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Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 7 Apr 2022

Vol. 1020 No. 7

Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Energy Policy

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

91. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will report on the energy security review; the action that is being taken to ensure security of supply in view of the war in Ukraine; the measures that are being put in place to assist households with escalating energy costs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19069/22]

I ask the Minister to report on the energy security review and the action that has been taken to ensure security of supply in light of the war in Ukraine. I note the comments of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, that he would support sanctions on Russian fossil fuels. Those are likely to have implications. What measures are being put in place to assist households with escalating fuel costs?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February is unprecedented in Europe in modern times. The war has, and will continue to have, significant impacts for the world, for the European Union and for Ireland. It has caused a humanitarian catastrophe, with millions of Ukrainian citizens internally and externally displaced. Efforts have been consolidated across the Government to address these emerging and urgent humanitarian issues in solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

The invasion has also impacted Europe's energy system. In particular, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered a decision by the European Union to phase out its dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal imports as soon as possible. The immediate impacts of that include an effect on the price that we pay for energy. However, it will also impact where and how we source that energy and will alter how we design energy policy going forward to ensure the long-term resilience of the system.

The Government is acutely aware of rising electricity and gas prices and the consequent effect on households. This is driven by high international gas prices. Our immediate response has been to utilise the tax and social welfare system in the budget last year to counter rising costs of living for households. Additionally, in recognition of the ongoing inflationary pressures on households we have introduced a credit payment to each domestic electricity account amounting to €200. Approximately 2.1 million account holders will benefit from the payment in the coming weeks. This is one of a range of new measures as part of a €505 million package of measures announced by the Government on 10 February to mitigate the wider cost-of-living increases.

Extensive arrangements are already in place to manage any interruptions to gas, electricity and oil supplies and these are being re-examined by my Department and the relevant agencies in the context of the impacts of the war in Ukraine on international energy supplies. I hope we may be able to publish some of this energy security framework in the coming weeks to show exactly what are the measures we may have to employ to cope should there be any further disruption in supplies.

There are several levels to be considered. The first is the immediate context. We know that coming into the year, there were many amber alerts last year, the CRU security of electricity supply and the programme of actions. We know the Great Island power plant is down for several months. There are real concerns in respect of generation capacity and, obviously, in terms of security of supply, particularly now as it relates to the war in Ukraine. Do the Minister and the Government support the imposition of increased sanctions on Russia in the context of a ban on the use on fossil fuels? What are the implications of that for Ireland? Are there discussions at European level? How will we ensure we are best positioned to weather the impact of that?

I thank the Deputy. We support tougher and stiffer sanctions. I have had meetings in recent weeks in Berlin and Paris with other European ministers. There have been meetings of the International Energy Agency, IEA. It held an emergency meeting last week at which we made the case for tougher sanctions. That would affect other countries in Europe far more than it would affect Ireland.

Europe has introduced sanctions on coal. That was announced yesterday by the Commission, as I understand it. That should not have a major disruptive effect on this country because Moneypoint, the largest coal user, is already switching away from Russian contracts towards Colombian coal. Similarly in terms of gas, while it would probably have a significant effect on the market price if Russian gas were to be shut off, minimal amounts of our supply come through from Russia. Our gas comes from the Corrib gas field, the UK and Norway. Very little of it comes from Russia. It would have a price implication but less so a supply one. In terms of oil, there is real concern. The International Energy Agency has prepared several detailed reports looking at the oil supply situation. Russia is one of the largest global oil exporters. There has already been a reduction in the supply of oil. An estimated 3 million barrels a day of exports are now not being put out into the market. That is why we have been doing these oil stock releases. There are implications but we can manage them.

I thank the Minister. I ask him to expand on the potential implications in the context of oil and related liquid fuels. There have been reports on the prospect of liquified natural gas, LNG, usage in the context of the energy security review. We have heard different things from different parties in government and different State agencies, whether the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, EirGrid or other agencies that have appeared at the climate committee. What is the position in respect of LNG? Is there a different position in respect of commercial LNG as compared with State-owned LNG? Is that something the Government is considering? If we end up in that position, it will be an indictment of the management of this transition.

I will be dealing with questions on that issue later on. We have to be careful here. There will be certain short-term measures, such as the €200 credit that will be going onto people's bills this week. There will be medium-term responses to the crisis which include the likes of the acceleration of the retrofitting programme and the roll-out of renewables such as photovoltaic energy and other renewables projects. There are longer-term issues relating to strategic storage of gas.

