Communications, Climate Action and the Environment: Statements

This is my first time in 19 years to address the Seanad. I am delighted to be back in the Chamber as the Minister with responsibility for communications, climate action and the environment. When I was appointed, I told senior officials in my Department that it was very much a facilitating one because we can drive much of the change required to achieve energy efficiency in the public sector and provide high-speed broadband in communities across the country. We will work with colleagues in other Departments to drive changes in society, not just in government. I want to be a facilitating Minister. As I said in the Dáil on the day of my appointment, I spent long enough on the Opposition benches to know how lonely, difficult and frustrating it can be when one has constructive suggestions to make but they fall on deaf ears. Senators should come forward with their constructive suggestions and ideas. I want to hear and facilitate them. I have asked my officials to examine Seanad amendments proposed to the Energy Bill and the Minerals Development Bill to see if we can facilitate their passage. The Energy Bill will be completed here before the end of this session and the Minerals Development Bill in the next one.

I welcome the opportunity to give an overview of my Department, set out the key economic sectors for which it is responsible and outline how Senators can assist me in delivering on its key priorities, in particular, those set out in the programme for Government. Many Members from rural communities will understand the basic difficulties experienced by families and businesses across rural Ireland arising from the absence of high-speed broadband. The national broadband plan, NBP, is one of the key priorities for the Government, with the aim of bringing high-speed broadband to every household and business in the country. It will involve 96% of the landmass and over 100,000 km of road network. The network, once developed, will be expected to serve at least 30% of the premises which cannot currently gain access to high-speed services.

Yesterday I brought proposals to the Cabinet outlining the ownership model for the NBP network and that we were moving to the next stage of the procurement process, with a view to having a tender in place by the middle of next year. The Government has chosen a commercial stimulus, or gap-funded, model as the optimum ownership model for the network. This model will see the successful bidder design, build, own and operate the network. For the next 25 years there will be absolutely no difference between either of the two ownership models. The main difference, however, is that if we had gone for a model where the State would own the network in 26 years, I would be announcing a minimum additional six-month delay in the tendering process. This would have been ten weeks after the Department had announced a six-month delay. In effect, in ten weeks, we would have announced a minimum of a 12-month delay in the roll-out of the network which would not have sent a positive message to families waiting for broadband, or encouraged existing businesses in rural areas to invest and create jobs or new businesses to locate in rural communities. This was the right decision. As Members know from my record, I feel strongly about the ownership of State infrastructural assets and have acted on it. There are few Oireachtas Members who have a record as strong as mine on this issue. I was one of the few Members, in either the Dáil or the Seanad, to publicly oppose the farming organisations, the then agriculture Minister and the European Commission when they decommissioned the sugar industry, an industry which some Members are now trying to re-establish. There were very few voices against the move at the time and I took a lot of heat for standing up against the decision, but I was proved right.

I was a lone voice in the Dáil in arguing that the Heathrow slots owned by Aer Lingus were a strategic national asset. I convinced the then transport Minister, the late Séamus Brennan, to include specific provisions in the Aer Lingus Act to ensure specific protections would be put in place for these strategic national assets. No one else raised this issue on Second Stage of the legislation at the time.

I was a lone voice in the previous Dáil when an Opposition amendment on Irish Water was accepted by the Government. My amendment sought to ensure no asset of Irish Water could be privatised or sold off without a democratic vote of the people, a point many Dáil Members today conveniently ignore.

When I first examined this issue, I wanted to keep the asset in State ownership, but I also gave a promise to the people after the election and before it in my constituency that I would ensure broadband would be brought to every single home and premises as quickly as possible. I was not prepared to stand over delaying this process for six, 12 or 18 months because the Government kicked the can down the road last December and failed to make the decision that I believe should have been made at that stage. The reason it did not make the decision last December is the same as the one I have difficulty with now, namely, an additional €1 billion would have to be made available and it would have to be taken out of the capital plan, which would delay schools building projects and other infrastructural projects across the country. Additional cash would have to be sourced up-front from the current budget. That is why the can was kicked down the road last December. I was not prepared to take that option although it was suggested to me that we delay further.

I want to make real on the promises given by the previous Government, by me as a Deputy and candidate in the general election and by all of us in both Houses on the rolling out of the national broadband plan. People in rural areas are sick and tired of being promised they will get broadband next week or month. When I give a date, I want to be able to stand over it. It is my intention to be able to say by the back end of next year exactly when every premises in the country will get broadband. It will not be 2018 or 2019 when they will find out. If I had gone down a different funding route, I would have to wait until then to provide information.

Once the contract is awarded next year, the roll-out phase will begin immediately in conjunction with the already planned commercial investment. Some 85% of premises in Ireland will have access to high-speed broadband within two years and I hope 100% will have it within five years. I hope it will be before five years. In the tendering process, we will try to ensure the broadband will be rolled out as quickly as possible. Some contractors are telling us they can do the work in three years. If so, we will take that into account.

Small businesses are the backbone of every provincial town and village. Consumers across Ireland are now spending almost €14,000 every minute trading online. It is essential that we capitalise on this to support the creation of new business and jobs. Sadly, of the €14,000 per minute, €10,000 per minute is being spent outside Ireland. My Department funds a trading online voucher scheme which is operated through the national network of 31 local enterprise offices, LEOs. This initiative has real potential to create jobs. We have seen from an analysis of the vouchers that have already been given out that sales have increased by one fifth and employment has increased by one third. Two thirds of the relevant businesses are now trading internationally. I encourage any business that is not currently trading online, no matter how small, to contact its local enterprise office and avail itself of the initiative. It is an opportunity and the funding exists to scale up the programme. I ask each of my colleagues here to engage with local businesses on this issue.

As committed to in the programme for Government, I am establishing a mobile phone and broadband task force to identify and recommend solutions to the broadband and mobile phone coverage deficit. The group will meet for the first time this month and will report to me by the end of the year on the actions we are taking.

Let me turn to climate change, the global challenge of our generation, which requires radical and ambitious thinking to implement the fundamental changes to achieve our national, EU and global objectives in this area. The European Union has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 95% below 1990 levels by 2050. The first milestone towards achieving a low-carbon economy by 2050 is the delivery of the 2020 targets set by the European Union and the corresponding national targets. Ireland has a requirement to achieve a binding target of 16% of energy demand coming from renewable sources. We are making steady progress. At the end of 2015, just over 9% of Ireland’s energy came from renewables, including around 25% of electricity generation.

The period between 2020 and 2030 is the next critical phase in the evolution of EU climate and energy policies. In advance of the Paris agreement of December 2015, the European Union set out an ambitious 2030 climate and energy framework involving a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of 40%, an increase in EU energy from renewable sources to 27%, and an indicative target of 27% for energy efficiency.

