Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 16 Dec 2021

Vol. 1016 No. 3

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Coastal Zone Management

As the Minister will be aware, the MV Alta ran aground in Ballycotten last February and unfortunately, it is still there. It has not been moved. It is a massive blight on the area of Ballycotten. We pride ourselves on the coastal area. It is also a health and safety issue that has been ongoing since last February and has not been addressed. I spoke to the landowner and contacted the Minister's Department last year.

A contractor would have gone down and removed the ship, with the permission of the landowner, but that was ignored. I have come back here again at the end of the year, unfortunately. I have read the report on the MV Alta by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB. While I have read that, I have come across statements on the report by a barrister in which he stated "The Marine Casualty Investigation Board ... report into the grounding of the MV 'Alta' ... is deplorably deficient and should be withdrawn as a national embarrassment." I am quoting from this gentleman’s statement because it goes on to state that in the case of the MV Alta, the failure to make appropriate recommendations following previous incidents are the reasons for the current unnecessary problem. There is now, again, a failed MCIB report into the incident that cannot even identify the legal basis, we as a nation, have in place for such incidences. While the MCIB report states that the State is empowered by the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks of 2007 to remove the wreck of the MV Alta, the review of that report notes that convention has not even been ratified yet, so the Department is coming from the wrong side. These are not my words but those of a review of the situation. It states that an issue arising from the MV Alta grounding is there was no indication that a derelict vessel was in Irish waters for some weeks. They reckon the ship was in Irish waters for approximately two months. A British naval vessel, however, had spotted the MV Alta afloat and Deputies may not be aware that the MV Alta came from somewhere over in the Caribbean.

I raise this matter because there have been other instances with marine tragedies over the years. The 35th anniversary of the MV Kowloon Bridge disaster is coming up this month. As an island State, we seem to have no joined-up thinking when it comes to who is responsible for these wreckages. We could be met with a natural disaster at any time. We are the gateway in the Atlantic, for ships that go up north or come back down the other side of our country to get to France. Our seaways are extremely busy.

People in Ballycotton have raised the issue with me to ask why the Department has not got rid of this wreckage. On top of that, the Department gave responsibility for removing the wreckage to Cork County Council. They are not experts in salvage in Cork County Council. In fairness, the county council did tidy it up and they did make it safe. Unfortunately, as we speak, that wreckage is starting to break up. It is an absolute eyesore and nobody is taking responsibility for the wreckage. Yet, when there was an easy option of removing it from the rocks in Ballyandreen Bay, the Department unfortunately ignored it. That would have been a quick fix. The contractor intended to remove the ship for free because he possibly would have got the value of the salvage. The landowner would have had the peace of mind that nobody was trespassing on his land and that he was not going to be sued.

Could the Minister of State give a timeline or a date when the MV Alta will be removed from Ballycotton?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The relevant legislation that allows for the removal of abandoned vessels in Irish waters such as that referred to by the Deputy is the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993. This Act gives effect to the International Convention on Salvage of 1989, to which Ireland is a signatory state. Section 40 of the Act provides that the Minister for Transport has the general superintendence of matters relating to wrecked or stranded vessels. The Act also sets out responsibilities from an operational perspective for other bodies. Sections 51 and 52 are of particular note with regard to the duty of the owner and the appropriate authorities. Section 51 places the initial responsibility for removing a wreck on the owner of the vessel, stating that "the owner of the wreck at the time of its sinking, wrecking, stranding, grounding or abandonment shall as soon as possible raise and remove it or otherwise render it harmless". The Act also provides for a number of appropriate authorities, such as a harbour authority, a local authority or the Commissioners of Irish Lights, to raise and remove the wreck or otherwise render it harmless if they consider a wreck is or is likely to become an obstruction or a danger to navigation or a threat of harm to the marine environment or to related interests, which include the health of the public.

Separate provisions apply regarding the sale of wrecks and a receiver of wrecks appointed under the Act deals with these matters. The Act allows for the receiver of a wreck to sell the vessel where the owner of the vessel cannot be located. However, the sale of a vessel is not always a viable option, as a vessel may be in such condition that it holds no significant monetary value. Furthermore, the Act does not contain provisions in relation to the costs associated with the removal of a wreck where the sale of that wreck is not possible and the owners of the vessel cannot be located.

