Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs
Sustaining Viable Rural Communities: Discussion (Resumed)
We will resume in public session to discuss what it takes to maintain viable rural communities with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys.
I welcome the Minister again. I also welcome the Minister of State at the Department, Deputy Michael Ring. We are also joined today by Mr. Aodhán MacCormaic, stiúrthóir na Gaeilge, Ms Sinéad Copeland, principal officer, Mr. J.P. Mulherin, principal officer and Mr. William Parnell, assistant secretary, at the aforementioned Department. I thank everyone for their attendance today.
I have already read out the information regarding defamation and privilege and there is no necessity for me to read it out again. However, I ask everyone to be conscious of what they say at this meeting and to take direction from the Chairman.
I now invite the Minister to address the committee.
I thank the committee for the opportunity to meet today to discuss what it takes to maintain a viable rural community. I know the committee has already met many rural stakeholders in respect of this matter. As the members of the committee will be well aware, I have lived and worked in rural Ireland for almost all of my life and I believe passionately in the potential of rural communities. I see the resilience, resourcefulness and tenacity of my own rural community and I know that this is replicated right across Ireland.
The Action Plan for Rural Development, which I launched last month, will help to contribute to my goal of improving the quality of life for those who live and work in rural Ireland. In my view, rural Ireland does not need to be saved or rescued. Rural Ireland can and does make a huge contribution to our economy through innovative industries, thriving community activism, new approaches to attracting tourism and also through its commitment to creativity and culture. I fully acknowledge the challenges which face rural communities and we are not trying to whitewash those challenges. However, the new action plan provides the necessary supports and structures to enable Government, at both central and local level, as well as businesses and rural communities to work together to achieve sustainable rural development.
While previous Governments recognised the importance of rural development and invested in initiatives to support rural communities, these initiatives tended to operate in a piecemeal manner. In other words, there was no co-ordination. Notwithstanding the focus on agriculture and the food sector generally, rural Ireland and rural development has tended to be peripheral, rather than central to economic and social policies. This approach must change and that is why the co-ordinating mechanism created by this action plan is so important.
The Commission for the Ecomonic Development of Rural Areas, CEDRA, report, which was published in 2014, called for a prioritisation of the establishment of a central structure at Government level to co-ordinate rural development across all Departments. The lack of such a structure was seen as a significant impediment to progressing rural development in Ireland. This deficit has now been addressed through my own role in co-ordinating rural policy across Government and the creation of the regional and rural affairs division in my Department. However, responsibility for rural development is not and cannot be the preserve of just one Department. It is the responsibility of everyone around the Cabinet table.
The Action Plan for Rural Development takes a whole-of-Government approach to the economic and social development of rural Ireland and acts as an overarching structure for the co-ordination and implementation of initiatives right across Departments and other public bodies. The key element of this plan is the process of bringing together many Government Departments and agencies, recognising the importance of what they are doing individually to contribute to rural development and multiplying their impact through a collaborative approach. No previous Government has put in place such a co-ordinated and comprehensive plan of action to support rural development.
One of the five pillars of the action plan focuses on supporting sustainable communities. The objectives of the actions under this pillar are to revitalise our rural towns and villages and support people to live in them; enhance local services such as healthcare, schools, and policing; empower local communities by including the views of rural dwellers and communities in decision-making processes; and build better communities through investment and support for community development, social inclusion and rural security.
Our towns and villages are at the heart of rural communities and should be places where people can live, work, access services and raise their families in a high-quality environment. It is important, therefore, that we implement measures to help breathe life back into our rural towns and villages and enable them to become vibrant places where people socialise, live and work. While great interest has been shown by the media in the town and village renewal scheme, this is just one of a range of measures we are taking under the action plan to support our rural communities. My Department will also provide funding to support towns, villages and parishes through the CLÁR programme, which has a budget of €5 million this year, as well as through the built heritage investment scheme and the structures at risk fund, which have a combined budget of €2.8 million for 2017. The Heritage Council will be administering a heritage and community grants programme along with a historic towns programme to develop and expand the ongoing work of the Department’s historic towns initiative and the Irish walled towns network. Other schemes, such as the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, better energy communities scheme will also support town and village renewal.
One of the characteristics of Ireland is the wide diversity of communities across our rural landscape. While many of our communities are based around towns and villages, others are more dispersed, including our island communities. It is important that we also support these communities. There are different requirements and different needs in every community, but connectivity with others and access to economic opportunities are fundamental issues for them all. In this regard, my Department will work closely with other key economic Departments and agencies to support economic development in the regions. Strong regions provide the basis for improving economic opportunities and the jobs potential of people living in rural areas. The Government’s objective is to support the creation of 200,000 extra jobs in the economy by 2020, with 135,000 of these jobs outside of Dublin. The announcement yesterday that the unemployment rate has now fallen to 6.6%, down from a peak of 15.2%, is very welcome in this regard. The various regional action plans for jobs, which are co-ordinated by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, will play a key role in improving the operating environment for businesses so that enterprises can start up, grow and create employment. My Department is working closely with the aforementioned Department to ensure that our respective action plans are complementary and mutually re-enforcing.
Through the Action Plan for Rural Development we are also placing a focus on maximising the potential of our tourism sector and developing activity tourism that particularly benefits areas in the countryside. This is a growing sub-sector internationally and we have not yet fully tapped into the growing customer base for our natural assets in this area. Similarly, we have potential to optimise our built heritage, which is often rooted in rural Ireland, to attract more visitors and provide increased employment opportunities for local communities. Approximately 85% of overseas visitors to Ireland in 2015 visited at least one region outside of Dublin. We are working with a number of agencies to build on this and realise the full potential of rural tourism.
When we talk about vibrant rural communities, I am always struck by the important role which the arts and culture play in bringing people together at a local level and contributing to people’s quality of life.
It is important that cultural participation is actively supported in rural communities as a way to combat rural isolation, enhance and contribute to the vibrancy of rural Ireland, and generate economic activity, for example through cultural tourism. Culture 2025 aims to increase the participation of individuals and communities from across Ireland, including rural communities, and will provide a platform for bringing together the numerous local, regional and national cultural entities with a view to sharing best practice, and developing synergies.
A couple of weeks ago, I announced the allocation of €9 million in capital funding for arts and culture centres across the country. This was the most significant investment in regional arts and cultural centres in a decade and goes to the very heart of what I am trying to achieve through the Creative Ireland programme. Our language is, of course, an essential part of our culture and connects people in a way that defines our identity. Our Gaeltacht regions often provide the first real experience of rural Ireland to our young people who are reared in the cities, as they attend summer courses in the Gaeltacht. However, the Gaeltacht regions are also home to many successful enterprises and Údarás na Gaeltachta is targeting the increase of 1,500 jobs in the Gaeltacht regions over the three-year lifespan of the action plan.
Connectivity between, and within, communities is also addressed in the action plan, with a particular focus on improving mobile phone and broadband access, improving rural transport links and protecting people’s property through flood defence measures. The roll-out of the national broadband plan constitutes one of the single biggest investments in rural Ireland for generations and will allow communities and businesses in rural areas to compete effectively and realise their full potential. It is important to recognise that a lot has already been done by commercial service providers to roll out broadband to an increased number of rural areas. As the committee will be aware, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is currently involved in a tendering process which will see intervention in areas not likely to be covered as a commercial proposition. While the roll-out of broadband in the intervention area will commence once the contracts have been awarded, the Government is already taking action to accelerate and facilitate both broadband roll out and improvements to mobile phone reception in rural areas by implementing the recommendations of the report of the task force on mobile phone and broadband access.
