Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Hardship Grant Scheme

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Canney.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting my Commencement matter which is related to the agricultural hardship grant that is available to assist herdowners. While I acknowledge and recognise that the topic is not within his ministerial brief, I thank the Minister of State for coming to take it. As he will be aware, the aim of the hardship grant scheme is to assist herdowners who retain and feed animals during a prolonged period of restrictions following a TB breakdown. Eligibility for the scheme is subject to certain criteria which have been designed to alleviate the additional feed costs incurred while a herd is locked up. I am sure the Minister of State understands the significance of herds being locked up as he comes from an agricultural community and rural constituency. We know that eligibility is not automatic and that herdowners must apply for the grant individually. Clearly, the application must be adjudicated on, while the applicant must fulfil the stringent criteria laid down. That is what I have an issue with. Herdowners cannot be in receipt of any off-farm payment. This presents a difficulty in the case of dairy and suckler cow farmers. While dairy farmers can continue to have their primary supply of milk and receive the associated payments, drystock farmers do not benefit from payments. Income for the supply of milk from restricted holdings is an issue. Farmers have told me, as I am sure they have told the Minister of State in Galway, that the scheme is grossly unfair as a suckler cow farmer cannot avail of funding during the restricted period. Therefore, there is an ambiguity and a need for a levelling. I want to hear what the Minister of State has to say in that regard. I appreciate that this area is not within his brief, but perhaps he will give me an assurance that he will raise this matter with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for his words of welcome. I also thank the Senator for raising this issue which is of importance to me also as I come from a rural constituency. I am presenting the reply on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine who cannot be here and sends his apologies.

The bovine TB eradication programme has been in place in Ireland since the mid-1950s when TB levels were extremely high in the cattle population. It is estimated that approximately 17% of cattle were infected. Rapid progress was made in the early stages of the programme. However, progress stalled in the 1970s and 1980s. Following a comprehensive programme to tackle wildlife since 2000, there have been significant reductions in TB levels in cattle. Herd incidence, possibly the most accurate reflection of trends, has reduced from 5.88% in 2008 to 3.4% at present. The positive downward trend previously observed in disease incidence has not been evident in the past three to four years. prompting concern among all stakeholders. Getting TB levels to historically low levels was hard earned and a testament to the efforts of all involved in TB eradication, from herdowners and vets to officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Recent trends indicate that the current eradication measures have achieved as much as they can and herd incidence rates have stagnated. With a view to reinvigorating the TB programme and moving towards the elimination of the disease, the Minister has set the target to eradicate TB by 2030. The achievement of this objective will require considerable effort and a commitment from all stakeholders to put in place the necessary control measures. In view of this, last year, under Food Wise 2025, the Minister established a TB forum - it represents all stakeholders - with a view to providing strong, co-ordinated leadership in support of the Department's team in achieving the eradication target. The focus is now on the development of a renewed TB eradication strategy. The strategy will take the TB forum's report into account and it will be the roadmap to drive down TB levels in the coming years, protect cattle from infection and farmers and farm families from the stress and difficulty of a TB breakdown. The Minister plans to launch the renewed TB strategy in the coming months.

The direct cost of the TB eradication plan was almost €91 million in 2018. It comprised a contribution of €35 million from herdowners, while a sum of €46 million was funded by the Exchequer, with the balance of €10 million coming from the European Union. These figures further support the case for intensifying our collective endeavours to eliminate the disease. Those unfortunate enough to have their herd infected and restricted at any given time will no longer have to bear that burden once eradication is achieved. The entire population of herds that bear the risk of contracting the disease, the additional supply chain costs resulting from its presence in the national herd and part of the cost of funding an eradication programme will benefit.

Under the TB programme, there is a comprehensive compensation regime in place for herdowners whose cattle are affected by bovine TB. The measures acknowledge the difficulty and stress of a TB breakdown and are intended to assist herdowners during a period of restrictions. The regime is not intended to compensate a herdowner for all of his or her losses, but it is among the most supportive when compared with schemes in other jurisdictions.

In 2016, the Department concluded a lengthy consultation process on improvements to the compensation regime. A significant majority of the additional costs of those improvements were borne by the taxpayer. The changes included an extension of the hardship grant to dairy herds, the extension of the income supplement threshold to dairy herds that lose at least 10% of dairy cows, the removal of the 100-animal limit for income supplement eligibility, and an increase in the rate of supplement for dairy cows from €25.39 to €55 per cow per month. Following these amendments, expenditure on the supplementary support schemes grew by €1.7 million, an increase of 80% relative to 2015 even though disease levels have remained broadly stable.

