Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 6 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection
National Action Plan on the Development of the Islands: Discussion
Apologies have been received from Senators Mark Wall and Paul Gavan. Before commencing, I remind members participating remotely that they must do so from the precincts of Leinster House. I am pleased today to commence our discussion on a priority item of this committee's work programme, our consideration of the proposed national action plan on the development of the islands from the Department of Rural and Community Development.
The coastal islands and communities are a crucial part of both our history and heritage. Our committee wants to hear the voice of islanders and get their opinion on what is needed to stop population decline, reduce the downward trend and build and sustain vibrant communities. Key matters to be discussed include vital transport and social infrastructure needed by the islands, taking in education, childcare, transport, housing and broadband, as well as key supports required in industries like tourism, fishing, small business and farming.
I am very conscious the publication of this action plan is long overdue and while the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed its publication, it also now provides us with a very new dynamic in how we can support islands and communities and stimulate job creation. Key to this are the three very basic elements of infrastructure, which are water, electricity and broadband.
As Minister with responsibility for energy, I insisted Ireland, along with the European Commission and 13 other member states, would sign up to the Clean Energy for EU Islands initiative, which would not only provide reliable and sustainable electricity offering to offshore islands but, if managed properly, can also provide seed capital for a new wave of community enterprise. Broadband is more technically challenging but this Government's welcome commitment to fast-tracking the delivery of this infrastructure must mean a real step change in timelines for our islands. I am firmly of the view that innovative delivery of water, electricity and broadband infrastructure to our islands can be used as a template for other isolated communities right throughout our country, benefiting all our citizens, regardless of whether they reside on our mainland or islands. Therefore, this crucial work on the action plan should be expedited and we must, as a committee, use this short time to have an impactful input and ensure our island populations are catered for as necessary. We must meet their needs and requirements, just as we do with everybody else on the mainland.
I am very happy to welcome two groups before us this morning. We welcome Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin, chief executive officer of Comhar na nOiléan; Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill, chairperson of Comhar na nOiléan and manager of Comharchumann Forbartha Árann; Mr. Simon Murray, board member of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann; and Ms Aisling Moran, chair of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann.
Before commencing I have a note on privilege. Witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory towards an identifiable person or entity, the witnesses will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative they comply with any such direction. For witnesses participating remotely outside the precincts of Leinster House today, they are reminded that parliamentary privilege does not apply in this case and the same level of caution should be applied as previously mentioned.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call on Ms Moran and Mr. Murray of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann to make their opening statement, and they will be followed by Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin, chief executive officer of Comhar na nOiléan.
Ms Aisling Moran:
-----and creating sustainable, vibrant island communities. For committee members who may not know of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, we were founded in 1984 and represent the offshore inhabited islands. The organisation’s aim is the social, economic and cultural development of island communities, achieved through representation at local, national and EU levels. Ultimately, we strive to maintain and increase the island populations. It is important to remember that although islands have much in common they are different places and have different circumstances and challenges. One of the challenges we face around the islands is they are quite different in lots of ways and quite similar in others.
I am Aisling Moran and I am chair of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. I am the project worker with Sherkin Island Development Society and for the past decade I have been a passionate advocate for the islands. We are looking for a holistic way towards sustainable living on the islands. My colleague, Simon Murray from Inishbofin, County Galway, has spent his entire life working for and with island communities, ensuring their key concerns are continuously addressed, resolved and brought to light. He brings with him a wealth of knowledge on what has and has not worked on the islands over the last number of years. We will not say how many years but it is a lot.
As recommended we will keep our statement within five to ten minutes. I hope to address some of the policy measures as outlined in the national document, Our Rural Future. One of the aspects was addressed by the Chairman, that is, that there is "an extra dimension due to the islands’ separation from the mainland". For us, that extra dimension sometimes manifests in additional living challenges and we can see this through population decline. Just as a point to note, in 1841, which is a long time ago, the islands' population was 34,219. As of 2016 it is 2,627. That is a huge decline. No other community has experienced such a dramatic decline and it is a threat. There is no other place in Ireland that has experienced a decline like that. Our figures for education, employment and access to broadband are all below the national average and this is all outlined in the document. Similarly to any disadvantaged or marginalised community, our survival is reliant on a deeper understanding, advocacy and support from the wider community. A combined effort from islanders with local and national government is required and it is great to see that opportunity manifesting itself today. Islanders themselves have proved their resilience and hardworking nature in surviving to date.