Improved transport links to and from rural areas will be addressed through actions relating to the rural transport programme, the regional airports, and transport solutions designed to meet particular needs, such as those of island communities. Investment in flood relief measures will be doubled to €100 million per annum by 2021, with over 100 new measures planned for rural communities.
In concluding, a Chathaoirligh, I would like to put on record my thanks to this committee and to individual Oireachtas Members, for the suggestions I received when I was developing the action plan. It is clear from the submissions received that we are all passionate about supporting rural Ireland and that we all have the interest of rural Ireland at heart. Some of the ideas put forward by the members of the committee which are reflected in the plan include the development of an effective rural-proofing model; the examination of rates issues for small businesses in rural Ireland; a range of measures to improve flood defences, as mentioned previously; and capacity building measures for local communities.
This Government has now put in place a comprehensive plan for rural development which provides the policy and operational environment in which rural communities and businesses can thrive, succeed and realise their potential. I fully intend that the vast programme of work across Departments and agencies will be effectively and efficiently delivered and that we will achieve significant gains and improvements across all the sectors encompassed by the plan. In short, the implementation of this action plan will help ensure that rural communities not only remain viable, but flourish and prosper over the years to come.
I hope that this committee will join me on the journey of changing the perception of rural Ireland, of presenting rural Ireland as modern, dynamic, creative and an essential part of Ireland’s economic and social fabric.
I welcome the Minister. I appreciate that the Minister and the two Ministers of State, Deputies Michael Ring and Seán Kyne, live in rural areas, but I think this debate is unrealistic. The action plan is not an action plan. The system got the better of it. It took everything it was doing already and put it into the plan because there was nothing new to be said. The €60 million, which we are not even sure about, is very little money in the context of rural Ireland. The reality is the system lives with the status quo.
We have to face a second reality. In many ways rural Ireland is very unfairly treated and has been for many years. I think, in the heart and soul, the Minister and Ministers of State know this. I am not saying it happened suddenly under this Government but nothing will be done to address it unless we face facts. In many ways we pay taxes for services we do not get. There is a big debate about water and sewage. If free water and sewage is given to cities it will be the case that we have been paying in, but we will not be getting anything out of it.
When we check on the Bus Éireann subsidies, one would think the subsidy per head of population in the really rural parts of Ireland, when we take out the cities of Galway Limerick and Cork, would be very high. I understand it could be as little as a tenth per head. In other words €10 is paid in Dublin for every €1 paid for public transport in rural areas. This idea that rural areas are a drain on resources is often totally untrue. In rural Ireland it tends to actually be a case of Muhammad going to the mountain rather than the mountain going to Muhammad.
What do we actually give rural houses? We give them a road but let us be honest about it, since we already have a dispersed population the roads will have to be put in unless rural Ireland is denuded of its population. We give them water. Water is very cheap to provide. It can be done for approximately €6,000 a house. Even in the most isolated areas it would be approximately €8,000. We could not provide sewage at that cost. We will give a one-off subsidy, that would not build a bypass, for getting fibre broadband to every house.
What do we not give that we give in urban areas? We provide capital and current for sewage all the time. We provide capital and current for street lights all the time. We provide capital and current for pavements all the time. We continuously do street cleaning in cities and we do not in rural areas. There are also things like public parks and so on. The first thing that we all should agree, as rural people, is that rural Ireland pays taxes on the same basis as everybody else but it does not get the services. There is this idea that it is expensive to service rural Ireland.
The second thing that worries me is a narrative there has been in Government that Ireland's future is about towns and villages. I have fought against it and I was instrumental in blocking one Government who tried to refresh the spacial strategy to eliminate people living in the countryside. I rewrote the previous one before that in huge detail. I will claim to have been the guy with the hand up to stop this twice when I was in Government. This concept that rural Ireland's future is about towns and villages seems to be in all the speeches given today. It keeps coming up and they keep putting it in.
I know how these things are generated. The system keeps generating them. It keeps referring to towns and villages, people living in our towns and villages and so on. With the Internet, that is a nineteenth and twentieth century concept. With the Internet, people do not go to their local town to go to the bank. They go to their mobile phone. With the internet, if people want to book something or even if they want to buy clothes, most people now do it on the phone, on the iPad or on the laptop. The private companies, by the way, do not seem to have any problem delivering to anywhere and everywhere, even up the mountain. The reality is that anywhere someone wants it they will get it.
The idea that we all have to conglomerate is wrong. In my view it is where we get a lot of our social problems. The Government has to declare for or against, because the Minister's colleague, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, is drawing up a plan and it seems to be more about conglomeration and what they call critical mass, which is absolutely ridiculous in the internet age, than it is about facilitating people to live where they want. I will ask very straight question here today and I will only make one final point because time is short. Does the Minister see a conscious effort to try to change the settlement pattern of the past?
Most people did not live in street villages but rather in townlands. Does the Minister see a conscious effort to try to change that and move people out of the countryside into towns and villages? Is that part of Government policy, as it seems to be? As I pointed out before, it even seems to be in the action plan. We need an honest answer on this one. If it is so, what is the advantage, as I can give plenty of disadvantages? If we want to find pockets of social difficulties for children with drugs etc., we will find it in socially segregated housing estates in our towns. We have to ask where the Slaughtneils, the Ballyheas and St. Thomas' come from. They are examples of small populations producing fantastic results and why is that? It is something in the construction of the communities.
We must ask the fundamental question of what is the Minister's vision for rural Ireland and is it one where we will push people into towns and villages? That is the policy of most of the Departments and particularly the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. One-off council houses are not being built in the countryside and in Galway housing loans are not being given for a one-off house. All the documents produced by the Department, including the recently published document, are pushing us into towns and villages. If that is not the Minister's policy, what is she going to do to change the policy of the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, which is in that direction? I have a suspicion that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, knows in his heart and soul I am not talking about politics here. It is something about which I have been consistent since I moved from Dublin 4 to Connemara. There is a value for life in real rural Ireland and there is real geography in it. It is not about scattered houses but communities that function. The Internet has made that viable into the future.
I have a second plea. I spent 18 years as a co-operative manager in a small community co-op in Corr na Móna. We set up many enterprises, some of which succeeded and some which failed. One that succeeded - I did not make it successful - metamorphosed into what is now called ECC Teoranta, which is a massive timber mill. We need roads and broadband, which is obvious, but one other element is needed. I can give both the problem and the answer. The problem is that businesses in start-up mode need cash investment, possibly through preference shares that could be paid for when the company turns a corner, which normally takes four or five months. Will the Minister consider going to the Minister for Finance and asking him for €100 million to be given to the Western Development Commission? It can be 20-year money or whatever but it should be invested in rural enterprise. Rural start-ups will not get this from venture funds of banks but this would allow rural enterprises to get their hands on cash. The Minister can look at the likes of McHale and I can guarantee her that if she provides the money, she will get the return. We have starved rural Ireland for too long. Amounts of €5,000, €10,000 and €20,000 are a joke if somebody is trying to set up a real industry anywhere in the country, and the rural areas are no different from urban areas in that regard.
I thank the Deputy and I agree with much of what he says, although not all of it. I live in rural Ireland and I particularly defend the right of rural people to live in their rural communities absolutely. I fought that fight many times on Monaghan County Council as well when directives came from the Government that there could be no one-off houses and areas should be under strong urban influence. A plethora of stuff is coming back to bite us now. I spent 12 years as a credit union manager in Cootehill in County Cavan and I absolutely believe there are huge opportunities in working with the credit union movement to provide support to local indigenous industries. Nobody knows better than the local credit unions the character and ability of people to get a business running. Those people know best as they are on the ground.