It is clear that additional resources allocated to the TB programme must be focused on measures to reduce the incidence of the disease and the associated burdens on all farmers. The Department intends to invest in additional staff resources, particularly in the area of disease transmission from wildlife, the development of initiatives focusing on areas dealing with high levels of TB and engaging more closely with chronic herds.

I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive report on this issue. I welcome any effort or renewed effort to eradicate TB, as well as the renewed strategy. We have been talking about eradication of TB for a long time, certainly longer than my time on the planet. The key point I wish to drive home today is that there must be fairness in the operation of the hardship grant scheme as between dairy and suckler herd farmers. I refer, in particular, to off-farm income and how that is calibrated into the grant payments. Suckler farmers have asked me to state their case for a fairer and more balanced approach in regard to compensation and supports. I ask the Department to take into consideration the issues I have raised.

I take on board the Senator's points in this regard. The principle the Minister is pursuing is the eradication of the disease once and for all, which would mean no requirement for compensation in the future. It has been a long journey, with plateaus and periods of stagnation. There is a problem at the moment, albeit the rate of incidences is much lower than it was in the past. Our objective is to eliminate the disease for good. I accept the Senator's point regarding the need for fairness and a relative spread of the compensation. I will convey his concerns to the Minister for his consideration.

Harbours and Piers Development

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for dealing with this matter. Cromane is a wonderful place on the Ring of Kerry, just beyond Killorglin and alongside Dooks, home of the natterjack toad, which is a protected species.

It may be better known as the home of another Jack, namely, Jack O'Shea.

Dooks is also home to a wonderful 18-hole links course. Cromane overlooks Castlemaine Harbour and is a gateway to the Dingle Peninsula. Close by in this wonderful countryside are Rossbeigh, Kells Bay, Mountain Stage, Cahersiveen and Waterville. It is hard to imagine it in this day and age, but specially equipped tractors are having to enter seawater at Cromane to offload fish from seagoing vessels and trawlers. It is a primitive practice for such a valuable fishing industry, which exports mussels and other seafood to Japan and all over the world. There is a lovely beach as one goes past Cromane church, but the road is not fit for the huge number of visitors the village attracts and greatly requires upgrading. A proper harbour is badly needed, in the interests of health and safety and every other type of consideration. I look forward to the Minister of State's response. I am grateful for the Minister of State's presence in the Chamber in place of the Minister, Deputy Creed.

I thank Senator Coghlan for that tour of the Ring of Kerry.

The Cathaoirleach is welcome. I am happy to do so at any time.

If the Senator were not a Member of this House, he would make a great tour guide. Kerry's beauty almost matches that of Galway.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Under statute, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine owns, operates and maintains six designated State-owned fishery harbour centres, located at Castletownbere, Dingle, Dunmore East, Howth, Killybegs and Rossaveel. In addition, the Department also has responsibility for the upkeep and maintenance of North Harbour at Cape Clear, as well as the maintenance of a small number of specific piers, lights and beacons throughout Ireland, in accordance with the Marine Works (Ireland) Act 1902, and piers, lights and beacons constructed under the auspices of the former Congested Districts Board.

The fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme is a capital expenditure programme funded from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's Vote. The programme is administered an annual basis and any money not spent within the calendar year reverts to the Exchequer. Works funded under the programme include development, construction and maintenance of coastal infrastructure for fish and aquaculture landing sites. The strategic objective of the scheme is to ensure the future viability of the fishing industry, to bring the fishery harbour centres up to best international practice, to reduce congestion at the harbours and to improve safety for the fisheries sector.

Responsibility for the maintenance and development of local authority-owned harbours and piers rests with each individual authority in the first instance and its parent Department, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, thereafter. In the case of Cromane Pier, proposals for a potential future pier development project are a matter for Kerry County Council. While mussel seed fishing in Castlemaine Harbour is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the legislative remit does not extend to possible future capital infrastructure works at Cromane. However, my Department does operate a scheme under its annual fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme to assist local authorities in carrying out small-scale developments and repairs of piers and slipways under their ownership, subject to available Exchequer funding and overall national priorities.

As part of the 2019 capital programme, €2.2 million was allocated for the local authority harbour development scheme and a marine leisure and tourism scheme. A total of 39 projects have been approved across 12 local authorities. In 2019, Kerry County Council was approved for funding for two projects to a total of €127,500. Those projects are located at Dromatoo Pier and Tarbert Pier. No application for funding was received under this year's programme in respect of Cromane Pier. In the period from 2010 to 2018, more than €1.6 million was provided to Kerry County Council under the local authority element of the fishery harbour and coastal infrastructure development programme. Any application submitted by Kerry County Council under any future programme in respect of Cromane Pier will be considered by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the context of the programme's criteria, available funding and overall priorities.

