Thursday, 18 February 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Horse Sport Ireland
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this time-sensitive issue for discussion, and while I thank the Minister of State for being present to answer, I regret the Minister or a Minister of State from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is not present.
Horse Sport Ireland, HSI, was set up in 2007 and had a desire to establish a centre of excellence from the outset. It does good work with its 24 affiliates, which cross the spectrum from pony clubs to Olympic-level equestrian bodies. The decision regarding a centre of excellence must take on board the requirements of all these affiliates. The State has a controlling interest in HSI. In 2018, the then Minister, Deputy Creed, restructured the body, enabling him to appoint a chairperson and the majority of the directors of the board. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is the competent authority. The various stud books administered by HSI generate an income, but €6 million of its income of approximately €7 million comes from State funding.
HSI has entered into terms with a privately owned equestrian centre, with an obligation to spend between €7 million and €12 million on developing the centre and renting it for 35 years. What will happen to that investment after 35 years? None of the 24 affiliates were informed in advance of the location's announcement, which was issued in late December. There was a subsequent consultation with all of them over Zoom, but it only lasted for approximately an hour, which is not the level of consultation needed where such a long-term enterprise is concerned.
While I do not profess to have any expertise in what HSI and its affiliates do, I have a good understanding of process and the importance of transparency. A good, robust and transparent approach that properly scopes out needs and considers all location and funding options, including mortgage options, should be part of a process that is worked out with the affiliates. I would have expected finding a site to come at the end of the process.
What did the Department and Minister know of this? Will it be looked at again?
There are a number of issues with regard to the Greenogue facility to which I want to draw attention. It has been pointed out by some of the affiliates that it simply will not meet their needs. A portion of the 30-acre site at Greenogue has been frozen and this is to facilitate, in time, the western Dublin orbital route to link the N3, N4 and N7. This would impact on the ability to develop the facilities.
There was express reference in the planning permission to concerns regarding traffic volumes as this is primarily a residential area. Greenogue is currently in contravention of the existing planning permission. It has planning for private use that expressly prohibits competition and other commercial activities. Horse Sport Ireland has engaged a consultant, Colm McCarthy, to advise on this issue but in actual fact it would be better placed pausing this and taking the time to include its affiliates. There was an Indecon report in 2017 which stated Horse Sport Ireland should obtain the views of various subsectors of the industry, and the position of the stakeholders is of real value to Horse Sport Ireland in making the correct decisions. The report also recommended that Horse Sport Ireland's directors receive some accreditation and further training in the area of corporate governance.
This matter is time sensitive. Let us make a good decision on this. Let us work in the interest of all of the 24 affiliates. It needs to be paused.
Horse Sport Ireland is the national governing body for equestrian sport in Ireland. It is recognised by the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the Irish Sports Council, the Olympic Council of Ireland and Sport Northern Ireland. It was established in 2007, when the Equestrian Federation of Ireland and the Irish Horse Board were amalgamated, bringing together the breeding and competition sectors. It is a company limited by guarantee that operates independently of the Department. It receives funds from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and was in receipt of funds from the former Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport through Sport Ireland. Horse Sport Ireland receives an annual grant, which is €5 million this year, from the Department in recognition of its work in promoting and developing the Irish sport horse sector and also receives funding from a share of an equine infrastructure grant scheme operated by the Department. The scheme is aimed at fostering breeding, marketing, educational and disease prevention research within the horse sector.
In 2015, a strategy report on the future of the sport horse industry, Reaching New Heights: Report of Irish Sport Horse Industry Strategy Committee, was published. This envisaged a centre of excellence for breeding, sport and coaching, providing breeding resources, making breeding technologies available, providing support for training riders and coaches through the national system of training for riders, coaches, and producers and providing support for inspection centre as well as sales, opportunities for training of young horses with talent and the provision of top class schoolmasters for the training of young riders among its services.