I absolutely agree with the Deputy. It is about finding the correct mechanism to do it. I support the principle that they should get all the support they can because the local indigenous industries are creating jobs. Three or four jobs in a local community are worth 50 or 100 jobs announced in big towns. They make the difference.
We are investing in rural Ireland across the Government. There has been a 9% increase in the allocation for our local and regional roads. The Minister of State, Deputy O'Donovan, recently opened the sports capital programme, which has €30 million available nationwide. We all know how the sports capital programme benefits rural sports clubs across the country. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Varadkar, has allocated an additional 500 places for the rural social scheme, which is in addition to the €7 million of the rural recreation programme coming from my Department. There is €40 million allocated for the Leader projects this year and I recently announced €9 million for the arts and culture capital scheme, which will support arts centres right across the country. There is much happening and the Action Plan for Rural Development is proof of a cross-Government commitment to support rural communities.
This committee asked us to act on the failure to develop a coherent rural development policy in Ireland, which can be in part explained by poor governance structures. The Commission for the Economic Development in Rural Areas noted that the White Paper on rural development published in 1999 was weak in terms of delivery structure rather than ideas, lacking ministerial leadership, resources, statutory underpinning, institutional performance and delivery mechanisms. This plan is pulling all of that together. It is about working together and making a difference to rural Ireland. When investors come along and google a particular area in which they want to invest, they want to see positive news coming from the area. If they see negative narratives from the location, they will not want to go there. We need to work together to promote rural Ireland. We are all rural Deputies and we want to showcase our areas. We want people to invest in rural Ireland.
I might put a few questions to the Minister. I understand what she says about negativity and that too much negativity will not necessarily sell an area. I suppose sometimes if an Opposition Deputy does not focus on problems, they will not be fixed either. One is caught between a rock and a hard place in that regard.
In economics there is a view that one should get the economic model working correctly rather than adding smaller elements to try to support a failing economic model. There is much good stuff in the plan that the Minister has brought to bear and much that would bring a positive difference to many people in rural Ireland. I am still of the view that the economic model for rural Ireland is still in trouble. I say this because we have had a wealth of groups in here with information that is not as positive as it should be. For example, An Post indicated 500 post offices were not currently economically viable and Teagasc told us only a third of farmers - the backbone of the rural community - are independently viable. If we take away the single farm payment or the fact that a third of farmers work outside the farm to supplement it, only approximately 30,000 farmers in the State are making the €19,000 deemed to be able to make a living. That is a shocking fact when we are considering development of the rural community.
A key action in bringing the other approximately 60% of farmers into the profitable sphere would be to enhance their ability to get into the energy development sector. I mentioned feed-in tariffs to the Minister before and such tariffs for small-scale wind and solar and bio-energy. I know farmers in County Meath with an abundance of slurry who could easily use the methane from it to create small-scale electricity generation. They are waiting for planning permission to beat the band.
However, they are waiting for the Renewable Energy Feed In Tariff to do that. In a society that is hungry for energy and in a country that will have €600 million in EU fines by 2020 if it does not decarbonise, and in a sector that is crying out for product from which to make extra income, those three elements should be pushing the Government towards taking action, but we are not near that action at the moment.
Those in business - be that a company like Google or a small enterprise - will say that the key elements to doing business are having product, having a customer, having access to that customer in transport and communications, and having competitive inputs into the creation of those products. The transport infrastructure in regional and rural areas is a mess. When representatives of the NTA appeared before the committee a few weeks ago we asked them the basis on which they were making decisions on transportation investment. They told us they made those decisions based on where demand was strongest. That is the logical objective. However, in order to make regional and rural areas more effective, it is necessary to disrupt that objective and make the objective building for future demand in the regions and in rural areas. They are two mutually competitive objectives and the latter objective is not being met.
We also hear what is happening with regard to Bus Éireann. Places like Derry are losing their Bus Éireann connection. The Athlone to Westport and Dublin to Clonmel connections are to be lost. People living in Donegal, Tyrone and County Derry currently have no motorway, no rail line and no air connectivity with Dublin. Now they will have no State bus service to Dublin. All the reports and action plans in the world will never rebalance the loss of connectivity. That will take money beyond the existing demand. It will take disruptive money as well.
The Minister also mentioned credit unions. I have met the regulator of credit unions. The Government's policy for credit unions is not on the same page as the Minister has articulated here. I agree with everything she said about the role credit unions could play in the country's development. However, the credit union sector is being driven down. Slowly but surely it is being regulated out of the space it is in. It has €10 billion sitting in AIB and Bank of Ireland earning no interest. It wants to invest that money in the development of housing and small businesses, but is being prevented by the regulator and Government policy. While there has been movement which can be measured in inches to create more space for credit unions to operate, the Government has put a cap on the development of credit unions.
I ask the Minister to consider the development of Border enterprise development zones within the national strategic development plan that is being development at the moment. Given that the Minister comes from a Border area, she should make a strong play for the Government to develop specific tools to allow towns such as Monaghan town, Enniskillen, Dungannon, Strabane, Lifford, Letterkenny, Newry and Dundalk to grow into the future. Those towns are different from most of the other towns. There are many towns on the natural periphery of this country. The Border is a man-made periphery. It is a periphery that should not be there but it exists because of the dysfunction of the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Those towns will suffer the most and take the brunt of Brexit in the future. I ask the Minister and her officials to develop a Border development zone to offer some competitive advantage for those towns to deal with the challenges they have in the coming years.
I will start with the final question, as I am, obviously, very familiar with the Border. I absolutely agree with the idea of a Border development zone. It is well worth considering in the context of Brexit, which will clearly be felt more severely along the Border areas than elsewhere. We are looking at increasing tourism in rural areas. I have specifically proposed developing a "borderlands" tourism initiative running from the Cooley Peninsula to the Donegal coast. That would naturally bring in a band that links a tourism trail into and out of the North. I am very keen on promoting and developing that. Brexit presents an opportunity to work even closer together. We will never need to work closer together than we will need to on Brexit. That is something I am looking at developing further.
The lakelands project existed some years ago and is something we should be looking at. The action plan for rural development calls for the further development of the lakelands project, which will have an impact on Border counties such as Cavan and Monaghan as well as Longford and Roscommon.
The Chairman mentioned farming. We continue with the roll-out of CAP payments, which is worth over €1.2 billion to farmers. The last budget introduced a number of taxation measures to assist the farming sector including: an increase in the earned income tax credit for self-employed; the roll-out of a new income-averaging step out for farmers; the extension of farm restructuring capital gains tax relief to the end of 2019; the investigation of taxation measures which might support farmers through periods of income volatility which they have had recently; and the implementation of changes to the farm assist scheme which will increase the value of the weekly farm assist payments for low-income farmers and in particular for those with children which will ensure that farm families are supported in actively farming their land.
We have the development of the training and advice initiatives aimed at farmers to assist in farm management. Farm safety is a big issue and it is also mentioned in the plan, as are sustainable farming and off-farm income generation.
I agree with what the Chairman said about the huge opportunities in the energy development sector. The action plan contains several actions that relate specifically to renewable energy. I agree that a considerable amount of farm waste could be used more effectively and turned into renewable energy. There is a full section on renewable energy that has been developed in conjunction with the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
That is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and we can raise it with him.
The Chairman mentioned the NTA. It is expanding rural link services. It is about communities coming forward and indicating demand. In Cavan where I launched this, it goes not just into the town. It is going from, for example, from Butler's Bridge into Cavan town, right through the town and into Ballinagh, which is a good idea. The local people said there was a need for such a service. It is about tapping into what the local demands are. It is a wonderful service. I know towns across the country light up on Thursday or a Friday morning when they come in. They are brought in on the rural transport and go for their shopping. They might go for a drink or have a cup of coffee. It makes a huge difference to small towns when people come in. I very much support that. It will revitalise the towns that people are not getting into when they can put on this public transport.