Domestically, following the enactment of the Climate Action Development Act 2015, Ireland is focusing on implementation, including preparing a national climate mitigation plan, targeting publication for consultation by the end of this year, and also developing the first statutory national adaptation framework, a draft of which is to be published early next year. We have committed in the programme for Government to establish a national dialogue on climate change that will address the key infrastructural, land use and economic issues to be considered in our long-term transition to a low-carbon future.

It is clear that Ireland's long-term interests are best supported by further decreasing our dependence on imported fossil fuels through increasing energy efficiency across the economy. On the energy efficiency side, we will continue to invest in the better energy programme, which has already provided grants to some 170,000 households. Some €54 million will be spent on the better energy programme in 2016, which will facilitate the upgrading of a further 21,000 households.

My Department will support the transition from peat power plants by using greater amounts of biomass and it will work with industry and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to develop sustainable indigenous supply chains. New support schemes will be developed to support renewable heat incentives and a range of technologies, including solar technology, in the renewable electricity sector. Newer technologies, such as wave and tidal energy technology, will have an important role to play in Ireland’s future renewable energy mix and we will support these through the research and development stages. We are supporting research and demonstration projects in this area, with a total of €17 million committed from my Department's Vote to ocean energy research in the period 2013 to 2016.

By November, the new Department responsible for housing, planning and local government, working with my Department, will bring to the Government revised wind energy planning guidelines to address issues of noise and shadow flicker and provide a structure for minimum setback distances. The issues of community engagement, participation and benefit will also be addressed. We have to achieve the right balance by ensuring the interests of local communities are heard and addressed and that there is the necessary regulatory and investment certainty to ensure ongoing investment in renewable energy projects.

A properly funded, independent public service broadcasting service is essential to the functioning of our democracy and society. My Department is responsible for the development of the legislative and regulatory framework for broadcasting and certain media in Ireland, including funding for the public service broadcasters, RTE and TG4. The Department oversees the collection of the television licence fee by An Post and payments to RTE, the BAI and TG4. The sector has been facing a very challenging funding environment in the past few years owing to a large fall in commercial advertising revenues arising from the increase in competition in the sector and the impact of advertising budgets being spent in different media platforms.

In the absence of a public sector broadcasting charge, I have asked my Department to consider what options are available to ensure a sustainable funding stream for public service broadcasting and to address the high levels of television licence fee evasion. I expect to bring proposals to the Government in this regard later in the year.

The Eircode system was launched in July 2015 to provide a unique postcode for every premises in Ireland. Approximately 35% of addresses are non-unique in this country and it is important that we develop a system that could make it easier to find and locate addresses, particularly in rural areas. As Senator Terry Leyden will know, townlands such as Milltown are quite common in our county, County Roscommon. It is the same across the country.

There is a Milltown in County Galway.

There is. The Department is facilitating the encoding of large public sector customer databases in encouraging the use of Eircode. Since the launch of Eircode approximately 12 months ago, more than 3 million items of correspondence have issued from public sector bodies that included the use of Eircodes. A significant number of commercial bodies have incorporated Eircode into their online services and this is growing all the time. Eircode is in the process of being incorporated into navigation systems and, as Members know, has already been incorporated into the national ambulance service deployment system. I see significant value in this project which will take time to become fully embedded in our society and as part of national infrastructure.

The natural resources area encompasses mineral and hydrocarbon exploration and extraction, the Geological Survey of Ireland and Inland Fisheries. The sector employs 30,000 people and contributes 3% of GNP in combined value in excess of €4 billion. In recent years the Department has taken a number of regulatory and technical initiatives to attract a higher share of mobile international exploration investment to Ireland. The culmination of this has been the success of the Atlantic margin licensing round in 2015 which resulted in a total of 43 applications for licensing options. Some 28 new licensing options have been awarded as part of this process following the assessment by my Department.

On the mining side, Ireland is a significant source of zinc and lead with one of Europe's largest zinc mines in Navan. We are consolidating the legislation in this area and the new Minerals Development Bill 2015 was considered earlier this year by the Seanad.

The Department, working with Inland Fisheries Ireland, is also responsible for conservation management and regulation of the inland fishery resource and arbitrating between competing interests for limited and finite stocks which, in many instances, are either at or below conservation limits. The Geological Survey of Ireland supports the geoscience sector by providing data and objective geological advice and information crucial to the sustainable economic development of our natural resources. It also manages major data acquisition initiatives, such as INFOMAR, the seabed mapping programme jointly with the Marine Institute based in Galway, and the Tellus project. INFOMAR which has completed the mapping of Ireland's deeper waters is now assisting in the updating of charts for marine safety and providing baseline data for ocean energy, environment protection, fisheries and research.

The Tellus project is an initiative to carry out state-of-the-art mapping using airborne remote sensing and ground based sampling. That is in Connemara, County Galway and will then move to east Galway. The objective is to complete a baseline of all island environmental and geological datasets. Both projects are funded by my Department. Each of them has attracted approximately €3 million in funding per annum in the past few years.

I hope I have given Members a good overview of the broad range of activities in my Department and what we are responsible for overseeing. I hope later this month we will take over the environmental portfolio from the Minister for housing, planning and local government, Deputy Simon Coveney. There are many other programmes across the individual sectors, but time does not allow me to go through them. However, I am happy to answer questions Members may have.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, back to the House. It is 19 years since he was a Member of it. I was a Member of the other House and then came here; therefore, it was the other way around. The Minister has an enormous portfolio; it is mind-boggling. I must mark him in the Seanad, but I did not realise I would also be dealing with refuse collection. I understand the Minister is being given that portfolio on top of everything else. It is not a great gift to receive. It is controversial and will be more controversial in the future.

Does the Minister for regional development, rural affairs, arts and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, have any input into broadband or is it the responsibility of the Minister with responsibility for communications, climate change and natural resources? The Minister gave a general outline on broadband and it is welcome he is grasping this nettle and trying to do something constructive. There has been much talk about this issue over the years but very little action. The Minister has made a commitment to roll out broadband to 900,000 premises by 2022 and it will then revert to private ownership. Fianna Fáil is concerned about this - the Minister expressed his own concerns - because the privatisation of Eircom was not a good experience. However, whether we like it, it raised money for the State at the time.

During my time as a Minister of State in the former Department of Posts and Telegraphs, we invested a significant amount in the provision of telecommunications services and then we privatised it. The company was subsequently sold on a number of times. All the assets of the company were sold, including all the newly built facilities, for example, buildings to house the control of the system. One such building was built in Castlerea, County Roscommon, but all these buildings were sold off at low prices. Now the work of Eir is serviced from vans. There are very few places where people are based in a building where one can go to talk about one's telephone service. That was a bad experience.

