Commencement Matters

Performing Arts

The Minister of State is welcome to the House. Amateur groups are currently rehearsing for performances in spring 2016, and recent changes in access to performing rights - the fact that the application process for performing rights for certain plays is no longer under the Drama League of Ireland but has transferred to an agency in London - are causing difficulty for new agencies, which do not understand the challenges for local amateur groups. One challenge is that the London-based agency will not grant rights to perform in community centres and parish halls. They will also only grant a specific number of performance rights and if groups are lucky enough to qualify for all-Ireland drama competitions, there can be delay in getting additional performing rights. We must also remember that local drama festivals are extremely important to local towns and villages. In my own county, festivals such as those at Kiltyclogher and Carrigallen are very important to local businesses and economies. We also have drama groups in Tubbercurry in Sligo. I know this is a difficult area for the Minister and I would appreciate any support and assistance she could give on this issue.

I thank Senator Michael Comiskey on behalf of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for raising this important matter and bringing it to the attention of Government. The Government's policy on the arts is to promote and strengthen the arts in all their forms, to increase access to and participation in the arts and to make the arts an integral and valued part of our national life. Art and drama, in all their forms, are very much part of the fabric of Ireland and our international reputation. Ireland has a proud tradition of amateur drama. Many of our performers, playwrights and directors started out in amateur drama and progressed to the likes of our national theatre, the Abbey, and other stages worldwide.

Primary responsibility for the promotion and support of the arts is devolved to the Arts Council, which provides significant support for drama in Ireland. The council, although funded by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, is statutorily independent in its day-to-day operations and specifically in its funding decisions. The Drama League of Ireland, in turn, aims to support, nurture and enhance the aspirations and activities of practitioners in the amateur theatre sector through education, training, advocacy and advisory services.

The issue of performing rights and their ownership is not a matter for the Department; nor, I understand, does the Arts Council have any particular role in the matter. This is essentially a commercial issue for agents representing writers.

In respect of participation in arts and cultural activities generally, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is currently developing our first national culture policy, which will be welcomed by all those involved in culture and drama. This provides an important opportunity for everyone to have their say on what we want to achieve in terms of our arts and culture over the next decade. The development of Culture 2025 will provide a chance for us to reflect on the important role culture plays in our lives. It will also create a platform to bring together cultural bodies and groups at local, regional and national level. Perhaps that will provide an avenue for the concerns mentioned by Senator Comiskey to be raised.

Of particular relevance is the 12% increase in the budget of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for 2016. This will provide additional funding across a range of areas, including a new investment programme for regional arts and cultural centres and a boost in funding for the national cultural institutions and the Arts Council. This investment will be of particular relevance to amateur dramatic groups. This Government is working to assist arts and culture at all levels; however, it does not appear that either the Department or its statutory agencies have a role to play in how agents negotiate on behalf of writers.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It is a difficult issue and I know it is the Arts Council that has responsibility for it.

I will take the Minister of State's advice on board and relay it to those who raised the issue with me. I welcome the news that more funding will be made available. It is important for local communities, towns, villages and small parish halls that they continue working with the arts. I thank the Minister of State for his reply.

I thank Senator Comiskey and acknowledge his interest in this important matter. The cultural policy being developed by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and her Department is Ireland's first ever such policy and will provide an opportunity for the viewpoints of everyone involved in cultural life to be heard, co-ordinated and structured into the national strategy. I will ensure that the Senator's comments are delivered to the Minister. Many groups around the country, in particular amateur dramatics groups, will benefit from the increase in departmental funding that was delivered in the Government's recent budget.

Drugs Smuggling

I thank the Minister of State for attending. This issue is a question of resources as regards combating the smuggling of drugs into the country via the south-west coast. As the Minister of State knows, we have one of the longest coastlines in Europe and the seas which surround us form a large jurisdiction. From the information I have received from people on the ground, not enough personnel are deployed to tackle drug smuggling on the south-west coast. I would welcome the Minister of State's comments in this regard. What is the specific number of personnel dedicated to the issue? All gardaí are involved in the prevention of smuggling but how many are there whose full-time job it is to gather information on the people living in our communities who act as lookouts and co-ordinate the landing of shipments? These landings might happen only once every year or two years but that is why those people are on the ground. Only intelligence-led policing will lead to the smugglers being captured.

I note that this matter was directed to the Minister for Justice and Equality. However, I am responding on behalf of-----

The Minister of State is not the Minister yet but some time he will be, please God.

