Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 15 December 2016
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Community Development: Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Leanfaimid ar aghaidh anois leis an bplé ar Chomhar na nOileán. There is a connection - tá nasc ann - between Comhar na nOileán and the West Cork Development Partnership. Do members wish to discuss them together or separately?
Bhí cur i láthair cuimsitheach againn maidir leis an gclár Leader agus na comhlachtaí páirtnéireachta áirid atá luaite ag Comhar na nOileán agus West Cork Development Partnership. Is léir go raibh éagothroime maidir le cur i bhfeidhm an chláir Leader agus na comhlachtaí a roghnaíodh leis an gclár Leader a chur i bhfeidhm an t-am seo. Tá sé ag dul ó mheabhair ó dhaoine cén fáth nár tugadh cead na hoileáin ar fad a chur isteach faoi phacáiste amháin faoi scáth Comhar Leader nó gur fágadh an creatlach sin mar a bhí roimhe seo. Bhí sé ag oibriú go maith.
An cás a cuireadh os ár gcomhair ná go bhfuil na hoileáin an-difriúil do na comhlachtaí atá ag feidhmiú ar an mórthír. Tá comhaontaithe, de réir mar a thuigeann muid, idir Comhairle Contae Chorcaí, Comhairle Contae Chiarraí, Comhairle Contae Mhaigh Eo agus Comhairle Contae Dhún na nGall maidir leis an gclár Leader ar na hoileáin eile, ach bhí deacrachtaí i gcás Chomhairle Chontae na Gaillimhe agus an chaoi ar leagadh amach na ceantair agus líon na gcomhlachtaí a bheadh ábalta cur isteach ar an gclár Leader.
Tá ceisteanna go leor le freagairt faoi sin. Bunaithe ar dhaonra, i gcontaetha ar nós Contae Chorcaí is cosúil go raibh cead trí limistéar Leader a bheith ann ach i gcás Chontae na Gaillimhe dúradh nach mbeadh i gceist ach limistéar amháin agus pacáiste amháin. An bhfuil sé sin ag luí leis na treoirlínte atá tagtha ón Eoraip? Thuig mise, bunaithe ar an daonra a bheadh i gContae na Gaillimhe, go gcaitheadh ar a laghad dhá limistéar Leader a bheith roghnaithe. Tuigeann muid gur lean cásanna cúirte maidir le sin ó thaobh an social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, agus go gcuireann se sin isteach ar an trí chomhlacht a bhí ag feidhmiú sa gceantar. Is iad sin Galway Rural Development, FORUM Connemara agus Comhar na nOileán. Fiú ag an bpointe seo, nach bhfuil sé ciallmhar go mbreathnófaí ar athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar leagan amach na gcomhlachtaí Leader agus Comhar na nOileán a fhágáil i mbun na gcúraimí sin ar na hoileáin?
Tá an cineál togra a bhíonn ar bun ar na hoileáin an-difriúil de na tograí a bheadh ar bun ar an mórthír. Tá an-obair déanta ag Comhar na nOileán thar na blianta ar na hoileáin éagsúla. Tá saineolas maidir leis na riachtanais sin bailithe ag Comhar na nOileán thar na blianta. I ndáiríre, an cás a chuireadar os ár gcomhair ná go mbeidh cúlú iomlán i ndáiríre ar na seirbhísí a bheidh ar fáil. Is cuma cé chomh maith is a bheadh comhlacht ar an mórthír, ní bheadh an tuiscint ann agus ní bheadh an foireann lonnaithe ag an gcomhlacht ar na hoileáin in ann déileáil leis an gceist ar fad.
An glacann an Aire leis gur déanadh éagóir iomlán ar Chomhar na nOileán i leagan amach an chláir nua Leader? An bhfuil sí sásta athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar an leagan amach sin? An féidir cás eisceachtúil a dhéanamh arís do Chomhar na nOileán, buiséad faoi leith a thabhairt dó agus treoir a thabhairt dá réir don Roinn agus don chomhairle contae eisceach a dhéanamh do Comhar na nOileán sa gcás seo ar fad?