In relation to the MV Alta, which washed onto rocks close Ballycotton, County Cork in February 2020, Cork County Council took the lead in dealing with this wreck in its role under the 1993 Act as the appropriate authority. In this role, Cork County Council is taking a number of actions, such as removing stores, including fuels and lubricants from the vessel and engaging consultants to carry out a number of reports on the vessel. These included reports on the wreck compiled by a marine surveyor, an environmental and ecological impact study and an assessment of hazardous material.

I wish also to highlight a working group established by the Department of Transport on foot of recommendation in a report published by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board on the grounding of the MV Alta. While incidences of wrecks coming ashore on the Irish coasts are rare, this group was established to explore the risks and potential costs to the State presented by derelict ships entering Irish territorial waters and coming ashore in Ireland and to make proposals for means to identify, monitor, track and interdict derelict ships before they endanger other ships and seafarers in the vicinity. The group, which is led by the Irish Coast Guard has met on a number of occasions and the Irish Coast Guard is currently liaising with the European Maritime Safety Agency, EMSA, with a view to evaluating satellite options for identifying vessels of this type in the future. Officials in the Department of Transport are available to support relevant appropriate authorities in the exercise of their functions, as set out in the legislation in question.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He mentioned the section of the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993, which gives effect to the International Convention on Salvage of 1989. However, it says that the Minister for Transport has the power to appoint an official, known as a receiver of the wreck, to organise the process of dealing with it. If I go back to where we are today, that ship is still below. The onus, from the Minister of State’s reply, is on Cork County Council but that council will have to do it for free because there is no money, so we are back in the same situation again.

It is amazing, because the MCIB that was set up does not seem to have any joined-up thinking. The Court of Justice of the European Union, in the European Commission v. Ireland, found that the MCIB lacks independence, contrary to EU law. The aforementioned review notes that it is also deficient, incompetent and:

engages chronically underfunded or supported investigators to carry out statutory investigations on a shoestring [budget]. This report is a dreadful indictment.

These are not my words but came from the barrister referring to that case taken in the European Union's court.

The information I am trying to get from the Minister of State - and I appreciate his reply - is the fact that I cannot get a response here. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport has the power under the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 to send somebody down there to remove that wreckage and remove that eyesore in Ballycotton. It is a danger. It is still attracting people to go down and try to board the ship. It has been done on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, we will be here, perhaps next year, and will be using the line, “I hate to say I told you, so but I told you so”. God forbid that somebody is killed.

It is a red flag for this country. We need a proper marine investigation board to nip these things at the bud, as I said. This ship was floating for months or weeks in Irish waters. It was never spotted until it washed up in Ballycotton. We need to get it removed.

I thank the Deputy for the points he has raised. While the legislation in question that deals with salvage and wreck matters outlines roles and responsibilities for an appropriate authority, it does not specify provisions in relation to the costs associated with the removal of a wreck or the sale of that wreck. It is not possible when the owners of the vessel cannot be located, as has arisen in this instance. The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks of 2007 provides the legal basis for states to remove, or have removed at the shipowner's expense, wrecks that may have the potential to affect adversely the safety of lives, goods and property at sea, as well as the marine environment. Primary legislation is required to ratify the convention and it is intended to progress this as part of a future merchant shipping Bill. However, I must stress that the convention does not cover all wreck removal scenarios.

For example, when the owner of a vessel cannot be located and insurance details cannot be found, pursuing that owner for costs will continue to be difficult. As I stated in my opening remarks, the incidence of wrecks coming ashore on the Irish coast is rare and not being able to locate the owner of the wreck has added further complexities to securing or removing the vessel. Engagement between the Irish Coast Guard and the EMSA on satellite options for identifying similar future scenarios will be of assistance. Officials from the Department of Transport have attended interagency meetings on this issue and will continue to be available to support the relevant appropriate authorities in the exercise of their functions, as set out in the legislation. I will bring the Deputy's specific points to the Minister for Transport when I see him next.