As recommended in this report, and as mentioned by the Deputy, a review of the structures of Horse Sport Ireland has been conducted by Indecon International Consultants, and its report with recommendations has been published. Indecon recommended the rationalisation of the boards. This has now been undertaken.
In its 2021 budget submission, Horse Sport Ireland said that it believed that a national centre as part of a hub-and-spoke model for the development of the industry would be an extremely worthwhile venture to underpin the industry. It stated that such a centre would enable an holistic approach to the sector, providing a world class environment for the production of horses, the provision of equine services, industry training and the promotion of an outstanding product, and that it would bring much cohesion to the sector providing a focal point for a very fragmented industry. The budget submission figures produced regarding the national centre of excellence were merely indicative and not specific to any particular site or venue and involved the development of a green field site. No additional capital funding was provided for this purpose.
As the Deputy pointed out, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is aware that Horse Sport Ireland is considering relocating to a new site as part of the establishment of a new headquarters and a national centre of excellence. It is envisaged that the centre will provide a world class environment for the production of horses, the provision of equine services, industry training and promotion. Horse Sport Ireland has had the objective of having a defined headquarters and a national training and breeding centre since its inception. I will bring the concerns raised by the Deputy about the Greenogue facility and what the Minister did or did not know to his attention that of the Department following this discussion.
I agree that there is an awful lot in what the Minister of State has said. I also agree that a centre of excellence is a really good idea and would have a unifying aspect. I saw this with the sports campus. There were benefits in the national sports campus that went beyond what was expected. I completely accept that the sport horse sector does need a higher standard of competition facilities. I am not questioning this need. Neither am I opposing it being supported by means of grants and public funds. However, let us not make the mistake of not consulting the affiliate organisations that require their needs to be met by this. Let us not, for expediency, make the mistake of picking a site that may not be the right site. It could end up being the right site but it has not gone through the type of process that would be unifying in determining and scoping out the needs and considering the funding options. These are the issues.
There are significant planning issues and constraints in this location. I ask that the Minister of State go back to the Minister and his Department and inform them in the strongest terms that they really need to look at this because it will be primarily public money that will go into developing this. Let us make sure that when it is developed, wherever it is developed, it will be something of which we will all be very proud and we will not be asking why somebody did not point out something in advance of making a decision. All I am looking for is that the correct decision is made, that there is proper consultation and that process and transparency matter.
I am advised that the board examined a number of sites in the context of choosing a location for its headquarters and the national centre for excellence. This was part of a selection process carried out by a subcommittee of the board. A detailed feasibility study for the centre was carried out. I understand Horse Sport Ireland appointed an independent consultant to carry out this study following a competitive request for tender. It also advises that the work of the subcommittee has been ongoing for two years and has involved the consideration of many different locations. It also advises that it engaged with a range of potential sites and hired a property valuer and adviser to review property and land offerings as well as the availability of property to purchase, rent or develop. The subcommittee also examined options not involving additional State funding.
Regarding consultation with affiliates, which the Deputy mentioned, Horse Sport Ireland indicates that it has engaged with all Olympic and paraplegic discipline affiliates on the Greenogue proposal, including Showjumping Ireland, Eventing Ireland, Dressage Ireland and Para Equestrian Ireland. It indicates that it has also met its equestrian sport and recreation affiliates, ranging from the Association of Irish Riding Clubs, riding establishments, mounted games, endurance, the Irish Quarter Horse Association, the Irish Pony Club, the Irish Pony Society, TREC Ireland, the Riding for the Disabled Association and the Irish Shows Association to discuss the matter. I understand that these affiliate bodies encapsulate approximately 30,000 participants in Ireland.
I hope this clarifies for the House the background to the proposal, which the board of Horse Sport Ireland is now endeavouring to progress. I agree with the Deputy that the right decision should be made and ultimately it is a decision for the Board of Horse Sport Ireland to make. I thank the Deputy for her interest in this topic.