To give some background to the selection process, in 2015 an open call for expressions of interest was launched by the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government from any group that could show broad local and community participation and wished to develop a local development strategy and be considered as a local action group for the purpose of the delivery of Leader in its respective area. This was stage 1 of the application process. Entities successful at stage 1 were invited to prepare a local development strategy and were provided with funding and a comprehensive template to assist with the developing the local development strategy. As part of the second stage in a number of subregional areas, including Galway, local development strategies were submitted by more than one interested party. The second stage of the process was managed by Pobal on behalf of the Department.
To be clear, the local development strategies for each of the 28 subregional areas were assessed by a national selection committee chaired by Dr. Tommy Cook of the Dublin Institute of Technology and included representatives from the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the Department of Agriculture Food and Marine, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, Limerick Institute of Technology, Teagasc, Enterprise Ireland and Fáilte Ireland. While the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs was represented on the national selection committee, the Minister had no authority over the committee nor any role in the selection process. I understand that the islands were not grouped together as regions because they were decided on the basis of the local community development committees structure so that the local development strategies were aligned to the local economic and community plans. In Cork, there were three local community development committees so three subregional areas were put in place.
I will not get into the issue around Galway rural development, which is a different issue about east Galway, about which I will speak later. I am clear about the good work of Comhar na nOileán and have received strong representations from my colleagues, including the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, about the importance of Comhar na nOileán from an islands perspective.
This is separate from the Leader programme. It is from an islands perspective. I am trying to be as supportive as I can in terms of my wider remit regarding the islands and the Gaeltacht. I will continue to work with them.
Will the Minister clarify the following for me? As the Minister stated there were three local action groups, LAGs, allowed in Cork but only one was allowed for Galway. What is the recommended population per local action group that the EU recommends? I do not know the population of Cork but Deputy Michael Collins might know that. If one divides it by three, one arrives at a rough figure of 50,000 people per LAG. My understanding is that the number of people in County Galway, including the islands, goes way over the recommended number of people recommended for a local action group, so that the Galway area should at least have been divided into two local action groups. The Department initially precluded the possibility of the islands being included as a local action group because the local community and development committee, LCDC, structure prescribed that the local action groups had to be within the county boundaries so therefore it would be impossible for Comhar na nOileán Teoranta to make a local action group, LAG, application based on all of the islands at the time. There was a fundamental flaw in the structure of the LAGs, in the way the Department was asking for the LAGs to be designated.
My understanding is that Comhar na nOileán Teoranta then subsequently worked with the LCDC on an application for the Leader programme for the whole of the county as per the guidelines laid down for one LAG. Representatives spoke to officials in the county council, worked with the local community and development committee, LCDC, and joined forces as such with the LCDC and Galway Rural Development, GRD, on the application. Subsequently, FORUM Connemara Limited made a different application, and I have been told that the FORUM Connemara Limited application for half of the county has been successful. The guidelines and the goalposts seem to have changed in the middle of the process. How did that happen? Why was it allowed to happen? Was there oversight? It seems strange that an application from one group of stakeholders which was made for an LAG which covered the whole county, as prescribed by the LCDC, lost out to another applicant. I have nothing against FORUM Connemara Limited whatsoever. I would have preferred if three LAGs could have been maintained in County Galway and that would have been a much more practical way to do it. How could the goalposts have changed halfway through in order that we have a situation where only half the county is covered by an LAG. That seems strange. I know that Comhar na nOileán Teoranta feels very much wronged by the whole process and, even at this late stage, we need to question how this process has been handled.
The decision is not based on the size of population but on the LCDC structure. That was the way it was progressed. It was in the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and all these processes had been gone through and independently assessed and decided before the function was transferred to my Department.