Aviation Industry

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, undertook to commission a review of the financial situation of Shannon Airport, which was carried out by NewERA. I understand that, according to that report, there is a need to continue to provide financial supports for Shannon Airport into 2022. The regional airports programme, which has been extended to Shannon Airport for 2022, must be extended permanently. What is in the report in that regard? We welcome the fact that €10 million was announced the day before yesterday for Shannon Airport under aviation supports, with €4.6 million for route activation programmes. Shannon Airport needs a connection into Europe. The Heathrow route is now back. It will go back to two flights a week in February and three flights a week in March and we hope to have an early morning flight as well. Transatlantic flights to Boston and New York with Aer Lingus will also return early in the new year. I ask the Minister of State to outline the recommendations contained in the medium-term review carried out by NewERA into the financial situation at Shannon Airport. We need to hear that the Government is committed to providing financial supports in the medium term and with regard to Covid more particularly. The regional airports programme should be extended to the airport permanently, not just for 2022. Shannon Airport's passenger numbers have reduced from 1.4 million to just under 400,000 last year, which is a reduction of nearly three quarters. It has been exponentially hit. I await the Minister of State's response regarding this report.

I am disappointed that neither the Minister for Transport nor the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, are here for this debate. I understand that the Minister brought to Cabinet a report that was carried out by NewERA on the financial situation of the Shannon Group, including Shannon Airport. It is important that the report is published and that the recommendations are made known and implemented. Deputy O'Donnell mentioned that Shannon Airport is now included in the regional airports programme, which is very welcome, but that must be done on a permanent basis. Doing so would be in total compliance with EU state aid rules and that vital funding stream would give some certainty to the airport regarding its future. The national aviation policy is set to be reviewed. I am chair of the Shannon Airport Oireachtas group, which works with Deputies and Senators from across all parties in counties Clare, Limerick and Tipperary. We hope to extend that to Galway too. We are going to work with the airport to put together a proposal for the Minister on the national aviation policy. We need to give a fair slice of the national aviation cake to Shannon Airport because it is a driver of economic activity in the west and mid-west, supporting 46,500 jobs. It is important that the recommendations contained within this report are implemented. I welcome the allocation of a further €10 million to the airport that was announced during the week but I would like to see that type of money being invested in the airport on a permanent basis.

I thank both Deputies for their questions on this matter. Regarding the review carried out by NewERA, this is a requirement under the code of practice for the governance of State bodies. Within the first six months of each financial year, commercial State bodies, including the Shannon Group, are required to submit to their relevant Ministers a draft annual rolling five-year business and financial plan. Therefore, in May 2021, Shannon Group submitted financial forecasts, although, due to the uncertainty arising from Covid-19, they covered the period from 2021 to 2022 only. Given its role as a financial adviser to the Minister, the financial forecasts were reviewed by NewERA. In July 2021, a report was submitted by NewERA to the Departments of Transport and Public Expenditure and Reform for consideration. Given Shannon Group's status as a commercial State body, the details of the report are confidential and commercially sensitive.

As part of its report, NewERA provided observations on the significant financial impact on, and challenges for, Shannon Group arising from Covid-19. This financial analysis was assessed by the Department of Transport in the context of the 2022 Estimates process and its engagement with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in this regard. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, also updated the Government on the financial position of Shannon Group as part of a recent memorandum to the Government on Shannon Group and aviation supports more generally.

The Deputies will be aware that, early in the Covid-19 crisis, this Government put in place a range of economy-wide supports to help to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19. Shannon Group has, as appropriate, availed of these supports, including the recently extended employment wage subsidy scheme. In addition, Shannon Airport is benefiting from aviation-specific supports under the regional State airport programme, which was put in place for 2021. This is in addition to €6.1 million allocated by the Government to ensure the completion of a safety and security project at the airport this year. Shannon Airport, and our other State and regional airports, have also received funding under the Covid-19 supplementary supports schemes, which have an increased budget of €116 million. This funding, which the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, announced yesterday following the recent approval from the European Commission, provides State airports, including Shannon Airport, with the flexibility to roll out route incentives and charge rebates, with a view to supporting recovery and growth of connectivity.

