there are prospects for that sector, is that we cannot eat them. This is about food production. The truth of the matter is that people will eat the same volume of mushrooms, for example, as they currently do. The question is where those mushrooms will be produced. They will be produced using peat. I fully endorse Deputy Cahill's proposition that the Government needs to consider a mechanism by which peat extraction can be used for essential food production services in this State and I encourage the Minister of State to pursue that matter with full vigour.

I welcome the Minister of State's reply in which there was recognition of the significant importance of the horticulture industry and the need for peat as a source of raw material. I welcome the formation of the working group and I hope a common sense solution can be found. It would not make sense from either an economic or environmental perspective to import peat into this country.

I agree with Deputy Cahill's final comment that it does not make sense to import peat here. The bottom line, however, is that the sector will have to transition away from peat. We will not have an endless supply of peat even if we wanted to continue with extraction. In the interim, as part of that, there may well be scope to facilitate that by focusing on the domestic demand for horticultural peat rather than exporting. Regarding the 10% that stays here as opposed to the 90% we export, there may be scope there, which would seem to me to be a reasonable approach in that we would put our growers ahead of those abroad.

My Department, in conjunction with the industry, is actively looking at alternatives to peat. While there are not yet any suitable or viable alternatives for mushroom casing, my Department is currently funding two research projects that have been commissioned by Ireland's mushroom producer organisation, CMP. In terms of the two elements to that, there is one on a spent mushroom stabilisation project. The objective of that project is to develop a rapid aerobic process to stabilise spent mushroom compost and create a by-product that could be used as a growing substrate within the sector. That work is ongoing.

The second alternative being looked into is a peat casing reduction project. The objective of this project is to examine the impacts of reducing the quantity of peat used as a casing material in mushroom production. A number of alternative substrates can be used but they have issues in terms of sustainability and their location.

This is an issue but I believe it is something the sector can embrace with proper support from my Department and others. I look forward to a healthy and vibrant horticulture sector moving forward.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 October 2020.