Although some people are giving consideration to LNG in the context of an immediate decision, it is probably not of as much consequence or significance in the immediate crisis as some of the other measures, particularly with regard to oil fuels, for example, in respect of which we are more exposed, as the Deputy noted. All our oil is imported. We are fortunate in comparison with European countries that are further east and closer to Russia as a shut-off of Russian oil would have a more immediate strategic impact on them. The Whitegate refinery provides much of our diesel and gasoline and most of its crude oil products come from the west, such as from America. That means we do not have a huge volume of Russian oil in our system. However, as it is a fungible market and oil tankers can head in any direction, any supply shock on the oil markets affects every country. Probably the most immediate focus is on managing such supply shocks and we are doing that through the International Energy Agency.

Energy Policy

Bríd Smith

Ceist:

92. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the Government’s position in respect of the siting of a liquefied natural gas terminal in Ireland; the way that such a project would be permitted in the State while at the same time meeting Ireland’s Paris Agreement obligations and climate action targets announced in the climate action plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19087/22]

The Minister was quoted in The Irish Times last week as making an astonishing statement in which he left open the door for the introduction of LNG or nuclear power in order to deal with this crisis. Is it his position as Minister and that of the Green Party in government to allow this country to be tied into the use of LNG, which would basically mean a reliance on another type of fossil fuel for approximately 30 years?

I thank the Deputy. I will read out the formal response and then come back to her on the issue she has just raised.

I tabled a question on the Question Paper and I would like the Minister to answer it, rather than answering the question that is in his head.

The written response I have is in answer to the Deputy's written question. If she would prefer, I will focus on the specific issue she has just raised orally. I have been involved with energy policy for approximately 20 years in this House.

At various stages down through the years I have said that one should always look at all options in respect of nuclear power. I do not believe we will turn to nuclear because it is too expensive, as we have a more competitive comparative advantage with regard to our own renewable power supplies. One should never rule out options, however, as choices are always made on best energy solutions, together with the economic and environmental benefits.

Similarly, with regard to gas and liquefied natural gas, LNG, I have made my position clear over the years. We have to avoid the risk of having stranded assets. The investment, the new future, particularly in the gas sector, I see as coming in the conversion of that renewable power that we have into hydrogen supplies. Those will be the investments into the future.

Over the years we have made some very specific decisions which I believe are the correct ones and which include not proceeding with fracked gas in our country or with oil and gas exploration because of that risk of stranded assets and the climate imperative of switching away from such fossil fuels.

I reiterate what I have been saying over the years which is that we never rule out any options. One always looks at what is strategically best for the country and our people, and considers all options, but I will obviously inform the policy process with my own views.

There is an issue around gas storage in Europe at the present time and the war has changed everything. I have been talking to the Deputy’s colleagues, Deputy Boyd Barrett and others, who are saying that this crisis has not been caused by the war but I believe that it has been, particularly the energy crisis aspect of it. What we have seen over the past year is that Russia has been scaling back its export of gas and increasing its own storage. We have a situation now where Europe is very low on gas storage and Russian gas storage is very high. We have to look at all options within that European framework.

A couple of things arise from the Minister’s comments. It will come as a major surprise to many of the Minister’s party members and the climate movement that he has said over the years that we have to keep all options open, including nuclear power. Over the years, what I have heard from the Minister, particularly as he considers himself a leader of the climate movement, is that we have to keep fossil fuels in the ground and that we must do this in order to reach Paris Agreement targets, to reduce our emissions and to take radical action. What the Minister is saying now is quite the reverse. He is leaving the door open to any form of power in the current climate, which he has just repeated there.

I find it contradictory, however, that his colleague, Deputy Hourigan, who is sitting in the Chamber now, has put forward a Bill to ban LNG facilities in the future. It is almost as if the Minister is saying that we may have to put up with one facility at Shannon, or possibly a State-led one, but in the future we are not going to have them. We need clarity from the Minister as to his position on this. It is unfair to the movement and to the Deputies in this House, who, like the Minister, are passionate and concerned about climate change, to have to try to figure out what the official position of the Government and of the Minister is in tying this country to a fossil fuel future.

Over the years, I have always made perfectly clear the importance of looking at every option and not being afraid of debate. Debate is, in fact, the most important and rigorous thing that one needs in order to assess all of the options. If one goes into such a debate saying that one will never discuss nuclear or gas storage in any format whatsoever, how will we then arrive at an informed debate and make the case that this is the correct way to go?