Regarding Galway, the local development strategy for the implementation of the Leader programme in Galway was submitted by FORUM Connemara Limited and the Galway LCDC. The strategy submitted by Galway LCDC covered the full regional area for Leader in Galway while the strategy submitted by FORUM Connemara Limited covered the municipal district of Connemara, about one third of the area and less than one quarter of the population. The strategy submitted by FORUM Connemara Limited was selected by the selection committee and this decision was upheld following an appeal by the LCDC. FORUM Connemara Limited has one particular area that it deals with. A funding agreement has been signed with FORUM Connemara Limited for the delivery of Leader in the area of west Galway which is covered by its strategy. A second expression of interest and strategy selection process was launched for the east Galway region. That was the region not covered by the FORUM Connemara Limited strategy, and expressions of interest were received from Galway Rural Development, GRD, for the full east Galway region and by Comhar na nOileán Teoranta for the municipal district of Oranmore, which only covers part of east Galway. That is in a process at present. Galway Rural Development and Comhar na nOileán Teoranta are in an independent selection process. I have no input into that - absolutely none. They are in an independent selection process but I understand they are working together, they are in discussions regarding a joint strategy and I await the outcome of that.
Does the Minister not think that sounds absolutely bonkers? I understand that most of the rural areas are covered by an LAG. Therefore there is an indicative population number per LAG. I think it is somewhere around 77,000, if I am correct. The population of the whole of Galway is greater than that, but the issue is that the direction given to all three companies was that there would be one LAG for the whole of Galway to be administered through the LCDC. What the Minister is saying now is that halfway through the process, it was decided by somebody - I am not sure who - that the LAG could be split up, with the result that the municipal district of Connemara has been awarded to FORUM Connemara Limited and subsequently we have heard of a new competition for the rest of the county, which is going to mean at least one more LAG or two if Comhar na nOileán Teoranta is successful in contesting the Oranmore area. We could end up under this process with three LAGs, which is what people asked for initially, but three LAGs in almost the wrong places.
It just seems absolutely bonkers. It seems totally illogical, it is really disenfranchising the islanders and it is breaking up the tradition, the hard work and the continuity of the work that was done by Comhar na nOileán Teoranta. The powers have transferred from the then Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We flagged these issues and that this was a danger way back when the Bill was being debated by the then Minister, Phil Hogan, in the Seanad and the Dáil. Surely, the Minister could admit that this hames of a solution needs to be rectified for the good of the people locally who are trying to put projects forward.
There was nothing to preclude groups from coming forward and putting in a bid for that. It was an independent process. It was reviewed and the outcome was upheld. I did not have any input into this. This is the outcome of the process. That is the way it is now.
It was like making a bid for a minibus and what happened halfway through the process was that the powers that be decided that instead of a minibus it would be two or three cars. FORUM Connemara Limited got one of the cars and the other car was given to the other group. The rules appear to have changed and there is no logic to how they changed. It seems very unfair.
FORUM Connemara Limited in its bid demonstrated an ability to deliver to the islands and this was confirmed by the selection committee. That is all I can say. The independent process has been gone through, it has been reviewed and this is the outcome.
It is very true. I can state that categorically on behalf of the people of west Cork in my constituency. We in west Cork have been long suffering, and I made the Minister aware of this in recent weeks.
I have a number of questions to which I would like answers. The more I hear from other Deputies on the committee, and the more that Leader companies have attended joint committee meetings in the past six to eight weeks, the more I realise that there needs to be an independent investigation into this whole affair. It stinks from start to finish. It is bad practice. It is an embarrassment for any Department to be standing over the process that has gone on here. I have a number of questions.
I come from a constituency, Cork South-West, that has taken many serious hits in recent years. I am passionate about my people and about west Cork I am passionate to deliver and this is not delivery. This is a blow to west Cork beyond all belief. It is true in the previous Government that Garda stations, banks and post offices closed, there were massive farm penalties and fishermen were thrown out of their waters, so to speak, but the bottom line was that we had a shinning light, a Leader company that delivered an honest and clear programme to the people of west Cork, and now it has been taken off the pitch. There are no real answers, no matter what way one turns it.
I mean no disrespect to the Minister personally but I have not yet heard a reasonable reason as to why it was taken off. It delivered clear and honest programmes. I believe it was taken out of commission because it was honest.