I thank the Minister of State for his response, which prompts me to revert to Kerry County Council on this matter. I will not say I was misled but it is news to me that there was no application from the council in this regard. I am grateful to the Minister of State for his courtesy.

Human Rights Investigations

I thank Senator Coghlan for his brevity. The next matter for discussion, in the name of Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill, has been long outstanding.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this issue for discussion. It is a sensitive matter that dates back to 17 May 1973, when a young man of 24 years of age, Michael Leonard, was fatally wounded by an RUC officer travelling close to the Border in County Donegal.

I thank my friend and colleague, Councillor Michael Naughton, for raising this matter with me. I acknowledge the search for justice by the Leonard family since 1973. They have been trying to unearth the truth since the evening Michael Leonard was shot dead just before 6 p.m. He was travelling alone in a car close to the Border and the RUC opened fire on him. An inquest was held a number of months shortly afterwards but none of the three police officers who was travelling in the Land Rover that evening was present. There was no cross-examination, therefore, of the facts as they were presented. An RUC inspector gave evidence to the coroner. However, the inquest was riddled with holes and the RUC on at least three occasions changed the details of the story concerning the unlawful murder of Michael Leonard.

This is a matter that essentially requires truth in order that the family can finally lay this matter to rest. They are not willing to do that, and rightly so. I fully support them in their endeavour to find truth and justice for the killing of this young man, who was engaged at the time, in 1973. A charity organisation in the North, known as Paper Trail, helped victims of crime, in particular those who were victims of crimes by the security forces during the Troubles. A great man, Mr. Ciarán MacAirt, has carried out research and investigations together with a cousin of Michael Leonard, Fr. Joe McVeigh. Over the years, he has unearthed research from the British authorities that clearly confirms there was collusion at the heart of the case. It is a fact that the RUC changed its story a number of times to make sure the truth surrounding the murder never made it to the light of day. That is wrong.

I understand the Government intervened in late 1973 or early 1974 and thereafter, seeking to have the truth made available. However, that never happened. There were all sorts of allegations that Michael Leonard was connected with the IRA at the time or that his father was a member of the IRA. That was complete rubbish; there was nothing like that. On that evening the RUC deliberately shot this young man. One of the stories afterwards was that there was one shot fired and another was that the shots were fired over the car, but the truth is that there were at least three shots fired on that evening. There is written evidence to back that up.

There are other cases in the North of Ireland as well where truth and reconciliation is needed to allow the truth to emerge and families to move on. It is difficult to move on when the truth is not made available. The current Attorney General for Northern Ireland, Mr. John Larkin, said that the killing was not justified. He referred the matter to the Public Prosecution Service to review whether the police should be prosecuted before he would consider the request for a new inquest. There is a requirement for a new inquest. There is also a full requirement to call on the British authorities to release some of the information. I call on the Government and, in particular, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to make a request of the British authorities to execute a fresh and transparent inquiry at which new evidence from the British Ministry of Defence records can be considered in respect of any findings regarding the murder of Michael Leonard; undertake an immediate criminal investigation in conjunction with the British authorities, to be overseen by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland; and ensure at a diplomatic level that the British Government fully co-operates with such an inquiry. This is about finding truth and justice.

The Leonard family, who live in Pettigo, County Donegal deserves to know the truth. While the truth goes unheard, the results of that botched inquest in 1973 remain the word of the British State. That is wrong. This man did nothing wrong. Go raibh míle maith agat.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. I am pleased to provide a response on behalf of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, who is unavoidably detained, as Members can well imagine.

Our thoughts are with Michael Leonard's family at this time. The finding of deeply concerning new information regarding the circumstances of Mr. Leonard's fatal shooting by an RUC officer on the Fermanagh-Donegal border in 1973, can only have compounded the enduring pain of his family at his loss, at the age of just 24 years. His family, more than 46 years later, are left now with the most serious questions as to the circumstances of his death and about the subsequent police investigation and the due process of law, which is their right under Article 2 of the Convention on Human Rights.

The Government understands that the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is actively considering the case, further to a referral by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland. The Government is also aware that a complaint has been made to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland about the investigation of the fatal shooting of Mr. Leonard and that the ombudsman is assessing whether it is a matter that can be investigated by that office. The PSNI is also seized of this case and has stated that it not in a position to comment at this stage.