I am not from a rural area, but I am happy to take part in the discussion. I am interested in Deputy Ó Cuív's point about scattered communities. They are not scattered communities; they are communities, but to the person with another experience they may look at times to be scattered.
I am grateful for that remark.
I want to focus on heritage. Our culture has no context without heritage and without culture we have no art. When we think about heritage, we have to presume that includes our national cultural institutions. It is the tunnelled buildings on Moore Street. It is the built and the natural. It is the Giant's Causeway and Brú na Bóinne. It is also our landscapes and hedgerows, which we will be discussing at length tomorrow. I appeal to this committee to understand that the Bill proposed tomorrow is anything about a heritage Bill. I appeal to Deputy Eamonn Ó Cuív's party to protect our hedgerows. They provide a vital resource to many species of wildlife. Our hedgerows are a pathway for all of those species and for our pollinators given that we do not have natural forests across this island. There is scientific evidence against this Bill from within the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. It runs against the grain of all local authority proposals and strategies for heritage.
I appeal for Fianna Fáil's support for the amendments tomorrow so that we do not widen the opportunity for members of our farming community to cut hedgerows. The state of our built and natural heritage, as the Deputy said, is a significant economic asset, marketed abroad by Fáilte Ireland. It is scandalous, given that contribution to our marketing abroad for both our foreign and domestic tourists, that those sites and the people who invest in them might be under-resourced. We need to analyse that in the context of us pushing this image abroad. It is scandalous that we would have under-resourced heritage sites. It would be threatening our heritage in a way that we will see tomorrow. I appeal to the Minister to consider that Bill tomorrow. I appeal to Deputy Ó Cuív and Fianna Fáil to do likewise.
The situation is simply that if the Senator lived in rural Ireland, he would know that the biggest problem that people have is travelling on by-roads, including to their houses. The biggest problem that they and councillors have at the moment is providing funding to cut edges in various areas.
Without the legislation, the councils will not cut the hedges. When I was Minister for State with responsibility for tourism, the biggest complaint that we got every year was about the conditions of rural roads, and hedges causing damage to people's cars every year. Something has to be done. The Chairman raised an issue earlier as well.
Did I interrupt the Senator when he was speaking? Yes, that is what the Bill is for. It needs to be understood that we have to live down there. If others want to visit, they are very welcome, but they do not understand the problems that we have when we have to live there for 52 weeks of the year. If the Senator came down-----
I listened to the debate in the Seanad. It was interesting that most of the people that spoke and were critical of the Bill never lived in rural Ireland. We are all for heritage and protecting the environment, but we have to live there as well. I live in a place where the biggest complaint I have all summer is that people will not be able to get up and down their roads as a consequence of growth. They are paying their taxes, including road tax. They want to be able to get to work and to get their children to school safely.
I want to take up an issue that the Chairman raised about rural towns and villages. He is quite correct. He mentioned An Post and post offices being closed. The biggest problem that we are faced with and that maybe the Chairman and others will face in the years ahead is that of broadband. We need broadband very badly, but it has an economic impact, since more people are buying from the Internet now. We are going to lose more shops and businesses because of the Internet. That is the problem with progress.
The Chairman talked about infrastructure. I will give a simple example. When I was Minister of State with responsibility for tourism, one of the greatest things that was introduced in this country was the Wild Atlantic Way. It was one of the greatest initiatives by any Government, and it has created jobs in tourism and brought people to rural Ireland who had not been there for many years. The infrastructure was there. Signage and promotion were needed, as well as for Government and Fáilte Ireland to take it seriously. With State agencies, local authorities, Fáilte Ireland and Government working together, that has turned out to be a tremendous success. Many thousands of jobs throughout this country have been created because of the Wild Atlantic Way. The Chairman talked about infrastructure and is quite correct. He talked about the negativity and positivity. I went to Ennis recently, since I was at a wedding in Milltown Malbay. The infrastructure is improving, but we need to see further improvements. The more that the motorways are opened up and the easier it is for people to get access to rural Ireland, the more people will live there.
The officials in my Department have to talk to officials from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Deputy Ó Cuív raised this issue and I spoke about it on the radio today. Legislation was brought in many years ago by Deputy Ó Cuív's Government about water planning. It had to be looked at. The amount of young people who have been given sites by their fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and cannot build on their own land has to be looked at again. We have to give people an opportunity to live in rural Ireland. I do not know the word now used for the new scheme, but planners appear to be trying to stop people from living in rural Ireland. If we are serious about people living in rural Ireland, we have to make it easier for them to live in it, and we have to give them some of the services that they need.
The Minister of State said to join him on a journey. I have been on many journeys through rural Ireland in my lifetime. The last journey I joined was Mr. Pat Spillane's journey. It did not work out, though not through any fault of his. He was passionate, wanted it to work out, but it did not happen. I am worried that this plan is very much a copy and paste or whatever it is called. The Minister of State spoke about people not being negative, and is correct in that. It is hard but, if one wants to talk honestly about rural Ireland and comes from it, one sometimes has to look at the negative things there that are making life very difficult for people. There are a few issues there and I have listened to what the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, has had to say in the last couple of minutes. I would jump over there and pat him on the back because a lot of what he said was from the heart.
I am afraid that I would not in any way be in favour of what the gentleman to my left, the Senator, said about verge-cutting. It is a huge issue for rural Ireland. We are not environmental monsters. We are protective of our communities. I always felt that the responsibility for verge-cutting should never have gone from the local authority. I am convinced that is the only way it can be carried out. I am in west Cork. In fairness to the Cork county council, it has an initiative where it part-funds the verge-cutting if communities want to come and get involved. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, said, nobody could take that away from the Wild Atlantic Way. The success of that has been incredible, though planning permission is a massive issue which has been going on for many years.
The Minister of State mentioned jobs. The biggest employer in my area at the moment is Turas Nua. This new initiative that the Government set up for people that are unemployed-----
JobPath, Turas Nua, or whatever it is. They all have fancy names. The bottom line is that it has been the ruination of community and voluntary groups in my area. If somebody is in JobPath, Turas Nua or whatever we call it, that person is firstly taken off the live register but still does not have a job. Secondly, that person cannot take a community employment, CE, job, a rural social scheme, RSS, job or a Tús job, while he or she is involved in Turas Nua, which could go on for a year or two. That is a huge issue in my area, and in other rural communities. It was brought up in the Dáil last week. In a city, one might get away with that since there is a huge population of people and there might be a high proportion of unemployed, so other people can be found.
In a rural community, there are gifted people that may have lost jobs and may have opportunities on an RSS, Tús or CE scheme, but cannot take them because they have been sucked in by this new JobPath. It looks nice for the live register figures, but the bottom line is that unemployment is still very high in west Cork and I can only speak on behalf of west Cork. It is still very high in my own community. That is a matter that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs should look into. I am not saying that JobPath should not be there. One should still be entitled to go onto an RSS, CE or a Tús scheme while in JobPath, until JobPath finds a person gainful employment. If it does, that is a different thing.
That is something that needs to be looked at because it is a big issue for rural Ireland at the moment. It is a big issue for the community and voluntary groups which kept this country rolling on. They are not going to find a workforce for the meals on wheels or to carry out the Tidy Towns work, or whatever. I welcome the Minister's initiative here on rates, an issue for businesses in rural Ireland, because that has been a disastrous situation for a lot of people trying to start businesses in small rural towns and villages. They find it very difficult and rate are killing them. We will see how that rolls out and we welcome it for the time being.