I have a number of questions, and I know it will be difficult for the Minister to answer them right now because there are quite a lot of questions, but they are very relevant. The first question is about the scores. Could they be made available from each of the 28 areas where decisions were made and will the Minister kindly publish them? The local development strategies were to be designed through public consultation but in west Cork it was done by consultants. Will the Minister indicate why this was necessary? Cork County Council had three implementing partners supporting its bid so why were two teams of consultants engaged by the council, including one from the Minister's own constituency? Perhaps the Minister could explain how they were selected and at what cost. Why did Pobal not provide scores for the evaluation of the last west Cork bid? Was this done in all of the other 28 areas? These are very serious questions that need answers.
Why has the EU Commission now confirmed that it will investigate a second complaint from the West Cork Development Partnership with regard to irregularities in the local action group, LAG, selection? What type of process leaves the West Cork Development Partnership, whose strategy was the highest scoring in the last programme, as the only LAG with no roll-out in this current programme? Will the Minister indicate if all strategies that have been selected by the Department will be published publicly, and when this will happen? The information on the programme delivery arrangements for west Cork is very patchy. I said this to the Minister last week and she seemed to be caught by surprise, and I do not have as many officials around me as she does. The programme is now going to be delivered from the Aran Islands. I mean no disrespect to the islanders but the people who deliver the programme are from the Aran Islands. I have spoken to them myself and that is what they have told me. The local community development committee is set up in west Cork and it must try to roll out a programme, as the development partnerships have previously done, but one needs to have the people on the ground and they need to be from west Cork. They need to have experience in rolling out a programme, as the West Cork Development Partnership had rolled out that excellent programme over the past 20 to 25 years. We all know it did the Fuchsia Brand. It was untouchable with regard to partnerships. It is now untouchable because someone in the Department did not want it and I would like to know why.
First, the West Cork Development Partnership went into a competitive process and was not successful. That is the way it is. It was a competitive process and it was aware of that when it went into it. The partnership was unsuccessful. It was an independent process, it was reviewed and the decision was upheld. The Deputy asked me a number of questions about details. The selection committee obviously would have that information. I am not privy to any of that information but I will ask the selection committee if this information can be made available. I must check with it as I am not sure.
I want to be very clear. The Deputy asked me a question two weeks ago at this committee. Comhar na nOileán is delivering parts of the Leader programme in Donegal, Mayo and west Cork because it deals mainly with islands and it was the successful partner in the bid for each of those counties. Again, that is an independent process. There will be a local Leader office in Clonakilty and the two other partners are Avondhu Blackwater Partnership and the South East Cork Area Development, which have extensive experience in the Cork area. In fairness to the West Cork Development Partnership, it continues to deliver a number of other services, such as the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, Tús, the rural social scheme, RSS, the better energy warmer home scheme and rural recreation, which is funded through my Department. The partnership continues to deliver a fairly wide range of programmes and this information is on its website.
I ask that the Minister come back to the committee before next Wednesday with answers to some of the questions on which the Minister must get a second opinion, such as whether strategies can be published. There is a committee meeting on Wednesday, 21 December.
As I have said to the Minister, the EU Commission has confirmed that it will investigate a second complaint from the West Cork Development Partnership about irregularities in the LAG selection. We are not treating the matter lightly and we need more clear answers as to what happened. I again ask the Minister, as I asked her at the outset, if she will set up an independent investigation into what has gone on in west Cork. It looks as if it was shambles in many more places also, perhaps throughout the State.
I wish to be clear. This was an open, fair and competitive process. It was based on merit of strategy, including the capacity of the LAG, the quality of the strategy and value for money. The West Cork Development Partnership chose to apply independently. It had the opportunity to develop a strategy with the local community development committee, LCDC, and it was aware of the risks in a competitive process. There was no automatic right or entitlement for any organisation to deliver Leader. It was a competitive process.
On EU and Leader funding, a supplementary €3.5 million was provided by the Cork local authority for Cork county and additional funding for rural communities of €1.25 million for west Cork which is welcome. The Commission has not launched an investigation; it has sought additional information, which the Department is providing. A complaint was made on the basis of an issue around state aid but the Department does not consider this to be state aid. There is no economic activity and the local community development committee is only distributing the funds to rural communities, it is not the beneficiary of those funds. I understand there is no formal investigation but information has been requested and the Department is providing it.