-----the Department of Finance and the Revenue Commissioners. I will ask that the Garda Síochána details requested by the Senator be provided to him. I will revert to him on that point. I thank him for raising this important matter.

The Revenue Commissioners have primary responsibility for the prevention, detection, interception and seizure of controlled drugs being smuggled into or out of Ireland. I am advised by Revenue that, as part of its risk-focused approach to the discharge of its role in this regard, harbours and inlets along the coastline - including along the south-west coast - are monitored and evaluated on an ongoing basis from the point of view of the potential for smuggling. Revenue is conscious of the dangers and threats from smuggling of all types, including drugs, using seagoing vessels. Revenue's enforcement infrastructure in combating the threat of smuggling includes two customs cutters, which are deployed to patrol the coastline and undertake maritime intelligence gathering duties. They provide Revenue's Customs and Excise with ready access to vessels, whether commercial or leisure, operating in the waters off the Irish coast. The decision on whether to board and search a vessel is based on risk analysis and profiling, which is informed, inter alia, by an evaluation of national and international smuggling trends and threat assessment, journey frequency, routes and other risk indicators. I am further advised by Revenue that patrols of the coastline by the cutters are kept under constant review to take account of available intelligence and emerging smuggling trends.

Apart from the time spent at sea, the crew of both cutters work closely with their land-based colleagues and coastal communities in developing intelligence and following up on information regarding risks and smuggling threats that are brought to their attention. It is worth mentioning that the crews of these vessels are also trained and certified to carry out deep rummage - detailed searching - of vessels. This is a core skill and competence for the detection of deep concealments and the thorough post-seizure searching of vessels. Outside of the focus on vessels to which I have alluded, I am assured by the Revenue Commissioners that the crew members and passengers, where relevant, of such vessels who enter the State are subject to the same checks as any other arrival, including individual profiling, and are liable to be checked by Revenue customs staff on a risk-focused basis.

Revenue officers liaise with local gardaí, harbour masters and the Coast Guard regarding drugs and also with trade interests in respect of fiscal products. This work is supplemented by Revenue's customs drug watch programme, which incorporates a coastal reporting mechanism and allows members of the public and maritime and local communities to report, in confidence, suspect or unusual movements at sea or around the coast through a confidential 24-7 freefone facility. Such sightings, examples of which include vessels anchored or making landings in remote areas, shipping being observed away from designated shipping lanes and vessels signalling ashore or operating without lights, when reported to Revenue are fully evaluated and appropriately actioned by Revenue. Revenue promotes the drugs watch programme - I am happy to have an opportunity to do so now - and encourages the public to contact it on 1800 295 295 in the strictest confidence. I encourage people, including the Senators present, if they have information as regards specific incidents of drugs smuggling into the country, to bring it to the attention of Revenue. Such information will be dealt with in the strictest confidence.

Revenue is a fully integrated tax and customs administration and I am advised that it is not possible to disaggregate the resources deployed exclusively at any given time to the detection of illegal drugs. Revenue has approximately 2,000 staff countrywide engaged in activities that are dedicated to targeting and confronting non-compliance. These activities include anti-smuggling and anti-evasion, investigation and prosecution, audit, assurance checks, anti-avoidance, returns compliance and debt collection.

Let me say something about collaboration and co-operation with other State agencies and about the international arena. Revenue's customs service collaborates at national level with the Garda and the Naval Service as part of the joint task force on drugs interdiction and at international level with its partners in significant and ongoing operations. Internationally, Revenue continues to co-operate with administrations, agencies and services where areas of common interest exist, particularly in the area of countering drug trafficking. Revenue officials attend and participate in many international fora, such as the Customs Co-operation Working Party, CCWP, and the Pompidou Group. Under the auspices of Europol, Revenue supports, participates in and implements the European Multidisciplinary Platform against Criminal Threats, EMPACT, plan. In addition, Revenue maintains an effective working relationship with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs across the broad range of revenue and customs functions, with the UK Border Force and with the UK National Crime Agency.