What State body would be in a position to take on the roll-out of the broadband service? Would the ESB have the capacity to take on this role? The Minister referred to the fact that the roll-out of broadband was equal to rural electrification. The ESB provided a public service. I am in favour of a public rather than a private service. The ESB is an example of what the State provided back in the 1920s with the construction of Ardnacrusha and rural electrification. That was a State-owned and controlled service. Without it, we would not have the service we have today. The same applies to the investment in Bord na Móna which is developing new opportunities. Again, it is an example of State investment. Let me give credit to the former Minister, Pat Rabbitte, who prevented the sale of Coillte. I think the Minister was opposed to it also. Is that part of his portfolio?

Coillte comes within the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. It is about the only thing I do not have.

There was a move to sell Coillte to the private sector, but, in fairness to the former Minister, Pat Rabbitte, he was able to ensure access to woods, walkways and tourism projects was retained in public ownership. To my knowledge, he prevented the sale of Coillte. That is very important. State and semi-State companies provide a very good service for the State.

As the Minister has a very complex portfolio, I will limit my contribution to a number of general points. I refer to the roll-out of broadband. When I was a Minister of State in the former Department of Posts and Telegraphs, it was very difficult to provide certain rural areas with a telephone service. I considered whether the existing poles could be used to carry insulated wiring and so on. The Minister has access to expert advice. What role, if any, has it in this regard?

Some years ago there was an attempt to roll out broadband by using the infrastructure of CIE. There was a proposal to bring the wires along the railway tracks and that option was researched. To bring it to our area, I recall the installation of a very expensive circuit to bring broadband to Roscommon town. Who owns it? The Minister has indicated his Department owns it, which is good.

We are provided with an excellent service by the Oireachtas with regard to our offices in our constituencies, counties or whatever it is. However, it did not use a roll-out. It used Eircom, or Eir, to bring it about through the copper wire system. The Minister has an office on Abbey Street and I have an office on Goff Street. It should have been provided through the system that was provided by the State. It is very difficult. The Minister probably has the answers there. I believe he has the capacity to get this done one way or another.

I can see the Minister's point on the capital costs of this whole situation, the cost of running it and getting it done. Particularly now, with the position of Brexit and the British exit of the European Union looking like a reality, never before has the roll-out of broadband been so urgent. It is absolutely vital that we have fast broadband to get in touch with the other 27 member states to sell our produce at home and abroad. Never before has it been more vital that the island of Ireland and all of its rural areas is connected to the world. It is absolutely essential. That is why it is the most essential of all of the Minister's responsibilities. Each one of his portfolios is vital to the interests of the State, including climate change and the whole question of renewable energy. We will park the question of broadband. The Minister has outlined his decision and the Government's decision, which he received yesterday. I certainly would not impede his work in any way in that regard. Let us get on with it, get it started and get it done one way or another. There have been too many false dawns.

I outlined the programme of CIE investment. We then found that it was undermining some of the lines. There was an inquiry carried out. That inquiry was terminated at one stage, as I recall, and there were many repercussions in that regard. As far as I know, the ESB became involved in this area. The strange thing about it was that An Post was involved back in the 1980s and it sold off a wing. It had an involvement with the Internet but it decided to terminate that type of investment at the time. That was a very poor decision. To my mind, Eircom which would have been ideal had it been in existence would have rolled out broadband ten years ago if it had been under public ownership. However, we have to go from here. We are where we are.

On the issue of climate change, the Minister made the point that he will be taking over responsibility for investment. I do not think he will be taking over responsibility for the environmental proposals around the distance between solar-powered or earth energy generators and residences. The Minister has received a communication from our friend in Sliabh Bán, Mr. Mike de Jong. He has outlined his concerns, as he has done in the past. It is a local issue.

There was a recent flash flood in Curraghroe, County Roscommon. The Minister has looked at that situation and he may be in a position to say whether it is in any way linked with the erection of the wind energy pylons in Sliabh Bán. I believe the Minister would have reservations, as I have, about those wind turbines being erected very close to houses at Sliabh Bán, a beautiful tourist area. That project is under way. In fairness, I do not think the Minister is in a position to change that. However, the issues raised should be investigated to see if there is any link between the work that is under way and the flooding of that area. That is a point made by Mr. de Jong who has been advocating on this issue for a long time and is very concerned. There are also concerns in Dysart.

There is another point in this regard which the Minister may be able to answer. I know that he has to have-----

That is the point. It is such a broad issue.

I have a quick point to make on turbines. If we look at turbines in Germany or elsewhere, we see that they are located away from houses on national primary routes. Even on the road from Athlone to Dublin, there are areas which have very little housing on them. I ask the Minister to look at that area. I know he has to have power.

The other point is about post offices. Can the Minister get the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Leo Varadkar, to prevent his Department from demanding that money goes directly into banks? This is a very small point. The present An Post system of saving should be used to allow people to go into the post office and have their account. If they wish to transfer their money to that post office, it should be allowed. I ask the Minister, a Minister who knows rural Ireland, to see what he can do to get a Government decision on that matter.

It is great that we have the Minister here. As other Senators said, he has a unique portfolio which takes into consideration energy, communications, natural resources, broadcasting, inland fisheries and, in another few weeks, the environment. In fairness to the Minister, he has a very large portfolio and there is no better man to take care of it.

In recent years there have been major changes in the energy market. The Brexit vote could have an impact on where those changes happen. We have a single electricity market between Ireland and Northern Ireland. A Bill is to be brought before the House at the end of the month which will tie into a European target model. There will be issues which we will need to examine. The Minister and his Department will probably have issues regarding where the European target and model will work regarding Brexit. We have two interconnectors between here and the United Kingdom, but no major interconnector between here and mainland Europe. Where does the European policy fit in, if we are on the leg of Europe? That is one of the key issues. As an energy consumer and as a nation, we need access to the mainland European market if we are to be competitive. How can we do it? One of the key issues is the competitive nature of it. The targeted model will give us a more competitive nature if we can tap into it. However, we lack an interconnector with France. The Minister, with the forthcoming energy Bill, which will firm up our connection with Northern Ireland, will I hope consider the other long-term issues regarding how we can connect with mainland Europe.

I welcome the Minister's statement yesterday regarding taking the broadband plan to the Cabinet. The Minister has taken the right approach. He has been proactive. At the end of the day, it is about delivering on the ground. People want and need broadband and do not care what the technicalities are. In rural Ireland, in places such as Minane Bridge, where I live, or in rural areas like Goleen - I often quote former Deputy Paddy Sheehan, who will jump up and down and tell me not to quote him again - people are crying out for good broadband. This will give people hope. It is about delivery. In a few months' time we will know when delivery will happen on the ground. That is positive. It is what people want. They want people to make decisions and not just produce reports. I welcome the Minister's statement on broadband.

Amazingly, when one talks about broadband, people always raise the issue of mobile phone coverage and say that, while broadband is one issue, their phones do not work. It is a core issue in rural Ireland. It even affects part of the motorway. If one travels from Cork to Dublin on the motorway, how many times does one drop a call? It is significant. It is not what it is all about. We must at least ensure that people can take calls all along our main thoroughfares. Unfortunately, we do not have this.

