Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 25 October 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Business of Joint Committee
Táimid anois i seisiún poiblí. We were to have the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys, before the committee today but unfortunately she is unable to attend given the short notice. We offered to facilitate the Minister in addressing the issues we wanted to discuss with her by postponing the meeting to a day suitable to her. That offer was obviously not taken up by the Minister, which is unfortunate. We also requested that An Aire Stáit um ghnóthaí Gaeltachta agus acmhainní nádúrtha, Teachta Seán Kyne, would address us on the areas that are relevant to himself on this topic but unfortunately he was not available to meet with us earlier. Would members like to comment?
Many of us came here this morning with the belief that the Minister would be with us today to explain a couple of things, including the West Cork Development Partnership and the fact that a group that was rolling out the last programme are now not able to roll out this programme going forward. The Minister answered a number of questions in the Dáil last week on the same matter but left a lot unanswered in her reply.
I can only assume that is the reason she is not here today. She is belittling this committee by not being here. I have looked at several other committees and their work. They have been able to call anyone and everyone to come before them to bring people to order. The Minister in this case has not turned up. She has been given two weeks' notice as I understand it was two weeks ago that we discussed that this meeting should take place. We have been accommodative. I said I would meet on a Saturday, Sunday or any day or evening. It has not happened.
What is the big secret? I am beginning to wonder if I was right when in the Dáil recently I asked the Minister a question and mentioned the word "secret". If there was nothing to be worrying about, the Minister would be here today before the committee. I am greatly disappointed. I came up from west Cork very early this morning to make sure that the views of the people of west Cork would be listened to. The Minister, in her wisdom, has decided that she was not going to be here to discuss this. It is most disappointing. It is a disappointment for the people of Cork South-West in particular and for the West Cork Development Partnership, which has rolled out a programme for 25 years but is at this present time filling boxes because it is being moved on, basically, with little or no explanation as to how this has happened. Unfortunately, the Minister is not here. She can answer for that herself. We can only assume that there is a reason behind it. It is very disappointing.
I too am very disappointed that the Minister has not turned up. I need to ascertain whether she was given a different time. Would she have come at a different time? Has she indicated that she will make herself available? I recognise that Deputy Collins has a particular issue to be dealt with but all members have other items that we wanted to discuss here with the Minister. It seems to be particularly difficult to get her to attend and I hope we get a proper explanation and that she will attend this committee very shortly. Otherwise, it is throwing our committee into disrepute.
Caithfidh mé a rá go gceapaim nach gceart dúinn glacadh leis an rud seo atá tar éis tarlú. Feicim nach dtarlaíonn sé in aon chomhchoiste eile a bhfuilim tar éis a bheith páirteach ann le roinnt blianta anuas. Nuair a thugtar cuireadh d'Aire, tagann sé nó sí isteach. Ba chóir go dtabharfaí tosaíocht do chomhchoiste. I gcead don mhéid a dúradh faoin Aire a bheith ag plé cúrsaí sa Dáil, nílimse sa Dáil agus tá neart ceisteanna gur mhaith liomsa a chur ar an Aire maidir leis an maoiniú do na comhlachtaí Leader, cúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta agus an ciorradh mór a rinneadh ar bhuiséad na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta sa bhuiséad atá le teacht.
It is totally unacceptable that the Minister declined to come to the meeting today. I note that all other members rearranged their schedules to make sure that they were here. It is not just a run-of-the-mill meeting. The issues that were raised before the committee previously by the West Cork Development Partnership and Comhar na nOileán are very prevalent. There is a timescale factor involved. They are under severe pressure. The board of Comhar na nOileán has put two employees on protective notice because of the uncertainty over Leader funding. Those two people are to be let go at the end of the month. That is why we needed an urgent hearing. The Minister is not taking it seriously and if she was otherwise engaged, the Minister of State and the officials should have been made available to come in and explain what is happening on the ground.
With regard to the budgetary process, we know that there is a lot of horse-trading going on post budget over the allocations that are going to be made.
We in the Irish language community are very unhappy that there has been such a severe cut to Irish language funding. There has been a €6 million cut in capital funding. We wanted to make that case to the Minister today. It is totally unacceptable that she is not here. She should make herself available. She has been dodging media interviews on the Irish language issue as well stating that she has devolved those responsibilities to the Minister of State. If that is the case, the Minister should have known that when she got the invite and the Minister of State should have been made available to appear before the committee. It is totally unacceptable and shows a bit of drochmheas on the committee that she is not here. I strongly suggest that the Chairman write to the Department stating that it is not acceptable and that we would expect her to come in as soon as possible to deal, in particular, with these time pertinent issues that are urgent for those involved.