In total, this year the Government has allocated an unprecedented €24 million to Shannon Group in direct grant support. This is in addition to the aviation-specific supports granted last year and the economy-wide supports that Shannon Group has availed of throughout the crisis. I assure the Deputies that the Government will continue this support into 2022. Shannon Airport is eligible for continued Government support under the regional airports programme next year. Given the challenges ahead, the Government has approved an allocation of €36 million for the programme in 2022. This is an increase of some €15 million on the allocation provided under the programme this year and reflects the increased budget necessary to support both Shannon and Cork airports under the programme along with Ireland West, Kerry and Donegal airports in 2022.

Looking beyond Shannon Airport, I understand that Shannon Group's engagement with the relevant local authorities on the transfer of Shannon heritage sites to them is progressing well. However, due to the complexities involved in the transfer, due diligence exercises must be concluded before any necessary formal consents of the Ministers for Transport and Public Expenditure and Reform can be given to execute any transfer of the sites, with the agreement of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage.

As the Deputies will be aware, Pádraig Ó Céidigh was recently appointed as chairperson of Shannon Group. I am pleased to let them know that the Minister for Transport and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, had a good meeting with Mr. Ó Céidigh last Friday. They discussed the current status of the group and the key challenges, risks and opportunities for the future as Shannon Group continues to successfully position itself for recovery.

I am a little surprised that this report was given to the Department last July. I am also surprised that the Minister of State said it was confidential and commercially sensitive because I read about its contents in the Irish Examiner. The article stated, "A review of Shannon Airport has found that the group should continue to receive State funding, the Cabinet has heard." I am a Deputy for the mid-west. Shannon Airport is vital. This is very simple. Shannon Airport must be included in the regional airports programme. Clearly, this report stated that it needed funding for next year. That is what the media reports are telling us.

We know that because flight numbers are down. I want the message to go back to the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, loud and clear that we expect the regional airports programme to be extended to Shannon Airport on a permanent basis. We need route connectivity. We welcome the €4.6 million in funding announced yesterday included in the €10 million for route supports. We cannot exist on the western seaboard without support. The national aviation policy comes up for review very shortly and we will make recommendations in that area as a collective group. I want to hear that the Minister of State will take the message back to the relevant Ministers that the regional airport programme needs to be extended to Shannon Airport on a permanent footing.

I thank the Minister of State for his response. I am surprised that the report is confidential, will not be published and that we cannot see its recommendations. I have no doubt that the Government has supported Shannon. It put €23 million into the airport last year. We need certainty and to get into the regional airports programme on a permanent basis. The Minister of State indicated that this will happen next year, which is welcome. We need to be included in it on a permanent basis in order that we have certainty and will be able to draw down money to carry out essential capital works. If we do not get that support, the airport group has to finance it itself. I join my colleague, Deputy O'Donnell, in insisting that we are included in the programme and that the Minister of State bring that message loud and clear to the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton.

The Deputies' message is clear and straightforward. I will convey it to the relevant Ministers. So far this year, to the end of last month almost 325,000 passengers used the airport. This is an 80% reduction on the same period in 2019, when approximately 1.7 million passengers used the airport. While passenger numbers remain suppressed, it is welcome to see that passenger numbers for last month were significantly up on the same period in 2020. There have been no transatlantic flights from Shannon since the onset of Covid, but the commitment by Aer Lingus and United Airlines to resume transatlantic flights from March next year is to be welcomed. I can also inform the House that Aer Lingus will increase flights on the London Heathrow to Shannon route to twice daily from 18 February and three times daily from 27 March. Ryanair is planning to operate 20 routes, including the first Shannon to Malta service.

The Omicron variant has the potential to significantly impact on the sector, however. While the implications remain unclear, I can assure the House that the Government will continue to monitor the financial impact of Covid-19 on the Irish aviation sector on an ongoing basis, in consultation with all key stakeholders and relevant Departments.