As I said, the war has changed everything in that we are going to switch away from that Russian gas. To put the debate in that wider context, that is a very significant issue in Europe where a very significant percentage of up to a half of gas use is coming from that source. Making the switch will be difficult. Different countries will have different approaches. Some countries, such as Germany, seem to be looking at the introduction of new energy terminals. I believe we will be in a different position because, as I said, the physics of the gas network we are connected to, with the UK and Norwegian gas and our own gas supply, puts us in a very different position from other countries.

There are a whole variety of different aspects to that, including the fact we do not have gas storage on the island. We have always said we are willing to discuss the likes of gas storage in the Kinsale gas field, salt caverns or other possible options. We said we will look at those options in an energy security review. That is what we are doing and in that context, we cannot look at the options while saying that we are never going to consider one or the other.

With all due respect to the Minister, and it is not my intention to insult him as I love debate and this is part of that debate, he has changed his position fundamentally by saying that we will leave the door open to LNG and to other forms of gas storage importation and the possibility of nuclear power. This is an extraordinary position that the Minister is presenting as a Green Party leader and a Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications with responsibility for energy in a climate disaster. We will not even reach the target set by this Dáil in the Bill that was passed and we will not reach the Paris Agreement targets if we go down the road that is being argued by the Minister.

The Minister is misleading the public by saying this is connected with the war in Ukraine. We do not rely on Russian gas. For the next ten years, 27% of our supply will be coming from Corrib and the remaining 73% through the Moffat interconnector, which the Minister just acknowledged is mainly Norwegian and British gas coming from the North Sea. To twist this whole debate around to the Ukrainian disaster is not fair and is misleading the public. Can the Minister repeat for me again, please, what the official Government position is on the creation of an LNG terminal and the location of such a terminal in this country, and the possibility of nuclear power? Please focus on the LNG question?

It is set out in the programme for Government, which we are now pursuing by carrying out the energy security study. I must return to the first key point as to the cause of this current crisis in high gas prices.

I am not talking about prices but supply.

Prices are one of the crises that we have to address-----

I did not ask the Minister about prices; I asked about supply.

-----and this debate is on whether the price crisis is connected to the war. Yes or no? It is fundamentally important to look at all of the options and at what is happening, and that we get clarity on that. There are a number of complex factors involved here related to how we came out of the Covid-19 pandemic, and so on, but what is happening in Russia and Ukraine is central to why our customers and our households are facing very high bills at the present time. I say that because it is part of the analysis that one has to take into account when looking at how we develop energy policy into the future. Ignoring that reality would not serve our people.

Broadband Infrastructure

Darren O'Rourke

Ceist:

93. Deputy Darren O'Rourke asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he will report on the roll-out of the national broadband plan; the number of premises that were passed and connected as of 31 March 2022; the way that he plans to accelerate the delivery of the plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19070/22]

Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach Gníomhach. The British Government published its own energy security strategy last night and it is very ambitious in respect of the ramping up and delivery of renewables, which is something that needs to be factored in to our own energy security review.

This question is about the roll-out of the national broadband plan and the number of premises that have been passed. Some 60,000 premises were to be connected by the end of January, which was then pushed out to the end of March. How many premises were connected by the end of March?

I thank the Cathaoirleach Gníomhach and the Deputy. The national broadband plan, NBP, State-led intervention will be delivered by National Broadband Ireland, NBI, under a contract 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 the more than 554,000 premises, including almost 100,000 businesses and farms along with some 679 schools.

Despite the unprecedented challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic, NBI has made steady progress on delivery of the new high-speed fibre broadband network under the NBP. I am advised by NBI that as of a April 2022 more than 316,000 premises have now been surveyed and over 166,000 premises are under construction or complete across 26 counties. I am further advised that almost 62,000 premises are now available to order or pre-order a high-speed broadband connection across 22 counties, with more than 41,000 premises passed across 19 counties and available for immediate connection.

In addition to the premises completed, build is under way on more than 124,800 premises, demonstrating the project is reaching scale. NBI has confirmed that more than 9,200 premises have been connected as of 1 April and this is increasing on a daily basis. To date, the level of connections is in line with projections and some areas are exceeding targets.

The Department has worked with NBI to agree an updated interim remedial plan which recalibrates the targets for 2022 to take account of the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and other delays to the programme, with a revised target of 102,000 premises passed by the end of January 2023, which is the end of the contract year three.