The Minister was given ten days notice of the meeting time by the committee. Ten days is a considerable amount of time. The committee only found out last Friday that the Minister would not be attending. It is a major disappointment when a committee extends an invitation to a Minister and he or she does not attend. It is the job of the committee to hold a particular Minister to account. It leads to transparency into the administration of that Minister if the Minister is open with the committee. That is good governance and, as such, it is a central element to the committee that we would have the right to discuss what has happened to the Irish language over the past number of years. This also concerns the partnership issues. This does not apply to west Cork alone. West Cork has had a particularly unusual experience recently and there are many questions to be answered. I know there are many questions to be answered with regard to the contracts that have been won by a partnership in Meath in recent times also. We just want to get to the heart of how money is spent by the Government on behalf of citizens. We need to be able to ask the questions on behalf of the citizens that elect us. I suggest that we send a letter to the Minister outlining our disappointment that she did not attended today, offering her another opportunity to come and discuss these vital issues and asking her to name a date within the next fortnight for that to happen. Before we agree that, however, I will call on Seanadóir Hopkins.
I think that is the most constructive way to ensure the Minister has a time that is appropriate for her to come to the meeting. To be fair to the Minister, as the Chairman has stated, she is attending a Cabinet meeting this morning and is, therefore, unable to be here. The short notice given to the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, meant that it is unfortunate that neither of them are able to attend this morning. However, there are issues that we need a response on in respect of Comhar na nOileán and the West Cork Development Partnership. We also need to discuss in depth the 2017 budget for the Irish language. The most constructive way to deal with this is to ask the Minister to identify a date and a time that is appropriate for her to come and address the committee. The Minister and the Ministers of State, Deputy Ring and Deputy Kyne, have attended the committee on previous occasions. I cannot see why they would not wish to attend again to discuss in depth the important issues relating to Leader contracts and the 2017 budget.
To the best of my knowledge, neither the Minister nor the Minister of State has an issue with attending meetings of the committee. As noted by Senator Hopkins, they have attended before and will do so again. That is fine, but it is a matter of finding an appropriate time. As also noted by Senator Hopkins, I do not expect the Minister to miss a Cabinet meeting to attend an Oireachtas committee meeting either. We just need to find a time that suits.
I wish to raise another point about the agenda.
I propose that we, as a committee, send the Minister a letter expressing our disappointment about the fact that neither she nor the Aire Stáit, Deputy Kyne, attended this meeting and asking her to select a date in the next fortnight on which both she and the Minister of State can make themselves available to the committee.
If the Minister is coming in to discuss development partnerships in general, that is fine. Would it be appropriate for her to attend to discuss one individual partnership though? Local members can ask about individual ones at the committee but I am not sure it would be appropriate for a particular one to be on the agenda.
My second point refers to item No. 2 on the agenda, which is "The cuts in the 2017 Budget to supporting the Irish Language, and the funding for Foras na Gaeilge and Údarás na Gaeltachta" and which will be dealt with during our public sessions. I wish to express my concern and disappointment with such a title. It would have been appropriate not to include the reference to cuts and to let those who feel there have been cuts and those who feel there have not been cuts argue those points. To me, that looks like a politically-charged title. I have no problem arguing at this committee about the increases to Gaeltacht support schemes, Irish language support schemes, Údarás na Gaeltachta, the 20 year strategy and all the rest and outlining why there is a change to last year's budget and the one-off nature of some of the points in last year's budget. To me, that is a politically-charged item on the agenda. We spoke earlier in private session about all-party contributions and reports and the work we do as a committee. If we want to be taken seriously as a cohesive all-party group, it is important that we try to remain neutral and are not seen to be overly politicised. I express my disappointment with the heading. I do not think it befits the committee.
I do not think it unusual to see other committees use such titles. For example, in the health committee, the title might refer to "cuts to services", "cuts to the number of special needs assistants in a school", etc. The issue in question has been raised by the Irish language community, Conradh na Gaeilge, etc., and they see them as cuts per se. I am sure we will argue the toss once the Minister comes in but there has been a cut. The provision in the budget is less than it was last year. I would not take that much of an issue with it, to be honest.
I understand that it was and I do not believe anyone spoke against it. I am not going to be fixated on it because the real politics, discussion and issue will be dealt with when the Minister attends and we have the discussion. In future, if a proposal of that sort arises, we can take Deputy Heydon's view into consideration and try to frame titles in such a manner as to make them less - as the Deputy put it - politically-charged in nature. However, the title has been agreed already by the committee if that is all right.
I do not accept that it was actually agreed that that would be the exact title. I think it was agreed to have this discussion. It was agreed by those who proposed it that they felt there were cuts. The general point I wish to have taken on board for the future is to not lead the debate with the title. To clarify a matter for Senator Ó Clochartaigh, we have provided for 115 extra special needs assistants in this year's budget, so there are no cuts there either.
I am not proposing anything. I am merely highlighting my disappointment with it and asking that the Chairman would in future ensure that the agenda is circulated with headings that allow for open debates. Those of us who have opposing viewpoints can make them, but we should not have what could be perceived to be leading or politically charged titles.