While every household can consider energy efficiency, perhaps we should examine internally what we can do as a state. In my neck of the woods, through working on the energy efficiency issue and the national energy efficiency action plan, last month Cork County Council became the first local authority to receive the ISO 5001 accreditation and has set the standard as a local authority. I compliment the manager, mayor and others in the local authority on delivering it. We must ensure other local authorities will drive on. The standard has now been set and it is up to the Department to ensure every local authority will reduce its energy usage. They must return to 2009 levels, which realistically requires them to cut energy use by one third.

There are significant challenges in trying to deliver on such issues.

One of the other issues proposed in Cork in recent years was the "drive for zero" programme, trying to encourage people to use electric cars. That worked with the businesses and the providers and it also worked with the local authorities which provided free car-parking spaces and additional charging spaces. The Minister needs to get all the stakeholders around the table to drive the issue. While there has been extensive talk about electric cars, it needs a stimulus and someone to tie all the stakeholders together to deliver it. In many ways the "drive for zero" programme is something that could be introduced throughout the country. If we were to provide free car-parking spaces in town centres for electric cars, more people would consider it a logical form of transportation. We need to get everyone thinking on the same page in order to deliver it.

Obviously, one of the key issues for the State will be our oil refinery. Whitegate is a key part in that regard. We need to establish the status of Phillips 66 and the proposed change of ownership. It is an issue for the entire island; we need to have an oil refinery. We need to ensure this oil refinery will stay operational in the coming years. I do not believe it should be in public ownership, but we should ensure the new owners will develop the refinery in order that it can go to from strength to strength.

The Minister is in charge of very many issues. I believe he will use his 20 years of experience in public life to great benefit because he will need to tie all these entities in the State together to deliver. That will be a major challenge in many ways. I wish him the best. I believe he is the appropriate man for the job. As he said, it is about tying everyone in together and delivering on the day.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten. This is my first opportunity on the floor of the House to welcome his appointment. Not only does he deserve this appointment, but I believe he will be very good in it. I do not wish to butter him up too much in advance of one or two nagging points, having known him for a long time. I believe he brings a certain skill set that will be a great asset to us at this time. He is a very independently minded person and a man with attention to detail. He is not afraid to think fresh thoughts and launch ideas.

It was often said in previous incarnations of the Seanad that relatively few Ministers came in here with a genuine intention of being in dialogue with Seanadóirí or indeed in the other House. The newly elected Senator Michael McDowell and perhaps the late Brian Lenihan were among those who got deserved praise for their willingness to take ideas on the hop, engage with them and run with them if they were convincing. I hope Deputy Denis Naughten will be a Minister in that tradition; he certainly has the capacity to do so. I wish him the very best. In encouraging him not to be afraid to think fresh thoughts, I point out that the Minister takes office in a very difficult and interesting time in Irish politics not just because of what is happening in this country, but also what is happening elsewhere, obviously in the context of Brexit in particular. The Minister has many important things on his plate. He spoke about broadband and developing greater indigenous supply of sustainable energy and those are two very important issues. The progress he makes on those issues in whatever time he is given as Minister will be career defining for him as a Minister.

I am going to nag the Minister on two points, starting with one that may appear insignificant. Given that he is Minister with responsibility for communications and as a procedural matter to assist us in this House, I encourage him to be one of those who restores the tradition of bringing in copies of his speech to assist Members in following what he has to say. I have noticed lately that it is not happening as much. I am all in favour of saving the planet and cutting down on unnecessary printing. However, we do not just come in here to make our own statements. We actually come here to listen to what Ministers have to say. The art of speech making is a rather outdated art. None of us has the concentration that we would like to have and I often find myself saying, "What did he say?" or "Did he just say that?" and wanting to check back before making my intervention. That would be helpful and he might pass the word back through Government. It is a small thing, but it is helpful to legislators.

I want to deal with broadcasting in particular. I recently gave the Minister mild criticism in the context of general praise in an interview I gave to the Sunday Independent, because of what he said about there not being, in his opinion, a significant left wing or liberal bias in the media or broadcasting. The Minister comes from a constituency that is filled with people who think very differently. I do not deny him the right to think his own thoughts or form his conclusions. However, there is a problem when politicians talk about the media. We often give out about the media when they criticise us or the things we believe in. Because the media must hold politicians to account, journalists can be unpopular with politicians. Very often politicians make rather ill-considered criticisms of the media in a generalised way. I acknowledge this. However, as the old saying goes, "Just because you're paranoid, it doesn’t mean they're not out to get you." A person in the Minister's position must look at how Irish political culture has evolved and the issues that are neuralgic in today's society. We need to look in an honest and fresh way at the role the media play, not just in terms of how politicians are seen, but how politics itself is seen. We should consider it in the context of what has happened in Britain, where it is now fashionable to decry what experts say in order to make more emotive types of points.

Regardless of one's view on the issue, who could deny that the media were a significant player in how the debate on last year's referendum was organised? I have no doubt that many people made up their own minds in the end, but who could deny that there were not significant percentage points flowing to one side of the issue from the way media people in their droves handled that particular important social issue? Who could deny that that is not also the case on the much more important and neuralgic social issue of abortion? There are people in RTE who will privately admit that they are amazed at the groupthink among their colleagues on that issue. For example, a study of media treatment of some of these social issues will find that when it comes to the so-called liberal position, we frequently have sycophantic facilitating questions focusing on a particular dimension of the issue. When it comes to the more, let us call it, conservative perspective, we have people being grilled. It is not an issue that can be dismissed lightly by saying there is no significant bias in the media.

We need a long hard look at how public service broadcasting operates here. No vested interest should be above scrutiny. For example, RTE is sitting on a massively valuable land bank while at the same time telling us it is strapped for money. It is seeking a protected television licence fee, while at the same time it derives significant revenues from advertising although, as the Minister rightly says, it is a crowded market in terms of potential suppliers of advertising. We must not be afraid to question powerful vested interests in our society and that starts with the media, probably the most unquestioned institutional power we have today. It is diverse but only to a degree. While it may seem like a mad thing in which to start a discussion, should RTE necessarily sit on a highly valuable land bank if one way of saving revenue would be its eventual relocation?

That might also address the often-described - sometimes exaggerated and sometimes understated - disparity or disconnect between urban and rural in our society. I come from a parish which the Minister knows well, given that he has family connections there, where RTE nearly destroyed the life and career of a man.

There was reason to believe at the time, and it was widely stated, that perhaps the culture of prejudice towards faith, faith communities and clergy, contributed to the way that problem unfolded. Whether that is true there were promises at the time of new standards in regard to fairness and balance.