Many of the actions and ambitions in Our Rural Future are valuable, wide-ranging policy measures. What really gives us hope for the future is the Government's commitment to the development and sustainability of our island communities. That is something we really want to grab hold of and are really grateful for. This includes the publication of the ten-year policy for the islands' development to 2030. This policy document is the first policy measure within Our Rural Future. It is really important to the islands and will shape their nature for the next few decades. Over the course of this year, Comhdháil has conducted online workshops and consultations. One of the biggest things we get feedback on is meaningful consultation, which the Chairman mentioned. It is about islanders' voices being really heard at local, national and European level. We have asked that the draft of the policy document be available for comment prior to the final publication. It is islanders' opinion our first-hand experience will greatly enhance the efficacy of the document. As with any policy document, success is based on actions, implementation plans and follow-up. These are the kind of things we are really aiming and hoping for within the first policy measure of Our Rural Future. We want to get the opportunity to comment on a draft and see that there are actions and implementation plans.
Vital infrastructure is another aspect of this, which the Chairman also mentioned. We have piers, harbours, roads and ferries. When we look at vital infrastructure, we must include housing. We did a housing workshop in 2021. We have severe problems with housing. I am conscious it is a national problem as well but if we do not have affordable housing for islanders to live in then we will not have people living on the islands. Among the additional information we supplied to the committee is the report on housing. We have worked with Comhar na nOileán and we will be doing more work on that during the year. Again, we do not have a solution for it but it must be looked at as part of the vital infrastructure.
When we look at things that have worked and are commented on in the policy document, one of these is the interagency aspect. I am lucky enough to be part of what is called the West Cork Islands Interagency. It brings agencies at a local level together with local authorities and the islanders to talk about the best way to solve problems together. Something like this in each of the counties which has islands would be really beneficial. It opens up lines of communication for everybody so we really look forward to something like that happening. The interdepartmental committee has potential to be a huge success and we very much welcome that there is such a committee and there is that opportunity for the Departments to work together on all policies. Comhdháil recently had the opportunity to speak before this committee and it was greatly appreciated. We hope that will be replicated a couple of times a year. When any Department is writing policies, we would offer our services at any stage for questions its officials may have. That is what we are here for as well. If people have questions about any policies that have been written at Government level, Comhdháil can answer them. Any Department is welcome to call or email us and we will give our best opinion on how we see some of the policies affecting islanders and the sustainability and vibrancy of island communities into the future.
Broadband was also mentioned and is mentioned in the document. We are looking at opportunities for GTeic and enterprise hubs and it is really good we have seen the roll-out of some of this. We are also talking with National Broadband Ireland. We are looking for fibre to be rolled out within the island communities and not just a signal bounce. That is vital. That is what is happening everywhere else across the country and it needs to be happening on the islands as well to ensure we have the same connectivity available as on the mainland. It must go into the homes as well because we have all seen the success and the impact of working from home and it is not going away. If we are to keep up with it, we must ensure that is what is happening with National Broadband Ireland and within the policy documents we are putting out.
The document goes on to mention how the islands can be test beds for innovative technologies and anything that could maximise the potential for this is obviously greatly appreciated. We already are test beds in many ways but anything that can improve that would be great. It is really good to see the emergence of ehealth. This could have major positive effects for the islands, along with HSE primary healthcare review which is under way in the four counties. The HSE has set up these interagencies to get the actions and the implementation structures of that plan moving, which is really positive as well as being vital for us on the islands.
There are many policy measures around the coast, our marine and the sea. We welcome any marine sustainability development plan in partnership with the islands. Comhdháil works really closely with the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation, IIMRO, which is the representative body of island fishermen and fisherwomen. This group feeds into many of the policy documents. Members of IIMRO and Comhdháil often stress the importance of the Island Fisheries (Heritage Licence) Bill 2017 is currently on Committee Stage in the Dáil. This would protect and aid islanders in utilising the waters around the islands in a manner that protects both island heritage and the environment.
We would look to include that in the policy and would look for support on it where possible.