I will continue to call for an independent investigation into what happened in west Cork. I will not be happy until I get it. I want to deliver to west Cork the reason that the West Cork Development Partnership was taken off the pitch. No official, or the Minister, has yet explained that properly to me. There is something wrong and we need to get to the bottom of it. I am not happy about it. I am not here to challenge the Minister and I have no disrespect for the Minister whatsoever, but I have an issue with regard to the West Cork Development Partnership and why it was taken off the pitch. The Minister can talk about independent processes and all of that, but I asked a lot of questions that she has not answered yet. She says that she needs time, and I accept and respect that.
The questions asked by the Deputy are the pertinent questions for getting behind where we are currently. The Minister has been asked to come back to the committee next Wednesday with her understanding of her ability to make that information known. If the committee has that information, it will allow us to get to the heart of what Deputy Collins is getting at. Where we are now is now just going back and forth in the same space.
The first thing I would suggest is that the information requested be provided as if it was a freedom of information, FOI request, without the six weeks that an FOI takes - in other words, using the same criteria that personal information cannot be divulged, etc., but all the information that can be divulged will be divulged. Otherwise, all we would have to do is to put in FOIs to get the information. An FOI, however, often means that one trawls information that nobody is interested in and bits of paper that are irrelevant.
The Minister inherited the greatest mess from what was quite an orderly situation, if I may say so myself. In 2011, the arrangement was quite simple; a company would deliver what is now SICAP, Leader, Tús, the rural social and recreation schemes and all those programmes in each area. It was one company, one area. In that way we created a one stop shop for community-led development in each area. If something had gone awry because there had to have been two bids or due to some arcane EU rules, then I would accept it because it seems that níl bun ná barr - there is no top or bottom - to EU rules in the way they can stop the State doing rational things. None of this mess, however, had anything to do with the EU. It had everything to do with the previous Government which decided to rip up the script that had worked, where everyone was happy, and to bring the LCDCs into the game. It made a hotchpotch of it all.
Nowhere is that more evident than in west Cork and Galway. In Galway, we wound up in the courts in respect of the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. All three companies in Galway wanted the programme to be divided between them, as before - that is, Comhar na nOileán, FORUM Connemara and Galway Rural Development. The latter had no interest in west Galway but, because of a decision to the effect that only one company in the county would deliver SICAP, it was a winner-take-all scenario and that created a problem.
We then moved on to the Leader programme. It is fine to say that the independent process gave rise to a particular answer. Of course, that was the case. Perhaps from the point of commencement to the stage when an answer was obtained, there was utter integrity in the process. I do not know, but I presume so. I also presume that if an investigation took place, it would be found that the independent assessors acted with integrity. Two things are absolutely clear, however. One is that the LCDC, Galway Rural Development and Comhar na nÓileán were under the impression that if they not bid for the entire area, they could not be victorious.
FORUM read matters differently. Even though it was not apparent and everyone said the contrary, FORUM guessed that if it bid for part of the area, it could be successful in that regard and that the other part of the area would be the subject of further bids. Is it not maddening to think that for the main bidders, including the LCDC, there could be such a different interpretation of the same request for tender? If the companies had understood it in the way FORUM understood it - and they were seen as the outliers - each one would have bid for exactly what they had before. Galway Rural Development would have bid for east Galway, Comhar na nÓileán would have bid for the Gaeltacht, and FORUM would have bid for the lán-Ghaeltacht part of Connemara, exactly as before. There would have been no conflict, no argument and everyone would have gone home happy because, presumably, the plan would be up to standard. I understand that both plans passed, but that FORUM's was higher and everyone would have got what they wanted.
Some responsibility must be accepted by the people who put out a tender from a Department - I think it was the Department with responsibility for the environment that put it out to tender initially. That tender was so opaque, nobody understood it. In this case, funnily enough, even though everyone said they were wrong, the only ones who understood it were FORUM.
