12. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the steps he will take to oversee the regulation of sulky racing in view of its significance in Traveller and working class culture; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 10101/18 asked on 26 Apr 2018)

Deputy Gino Kenny: I ask the Minister to make a statement on the sulky racing and horse ownership traditions in Traveller and working class communities.

Deputy Michael Creed: The Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 provides a robust and wide ranging protection for all animals. This includes horses and ponies used in road racing. Horse owners or keepers who allow harm to come to the animals in their care will have committed an offence under this Act. The relevant road traffic legislation is also applicable to all road users.

The issue of regulating sulky racing has been examined by my Department and the issues are complex and not always clear cut, particularly as a variety of horse drawn vehicles are legitimately and safely used on Irish roads. The approach being taken by my Department is to raise awareness of the importance of good horse welfare amongst sulky participants and the owners and keepers of trotting horses.

My Department has recently awarded a tender to operate an education programme that has been designed specifically for sulky drivers and trotter horse owners in a number of locations around the country. This course will encourage participants to move away from road racing practices and move to racing on tracks and to engage with the regulated sport of harness racing on tracks, as operated by the Irish Harness Racing Association. The course provider has a clear understanding of the cultural sensitivities surrounding participation in road racing. Meeting these goals will be underpinned by the relevant experience of both the course provider and the team of veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses that will deliver the course. The course will be offered to persons involved in trotting and sulky racing on the road. The first course will commence in the Dublin region in the coming weeks.

Deputy Gino Kenny: I thank the Minister for his response. Horse ownership, whether in the rural or urban environment, is a very positive thing. The Minister visited the Clondalkin Equine Club last year and saw for himself the positivity connected with owning horses in an urban environment. The majority of horse owners are responsible but there have been some examples of reckless behaviour by individuals who have taken part in sulky racing on main roads. Such behaviour is reckless but the answer is not to ban sulky racing. Some commentators have suggested that sulky racing be banned but that will not work. It will simply drive the practice underground.

I welcome the fact that a study of sulky racing is being undertaken. A few friends of mine attended an event at a sulky track in Portmarnock recently. That track, which is not widely known about, is very good and very positive for those who use it.

Deputy Michael Creed: As I said when I visited Clondalkin at the opening of the facility out there, the horse is a part of our DNA as evidenced by the great Punchestown festival taking place this week. The urban horse is as much a part of the story of the Irish horse and cannot be forgotten or written out. That said, there is an issue around welfare that is disproportionately evident in that area. While we have effective legislation in the form of the 2013 Animal Health and Welfare Act, there are complex issues here around the control of horses, for which local authorities have primary responsibility, as well as road traffic issues. The unregulated nature of sulky racing on public roads poses dangers for horses, their owners and the public at large. This is a complex area but the aforementioned education initiative is to be welcomed. We need both the carrot and the stick in this area. We have the legislative toolbox necessary but we need to ensure all actors involved in the implementation of that legislation live up to their respective responsibilities.

Deputy Gino Kenny: I welcomed what the Minister said in February 2017 about the fact that the urban horse is an integral part of the lives of working people. Sometimes urban horse ownership has very negative connotations but it is actually a very positive thing, particularly for young people in working class communities. Travellers also have been unfairly criticised in the context of horse ownership.

Once a year in Crossmaglen a regulated sulky racing event takes place. It is regulated by the police and the local authority in the North. Perhaps something similar could be organised in the South at some point in the future. We should regulate sulky racing rather than banning it and forcing it underground. Regulation will improve safety for the horses and their owners.

Deputy Michael Creed: I welcome the Deputy’s remarks. We endeavour to work with the national umbrella body for harness racing as well and while I take the point the Deputy makes about Crossmaglen, there are organised and regulated sulky events held in the Republic of Ireland also. It should not be forgotten that people have opportunities to be part of structured and organised events rather than the unregulated events which bring sulky racing into disrepute and compromise animal welfare. Horse ownership, which we all celebrate, comes with a responsibility for welfare. That is at the heart of the question and at the heart of public concern. It is also why we have the aforementioned education initiative. Individual horse ownership comes with responsibilities.