It remains the Government's ambition to roll out the national broadband plan State-led intervention as quickly as possible. The Department continues to engage with NBI to explore the feasibility of accelerating aspects of the NBP roll-out in order to establish the possibility of bringing forward to an earlier date premises currently scheduled in years six and seven of the current plan. The primary focus, however, must be on addressing the delays that have arisen and ensuring that the build programme gets back on track and is building momentum month on month.

There were a lot of figures in the Minister of State's response and I noted some of them. Importantly, the original target for the end of January 2022 was 115,000 premises. That was reduced to 60,000 a number of months ago. By the end of January, about 35,000 houses were passed. NBI told us at the end of January that by the end of March it would be back on track and would hit that 60,000 target. Now the Minister of State tells the Dáil that, instead of 60,000, NBI passed approximately 42,000 premises between the end of January and the start of April, so it is passing about 3,200 premises a month. At that rate it will not make 60,000 by the end of the year. The Minister of State referred to another target, 102,000 by the end of January of next year. The original target for the start of next year was 205,000. This project has been reducing its ambition and is missing even that reduced ambition. I would be sending up a flare at this stage if I were the Minister of State.

The Deputy is right that the project is behind where it should be at this stage, at the end of year two. The ambition, or the agreed remedial plan, is to double the output of connections in this year compared with the number last year to reach 102,000 by the end of the year. The project is not where it should be. Part of the remedial plan was to discuss the reasons for the delay. Some of those reasons are simply the fault of NBI. It can blame its contractor but it is still responsible for what its subcontractor, Eir, which it works with, does. One of the reasons is the pandemic. Although we thought the delays in the original waves of the pandemic would be over, Omicron, of course, took out many staff. That delayed things but it is not the entire story. Some of those delays are the fault of NBI, and it will be charged penalties for that. I have worked with NBI and, in the past month, have met both the chair of NBI and the chair of Eir. I will continue to do that. We reformed the mobile phone and broadband task force in order that we could co-operate with the local authorities. I believe and am assured that we are now converging and getting back on track, that a lot of the issues they had have now been resolved and that the project is now picking up, accelerating and reaching pace.

The important element is the number of premises passed. That is the real metric. People can avail of broadband when it is available to them. The pre-order and under-construction elements are just a distraction, but it is important there is a pipeline in that regard. Can the Minister of State outline what sanctions there are? Are they just for NBI or are they for Eir too? Eir has a responsibility for its make-ready process. I know there are problems within the system. What sanctions are there? Are they kicking in and, if so, to what extent? If not, when will they kick in and at what cost? What assurance is there that the project is getting back on track?

The project contract incudes a schedule of when things have to happen. It also includes a service level agreement, SLA, for the quality of service that has to be provided. Therefore, if NBI's network goes down for a period, it gets charged a penalty fee. If it cannot pass the number of homes it is meant to pass according to the schedule, it gets charged. Those amounts of money are deducted from the payments it gets from each home it passes.

How much is that?

NBI gets money only when it has passed a home. It sees deductions from those payments where there are penalties in place for what it has failed to deliver, so there are-----

How much has NBI been fined so far?

The money is taken out of the payments NBI is due. In the same way money is taken out of one's salary, the payments due to NBI are taken out. If the Deputy looks at the total amount of money paid in subsidy and divides it by the number of homes connected, he will see that we have paid out only 5% or so of the total cost of this project. That is reflective of the number of homes passed. NBI gets money when it does work.

Energy Policy

Cathal Berry

Ceist:

94. Deputy Cathal Berry asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the measures he has taken to enhance Ireland's energy security for the next 12 months; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19071/22]

I listened intently to the Minister's response to Deputy O'Rourke in respect of energy security. Perhaps my question is almost a follow-on from that. Specifically, will the Minister outline his plan to enhance Ireland's energy security over the next 12 months?

The immediate-term key is that we continue to monitor international gas and oil energy markets and to consult with our EU and international partners on appropriate measures, if necessary, to ensure energy security in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The European Commission is engaging with other countries to ensure sufficient and timely supply of natural gas to the EU from diverse sources across the globe in order to avoid supply shocks, including those that could result from disruptions.

Nationally, my Department is liaising closely with those State bodies that have statutory roles in respect of energy security and emergency management, including the National Oil Reserves Agency, which is responsible for maintaining Ireland's strategic oil stocks; the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, which oversees emergency planning for gas and electricity; Gas Networks Ireland, which is responsible for emergency planning of the natural gas network; and EirGrid, whose roles include planning for and managing the electricity system during emergencies, and which works closely with ESB Networks, which has statutory responsibility for managing the electricity distribution system. The existing arrangements are being examined by my Department and the relevant agencies to see if they require any modification to deal with the specific challenges posed to energy security by the war in Ukraine.