I came in late, but I heard no mention of post offices. I have extreme worries about the future of our rural post offices, which are the lifeline of the local area. Rural roads were mentioned. I come from a community that has seen very little investment in our roads. There was mention of motorways; the nearest motorway to me is about two hours drive from a peninsula. I would leave in the morning, sometimes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.; there is not even an initiative there to create passing bays to open up west Cork as a place of business, this is what we need. We need better investment for our roads.
The Minister speaks about farmers, they are going through a very difficult period. Yes, some of it is weather related which is nothing to do with the Minister personally, we accept, but there are things out there such as the GLAS payments. More than 8,000 farmers have not received a GLAS payment yet, and we are told for the last three to four months, and any TD here is probably getting it in the neck in their constituency offices, it is due to a technical issue. For the love of God, somebody needs to have a head roll there and be put out of their job if they cannot resolve a technical issue to give farmers their payment. These farmers are in a situation where they cannot pay banks and cannot pay contractors. The grain farmers have had no compensation package put in place although there has been a lot of talk, and it was voted for in the Dáil. These are the issues. I do not want to preach negativity but these are the facts on the ground.
On mobile phone coverage and broadband issues, we are talking about 2020, 2021. I am sorry but the people in west Cork, Mayo or wherever want that issue resolved now. I encouraged and supported an initiative between the Minister and the communications Minister, Deputy Naughten about these mobile phone repeaters and it needs to be researched quickly and both of the Ministers need to bring in the mobile phone companies and make them accountable because they are not accountable to anybody. We are doing a lot of talking but nothing is happening. Details of some initiative on mobile phone repeaters were e-mailed to us. It is a brilliant idea for rural communities which do not have a mobile phone service; it was done with broadband many years ago so it can be done with mobile phones. I think it was an initiative of Deputy Naughten's but Deputy Humphreys was involved as well. I just hope to God this plan works or is seen to work in some way.
The Leader funding is not rolled out. It was the backbone of many rural communities. There is no money available at this time. In west Cork we use to have one company, now we have three and nobody seems to know who is running what, it is a pure farce. The Minister's ear is worn from me saying that so I will not annoy her more with that today. When these things are being rolled out, I would like to see who is calling the shots.
We pushed very hard for the programme for Government to have extra jobs in the rural social scheme, which is a very good scheme for low income fishermen and low income farmers. We got 500 jobs. That was brilliant because it was the first time anything had happened in a number of years. Then it rolled out. Cork County is a huge county and it got only 39 extra jobs. I apologise to Deputy Ring if I insult his county, but there were 79 Mayo. That is not good enough. Who is pulling strings here? The bottom line is that it should be fair across the board. In one company alone in West Cork Development Partnership, we could have had 40 people but the whole of Cork County only get 39. I presume other counties will be complaining too that they did not get enough. I question things at times. I come from rural Ireland, my heart is embedded deeply therE. That is what brought me into Dáil Éireann and I will fight my corner for my people as long as I can and if this plan works, I will be in here to praise it. Not everything can work, I accept that, but aspects such as rural broadband and mobile phone coverage are major issues and if we want to create employment in rural Ireland that is the way forward.
This plan will be measured by its impact on the people who live and work in rural Ireland. That will be the measure of its success. We will be developing indicators to measure the impacts and there is a monitoring committee set up, which will meet shortly. There are 276 actions in this plan. We will monitor them and the people in Departments and the Ministers who make promises will be held to account. The Deputy referred to Turas Nua and the document states clearly that it aims to "maintain the provision of schemes such as the rural social scheme, community employment, back to education allowance and tús in rural communities and the Gaeltacht having regard to the declining numbers on the live register and the need to ensure that these schemes are targeted to the needs of jobseekers and others". The people who are responsible for that are in the Department of Social Protection and they will be held to account. People have made commitments in this plan and they have to deliver. My job is to sit down and chair the monitoring committee, bring in the relevant stakeholders in the Departments and find out if it is happening. The Deputy mentioned Pat Spillane. He has come on board and I am delighted that he has agreed to become a rural ambassador. He is going to go out and he is going to listen to communities and if there is a problem he will be back telling me and he will be rapping on my door to say what is not happening. I know that the members here will know if it is not happening. This is a living document. If things are not happening come and tell us about it because the actions are here. There are 276 of them. What we want to do is change the narrative about rural Ireland. I know there are challenges, I absolutely accept that but we want to show that rural Ireland is modern, it is dynamic and it is creative and it makes a huge contribution to our economy.
On jobs, positive figures were published yesterday that showed unemployment down to 6.6%, down from over 15% in 2012. There is a target to create 135,000 jobs in rural Ireland. In 2016, 72% of jobs were created outside of the greater Dublin area. It is about getting the message out that you have got to go to rural Ireland, give them an opportunity. There is loads out there and there are committed and hard working people. There is energy and enthusiasm in rural Ireland that one will never get anywhere else so why not get out there? The word to the IDA is that we will increase foreign direct investment by 40% in the regions. The focus has to be on rural Ireland. That is my job. I have said on numerous occasions that I want all Departments to positively discriminate towards rural Ireland. Think rural. There are job increases in all the regions. These are full-time, high quality jobs. What we have here is a broader-based recovery. Employment is growing in every single sector. It is happening in rural Ireland but we want that to continue and we want a bigger focus there. We know that 135,000 jobs are to be created in rural Ireland over the lifetime of this plan.
On broadband, more than 1.4 million premises in Ireland have access to broadband because of the policy delivered by this Government and the last. Towns all over Ireland now have access to high speed broadband and the telecoms sector continues to invest with more and more services to be rolled out. The challenge now is to push that investment into rural areas beyond the towns because a lot of the towns have got broadband. To update Deputy Collins on the Cork figure, 155,000 properties have access to high speed broadband in Cork. Another 2,300 properties will be coming on stream in the next couple of weeks. Work is happening on broadband and it continues all the time but we have to keep the focus there. Members will know about the national broadband plan and that it is for every single house. We are actually being watched by the rest of Europe because this is the first plan of its kind to put high speed broadband into every single house in Ireland. That is ambitious and something that we need. It is going to be good news for rural Ireland and Ireland generally when that is delivered.
I have a brief question on that for the Minister. I believe a private company is delivering rural broadband currently. That is altering the number of people in the remit for the tender. I hear that is having a negative effect, or at least the changing of the tender parameters is causing difficulties in regard to the procurement process.
The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment is working on the matter. The contract is complex and runs to somewhere in the region of 2,000 pages. The Department is working on the matter and I know it is a matter of urgency for it. I cannot give the Chairman a date or timescale. More houses are connected every day. We want to roll out broadband to areas that do not have the service.
I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, on taking my part in relation to hedgecutting. I wish to inform Senator Warfield that I do not have a problem with the hedges inside ditches along the roads. I have a problem with hedges along the roads that obscure a person's view while driving or walking. I make no apology for calling for hedges in such circumstances to be cut all year round. As I said when I was a member of Kerry County Council, birds are not so foolish to build nests on the side of the road where a lorry could whisk off all of their feathers, blow their nests to smithereens and destroy their families.
As I should have told Senator Warfield, hedgecutting is not the topic of today's discussion. I know that people are under pressure and the Minister would like to leave at 4.30 p.m. I suggest the Deputy focusses on the topic of today's discussion.
When I hear hedges being mentioned, whatever few ribs I have stand up straight. A ridiculous case has been made to protect birds. I always put people before birds. I represent a particular county and know that the countryside does not look well when the hedges are not cut. Hedges should be cut all year round. We are talking about the roads that people use so their safety must take first priority.