It remains the case that there is significant institutional bias in the broadcast media, in particular. The one I most concerned about is publicly funded media where people without any sense of contradiction can speak, on the one hand, about human rights and equality and at the same time treat in an utterly partisan fashion important social issues such as abortion. I ask the Minister not just to take my word for it. Can we have a working group to survey questions around fairness and balance in the media and ask journalists whether they think there are significant areas where bias is impacting on the quality of public debate and to look bravely but with a curious eye and intellectual honesty at the question of whether sanctions could be a part of the remedy? If a journalist or a presenter working for a public service broadcaster has a contract worth hundreds of thousands of euro which is indirectly tax funded and if he regards it as a perk of the job that he can take a sycophantic approach to somebody who shares his point of view, for example, in favour of abortion and engage in persistent and selective and tendentious and hostile questioning on those who oppose his view, can that person be sanctioned or challenged in any way? If a finding is made against him once or twice or three times by the broadcasting authority, can anything be done? Does he have to read out the apology himself? Does he have to express any personal regret about his conduct which is wasting taxpayers' money and abusing the public? Can we have a body that has genuine teeth in order that when people make a complaint, they do not feel they are pissing against the wind? Please excuse the language.

The Senator is well over time.

I am about to conclude. If the Minister who comes from rural Ireland and represents a constituency where there would be quite a diversity of opinion does not take action, who will? I encourage him and others looking at this issue not to fear negative media portrayal because they might begin a process of asking harder questions as we do have a problem where the Mick Wallaces of this world can propose unconstitutional legislation and escape any kind of significant critique while others fear to speak their opinions even in these Houses because of the construction that would be placed on their remarks. I ask the Minister to consider that issue. I look forward to further dialogue with him on it.

I welcome the Minister. He has one of the most interesting and varied portfolios and deals with many of the critical issues of our time. I wish him well and have no doubt he is up for the job. I am aware that consideration was given to adding another aspect to his portfolio. I know that whatever is put before him he will deal with it well.

I mentioned the national broadband plan yesterday. I compliment the Minister who has hit the ground running. I am pleased that he brought a paper to the Cabinet and that we will see some progress on that plan which is critical for rural Ireland. I am aware that 85% of the country will need assistance to get high speed broadband. Given that the Minister mentioned the cost to the State if it was to provide it without engaging with the private sector, how can he ensure that once a grant is given to a private company, it will deliver the broadband to the rural areas which are not commercially viable? Is there a service level agreement to begin with or how will it be described in the terms of reference of the tender process?

I support Senator Tim Lombard in respect of his comments on the mobile phone service. It is terrible. Perhaps the Minister might enlighten the House on the issue of individuals being compensated for dropped calls. I do not know how widespread the problem is. There is also another issue where one is driving along for a minute or two and one cannot hear somebody and one's natural inclination is to extinguish that call and try to make another one with the result that people are paying again and again for telephone calls. As was explained to me by a person involved in the area of foreign direct investment at a time when we are trying to encourage people to locate in the country outside the large urban centres, when an American or somebody else drives down the road and picks up their mobile telephone and cannot get through he or she will ask if this is a modern country of the European Union in which to invest. We are really up against it not just to get foreign direct investment but for ourselves. Perhaps the Minister might take up the issue with the telecommunications company concerned because it is being given licences and it owes to people to give them a service other than the type of service that most of us in rural Ireland experience, which is totally below standard.

I turn to the issue of climate change and the environment. This is one of the most critical conversations of our time and how we proceed will leave a mark for generations to come. The Paris agreement of December 2015 brought back into sharp focus the issue of targets and trying to bring on board as many nations as possible. Ireland alone or no country on its own will bring about the required change and reduction in carbon emissions that are causing global warming. There are particular challenges for developing countries. They look at the West, at developed countries and see that we have prospered on the back of fossil fuels. They ask why they cannot have that action and why they have to take on board, for example, renewable energy technologies, which are more expensive. We need to have a real conversation on what is the common good. Too often, the pendulum has gone in the other direction. It is all about the individual and not the common good. I would argue that what has made this country and many nations great is a conversation about the common good and what steps we need to take, being responsible citizens, towards reducing carbon emissions and embracing renewable technologies and renewable energy. That requires us to think outside the box.

Mr. Alvin Toffler an American writer and futurist who died in June said the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn. We live linear lifestyles where we consume, and up until the last few decades we have had very little regard for the end result, how we discard our waste and what we take from the ground. As Mr. Toffler said, nobody is pumping oil or gas back into the ground. We know there are supplies that probably will see our generation and the next generation through but there is a big price to be paid for it.

The Senator's time has come to an end.

There are two points I wish to make. The challenge, given that renewable technologies are more expensive and also the infrastructure required, whether it be turbines or biomass, is to ensure, whatever initial expense is involved, we are moving towards cheaper energy. We do not want people in energy poverty. The carbon tax levied on coal affects the poorest households who may have no choice but to buy coal.

The other issue is community engagement. There are too many contradictions. At times Government targets are criticised. People ask why they are not being achieved and why the Government is not implementing them at a time when there is resistance on the ground. There has to be proper engagement on the issue and a dialogue on how we go forward together, a dialogue about the common good. In that respect, I welcome the appointment of former President, Mrs. Mary Robinson, as climate justice ambassador. In my town of Ballina last weekend a symposium discussed the issue and how it led to poverty around the world.

I welcome the Minister. I am glad that we have a Minister who is from rural Ireland and understands it. We have often shared the same airwaves as him, on Midwest Radio.

I very much look forward to shadowing him in the future, as I am sure he looks forward to shadowing me. We have much in common.

One issue that has not gone away, however, in spite of the arrival of new politics is that of post offices and I am glad the Minister has that role. At the start of the year the Minister's belief in the post office network and how it must be protected was to the fore; today, therefore, I seek reassurance that his Department is working with the Department of Social Protection to ensure no more letters will be sent to social welfare recipients who collect payments at post offices asking for their bank details. We should be seeking to extend the services that rural post offices offer, not to reduce them by pressurising people to switch to big financial institutions. I know that the Minister will agree with this. Recognising the challenges facing post office networks, we need to modernise and transform the role of the post office in order that it becomes a hub for accessing public services and social protections within the community.

The post office network is an integral part of the social make-up of Ireland. It should, therefore, be protected and given the resources that it needs. As well as ensuring social protection payments continue to be processed through the post office, other sources of revenue such as Government payments and banking could be identified for the post office network. Furthermore, more and more services are moving online and being offered through e-government, which certainly produces efficiencies but is serving to marginalise a whole cohort of people living in rural areas, particularly elderly people and people who do not have broadband. The people concerned are being excluded and deprived of many essential Government services, and the post offices could play a key role here. It is often very difficult to speak to a human being on the end of a line. It can become very confusing for older people when they are trying to access a service and they are put from A to B to C to D. If those services could be offered through post offices, where somebody could go in and speak to a human being, that would be a major advancement for rural Ireland. Will the Minister, therefore, consider the extension of services that can be delivered at post offices and for local communities and examine the role that they need to play in addressing inequality of access to essential services?