It is important to note that before Covid-19, the Shannon Group was successfully delivering its commercial mandate, resulting in the group being an economic driver in the mid-west region. It was on a growth trajectory since its formation in 2014 and the Government wants this growth to return for the benefit of the region and the national economy. With the substantial supports provided by the Government to date, I am confident that Shannon Airport and all of our airports will be well positioned for the recovery that we hope to see continue in the sector next year.

Rural Schemes

I appreciate being given the time to raise this important issue. The indicative LEADER budget for 2023 is €180 million for the period 2023 to 2027. The new programme is €36 million per year, as opposed to €50 million. No matter how we dress this up, that is a reduction. The Irish Local Development Network, ILDN, made a submission to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because it is the formal managing authority for the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and, therefore, LEADER. In effect, the Minister in the Department of Rural and Community Development is responsible for the LEADER budget. That is why I want to know why there has been a reduction and what we can do about it.

This unnecessary cut will have real effects on local businesses and communities in my constituency and elsewhere. There are solutions if the Government is prepared to look at them. This is about rural Ireland. For three decades, the programme delivered by local development companies has brought much needed jobs to rural areas and developed rural communities. The aim behind the LEADER programme for the period 2023 to 2027 is to continue to support a community led local development approach to rural development. We cannot do that if we are reducing the budget.

We need to work together to assist enterprises and communities in rural parts of Ireland, like my area, Carlow-Kilkenny, to improve the quality of life and economic activity. Can we consider how this funding could be used to drive bottom-up community led investments to create and maintain enterprise in rural Ireland? If we set this budget in stone, we will deprive rural communities of critical capacity building supports and funding for vital enterprise, tourism and community led development. What we are doing will also conflict with the national rural policy, Our Rural Future, which is specifically linked to the LEADER approach.

Can the Government please take another look at the numbers? The Minister of State will say that there is no reduction, but that is not what those living with the programme are telling me. What is the process and delay in the report of the review of the local community development committees, LCDC, structures? That report will enable the Government to deliver on its programme for Government commitment to empower independent local action groups to deliver the new programme in the period 2023 to 2027.

I also want to ask the Minister of State about the process. I have spoken to many different groups. I have heard from several different groups that there is a lot of red tape in applying for LEADER funding. It has become a major issue. I understand we have to have transparency - everyone agrees with that - but there are definitely issues in applying for funding. I ask that this be changed because it is an obstacle to communities applying. I ask that the matter be addressed.

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The LEADER programme has been in operation in Ireland for 30 years. To mark this anniversary, the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Humphreys, recently launched the national rural network networks booklet of LEADER case studies. Case studies are excellent examples of the impactful and innovative initiatives that the LEADER programme has delivered across Ireland in that period. In recent months, I have visited a range of projects and initiatives in communities across Ireland and have seen first-hand the great work being delivered by LEADER groups.

The Government clearly recognises the vital role that LEADER plays in delivering high quality rural development projects at local level and will continue to support investment in rural Ireland. In the 2014-20 CAP programme period, €250 million was allocated to LEADER. For the period from 2021 to 2027, the funding allocation will be maintained at €250 million. This comprises €70 million provided for the transitional period from 2021 to 2022 and the recently announced indicative allocation of €180 million for the period 2023 to 2027. The maintenance of €250 million in funding from the 2014-20 period is evidence of the Government continued support for the LEADER programme. I am aware that the €70 million made available to LEADER groups in 2021 and 2022 has already supported a range of new projects approvals and expressions of interest for new projects remain open across LEADER areas.

In discussing the issue of investment in rural development, it is also important to take account of the record levels of investment across a range of schemes and initiatives. For example, a range of schemes have been implemented in recent years such as the rural regeneration and development fund, the town and village renewal scheme, the walks scheme and outdoor recreation infrastructure. Local development companies have been involved in the delivery of some of these schemes, as well as maintaining their role in respect of LEADER delivery. Their involvement in this regard has been very beneficial and is very much appreciated.