We have spoken about the local improvement scheme before but it has not been mentioned in the plan. I wish to say to the Minister for the Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and her Minister of State that the people who live in rural Ireland are entitled to have good roads up to their doors every bit as much as the people who live in Dublin 4. The former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, abolished the local improvement scheme because of a belief that the public or the taxpayer should not be asked to pay for private roads. They may be private roads in the sense that they have not been taken over by local authorities but they are public roads and provide a public right of way to homes.
The local improvement scheme helped many people. Today, the Minister said the scheme still exists, but it exists in name only because there is no funding available. The local authorities have said that they have no money to fund the scheme. Kerry County Council has a file that contains 160 sanctioned applications and over 500 applications that await assessment. On top of that class three roads are not included in the road restoration or improvement programme. The council only considers through roads or link roads for funding. We have been denied. The people pay road tax, property tax and every kind of tax so they are entitled to use the roads. People must pay far more for their national car test and repairs because the roads are a shambles. At present, we do not even have the proper amount of money to maintain roads. All of this means safety has again been compromised. One can see leaks on the sides of the roads, particularly if it has rained. If a young person drives in such circumstances, there is a danger that when he or she drives into a pool of water the driving wheel will be whipped out of his or her hands, the vehicle will be propelled over the ditch and, more often than not, the driver will be killed. People often talk about safety on the roads and the Road Safety Authority so maintaining roads should be a priority. The Government has not provided enough money to maintain roads.
I agree with what Deputy Collins said about GLAS payments. My phone has broken due to the amount of calls I have received about GLAS payments. Does the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine have enough money for the scheme? He has given us the spiel about having a technical problem. Does he have the money for the scheme? People are entitled to receive their payments and I can cite several examples of difficulties. I know of a poor man who needed to pay his daughter's college fees. He needed to receive his GLAS payment after Christmas but he has not received it yet, which is unfair. The payment was supposed to have been paid to everyone.
I welcome the introduction of a rural social scheme. Unfortunately, the people who want to access it cannot do so. I know of many fellas who want to avail of the scheme but to qualify they must receive a means tested payment first. Sadly, they cannot join. There are also people who are in receipt of social welfare payments but do not want to avail of the rural social scheme.
The real problem with rural Ireland, in particular Kerry, is that we have no infrastructure. We do not have a motorway or road into the county and we do not have broadband. Mobile phones that did work do not work now, whatever has gone wrong with them. Instead of the service improving, it is getting worse. What will be the result?
I will answer the broadband query and the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, will answer the queries about the local improvement scheme.
In Kerry, 42,800 premises have access to broadband and another 200 premises will have it in the next couple of weeks. The county is doing fairly well but there is always room for improvement. I have looked at the figures for other counties and know their situation is not as good. The service is being worked on and is being rolled out. Every week more connections are being made to high speed broadband.
I thank the Deputy for his support on the hedgecutting issue. There has been a lot of misinformation about the hedgecutting Bill. I want to make it clear, and I will outline my views again in the Seanad tomorrow, that we must strike a balance between road safety and protecting the environment. I genuinely believe that the Heritage Bill has struck that balance. We do not want to slash the hedges down to stumps just to reduce them by one season's growth. People will realise that when they read the details. Everything in life is about achieving a balance.
I know that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine is doing everything he can to resolve the issues with GLAS. We have all received telephone inquiries about the scheme. Improvements have been made and a lot of resources have been invested to resolve outstanding issues. We will raise the matter with the Minister again.
The 500 extra places announced for the rural social scheme are welcome. The Deputy raised some issues that are more suited to the Department of Social Protection. Perhaps he will raise the issues with the Minister for Social Protection and my ministerial colleagues and I will bring them to his attention. I ask my Minister of State to answer the rest of the queries.
Planning was mentioned. I ask the Minister to do something about the planning scenario that has deprived young people from having a home. At present, rural areas are treated as areas under urban generated pressure. The policy was adopted to stop people leaving towns and building in areas outside of towns. The policy also stops a person in a rural area who buys a site 300 yards away from getting planning permission to build a house for himself or herself. I refer to a person who is already in the area, and has been born and reared in the area.
He is deprived of getting planning permission for a site he could buy that is 350 m away because it is an area under urban generated pressure. There must be some way of addressing it and of giving some direction to the local authorities. It was raised in Kerry County Council last week and got no hearing in the world. It has to be sorted out nationally.
I will be brief. The last issue regarding planning is something about which we need to talk to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. There is no question about it. Something has to be done and the national plan will have to be looked at again.
The reason the previous Minister dropped the funding for local improvement scheme, LIS, roads is because there was no money in the country but when local authorities got their discretionary grant they could put a percentage of it into LIS roads. The local authorities themselves have washed their hands of the LIS roads. They have discretionary funding from their own resources and when we did research on local authorities all over the country, we found they put very little money into them. I suggest the committee brings the Minister, Deputy Ross, in here. I have very little money in the CLÁR programme. I am prepared to put some money in but I will not do the job of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, which has a bigger budget than I have. I have only €5 million nationally. If the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the local authorities put some funding in place, I will try to find some funding from CLÁR to match it.
I thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Ministers of State, Deputies Ring and Kyne, and their team for coming into us today. We apologise for the delay at the start. Sometimes there is a lot of internal business to be done and if we put it at the end, we would not have too many present to discuss it. I thank the Minister and Ministers of State for coming in. We appreciate it greatly.
We will resume on public session to consider the topic of what it takes to maintain a viable rural community with officials from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I welcome the following witnesses to the meeting: Mr. Terry Allen, principal officer, and Mr. Paul Connolly, assistant principal officer, national monuments, from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. I thank them for their attendance.
I draw to their attention that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
I advise witnesses that the opening statement and any other documents they provide may be published on its website after the meeting.
Members are reminded of the longstanding parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I ask Mr. Allen to make his opening statement.
Mr. Terry Allen:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to interact with it today on our underwater heritage. As I circulated a statement earlier on the Lusitania, I will now briefly outline the general framework for looking after underwater archaeology. The relevant legislation, which comprised a new national monuments code at the time, was introduced in 1987 to give automatic protection to all shipwrecks over 100 years old and to allow similar protections to be extended to newer wrecks of particular historical significance, as well as to underwater archaeological objects. Following a subsequent pilot study of shipwrecks around the coast in the late 1990s, which highlighted the need to properly quantify this aspect of our cultural heritage, a dedicated underwater archaeology unit was set up in the Department's national monuments service in the year 2000. There are three main strands to this unit's work in protecting underwater archaeology. The first consists of the development of an archive of information on shipwrecks. That is the wreck inventory of Ireland database. The second is undertaking on-site dive surveys, excavations and monitoring of archaeological sites as required. The third is developing mitigation measures on development impacts. The current round of OPW flood prevention schemes is a very good case in point because they involve a very significant disturbance of riverbeds around the country. To date, the unit has built up a database of 18,000 shipwrecks and has completed numerous surveys and excavations at site ranging from Bronze Age log boats to 16th and 17th-century trading vessels and warships. Through the planning process, the underwater archaeology unit advises on development proposals that may affect underwater archaeology, for example proposed works on the foreshore or aquaculture proposals.