The issue of broadband which has been spoken about is a very important one in rural Ireland, especially in my county of Mayo. The obvious impact on businesses and homes of having access to fast communication is important. Just as tangible, though, is a feeling among people that this issue is not being taken seriously by the Government. People in the west especially feel that various services have been rolled out in a way that suggests that these people do not matter, which they find hard to believe. Broadband is essential not only for business, but also for many projects which can extend essential services to isolated rural areas. One example of this is the Scottish community hospital health model, about which I spoke here a few weeks ago, which relies on broadband to deliver certain services through equipment that is linked up to hubs through high-speed connections. Again, this is vital for addressing access to health services within communities. For instance, we have a super X-ray machine in Belmullet Hospital but it cannot be used, and we could be using it. It has been funded by the diaspora and members of the community. We could use it if we had broadband and proper high-speed connections to do that. The national rural development programme and the Leader programme are coming on board as well, which will create opportunities for job creation and enterprise, but that cannot be done without the necessary broadband speeds either.

I am also very concerned about the plan to privatise the broadband network in the long run. At the start of the year the Minister was himself opposed to the privatisation plan. We, in Sinn Féin, would go back even further to argue against the privatisation of Eircom and the Minister knows the folly of that. Sometimes I question do we really learn from such matters. Telecommunications and the network was mentioned. Mobile phone coverage is appalling. The Minister referred to having a report and an examination of the areas of poor coverage. There is no need to do this. In his role he should be forcing the telecommunications companies to address the problems where they know exactly where they are, what they are and what is causing them in many instances, like masts falling down and being left unattended and so on. There are things that need to be done and actions that need to be taken.

I note the admission of Fianna Fáil's Deputy Timmy Dooley that privatisation was wrong and that we are still experiencing the consequences of it; therefore, there is broad consensus on that aspect. I question the Minister's actions on broadband and the cost-benefit analysis that was done. Variables are being used to come up with a specific result in doing the cost-benefit analysis. I am very concerned about the power of the auditors, the likes of KPMG, PwC, Ernst & Young and many more organisations. They seem to have control over the decision-making of the Government. I question that decision-making because we have evidence that they played a key role in the banking crisis and the whole collapse of the economy, not only in Ireland but also in the rest of Europe and worldwide. For them now to be making decisions about broadband and rural Ireland does not sit right with me.

I also ask the Minister if fibre, rather than copper, lines will be guaranteed to people's homes as part of the plan because many people who live off roads are concerned that the fibre cable will only go as far as the main road and the existing copper wire which leads from the road to the house will result in slower download speeds. Furthermore, the threshold of 30 Mbps as the initial standard is too low. We should be future-proofing this. This is not even about future-proofing; it is what is required now to download maps and various other graphics that are needed in the day-to-day running of a small business. Take, for instance, even an agricultural adviser or consultant who would need to download maps and other things. He would need more than 30 Mbps-----

I will finish on the Corrib gas project. I am sorry, I could not sit down without referring to it. I refer to it in the context of the deals that have been done and in contrast to Norway in terms of the sovereign wealth fund, the world's largest and under which Norwegians will benefit in 2020 by an estimated $1 trillion.

The Senator is over time and has made the point.

I must ask the Minister another question about the flaring of the Corrib gas project. I ask the Minister to comment on the news that the EPA is prosecuting Shell and E&P Ireland for breaching its emissions licence in the Corrib gas refinery. I will raise this again tomorrow under the Order of Business.

I welcome the Minister and wish him well. As he said, he has had a break of 19 years from the House. I have no doubt he will be excellent in his portfolio.

I wish to speak about broadband, particularly in the context of Limerick where I live and the area I represent, the Limerick City constituency, and more particularly in the context of the rural part of east Limerick. The national broadband roll-out is very much to be welcomed, but I want to make a number of points. There has been much discussion comparing it with Eircom when it was privatised. It was a national network entirely owned by Eircom. Much of the current network is in private ownership as it is; therefore, it is not as if there are not already some areas of the country covered by fibre broadband and by private providers who have built the network. That is a distinction that needs to be made. Notwithstanding this, the devil is in the detail, as the Minister well knows; therefore, I want to pose a number of questions about what was announced yesterday.

The network will effectively be in State ownership for the first 25 years. What control mechanisms will be put in place to ensure there can be no abuse of service users in the price they will pay during that period and that, beyond the period of 25 years, agreements will be in place to ensure people will have certainty and trust in the system?

Only 35% of Irish premises have access to broadband speeds greater than 10 MBps. Some 69% of Irish homes have access to broadband speeds of only 4 MBps. The Minister is providing for a figure of 30 MBps. In a couple of years time we may find that this is insufficient. What provisions will be built into the contracts awarded to ensure they are future-proofed and that in two or three years time, if there is a need for speeds of 100 MBps, they will be provided for? The last thing we want is for the State to invest in something that will be obsolete in a short period.

I have looked to see whether the Minister has announced who the selected potential bidders are. Are they existing providers in Ireland? At what level is their network? As we want to avoid a monopoly, how many contractors will be appointed? These are extremely important issues to ensure people will have security and trust in the system. In east Limerick broadband speeds vary. While the service is quite good in much of the city and surrounding areas, it is very patchy in rural east Limerick. We are looking to develop the area with the rejuvenation of towns and villages, including Murroe, Abington, Cappamore, Caherconlish and Castleconnell. What is the roll-out target to be achieved in these areas? What can the Minister indicate to the people of rural east Limerick about the timeframe for the roll-out, the broadband speeds to which they will have access, how the issue will be prioritised and the timeframe in contractors being appointed? We want to encourage SMEs to set up in the towns and villages of rural east Limerick and cannot expect them to do so without proper broadband. They may see broadband provision as a promise which will happen in a few years time, with no certainty as to when it will be installed, speeds, capacity, price and future-proofing, which would reassure those who set up a business that broadband speeds and capacity could be increased over time, as required.

I am a frequent user of Irish Rail services and broadband coverage on the main line between Limerick and Dublin is, to say the least, dire and patchy. It is also extremely poor. If the train is relatively empty, the service will be reasonably okay, whereas if the train is full, it is dire. If we want to promote the use of public transport, it is not good enough in a modern society for the phone line to die during an important call and one can nearly guess where it will die. It is not good enough for broadband to die and one to lose a file or whatever else. I welcome the establishment of the mobile task force to examine the issue and wish the Minister well. For me, it is about delivery on the ground in east Limerick in order that we can tell people that if they want to establish a business in any part of east Limerick, broadband capacity is strong enough. It must happen with immediate effect. I wish to know about timescales, price, capacity and security.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for coming to the Chamber. This is my first opportunity to congratulate him on his appointment and wish him well in his brief. Let us be under no illusions. The role he has accepted is one of the most challenging. With poverty, both at home and abroad, social exclusion and disadvantage, we can rank the climate change catastrophe as representing an enormous threat to humanity. It has the potential to destroy countless lives.