The national drugs strategy is the Government-directed strategy to deal effectively with the problem of drugs in Ireland. The overall strategic objective of the national drugs strategy 2009-2016 is to continue tackling the harm caused to individuals and society by the misuse of drugs through a concerted focus on the five pillars of supply reduction, prevention, treatment, rehabilitation and research. I commend Revenue on its success in supply disruption and seizures. This demonstrates the professionalism and capability of Revenue in delivering on our drugs prevention policy. Revenue will continue to attach a high priority to its role and activities in this regard.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply. My question was on the number of personnel dedicated to this issue but a breakdown could not be provided. The Minister of State is well used to getting evasive answers. Saying that 2,000 personnel in Revenue are involved is something I could have checked on Google. How many of those personnel are dedicated to this? Identifying the people in communities who are involved in drug smuggling is long-term, slow and strategic work. Drug smugglers do not just arrive on a boat one day and unload. A bit like how Revenue combats smuggling, they do so by intelligence-led surveillance. They spot vulnerabilities, identify the most suitable locations for smuggling and pick the time and date. We need specific resources dedicated to combating smuggling. There are 2,000 people in Revenue, but most of them are collecting our taxes. Let us be honest, in that they are not involved in anti-smuggling.

I thank Senator Daly for raising this matter, as it is an important issue. The 2,000 staff are engaged in targeting and confronting non-compliance rather than the general array of work but I take the Senator's point in that their work involves more than drug smuggling, for example, non-compliance, audit, debt collection, etc. It is not that the Revenue Commissioners or I are attempting to be evasive.

I know. That was not my point.

Revenue has informed me that because its resources are deployed across its broad compliance activities - of which the combating of drug smuggling is an important component - it allocates them on the basis of risk. Revenue has a presence at all key airports and ports but it also deploys resources, on a risk assessment basis, to less busy points. Staff deployed at any particular location can be and are augmented with additional personnel on a risk assessment basis or when certain operations are taking place.

Revenue's commitment to co-operation with international partners is an important part of underpinning our success and effectiveness in combating drug smuggling. I believe this commitment is reflected in the fact that resources from Revenue are assigned to international anti-smuggling organisations. Revenue currently has customs attachés and liaison officers posted in Brussels, London, Europol, The Hague and Lisbon. Revenue also has an officer assigned to the Europol national unit in Garda headquarters. It is a matter of intelligence gathering.

If anyone has specific information, I urge them to use the customs drug watch programme and the telephone line, because Revenue makes decisions on the level of resources to deploy based on the level of risk as assessed, as well as on intelligence received from the public. I will ensure that the Senator's feedback is brought directly to the attention of the Revenue Commissioners.

I thank the Minister of State. I support Senator Mooney in respect of his motion. Irish Water actually ended up-----

Senator Mooney might not proceed with his Commencement motion. You are a little premature, Senator.

Irish Water ended up putting a water meter on Seán Mac Diarmada's home place. That shows how efficient Irish Water is.

You are premature, Senator.

Regional Road Network

Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for putting this motion in the Commencement debate. I would be grateful to hear the Minister's response.

I thank Senator Mooney for raising this matter. I acknowledge his continued interest in this issue and likewise that of my colleague, Senator Michael Comiskey, who has also raised the matter. I know they have an interest in everything that is going to happen to the cottage and everything around it in the run-up to our commemorative period for 1916. The matter has been raised with me by many members of Leitrim County Council at executive level as well as by elected members of the local authority.

The improvement and maintenance of regional and local roads in Leitrim, such as the L6196, is the statutory responsibility of Leitrim County Council, in accordance with the provisions of section 13 of the Roads Act 1993. Works on those roads are funded from the council's resources and are supplemented by funding made available by the State. The selection and prioritisation of these works is, therefore, a matter for the council.

Ireland has a little less than 100,000 km of road in the network. The maintenance of the national, regional and local road networks is a substantial financial requirement for local authorities and the Exchequer. I will set out some context in respect of the challenges involved in meeting that need. In 2008 funding for our local, regional and national road network stood at €2.3 billion, while funding for the same road network for this year is approximately €760 million. Continual challenges arise because the available funds do not meet the amount of work that needs to be undertaken.

I announced the 2015 regional and local road allocations on 3 February this year. Leitrim County Council was allocated €6.6 million, including €3.3 million under the restoration improvement grant programme and €1.57 million under the discretionary grant. In addition - I am keen to emphasise this point - in July this year the council received an additional €546,000 as part of the Supplementary Estimate under my Department. The Supplementary Estimate will be going through the Oireachtas in the coming weeks. Additional money was made available to Leitrim County Council and it was up to the council to decide how it allocated funding. The position is that all available funding from my Department for this year has now been allocated. The original base funding was made available in the way I have described. Then, additional funding was made available at the start of the summer to allow local authorities to plan works they deem necessary across the balance of this year. Therefore, I will have no additional funding available for this year.

I will continue to look to secure the best possible allocation for local and regional roads with a view to next year, but it remains the case that it will be up to local authorities to decide how they wish to allocate funding. The road in question must be seen in that context as well as in the context of the funding that Fáilte Ireland has already made available to fund work which, I acknowledge, needs to be done at the cottage.