Most relevant to today's business, the unit assesses applications for licences to dive or investigate protected wrecks, including the Lusitania. The Lusitaniais privately owned but is subject to an underwater heritage order made under the 1987 Act because of its historical importance. The most recent dive licence issued for the wreck, which was last year, included 20 detailed conditions and it allowed the owner to raise the ship's telegraph which he intends to put on display in a local museum. The licence reflected the formal memorandum of understanding that is in place between the Department and the owner of the wreck to facilitate our greater mutual co-operation and collaboration. The owner is particularly interested in researching the cause of the second explosion that caused the ship to sink 18 minutes after the original strike. The licence also recognised the unique and extensive knowledge of the wreck site by the person undertaking the dive, the particular hazards and difficulties involved and also the fact that the nature and location of the artefact that was to be brought up was known and that it had previously been filmed on the seabed. Under this particular licence, which is the last activity undertaken on the wreck, a number of significant recoveries were made, which will ultimately go on display in a new museum planned for the Old Head of Kinsale.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an bhfinné as sin. I have a number of questions to address to Mr. Allen. This is one of the most important wrecks off the coast of Ireland. It has massive archaeological importance and is also a war grave because well over 1,000 people went down with the ship and were lost with it. I understand that typically the process that existed until very recently was that a licence was provided with an input from the sub-aqua archaeological teams that exist and from the National Museum. It would have included methodologies and some level of supervision. We know from newspaper and other reports there was a significant break in that practice, which happened very recently at the last dive between August and October, and for some reason no methodology or archaeological supervision were provided. In addition, the telegraph, which was the subject of the dive, was damaged and lost. We will tease out the argument that could be made about why there was a significant break in the practice later. The telegraph is an important item in trying to understand the bearing, route and location and the orders from the captain to the engine house of the ship. The fact that it was lost probably gives a certain level of corroboration to the views of the people in the National Museum.
They believe that they should have had an input and that there should not have been a break with that practice. Why was there a significant change in the practice on these types of ships around the coast of Ireland?
Mr. Terry Allen:
There has been no significant change in practice in respect of underwater archaeology or the licensing of same. In this case, there was a departure from what would have happened previously. We have issued a significant a number of licences over the years to the owner of the wreck and to people acting with his consent to carry out investigations for recreational dives and so on. In the normal course, the requirement would have been for a methodology. The issue arising in respect of the last dive was the fact that there was no requirement for an archaeologist to be present when the recovery of the telegraph was being made.
We have a memorandum of understanding with the owner. We have a long-standing relationship of a business nature with the owner. In the past, he has complied with the requirements set out. He made an approach to the Department explaining that an exercise was going to be undertaken in bad weather. He had an envelope or a chronological window of opportunity to do it. The weather was bad. He sought our agreement to carry out the dive without the necessity of having an archaeologist present. Representatives from our underwater archaeology unit in the Department proposed to go down there. In the end, the officials decided not to go. The licence condition was adjusted in order that he was able to carry out the dive without the necessity of having an archaeologist present.
Particular factors arose in the case that lay behind this decision, some of which I referenced at the outset. I will repeat them. For starters, the diver who was to carry out the recovery had unique and extensive knowledge of the wreck site because he has been down there innumerable times working for the owner of the wreck under a licence granted by the Minister. Second, the question of the arduousness of the dive and the hazard to human life arose. This is relevant in the context of making someone go down or getting someone to go down who did not necessarily need to go down. The fact that the nature, composition and location of the artefact concerned were known was relevant. We knew where it was and what it was. It was not something delicate. It was a metal object. The artefact has previously been filmed on the sea bed. We had film of it and we knew where it was. We knew its disposition and so on. Finally, the intention of the owner was to place it on display in a local museum. Having considered all these factors, we agreed, on this occasion and because of the particular circumstances and the particular artefact and the fact that there was no particular risk to the artefact concerned, to allow him to proceed without the need for the presence of an archaeologist.
As the Chairman said, he was taking up a telegraph and pedestal. They were in two separate pieces. If the committee wishes, I can read out an extract from the report of the dive that we received. The report explained what actually happened. I am keen to read out the report to illustrate that the fact that no archaeologist was present had no impact or bearing on what happened in this case.
Mr. Terry Allen:
He is. He is the only person who could report on what actually happened on the sea bed because he was the only person down there. Normally, an archaeologist would not be on the sea bed in any event. The fact that he was working for Gregg Bemis would not change the reality. In other words, even if an archaeologist was present, we would have received the same report. He said that the lift bag burst. The telegraph was sent to the surface using a lift bag. He said that the procedure was the same as that used to recover five items during the 2011 dive survey. He said the pedestal was tied to the shot line and hauled up as he did not have a second lift bag, since only one item was intended to be recovered. They had thought the item was in one piece. They were only taking up one item. The lift bag was tested prior to use and was in perfect working order. However, when used in this instance, a pin hole in the bag allowed the air within it to escape when it was on the surface. The defect could have occurred when entering the water from the boat or when those involved were on the wreck site, where numerous jagged steel edges were detected. Essentially, the lift bag burst and the telegraph went back to the bottom. The pedestal that was tied separately to the shot line came up and was kept up. This was simply an equipment failure that would not have been-----
Experts in the area have suggested the Department and the National Museum of Ireland have jointly insisted on a best-practice archaeological approach to all diving activity relating to the Lusitania in dealings with Mr. Bemis. Beforehand, there would have been a partnership arrangement. I find it difficult to understand why a change was made to the licence conditions at the 11th hour, without the opportunity for the National Museum of Ireland to express a view on the matter. I gather that the museum is also concerned by the implications of the decision for the regulation of future operations at underwater archaeological sites. Moreover, museum officials were shocked to hear that the telegraph has now fallen to the sea bed at a depth of some 90 m and had been lost and presumably damaged or destroyed. There is a clear rupture of a relationship that had been in place in advance of all other dives. Is that not correct?
Mr. Terry Allen:
No, absolutely not, a Chathaoirligh. A one-off decision was made in this case to allow this artefact to be recovered because of the particular circumstances that I have outlined. I gather the Chairman is referencing a letter from the director of the National Museum of Ireland to me. He indicates in the letter that the telegraph went back down. He said that this was the consequence of permitting such work to be undertaken without the appropriate archaeological methodology in place. I wish to point out that the telegraph was brought up in the same way as previous recoveries had been effected. It was an equipment failure that caused it to go back down again. It was nothing to do with the methodology or the presence or otherwise of an archaeologist. The bag burst and it went back down.
Mr. Terry Allen:
Ordinarily, they would not. If archaeologists had been present, it is highly unlikely that they would have gone down on the dive. That has not happened in the past. In general, the archaeologist would possibly have been on the deck or would have been on the boat and might have been in touch by radio with the divers. However, the idea of an archaeologist going down is not something that has been effected in the past. Archaeologists have not gone down in the past. They would have been present on deck but they would not have been unable to intervene to save the artefact. The bag burst. It was an equipment failure.
Mr. Terry Allen:
No, I did not have a meeting. Mr. Bemis was not in the country. I was in touch with Mr. Bemis by telephone. It was not a meeting that took place. I wrote to Mr. Bemis on 12 July stating that we would set aside condition No. 5 of his licence on a once-off basis. I am unsure whether the committee has a copy of that letter.
Mr. Terry Allen:
The letter is dated 12 July. I will provide a copy of that letter. The letter sets out the exceptional circumstances, including the fact that weather conditions were unlikely to facilitate more than one dive and the imperative to minimise the risks associated with operating at the extremes that would apply, as well as the business I referenced earlier about photographic evidence and so on. I said that given those exceptional circumstances the Department was agreeable, on a once-off basis, to the recovery proceeding without a prior survey, subject to the other conditions of the licence being observed. That letter issued to Mr. Bemis on 12 July. I note that the letter from the director of the National Museum of Ireland is dated 14 July. That letter refers to the dive having taken place the day before. I gather the dive took place the day after, that is to say, 13 July.
Section 5 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 2004 includes the following:
In respect of a national monument of which the Minister or a local authority are the owners or the guardians or in respect of which a preservation order is in force, it shall not be lawful for any person to do any of the following things in relation to such national monument:(a) to demolish or remove it wholly or in part or to disfigure, deface, alter, or in any manner injure or interfere with it, or ...