In addition, the National Cyber Security Centre is currently operating at a heightened state of preparedness in response to recent cyber incidents and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. The National Cyber Security Centre is in ongoing contact with its counterparts in the EU, the UK, the US and other countries to share information and to monitor possible threats. The National Cyber Security Centre continues to work closely with the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána and is in frequent contact with operators of critical infrastructure and services to monitor for possible malicious cyber activity.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I agree with him that we will be okay in short term. It is reassuring to hear that there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes. We are fortunate to be facing into the summer now, which should take a bit of pressure off the system. My concern is, post-Hallowe'en, in six months' time, when we will face into the next winter, whether we will be able to ride out that storm. I thank the Minister for confirming that an energy security review is ongoing. Perhaps he could expand on that slightly. Who is taking the lead on that review? Is there any deadline for its completion? Will the report be published?

Our Department is taking the lead on this. The Secretary General has set up a special energy security review group, which is meeting weekly. We expect to be able to publish a more detailed framework analysis to inform the public, other Departments and industry in the coming days or weeks. That analysis will look at a variety of aspects to this. We also need to look at further specific measures to help consumers, particularly with debt management, and some of the regulatory approaches we can take to help people through this difficult period. As I said earlier, we need to look at ways in which we can accelerate the development of our own renewable power supplies, promoting energy efficiency and looking at the more medium- and long-term energy security aspects. I have had two meetings in the past two or three weeks with the International Energy Agency, which has a central role in respect of the markets, particularly the oil markets, which are probably one of the areas most at risk for us because of the Russian crisis. As I said to Deputy O'Rourke earlier, there is a shortfall of something like 3 million barrels a day in international markets because the Russian exports cannot get access to markets as readily as before. That is why we have been engaged in all stock releases-----

Minister, you are way over time.

-----while working with the IEA on that market security issue.

Excellent. It is very reassuring to hear that response. Following on from the Minister's response to Deputy O'Rourke, he mentioned the potential import ban on Russian fossil fuels.

I very much agree with the Government’s position of that. I think that most Deputies in the Chamber would too. I thank the Minister for reassuring us that we should be okay from a coal and a natural gas point of view. He did mention that oil is our Achilles heel, for obvious geographical reasons. Perhaps the Minister could outline where we are in respect of a strategic oil reserve here in this country. He mentioned the National Oil Reserves Agency, NORA, in response to me. Could he outline if we have 90 days of supply? Where is it located? Is it all in Cork, or are some of the reserves in different European countries? Will we have access to that in extremes?

The Deputy is right that we went into this crisis in good stead because the National Oil Reserves Agency to my mind has done a very good job. We have a lot of stock. We have a 90-day stock that we are required to have under International Energy Agency rules. The majority of that is held within the island. We have even looked at some of the security aspects of that over the past ten to 15 years, while recognising that the national distribution system is not just one distribution system, but has regional characteristics. Whitegate in Cork is a very strong centre because it is our main processing plant and is our only refinery.

On the Dublin market and the distribution from the Dublin area, I remember when I was in office 12 or 15 years ago, that was one of the strategic issues that we had to consider. Much work has been done to try to improve our stocks storage system on a national level such that if there is a disruption, we can balance it and manage it regionally. In the first release of stocks, we did some 220,000 barrels of oil as part of that. That was our fair share of the IEA process. That was ticketed in Denmark, but-----

I thank the Minister.

-----some of those stocks may end up back on the Irish market as physical stocks. I think that we are well served by NORA. In my experience, it has been giving good, timely advice on this crisis-----

The Minister should note that we are over time.

-----and their presence is a reassurance.

Post Office Network

Marian Harkin

Ceist:

95. Deputy Marian Harkin asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications the specific concrete measures that will be taken by the Government and An Post to ensure the viability of the post office network, particularly given the new contract for postmasters which is due to start in January 2023. [18219/22]

What specific concrete measures are being taken or will be taken by the Government and by An Post to ensure the viability of the post office network? The context in which I ask that question, as the Minister is well aware, is that recently there was a meeting of the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU, at which there was overwhelming support for industrial action. They are balloting their members and they expect a result by the end of April. Therefore, this is a crisis situation. That is the context of my question.