It was proposed that "climate action" be included in the title of the Minister's Department and ministerial responsibilities. If I had to pick two words to sum up what we expect from the Minister, they would be "climate action". Based on what he said , I hope he will be our climate action man. I say this because action has been missing consistently from our response to climate change. After more than nine years of painful birthing of climate legislation, the climate response architecture will not be fully active for another couple of years. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has told us that we have already exceeded our EU emissions targets for 2020. We have reached the endgame. Without serious corrective measures, we will be fined. An EU analysis suggests Ireland will not meet its renewable electricity, heat and transport sectoral targets either and we face significant fines from 2020. We, therefore, need a plan for the future. We need to invest now in good initiatives that will save energy and encourage the use of renewables rather than waste money on fines after 2020.

Last December we had the monumental Paris climate deal. It was a real, solid achievement for the betterment of the world in these times of great uncertainty. The Taoiseach told us here at home that we would be at the forefront in responding to the climate emergency. However, when he got to Paris, he made us a laughing stock in pleading for special treatment for Ireland, while to some degree representatives of Bangladesh, sub-Saharan African countries and Pacific island nations looked on with raised eyebrows. This deeply cynical behaviour was entirely consistent with his approach to climate change. With his Ministers in the previous Government, he made the same plea when agreeing to the EU 2030 range of targets. If Ireland is to live up to the spirit and the letter of the Paris agreement, we need a fundamentally different approach. We need a firm statement from the Government that it is not only possible to fully decarbonise the economy by 2050 but that this is a core objective and commitment that runs across all areas of policy. That is something I hope to hear from the Minister today and I am prepared to work with him on it.

We need to look towards reforming the public service obligation, PSO, levy; phase out the subsidy for peat and gas burning and work towards a new PSO model to commence by 2020. We need to talk about divestment from fossil fuels, green procurement and ensuring wind energy sources are developed in a responsible way that will include input from local communities. Again, we run the risk of running into enormous problems in the development of solar energy projects. Although the number of applications to develop such projects and connect them to the national grid has ballooned by more than 150% per annum during the past two years, there are no planning guidelines to deal with the influx. We are just repeating the same ignorant mistakes.

I am very ambitious for this beautiful country of ours. We are well placed to lead the world in responding to the climate challenge in a way that will bring new investment, create permanent indigenous industry and jobs and improve the quality of life of citizens.

Because of bad planning, caving in to narrow sectoral interests and the dominance of profit over good policy, we move ever further away from realising these goals and make it that much harder to steer the State towards a sustainable and profitable future for its citizens.

The Minister was being interrupted when I made the point, but I hope he will be the climate action man for Ireland.

I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his new post. I speak today to represent the Independent Broadcasters of Ireland, IBI, which was my nominating body. The IBI represents the two national, four regional, one multi-city and 27 local commercial radio stations throughout Ireland. The mission of the IBI is to promote a strong and vibrant radio sector which reflects the preferences and needs of the listening public.

Independent broadcasters make a significant contribution to the economy and the social and cultural life of the country. Listenership to independent broadcasting in Ireland has never been stronger. In excess of 70% of the population, some 2.5 million people, tune in to independent radio on a daily basis, which clearly shows the value listeners place on independent programming. Local independent radio connects many of our citizens with their local communities. We should not underestimate the positive impact of this. It is a vital service that we should support. Independent radio provides a valuable public service for Irish radio listeners and is funded entirely from the sale of advertising and sponsorship.

The IBI has been campaigning for a fair and equitable system of funding for public service broadcasting. The introduction of the new public service broadcasting charge will result in additional revenue being collected for the purpose of funding public service broadcasting. I ask the Minister to consider allocating a portion of this funding to the IBI.

I welcome the Minister. His brief strongly combines both urgency and a long-term perspective, even beyond that of other ministries. That urgency and long-term perspective was addressed to the area of broadband. Obviously, urgent action is needed which I commend. However, I join others in expressing concern about the long-term implications in regard to the issue of privatisation. As someone who comes from the west, I want to know that future generations will also be able to live there and not be hostage to potential private service providers which may find smaller communities do not suit their interests at that time.

The issue I want to address is the very urgent and long-term one relating to climate change. It is urgent for the 19.8 million people in eastern Africa, from Somaliland to Ethiopia, who are facing the dangers of hunger and poverty, exacerbated by El Niño and climate change, and for the many climate refugees who we see joining the stream of other refugees currently moving across the world at a time when more people have been displaced than ever before.

Having represented Trócaire in Poznan and Copenhagen at the climate change talks, I was very relieved and gratified to see Ireland among the 196 countries that signed the Paris agreement. We need to step up the pace of response if we are to meet those targets. It is unfortunate, for example, that the EPA has estimated we may overshoot our 2020 limits in just 18 months. Again, I urge the Minister to play a very active role in engaging across all Departments to ensure we revise our policies in areas such as agriculture and food production in a way that is sustainable and which keeps us within our targets, not simply because of the fines we may face but also because Ireland cannot afford to be behind the curve in moving to a sustainable economy. In that regard, the role of the Climate Change Advisory Council will be crucial, particularly in the context of its independence. The council will give guidance on the low carbon transition and mitigation plan. In addition to the issues of transition and mitigation, we need to include the issue of adaptation, both here in Ireland in terms of flood defences, and for those countries that have done least to cause this issue but which are now facing devastating consequences. I urge that this be a strong part of the Minister's considerations.

I welcome the comments on the common good and climate justice. Again, climate justice is a key frame in respect of recognising the responsibilities we share on this planet. In the context of the long-term issues, I would like to highlight three areas where the Minister can make a difference. The first is in the area of public procurement and ensuring we have strong environmental criteria and clauses within the process relating to such procurement. Second, I ask that we approach public-private partnerships with caution to ensure we maintain our regulatory role and that we do not create, as we did with toll roads, a hostage to fortune in terms of our future emissions targets. Third, in terms of the TTIP and CETA negotiations, there is a crucial question to be asked by the Minister's Department of other Departments-----

With regard to energy policy, I urge the Minister to challenge the question of fracking to ensure we maintain our position and to have an open mind and look again at the Corrib gas project and how we should approach it in a different way. This is a huge and important issue and has perhaps been a blind spot in the past.

With regard to divestment, on which I was very happy to support the fossil fuel divestment movement in University College Galway, we have seen in institutions right across the State the push for divestment. Will the Minister consider amending the National Treasury Management Agency Act during the upcoming review of the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund to ensure we are environmentally considerate in this regard?

I welcome the Minister and warmly congratulate him on his appointment. He will bring huge personal energy, ability and commitment to the role, as he is already doing. I am delighted to welcome him and to wish him well.

I consider the availability of high-speed broadband to be a major issue. At the time of the Celtic tiger, the bulk of representations received by my office related to planning. Then, sadly, for the past few years, the bulk have been about social welfare. Now, quite a percentage of the representations in my office are from people who cannot access broadband, which is indicative. Despite some of the wrong stereotyping of local political work, it is important that these things are discovered through local political work, and this point about broadband is very much what I am discovering.