That is how seriously the law looks on this issue. What effect will this have in the future? Let us suppose I was the owner of a wreck elsewhere in the waters around Ireland and I sought to prevent a methodology being imposed or to avoid having archaeologist as part of the diving team. Surely I could point to the licence in this instance.
Mr. Terry Allen:
No, as I said at the start, the licensing conditions are geared towards and regulated and adjusted to suit the individual circumstances.
The Lusitaniais unique - and many reasons have been pointed out - because it is the only shipwreck in Irish waters that is subject to an underwater heritage order. It is a relatively modern wreck in comparison with what we normally deal with, such as Spanish Armada vessels, where clearly completely different criteria apply than would apply to the Lusitania. The artefacts we are talking about are made from bronze and are less susceptible to damage. They are more durable than the timber from a medieval ship being lifted from a seabed. The Drogheda boat, for example, taken from the River Boyne was a wooden medieval ship and we have also dealt with Corrib longboats, which are also timber. The circumstances that apply in the case of the Lusitaniaare radically different than those which arise in the generality of cases. The dive was being undertaken by someone who had more experience than anybody else of the dive site of the Lusitania. The whereabouts of the artefact was known and its nature was known; that it was a metal, bronze object. It had been filmed previously and the actual loss is, we hope, temporary. Divers went down subsequently to try to find it and they intend to make further efforts in that regard. The loss was caused by equipment failure and not through any flaw in the methodology or the approach taken to raise the artefact.
Mr. Terry Allen:
I believe it would be largely unique to this wreck. I am not saying it would not happen again; it is unlikely to happen again but it certainly has no precedent that would apply more widely than in this case. The conditions attached to this licence differed to conditions attached to previous licences, which differed to conditions attached to licences before that again. The licences are geared to reflect the circumstances of the particular operation involved.
My concern is not just about the fact that this is a break with precedent on the actuality of the licence itself, but also around how the licence was generated. The National Monuments (Amendment) Act 2004 states "The Minister shall consult in writing with the Director of the National Museum of Ireland before granting a consent under paragraph (a) of this subsection." Is this committee to understand that the displeasure articulated in the letter to Mr. Allen by the director of the National Museum of Ireland will not be repeated and that the original partnership arrangement that existed would be adhered to in the future?
Mr. Terry Allen:
We are not operating under the 2004 Act in this case; we are operating under the 1987 Act, but the principles are broadly the same in that an underwater heritage order has largely the same bearing on a wreck as would a preservation order on a national monument on land. From his letter, it appears to me that the director of the National Museum of Ireland was especially concerned that the absence of an archaeologist had resulted in the artefact being lost. It was explained to him that this did not happen. In his letter the director also asked to be reassured that this turn of events could be understood as exceptional and that it was not representative of a major change of policy regarding the protection of underwater archaeological heritage in Irish waters. The museum had been consulted about this licence. The licence had been issued. One condition was taken out of the licence subsequently, which is the one we are talking about. The museum had been consulted about it so it was entirely au faitwith what was happening. The museum had, I presume, come back to us. We consult the museum as a matter of routine regarding every underwater archaeological licence. In many cases the museum does not come back to us at all and we hear nothing back. If we do not hear anything back within ten days we assume there is no objection.
Despite the general tone of that letter, where the director clearly states that it was the 11th hour and the museum had not been au faitwith the licence conditions, is Mr. Allen is stating the museum had actually been given the full conditionality of the licence? How many days in advance would that have been?
Mr. Terry Allen:
As the museum gets about ten days to look at licences, ten days would have been given. We either got an observation saying it had no objection or we received no reply. In fairness, in most cases we get a reply, whereby the museum gives us some comment or states it has no objection. I cannot say what happened in this case and I would have to check it for the Chairman. That process, however, would have been undertaken. The museum would have seen the licence, as it would have seen previous licenses. This licence is very similar to previous licences, which would have been approved and seen by the museum also. I wrote back to the director and my colleague is giving the Chairman a copy of the letter. He was given an explanation as to what had happened and was assured it was not a precedent for anything else, did not represent any change and was simply a one-off relaxation of the requirement for an archaeologist due to the particular circumstances of the case - as I have outlined - and that there was a lot of knowledge about the artefact.
We must also take into account that the owner has pledged to make this artefact available to a local museum, along with previous lifts from the wreck. We must be conscious that if an archaeologist is required to be present there are costs associated with that. It is a question of being reasonable in the circumstances. In this case I took the view that given what was involved in the circumstances there was not a lot to be gained by the presence of an archaeologist. The temporary loss, as I have explained, of the bridge telegraph is not permanent, hopefully. It would have happened with or without an archaeologist.
To give the committee a fuller picture, when he gets back to his office will Mr. Allen submit to the committee the response of the National Museum of Ireland to Mr. Allen's initial submission to the museum of the licence criteria? This will give us an understanding of that middle step.
They are all the questions I have on this issue. It is important to articulate there is a strong fear among the archaeological community and those who are interested in the heritage and history of the wrecks in the waters around Ireland, as well as anxiety that we ensure a maximalist view regarding the criteria and law to make sure this heritage is not lost to future generations. Many people will still question the fact of the change in the approach to the licensing and the loss of the bridge telegraph artefact at the same time. Mr. Allen said there would be a likelihood of the telegraph being found. What is the likelihood?
Mr. Terry Allen:
I have little doubt but that it will be found. The diver has given us an interim report that explains he has gone down a number of times since to try to find the artefact. He has failed so far to find it. He has said that if necessary, he will get a remote operating vehicle that will go down and to film the seabed remotely. They are quite determined to get it back. I see no reason not to. There would have been no damage done to it as this is a robust, heavy piece of bronze that would not be damaged by falling.
Mr. Terry Allen:
In the bag and in the water, so it would not have been a heavy landing. The biggest risk is trawlers and nets being trawled across the wreck. This has damaged the wreck significantly in the past. The telegraph that was brought up when they were down looking for the original one in October had net filament attached to it. It had been dragged from its original location to where they came across it. We have an agreement with the divers, formalised in the memorandum of understanding, that if they come across artefacts that are clearly dislocated from the wreck, they are entitled to take them up and recover them. They have done this with the second telegraph artefact. They have undertaken to go back down to look for this. I hope it will happen in the coming year and we will get it.
Mr. Paul Connolly:
It would be difficult to enforce such a measure. Logistically it would be a nightmare. Most fishermen know the general location of the wreck of the Lusitaniaand would tend to avoid it, especially since the underwater heritage order was placed on it. There would be a good acknowledgement or awareness that this is a protected site and is to be avoided.
Mr. Terry Allen:
It is 11 miles offshore, or thereabouts, so it is not something one could see or watch from land. A measure such as that would take the Naval Service to be on site and that is not practical. In theory, a fishing boat dragging a net across the wreck is probably in breach of the underwater heritage order because it is disturbing the wreck, which is a protected structure. In theory, the Minister's consent is needed in that regard but in practical terms it is difficult to know what we could do.
There is probably nothing practical that can be done to protect it. There is a German submarine in Cork Harbour and the same issue arises with that. There have been difficulties in protecting it from people diving down and interfering with it. If the problem is not nets, it can be something else. We will come back to the committee on that but, to be clear, there is no precedent. It is a one-off because of the particular circumstances. I have responded to the director of the museum and asked him to confirm that for me. I did not hear back from the director of the museum so I am assuming he is now happy that the undertaking has been given and that it has not happened.
It is probably the case also that the licence we are talking about now was the last such licence given for the Lusitania. There is not a subsequent one where the committee could see that we have reverted to the norm in a different circumstance.