It is essential that nothing is said in this House that could prejudice these ongoing processes, which are of the utmost interest for Michael Leonard's family. I thank Senators for their understanding in this respect today.

I commend the work of Mr. Leonard's cousin, Fr. Joe McVeigh, and Mr. Ciarán MacAirt of Paper Trail, who brought to light the deeply concerning information held in the UK Ministry of Defence regarding Mr. Leonard's case, which has prompted the reviews by the Public Prosecution Service and the Police Ombudsman in Northern Ireland.

The Government will continue to monitor closely the progress of this case, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is available to be in contact with Mr. Leonard's family to discuss with them concerns they may have as the reviews in Northern Ireland proceed. The Government, of course, expects the British authorities would co-operate fully with any further process of investigation that may follow in the investigation of this case, and, again, will monitor progress closely, in consultation with the family. The Government will also continue to engage with the British Government to seek urgent progress on legislation to implement the framework for dealing with the past provided for under the Stormont House Agreement of 2014.

Victims' families from all communities have had to wait for far too long for appropriate and effective mechanisms to fully investigate outstanding deaths from the Troubles. The framework of the Stormont House Agreement is long overdue and urgently needed in Northern Ireland, and the Government will continue to work to achieve this.

I thank the Minister of State. I acknowledge the position of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and very much welcome the sentiment expressed in the response. I agree with the Minister of State that, given the political impasse in the North at present, the Stormont House Agreement is an issue that needs to be addressed by all parties in the North. That in itself is a reason for the Executive to come together in the North of Ireland.

Will he relay to the officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade a request that they reach out again to Mr. MacAirt and Fr. McVeigh and to extend that point of contact, which would be so useful to victim's families, not just the Leonards but other families? Could there be a dedicated point of contact with the Department where people could follow up directly on issues such as this?

I welcome the Minister of State's comments and look forward to engaging further with him and the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade on this matter until such time as the truth is made available.

I have taken into account the points raised by the Senator. I will convey them to the Tánaiste and his Department for further consideration. He has directed that his Department be available to discuss with the family of the late Mr. Leonard the concerns they may have as the reviews of the case proceed in Northern Ireland, which will be closely monitored by the Government.

The family of Michael Leonard remain in our thoughts as they await the outcome of these reviews, which will be so difficult and painful to them and compounded by the decades that have passed since his death.

More broadly, comprehensive progress on legacy issues from the Troubles is crucial to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors from all communities and to contribute to broader societal reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process. It is incumbent on the British Government to set out a clear way forward for legislation to establish the legacy framework of the Stormont House Agreement. The Government will continue to engage with the British Government in support of that, consistent with our role and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.

Schools Building Projects Status

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Halligan, for coming to the Chamber once again to answer my questions about yet another school in Swords that urgently needs explanations from his Department. This week, I am referring to St Finian's community college in Swords. As I explained to him last week, Swords has a population of approximately 45,000 and is the largest town in Ireland. St. Finian's community college has been in the town for more than 60 years and it has more than 660 pupils and a large teaching population. It also has DEIS status. A project to extend and refurbish the school was initiated in 2010 and, after a few issues were sorted out, planning permission was granted in 2015. It was expected that the work would go to tender and commence shortly thereafter but, without explanation, it was shelved and the school has remained in that position ever since.

The school is in a serious state of disrepair and urgently needs attention. It is overcrowded as there is serious pressure on places for both primary and secondary schools in Swords. There are serious health and safety conditions now in the school. There are classrooms without windows. There are leaking windows, which have damaged the children's work. There are problems with ventilation. Particularly worrying is that there are classrooms without access to fire exits. There is no WiFi, which hinders learning in the modern era. There is vegetation growing inside the classrooms and I have a photograph of that which I am going to give to the Minister of State. This is what the students, parents and teachers in the community college are putting up with. That is absolutely outrageous. I do not know if the Minister of State can see it from where he is so I will give him the photograph.

This is completely unacceptable. It is disrespectful to the hard-working teachers and pupils and the parents who send their children to the school with the best of intentions and who want them to get the best education they can to reach their full potential. They cannot do so when this chronic situation is allowed to continue. This needs urgent attention. This planning application will expire next year if it is not acted on. That is serious and would set back the entire project. We need urgent answers and, more important, action.

I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which gives me an opportunity to outline the current position regarding the major building project in St. Finian's community college. I hope my detailed answer will be of some benefit to the Senator and, of course, to all of those involved with the school.