The Government is committed to a sustainable An Post and post office network as a key component of the economic and social infrastructure throughout Ireland. An Post is a commercial State body with a mandate to act commercially and a statutory responsibility for the State’s postal service and the post office network. In addition, Irish post offices are typically independent businesses that are run by postmasters.

I have met the new chairperson of An Post and the chief executive and they fully understand the Government position. They assured me that a sustainable, viable and customer-focused post office network is a key strategic priority for the company. The company has assured me there are no plans for a consolidation outside of the terms of the transformation programme that was agreed with the Irish Postmasters Union in 2018 and that there will be no compulsory closures of post offices.

The transformation programme was impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. I worked with An Post and introduced the pandemic recovery fund in 2021, which was worth €8.5 million over an 18-month period. This commenced on 1 July 2021 and will continue until the end of this year. I fully recognise the importance of the high value and high quality post office network to our citizens right across the country, as well as the central and trusted role of postmasters in our communities. An Post, including through the post office network provides important services to its customers and it is contracted to provide key Government services to citizens.

The work on an interdepartmental group, which was established to consider the feasibility of the new Government services, is being considered at present and I am committed to the sustainable network. While decisions relating to the network are matters for the board and the management of the company, they continue to engage with the IPU on operational matters. The Government is committed to ensuring that An Post continues to play a vital role.

I have requested officials in my Department to engage with the company, with other Departments and with key stakeholders to explore all options, in line with this commitment.

I heard what the Minister of State said. She said that the Government is committed to a sustainable post office network. The next thing she said was that she met representatives of An Post and that they fully understand the Government's position. The Minister of State probably has clarified it a bit there but why has she not met the Irish postmasters? The sentence the Minister of State just uttered struck fear into my heart when she said that there will be no compulsory closures. We know that but if postmasters cannot make a living, there will be nobody to run the post offices. While there will be no person from An Post and no Minister coming down to close the post offices, if they are not viable or do not have enough services or if postmasters are not earning a decent living, they will close.

The Minister of State’s interdepartmental group was supposed to report last July. We have heard nothing, so there is no progress. That is why they are looking at industrial action. This is last gasp stuff.

I have met the Irish Postmasters Union on several occasions. I spoke at the IPU annual conference last October. My Department engages in weekly meetings on the viability of the post office network throughout the country. The Deputy can be assured that it is a high priority for me, as Minister of State with responsibility in this area, to ensure that we have a viable and sustainable post office network. As I said, weekly meetings take place and nothing is being ruled in or out in relation to consideration around this. That includes financial supports.

I am acutely aware of the valuable importance of the post office network. We have seen it in action right throughout the pandemic. We saw the huge support and service that it provided within communities up and down the country. It is critical and is a priority for me. The Deputy can be assured that everything has been done within my Department, while working with other Departments, around supporting the network.

I do not doubt that the Minister of State wants to see a sustainable post office network. My issue is not with her personally. It is with how this is being done, or, how it is not being done. We have a situation where next year, postmasters will be basically relying on payment for transactions. Has the Government looked at a public service obligation, PSO, levy?

Why has the interdepartmental group, which was supposed to report last July, still not reported? It is now nine months after it was supposed to report. What is happening? What progress is being made? Postmasters are at the end of their tether. I have met them from all over my constituency, in counties Leitrim, Roscommon, Sligo and Donegal. These are ordinary people who are going to work every day and who want to provide a service. The Minister of State told us what a brilliant service it was during Covid-19. Yet, these people are genuinely concerned that this time next year, some of them will not be there. We will have councillors and Deputies, including myself, asking that a post office will not be closed but if we do not have postmasters to run them and if they cannot make a living, we will have no Post Offices.

I thank the Deputy. As for the interdepartmental group, that report is under active consideration within the Department. I also am acutely aware that there are a number of issues that we need to consider as a Government. As I said, my Department is doing that on a weekly basis around the future sustainable viability of the network. The questions the Deputy is asking are exactly what is under consideration within my Department, both with officials in my Department and with others.

The Deputy can be assured of this, as I have said to the IPU previously, as well as in my engagements with the CEO of An Post and with the chairperson of the board with the responsibility to ensure that we have a sustainable post office network right throughout the country. The Deputy can be assured that that work is ongoing. I am aware of the issues she has raised on the transformation payments that will end at the end of this year. Some €8.5 million was secured through my work working with An Post last year. I am therefore acutely aware of the issues. The Deputy can be assured that work is ongoing and that I am aware of the issues around ensuring that we have a viable network.

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