I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Naturally, I am disappointed. I was approaching the matter on the basis that I understand the council is not only seeking funding for the road to the Seán Mac Diarmada cottage, but that similar projects in other parts of the country require funding as well, specifically, Banna Strand, County Kerry. Perhaps the Minister has received representations on that matter too.

I took the view that in light of the imminent commemorations, a special allocation might be made by the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport for the works. I am keen to put on the record that according to the area engineer, the cost of providing road maintenance, resurfacing and the provision of a lay-by in what is a narrow mountain road, as my colleague, Senator Comiskey, knows well, is not inordinate. Moreover, if the problem is not addressed, it will create traffic chaos since we expect an increase in tourist traffic as a result of the commemorations next year. According to the council, the cost is a modest €100,000. According to what those in the council have told me and others, the council simply does not have that money available given the priorities. The Minister has indicated that the considerable difference between the 2008 allocation and the current allocation would give the truth to that view.

Small local authorities like Leitrim County Council have a small rate base. Consequently, they rely more heavily than any other county on the allocation coming from Government.

As the Minister is aware, there has been an all-party, non-party approach at Leitrim County Council repeatedly in recent years to try to get some money. Approaches have been made to the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which does not provide money for roads. The Office of Public Works spends public money on maintaining the cottage because it is a national monument. Leitrim County Council is allocating money having acquired land adjoining the cottage for a car park. That is badly needed because car parking in the immediate vicinity of the cottage, as Senator Comiskey will testify, is rather poor and somewhat limited. The council is making efforts in so far as it can.

I wish to put another question to the Minister. The Minister indicated that the allocation was made in February this year. Presumably, the Minister will be making announcements for the 2016 programme. When does he anticipate that he will make announcements on the allocation under the roads programme to local authorities such as Leitrim County Council?

Overall, I am grateful to the Minister. I know his heart is in the right place on this question. I am not in any way attempting to be political about it. This is a non-political issue. We are proud of the fact that Seán Mac Diarmada comes from our county. The people of Kiltyclogher have particular pride in the fact that he comes from their community. Collectively, the people of the county will acknowledge that in the context of the commemorations next year this is an attempt to make the road more accessible for what will be increased traffic on the road.

If a tour bus goes up that road in its present condition, it will be queueing for hours. I hope there will be some sort of accommodation and some improvements. Perhaps in the context of my question to the Minister there might be an opportunity for the council to allocate the money required. Again, I thank the Minister.

I thank Senator Mooney for his remarks. Of course I acknowledge the importance of the renovation and restoration of the cottage as a heritage and tourism development. I understand entirely the interest and local pride that the communities in the county of Senators Mooney and Comiskey have in respect of the matter. That is one of the reasons Fáilte Ireland, which is an agency of my Department, made an allocation and contribution to the work that needs to be done on the cottage.

I acknowledge the work done and planned by the local authority with regard to the car park.

In the context of the road itself and the timing of future allocations, in the coming weeks we will determine and confirm the allocation for each county for local and regional roads. This funding will be available to Leitrim County Council. As regards the cost of the road and as already stated, I made an additional €500,000 available to Leitrim County Council earlier this year - I made similar allocations available to every other local authority throughout the country - and I made clear to it that this funding could be spent in any way it saw fit. A decision was obviously made to invest the money elsewhere. I will continue to recognise the discretion the council has with regard to the funding we make available to it for next year. I hope progress can be made on the road but I am not currently in a position to state whether further funding will be available this year for this or other projects. The investment needed to complete what is required to allow people access to the cottage in order that they might see it will, for the time being, be a matter for the local authority to determine, either out of its own resources or out of the additional funding I will make available to it, as a matter of course, for local and regional roads in the coming weeks.

As a general principle, is the Minister confident the Estimate for his Department will accommodate an increase in the national roads allocation next year?

The Senator is straying from the motion.

Work is being done at present. What has happened in recent times is that the largest allocation is made at the beginning of the year. This gives local authorities the ability to plan what they will do and, for various reasons, such as Supplementary Estimates or stimulus funding becoming available, additional money is made available on top of the base allocation. At present, I am reasonably confident the initial allocation I will make - in other words the plan for the year - will be roughly in line with the position which obtained a year ago. If further funding becomes available in the course of the year, it will fall to the next Government to decide where it might be allocated. This is what has happened in recent years.

Sitting suspended at 11.13 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.