That leads us on to the debacle in west Cork. What happened there was that Comhar na nÓileán believed that if it wanted to retain the islands of west Cork, it could not bid for them as a stand-alone area. I heard no complaint about it being organised from Aran because they had a local person employed on one of the islands off west Cork. They believed that the only way of getting involved in west Cork was to join the LCDC. I understand that the West Cork Development Company stood aside from the process. As happened in Galway, they put the two at loggerheads. Whereas Comhar na nÓileán did not succeed in Galway - and even missed out on getting the Aran Islands - it actually won in west Cork as part of the LCDC package. Therefore, what it failed to do in Galway, it succeeded in doing in Cork and got a whole lot of territory that it had to take along with the islands because that was part of the package. In that way, west Cork lost out.
This was a recipe to put one company against another. I have no doubt that from the point the tenders were put out, the people who handled it did so according to the bizarre rules. Two things are clear, however. Very bad political decisions were made by the Minister's predecessors in response to this matter. I remember in particular the former Minister, Phil Hogan, who is now a European Commissioner. He messed up the septic tanks, water and the Leader programme. He then hightailed it out of the country and left everybody, including the current Minister, to try to clean it up after him.
With bad political decisions having been made, the tendering process was so ambiguous that some of the best minds in community development, including those employed by the LCDCs in Cork and Galway, could not understand the tender. They misread it and thought they either had to bid for the full area or nothing. It is a mess. From Galway's viewpoint, we have a bizarre situation that the viability of the whole island of Inis Oírr has been put at risk by the Minister's Department. That is because the viability of Comhar na nÓileán's headquarters, which was perfectly sustainable when they had the island and the Gaeltacht of south Connemara for Leader and SICAP, is now undermined. If that most important employer is undermined on Inis Oírr, which is a very small island - but with probably the best population structure, as the stiúrthóir will be able to advise the Minister in terms of figures, population structure and school numbers - one will put the island's viability at risk. This employer provided top-class employment on the island. As we know, when an anchor employer disappears, other employment tends to fade as well.
What is the Minister going to do to compensate the island for the massive mortal blow she has delivered to it? How can she ensure that the company will survive until we get back to a more rational bidding process that would ensure fair answers and the sustainability of one of the finest Irish-speaking islands?
We have already gone over the process and much of the history. The process was completed when the function was transferred to my Department. My priority was to get the money out to communities, which is the big issue. Most of the contracts have now been signed, expressions of interest are coming in and it is working. As I said earlier, Galway Regional Development and Comhar na nÓileán are in the independent selection process. I understand that they are working together and are in discussion regarding a joint strategy. I must await the outcome of that.
The Deputy and I have discussed the separate point concerning Comhar na nÓileán. I have received strong representations from Deputy Ó Cuív, the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, and a number of other Deputies about the importance of Comhar na nÓileán from an island perspective. I am trying to be as supportive as possible in terms of my wider remit regarding the islands and the Gaeltacht, and I will continue to work with them. I understand the frustration that funding needs to go out to east Galway as quickly as possible. I want to see that happening by progressing this matter as quickly as I can. At the end of the day it is about getting the money out to those communities that require it in order to get on with projects that need to be developed. That will certainly revitalise and assist in the economic development of rural Ireland, which is the most important thing.
Would the Minister consider travelling to Galway after Christmas to visit the Department, the Údarás, and then go out to the three Aran Islands to see for herself what we are talking about? She should go to Inis Mór in particular to see the challenges relating to transport. Inis Meáin has population challenges, while Inis Oírr has challenges due to the mess up of Comhar na nÓileán.
I have met Údarás na Gaeltachta and been down in their offices in Furbo. I understand the issues about the islands, which have been outlined very clearly to me. We will continue to work with them and try to find a solution that will benefit everybody. I do not want to give a commitment about going to the islands because there are many things being scheduled for the new year. I do not want to give that commitment but I would be delighted to go at some stage when I get an opportunity.
-----it is ten minutes out and ten minutes in. The Minister could do the three islands in a day and it would be a short day at that. It would be no bother. I ask her to make it her business to go to the island in January.