Budget 2022 also saw increases the secured in all of the Department of Rural and Community Development's rural schemes and the national development plan, NDP, outlines a clear commitment to a continuation of investment in rural Ireland as a matter of priority. Capital funding allocations for the Department have significantly increased,, from €88 million in 2018 to €205 million in 2025 under the NDP.

At present, preparations for the design of the range of schemes that will make up Ireland's new CAP strategic plan are well advanced. The total funding available for this package of schemes for the period 2023 to 2027 amounts to €9.8 billion. The total funding for these essential schemes for the 2021-27 period increased by 30% over the 2014-20 the CAP period, representing a clear commitment to rural Ireland by the Government.

A national public consultation process on the new CAP strategic plan was recently put in place by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The consultation process ran for a month and closed on 8 December. I understand a number of submissions were made regarding the new LEADER programme as part of this process.

Such stakeholder consultation will remain a central element of the design of the new LEADER programme. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, met with all the representatives of the Irish Local Development Network ILDN, on 2 December to discuss a wide range of issues, including the LEADER programme. Further meetings are scheduled with the ILDN this week at official level as part of this continued direct engagement.

I am confident that the Government's ongoing commitment to rural Ireland and its continued commitment to funding the great work being done by LEADER groups across the country will help to deliver on the range of actions for our rural communities into the future as set in the Government's ambitious rural development policy, Our Rural Future.

I thank the Minister of State.

I feel there is a big communication issue. I welcome the further meetings scheduled with the ILDN this week. That is so important. I am getting different figures from what the Minister of State is giving me.

I welcome the commitment from the Government to invest in rural Ireland. I see in my own community in Carlow-Kilkenny the community spirit that this important funding has brought. However, we need more communication and information on it. There is definitely a breakdown there. I ask that the Department would conduct an information campaign. I am aware that the Minister is speaking to all the different stakeholders but there are definitely concerns. I am hearing them on the ground. I ask that there be more engagement and that we have more information. The Minister of State said that there is a 30% increase in funding. I welcome that but, as I said, I need to get more clarification on the figures. Overall, we must welcome any funding that is brought into rural Ireland, including my own area. We also have to make sure that this delivers and that there are never cutbacks here.

I will ask the Minister of State about the application process. That is an issue that has been raised with me when one is applying for funding. I would ask that the Minister of State engage and see what can be done on that because there is a lot of red tape. I would ask for a commitment that that be addressed.

I welcome the fact that the submissions have been made. I note December is the time that everything is brought back to the Department and will come back to all the different stakeholders.

I would repeat that information and communication is the real issue when we are talking about rural Ireland. This must be addressed and maintained.

I will welcome any funding that comes to rural Ireland, particularly to my own area in Carlow-Kilkenny. I noted we were down slightly last year and I would ask that the Minister of State address that as well.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue here today.

The LEADER programme has been a very successful initiative for 30 years in Ireland. I am in no doubt that there is real value in the continued support for bottom-up locally-led initiatives that address the needs of communities all across the country and this is the hallmark of the LEADER approach. In fact, this direct link to local communities is also central to the mission of my Department and to Government's vision for rural Ireland, as outlined in Our Rural Future.

Local development companies play a central role in delivering LEADER and a range of other rural development and community initiatives run by my Department and the benefits of this role are well recognised. In recognition of this, the Government has committed to continue the support for the LEADER programme by way of the allocation of €250 million over the period 2021-2027. LEADER will thus continue to be a vital component of a well-funded CAP strategic plan in the coming years.

As preparations continue for the development of the CAP and LEADER programme, I can assure the Deputy that direct and meaningful consultation with the key stakeholders will form a central part of that process. Following on from a recent national consultation process on the CAP strategic plan which was launched by my Government colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, it is intended that a draft of the plan would be submitted to the EU Commission early in the new year. There will then follow a process of intense negotiation and discussion with our colleagues in the EU Commission in order to finalise the details of all the schemes in the strategic plan, including LEADER. Stakeholders such as the ILDN which are central to LEADER delivery will continue to be consulted with as this process develops.