High-speed broadband is crucial for students, many of whom now commute out of financial necessity and are going to colleges in Maynooth or Dublin on coaches and who need broadband in the evenings. Small businesses need it and, as the Minister said, it is crucial to encourage online sales, which cannot develop without broadband. The position is similar for farmers and the citizenry in general. It is a necessity, which I believe the Minister has recognised.

I personally support the Minister in his decision to use the gap funding model, although I know it goes back to private ownership after 25 or 26 years. I take the Minister's crucial point that we would in that way free up perhaps €1 billion for other expenditures such as schools and so on and that this will be off-balance sheet. There is no avoiding the importance of that. Delay would be unacceptable because people have a huge expectation around this. I am very pleased the Minister has introduced 170,000 further premises into the equation. My concern which I am sure the Minister and others share is that proper price controls will ensue when private ownership takes over fully. One must assume that this will be the case. While it will be our successors who police that, it needs to happen.

I agree with some of the earlier contributions on the need to write into the agreements a real commitment to rural areas in regard to timing and speed. I am sure the Minister and his officials will be very vigilant in this regard. Of course, as the project unfolds and is brought on stream, more houses and small businesses will gain access to broadband. It will be a rolling programme and progress will be made incrementally, although I want to ensure it is all copperfastened. I am happy with the Minister's commitment to achieve 85% in two years, which would be good. I can identify with Senator Kieran O'Donnell on the difficulties experienced by people in his area because the same difficulties apply in my area, as well as in County Roscommon and other parts of the country.

We all have great expectations of the Minister's initiatives.

To turn briefly to climate change, I am happy that we are signed up to the Paris agreement, as we have to be. The evidence is all around us. The Minister is a scientist by background and I do not propose to lecture him or anyone else in the House on the obvious case around this. It is well accepted now and there are very few who dissent.

To make a few practical points, I would like the Minister to provide for an analysis as to how far he could incentivise electric cars by way of lower taxes. How much would be saved in the process in terms of the contribution to lowering carbon emissions? It has been presented to me that there is considerable potential here and I would be happy to hear the Minister make a commitment in that regard. While we meet and continue to have targets, I would like us to take on board the reasonable proposition the IFA makes which is that the trees farmers have planted since 1990 and the REPS work they have done should be considered part of our assessment for target purposes. A great deal has been done there and there has been a great commitment. Many farms have a few very poor unarable acres which could be incentivised for forestry use, which would have a cumulative effect. There is potential. The Minister can relate to that from his own experience and knowledge of his constituency. I note finally that there is no logic in replacing food production here, where it is fairly carbon free in terms of emissions, with food production where it would be much more expensive and carbon producing.

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence.

I congratulate the Minister. I hope to be able to work with him on this subject which I hold very close to my heart. Previous speakers have said he must take on this interest group, the IFA, and another interest group in regard to major articles in The Irish Times this week about forestry in County Leitrim. No matter which way we go on climate change and how we address it, it will not be possible to make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. I recognise that this is difficult because there are interest groups which will have to be taken on and told that it will not be possible to go to certain places. This is an important issue not only for Ireland but for our planet and if we do not address it, we will be in serious difficulty. Our children and grandchildren will pay the price if we bow down to specific interest groups.

The Minister said the national low-carbon transition and migration plan will be published this year. One of the reforms introduced by the last Government was pre-legislative scrutiny. With this came the Climate Change Advisory Council which was part of the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act. It was based on the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council. I suggest to the Minister that he look at the council's advice at an early stage in order that it is published at the same time as the draft plan. That would allow us to weigh up expert advice against the draft plan, which would be very helpful. It was brought to my attention by Trócaire this week that this would facilitate a mature discussion and debate.

We are moving rapidly and technology is changing such that the householder will generate electricity and add it to the grid. Mention has been made of interconnectors and connection to the mainland. One of the things we have to look at now is our relationship to solar energy. We could move very quickly down the same road we have run along in regard to wind turbines, which are wholly unacceptable to sections of society. Major developers are travelling around Ireland, in particular to the south east, buying up rights. That is going to generate anxiety in communities. Agriculture-based communities will see jobs migrate in regard to solar energy. As such, we need to be cautious and to move very quickly. While we need to move in those directions, we need community support to do so. The White Paper has been very helpful. It was published by the previous Minister, Alex White, and it sets out an ambitious energy transition programme. We have to take that on board. It recommends very strongly that there be engagement with local communities, which is why I raise the issue of solar energy. There are rumblings at the moment but that could turn into a roar as we have seen in regard to wind energy. In many cases, wind energy has got a very bad name on foot of the lack of consultation and engagement with communities. Ireland has just one community-owned wind farm, which is located at Templederry, County Tipperary. We have to ask why we only have one community-owned project and what the barriers around that are. It is a 4.6 MW facility consisting of two turbines. On a cost-benefit analysis, the two turbines give a dividend to the community equivalent to that of 35 turbines. If we are really serious about community engagement and improving community activity in places like that, we must ask what we need to change. How can we assist that engagement and get community buy-in on renewable energy?

The Minister will come under very strong pressure at different stages in respect of our peat plants. I say this to be helpful. The same is true in regard to generation from gas and coal. The plants provide a very important local employment element. If we truly want to engage and move from that position, we must develop a plan on how to do it. That plan must include the people who are currently in employment in the area. How do we develop a local plan to move people who are currently employed in those areas to ensure that they have secure employment in their own local areas while reaching our targets? Peat plants have to close. The damage they are causing to the environment is far too great. As a Dub, I recognise, however, that they are very important to their local communities. We have to have a transition plan, not only in relation to reducing our carbon emissions but also for families and individuals which allows them to stay and work in their communities. One of the ways we can get local community buy-in is to go out with our hands open, say we want that proper engagement and, while setting out the target, indicate that we also want to secure the local community and local employment. We must work hand in hand with these communities.

There are a number of questions, but I might not get through them all. I might e-mail them to the Ministe, if I may.

We have an energy regulator, but it is not viable for local communities to apply for a licence. They may have to wait seven to ten years to find out if there will be a connection and if they can proceed. That is fine for a major developer travelling around the country and taking options on sites with a view to what is down the road. There are road blocks there. We must facilitate community engagement in local generation of energy which can also connect to the grid. I suggest a minor change that would facilitate communities to generate their own electricity. Developers cannot apply for a connection to the grid until they have planning permission because there is a gridlock, if the House will pardon the phrase, in respect of applications. Many of those applications, however, are speculative. They do not have planning permission and they are clogging up the system. Where a genuine community group comes along with a proposal for a micro-generation plant on the local river, it cannot get a connection and just sees a backlog.

I will forward a further six specific questions to the Minister, to which I know he will respond.