The project to which the Deputy refers is a major building project to deliver improved accommodation at this community college in Swords, County Dublin. The Department of Education and Skills has approved the construction of a stand-alone extension of just over 4,000 sq. m in an area to include a two-classroom special educational need, SEN, base. Some works to the existing building were also included in this approval.

Responsibility for delivering the project has been devolved to the Dublin and Dún Laoghaire Education and Training Board, DDLETB. A service level agreement, SLA, is in place between the Department and DDLETB in that respect. This agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities of each of the parties in the delivery of education projects. It is a central tenet of devolution that responsibility for the delivery of these projects, within certain agreed parameters as laid down in the SLA, rests with DDLETB. In that respect, the education and training board has appointed a design team to design the accommodation being provided and to bring the project through the tender and construction phases.

It is of the utmost importance that the final outcome for this project be the correct one for both the school authority and the pupils. Equally, neither my Department nor the DDLETB are in any doubt about the critical need for this accommodation for the pupils, staff, parents and community of St. Finian's. Consequently, there has been an intensification of the engagement between senior officials from the Department of Education and Skills and DDLETB in recent months with an on-site meeting taking place in July. Agreement was reached at that meeting on a number of key steps required to resolve these issues at the school. Firstly, the Department will be providing funding to DDLETB to address the most urgent health and safety issues on site. This funding will be provided under the Department's emergency works scheme. DDLETB has already written to the Department on this basis and, once further information is received - and I think it will be received quickly - these works will be progressed as a matter of priority. Some of those works will deal with falling concrete and a pillar collapse. The Department is aware of that and I have been told this morning that money will be made available as a matter of urgency.

Secondly, DDLETB has put forward alternative proposals as to how the major building project for St. Finian's should be progressed. These proposals, which are under active consideration by the Department, were set out in detail at the meeting in July. They are being further developed through documentation and a feasibility report is expected to be completed in the coming days. This documentation will be of considerable assistance in determining the next steps to be taken in progressing the project.

I have spoken to officials in the Department last night and this morning and I acknowledge that the delivery of this project has taken longer than was originally envisaged. This was the result of a number of issues that arose with respect to this project and that required time to resolve. These issues included delays in obtaining statutory consents from the local authority and delays in the finalisation of the detailed design process for the project as it was originally approved. I was assured by the Department's officials that the delays were not on the side of the Department.

It may be necessary for officials to take some further time to consider the revised proposals being put forward by DDLETB. However, I assure this House and the Senator that there will be no further delay in making decisions on this. This matter will progress as a matter of urgency, whatever plan for progressing the project is decided upon.

I again thank the Senator for raising this matter and I want to give assurances to her. I have spoken again to the Department and this project is moving forward as quickly as possible. I believe the Department's representatives when they say the delays are certainly not on their end. I can confirm that the necessary funding has been set aside for it. I have seen the legislative funding that is there and the Department will continue to liaise with the DDLETB to progress this critical project. I believe further communications will take place in the next number of days.

I hope I have answered the Senator's questions. There is an acceptance from the Department that there has been an internal delay, as she pointed out. I believe from speaking to officials that, over the next few days and weeks, there will be more progress than there has been in months.

There would want to be an awful lot more progress because there has been none at all. I am glad the emergency works scheme application has been granted. The Minister of State mentioned the pillar collapse and there are serious issues at the school.

We are very lucky that there has not been an injury or even worse at the school since. The Minister of State spoke also about the tender and construction phase. Will he let me know when he expects that phase to commence? I also seek an assurance that the project will start before the planning permission expires next year.

I give the Senator my word on that. I will follow it up for her if she sends me an email or text message in the next few days. It is important to know why the original proposal stalled. The detailed design stage for the original proposal is almost complete. It appears that a lot more was to be considered than had been thought. That does happen with major projects, which this one is. It became apparent as the project was progressing that the extent of the works to the existing building was greater than expected. The Department acknowledged that. At the time it genuinely believed it was a straightforward process and that it would proceed once the planning permission was approved. That is the reason it sought to review the position. I understand that. It would be premature for me to comment any further on how matters will progress while we are waiting for the feasibility study report. If Senator Clifford-Lee contacts me, I will make sure that she gets a weekly update on the project. I have asked the Department to do that.

Before the Minister of State concludes, coming events cast their shadows before. I note the Minister of State referred in his reply to Senator Clifford-Lee as "Deputy".

My apologies. We may very well be referring to her as Deputy next time around. I hope that is the case.

I could not let it pass.

Sitting suspended at 11.15 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.