Thursday, 5 July 2018
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn ar maidin don cheist seo. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government and I thank him for taking the time to address this matter. It is one I have been kicking around since entering the Seanad. Given the weather over the past number of weeks, it is particularly timely. We know that weather does not recognise borders, so it makes perfect scientific, social, economic and agricultural sense that neither would those who provide us with our weather information. There are people who move, go to school, work or farm on both sides of the Border, and in periods of adverse and emergency weather alerts we should operate in a more cooperative and cohesive way to ensure people are kept safe and have access to the fullest information available to them, given the nature of the Border and how open it is at the moment. The Minister will have noticed on many instances over recent weeks, whether on "The Late Late Show" or Met Éireann, the Six Counties in the north east have been amputated from many maps. The HSE issued us, as Oireachtas Members, maps with those Six Counties amputated from them.It does not need to be a contentious political issue; it is relatively easily resolved. I understand there are jurisdictional issues and all of that. Perhaps I am naïve in this sense, but it seems relatively straightforward to merely obtain the relevant information that pertains to the Six Counties and highlight it as well. Weather agencies and emergency bodies in the North have a responsibility to show what is happening across the rest of the country as well.
The Commencement matter speaks for itself. We have a particular need to engage the local government authorities on the issue because in my experience, having previously been a member of Belfast City Council, our local government structures are often the front line in dealing with these emergencies.
I thank Senator Ó Donnghaile for raising this issue as it gives me the chance to outline the situation with him directly. On the issue of the Six Counties and the map, certainly with the planning end of our Department under Project 2040, we made sure to try to engage properly and to plan for the island as a whole, including the linkages with the towns and cities in the Border region, and to make sure we got that right.
I hope the Senator recognises that we do try to do that when we can while respecting all the different jurisdictions, who is in control in different areas and so on. We have had debates here on the marine spatial strategy. Latterly we have also tried to do that on a whole-island basis and engage with our colleagues across the Border as well.
The response to all emergencies is appropriately locally led in the first instance. Local authorities, An Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive are designated as the principal response agencies. Local authorities are further designated by the framework for major emergency management as lead agency for co-ordinating the local response to severe weather events. The generic response arrangements enabling the three principal response agencies to collaborate are set out in “A Framework for Major Emergency Management” which was published in 2006, together with a range of other guidance documents and protocols. That is something we keep under constant review. Local authorities liaise with the other principal response agencies - the HSE, An Garda Síochána - and, where necessary, activate interagency structures to manage the response and incorporate a range of other agencies as well as communities themselves.
Protocols in place in both this State and Northern Ireland provide guidance on the co-ordination of response and recovery during emergencies. These protocols reflect the required responses to major emergencies in the Republic of Ireland and major incidents in Northern Ireland. While emergencies can have different terminology in both jurisdictions, they effectively recognise the same types of events and incidents. A range of bilateral arrangements are in place between local authorities and relevant agencies on both sides of the Border to cover the response to major emergencies that may occur in Border areas. As the Senator said, the line on the map is not recognised by weather events.
A number of service level agreements and memoranda of understanding are in place with agencies in Northern Ireland by virtue of the work carried out between individual emergency services on both sides of the Border, along an area classed as the Border corridor. These agreements are for task-specific resources, which in the event of an emergency could be activated first.
Fire services in counties along the Border corridor currently have both formal and informal arrangements regarding mutual aid support in emergency response situations. Both jurisdictions provide assistance when requested from their colleagues across the Border. For example, Donegal fire service has a formal memorandum of understanding in place with the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service covering the response to fires.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is designated as the lead Department for co-ordinating the response to severe weather. When the local-level response is stretched or when national-level assistance is required, the Department convenes a national emergency co-ordination group, NECG. People have seen that in action during the previous two status-red weather warnings we had in the past 12 months. The NECG co-ordinates the response measures in place and deals with emerging issues. The NECG will arrange for relevant Departments and agencies to liaise with their equivalents in Northern Ireland as required.
The national steering group on major emergency management has approved "Host Nation Support Guidance for the Principal Response Agencies". This document details arrangements that would be required and activated in the event of Ireland requesting international assistance, including in respect of assistance received from Northern Ireland. I hope that brings some clarity to the situation.
It is very detailed and I appreciate the clarity. While I did not have all of that information at hand, it does not necessarily surprise me to hear that work is ongoing. I am a great advocate in this Chamber for saying that Ireland works best when it works together. We have certainly seen that in instances of fortress Ireland relating to different agricultural emergencies and things like that. The Minister of State has outlined a number of practical measures where that co-operation is ongoing. I welcome it and I would encourage more of it.
However, the big gap comes with the issue of communication and how we show everything that is going on. I do not doubt that all of that is going on at an emergency co-ordination and response level. I do not know if it is in the gift of Government to direct and encourage Met Éireann and other agencies to ensure that all that collated information is then communicated and shown. It needs to be shown via the maps, RTÉ and Met Éireann in order that people in Strabane or Lifford, Newry or Dundalk know the state of the emergency and what kind of care and precaution they should take. The Minister of State might reflect on that.
That is a worthy request. I will look at it and discuss it with the other agencies around the table in an effort to do that. There is no point in having all these good structures in place if no one knows anything about it. The communities on both sides of the Border who are all our neighbours, friends and colleagues need to understand we work together and we are ready and happy to do to that. Everyone needs to know to whom to respond at the right time. I am happy to look at the communication.