I am confident that our new CAP strategic plan will deliver real and meaningful support to communities across rural Ireland. Within this, the significant national and EU funding which has been allocated to LEADER will ensure that we can build on the benefits that LEADER has delivered all over Ireland in the past 30 years. I am confident that the new LEADER programme will continue to build on the great work of the past 30 years and play a central role in delivering on the Government's vision for rural Ireland, as set out in Our Rural Future.

I will take the Deputy's question about her constituency back to the Minister, Deputy Humphreys.

Belturbet Bombing

I appreciate the Ceann Comhairle selecting this important issue for discussion here this evening.

We are now approaching the 49th anniversary of the bombing in Belturbet, County Cavan, that caused the deaths of two young innocent teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly from Belturbet and Patrick Stanley from Clara, County Offaly. On many occasions, I have raised the issue of this heinous crime, through Dáil questions, debates in this House, at Oireachtas committees and directly with the British authorities. Sadly, nobody has ever been brought to justice for these murders and the injuries inflicted on so many others on that tragic night of 28 December 1972. Not alone has nobody been brought to justice, but the families have never got the truth about the perpetrators of this dastardly act.

I repeat that I believe that there has not been an adequate or comprehensive investigation by the authorities in Northern Ireland into this bombing. I put on the record of this House, in September 2020, information that had come directly to me courtesy of the good work of Professor Edward Burke of the University of Nottingham. Professor Burke's detailed report on the activities of loyalist paramilitaries, particularly in the Cavan-Monaghan area, shows very clearly that there was collusion between some British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries in a series of attacks in Cavan and Monaghan.

One of the subheadings in Professor Burke's detailed article is: "Blowing up Belturbet: Loyalist operations in County Cavan". That article includes the following:

At approximately 9:00 p.m. on the night of December 28, a red ford escort with at least two passengers, a young man and a woman, crossed the bailey bridge at Aghalane and made its way to the nearby town of Belturbet in County Cavan. An hour and a half later, the same car exploded on Main Street, Belturbet, killing two teenagers, Geraldine O’Reilly (15) and Paddy Stanley (16). Twelve more people were injured, some seriously, including Geraldine O’Reilly’s brother.

At my request, the Taoiseach has raised this very important issue with the British Government on the need to address our ongoing request for a full and comprehensive investigation. We need answers and the very least the O'Reilly and Stanley families deserve is the truth having suffered decades of grief for the loss of their loved ones. Almost a half-century has passed since that fatal night in Belturbet. We must never forget that it is never too late to get the truth.

The very well researched and very well written book by Mr. Joe Duffy of RTÉ and Ms Freya McClements of The Irish Times, "Children of the Troubles: The Untold Story of the Children Killed in the Northern Ireland Conflict", refers to the Belturbet tragedy as follows:

Geraldine was one of two children killed in the explosion; the other, Patrick Stanley, had been calling his mother from a phone box when the bomb went off.

Nobody has ever been convicted of the atrocity but according to Lost Lives, 'reliable loyalist sources' attribute the bombings to the UVF. ... The bomb killed two people, both children; Paddy and 15-year-old Geraldine O'Reilly are now remembered with a memorial in Belturbet.

That bomb, with such devastating consequences, originated in our neighbouring county of Fermanagh. We talk in macro-terms about legacy issues and dealing with the past but what we are talking about here is life and death.

We cannot deal with the past without getting full co-operation from all relevant security agencies. I know many families who have lost loved ones, including the O'Reilly and Stanley families, who have not got the truth, but those families have acted over the decades with such grace and dignity. They want to get the truth and they fully realise that getting prosecutions will not be easy. Unfortunately, time is passing.

I thank Deputy Smith for raising this matter. He has championed this issue for many years to try to get to the truth of what happened. The bombing of Belturbet on 28 December 1972 was an appalling and callous act of violence that claimed the lives of two innocent young people - Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley - and injured many others. The dreadful effects of this attack last to this day. The suffering of those who have lost what was most precious to them goes on, and the fact that the perpetrators of this atrocity have never been held accountable for their crimes can only compound the sense of loss. I extend my deepest sympathies to the bereaved and injured.

As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda authorities have previously advised that the bombing and the murders were comprehensively investigated by An Garda Síochána at the time. The Defence Forces provided expert assistance and the investigation involved close liaison with the authorities in Northern Ireland. Despite every avenue of inquiry being pursued at the time, there was insufficient evidence to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice. The investigation into the bombing and the murders of the two young people has not been closed and An Garda Síochána will pursue any new evidence or information that is made available. The Garda would, of course, work in close co-operation with the PSNI where that could advance the investigation. The Garda also liaises with the families on any developments that arise.

Following the publication of academic articles both last year and this year, which I thank the Deputy for raising, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, arranged for a copy of the articles, which concerned, inter alia, the Belturbet bombing and information on a potential suspect, to be forwarded to the Garda authorities for attention. The "RTÉ Investigates" programme which aired in December 2020 – "Belturbet, A Bomb That Time Forgot" – was also brought to their attention. The Minister, Deputy McEntee, will continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner on progress in this investigation. Most important, I appeal to anybody with any information that may be relevant to this case, even after nearly 50 years, to bring it to the attention of the Garda authorities to aid their investigation.

I thank the Minister of State for being present this evening. He has often spoken to me privately on this issue and he has assured me that every possible effort will be made to pursue these inquiries through An Garda Síochána.

I am also very pleased that the Minister, Deputy McEntee, confirmed to me about the information I put on the record of this House, which came to me through the detailed research of Professor Burke of the University of Nottingham following his work on British state papers, about the clear evidence of collusion between British state forces and the UVF. I also quoted Joe Duffy and Freya McClements who refer in their book to the "Lost Lives" publication. Those publications are detailed and reputable and the people involved have done their homework. Nobody can question the contents of the "Lost Lives" article by Professor Burke or the book, "Children of the Troubles".

Everybody is getting older. We are heading towards half a century since the fatal night the heinous crime was committed when two young teenagers lost their lives and others were injured. I am very pleased An Taoiseach pursued this matter at the highest level with the British Government. We must ensure An Garda Síochána keeps pressure on its counterparts in Northern Ireland and in Britain to have a meaningful investigation. The families want the truth. They do not want vengeance or revenge. That is not in them. They are so graceful and dignified. We all realise that, sadly, the chance of getting a prosecution will be extremely difficult. That is the reality 49 years plus after the incidents, but we must never give up.

It is appalling that Mr. Johnson and his colleagues in the British Government would come up with the idea of an amnesty for murderers from British state forces and paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. They have suggested we cut off forever the possibility of getting the truth and that we close down all avenues of investigation. The Oireachtas must ensure the message continues to go back that we will never give up on seeking the truth. The very least the families, whom I know so well and who have suffered so much deserve is to get the truth and to be assured the agencies of both States and the Governments have their interests at heart and that they will leave no stone unturned to try to get to the truth of what happened on the night of 28 December 1972.

I again thank Deputy Smith for raising this very important matter. As he rightly pointed out, it is coming up to almost half a century since the bombings in Belturbet, but the pain is still very real for those families - the O'Reillys and Stanleys - who lost their loved ones, and the suffering continues for those families whose loved ones were injured in the horrific bombing. The Garda has not given up. If anybody has information on this, it will be investigated. It is never too late to come forward, to tell the truth and to ease people's pain and suffering. I commend Deputy Smith, who deserves to be praised for his tenacity in continuing to raise the very serious injustice suffered by these families. He has never given up on the very serious crime that occurred.

Looking to how we can move forward, it is important to emphasise the Garda criminal investigation remains open and any new information or evidence will be thoroughly investigated. The Government has also raised this case with the British Government in discussions on legacy issues and it will continue to do so. I assure the Deputy that the appalling events of that day are very much in the minds of those in the Department of Justice, in my mind and in the mind of the Minister, Deputy McEntee. I will continue to engage with the Garda Commissioner on progressing the investigation into this horrific crime. There must still be people alive today who know what happened. As the Deputy correctly points out, time is moving on, but there must still be some people out there with information. I urge them to come forward and to come clean and provide the information or evidence they may have to allow these families get justice for the loved ones they lost.