We are delighted to have the opportunity to speak before all members of the committee, Deputies, Senators and Chairperson, and very grateful for the inclusion of chapter 10 in Our Rural Future. It is a real step forward for the islands. We recognise that it addresses many of the concerns of islanders, and that is very positive. Farming and education are notably absent from the policy measures in the document. The document does recognise the challenges faced by island farmers and recognises that the percentage of the island population holding third level qualifications, at about 18%, is lower than the national average of 24%. We believe both these challenges can be addressed through a ten-year policy document and the interdepartmental committee. Even though they are not included among the policy measures in Our Rural Future, they can definitely be included in the islands policy document.
A partial solution to the farming challenges would be to include an island-unique measure in the national CAP strategy. The education system on islands requires aid and improvement and lots of discussion. This is where the notion that all islands are a little different comes from. On some islands it is access to education that needs addressing as well as how we can get equal access to education for islanders at both primary and secondary level. On other islands there is education but there are limited and stretched resources. We need to think about how we can achieve the goal of getting education on the islands up to the national average.
It is an honour for me to speak before the committee. I am full of hope and anticipation that we can all work together to achieve something. Having a policy document at a national level and the islands document and interdepartmental committee are all positive steps. I hope we have change-makers in the room today, that we will be able to leave a legacy and that we will not be looking at the absolute decimation of populations in 50 or 100 years' time.
That was my brief synopsis of some of the issues. I hope some of the recommendations will be taken on board. I will pass over to Mr. Simon Murray, my colleague, who will briefly conclude our statement.
Mr. Simon Murray:
Good morning, Chairperson and committee members. I will finish off our statement, although Ms Moran has more or less covered everything. As Our Rural Future outlines, islanders are, overall, more disadvantaged than those living on the mainland, as we know. Successive Governments have accepted that this is the case and that it is important to maintain sustainable communities on the islands, valuing the contribution that islanders make to the mainland economy, the Wild Atlantic Way and the culture and heritage of the country, as some examples. Specific, exceptional measures to counter this disadvantage have been recognised. The Government has funded island-specific capital programmes, provided targeted supports for islanders, made certain exceptional arrangements for islanders in mainstream programmes and developed some policies with specific mention of the islands, all of which the islanders appreciate.
While islanders have always worked in close partnership with their local authorities and statutory agencies, it has been islanders' experience over the decades that if there are not specific island policy programmes and budgets, islands inevitably lose out as we simply do not have the critical mass to compete with other interests on the mainland. Islanders require island-specific strategies delivered by those who have an understanding and experience of the particular challenges involved in developing enterprises and community projects on the offshore islands to ensure that islands continue to be sustainable communities into the future.
One of the main ways to truly achieve the objectives set out in Our Rural Future is to reinstate, with a meaningful budget, the islands capital budget, providing moneys to co-fund island capital projects with their respective county councils, the HSE, the Department of Education, sports capital programmes or whatever budgets can be co-funded. This is to work in tangent with the current subsidised system for air transport, ferries and cargo boats as well as funding to the island development offices and co-operatives. It goes without saying that behind the financial structures, success will also rely on a strong action plan and policy document for our offshore islands.
I will also say to people who have not seen it, as I always say this at any opportunity I get, that there was a brilliant documentary made called "Inis Airc: Bás Oileáin", which means Inis Airc, death of an island. It is on TG4 and YouTube, and I strongly urge everybody to watch it. It is about the death of Inis Airc, which happened in 1960. I know that seems like a long time ago but it is actually not because, for islanders who live on islands, this is the shadow that stops us all the time, the possibility of the lights going out on an island. If members had 45 minutes to spare in their lives at some stage, I would strongly advise them to watch that documentary. It will give them a very strong taste of why Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann is in existence and why we spend our lifetimes trying to keep islands alive.
Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin:
I am CEO of the local development company, Comhar na nOileán. Joining me is Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill, who is our chairperson and also a manager of Comharchumann Forbartha Árann. Comhar na nOileán was founded on the concept of strengthening communities on the islands through working with them, delivering programmes and leveraging support to enhance and sustain them. We deliver a diverse number of programmes such as social inclusion and community activation programmes, LEADER, the rural social scheme and the walks scheme, all of which are so important to the islands and the communities around the coast. We were initially set up as a local action group to deliver programmes to the Irish islands during the cohesion process of 2004 out of what was initially Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. Then came the alignment process in 2014 brought about by the former Minister, Phil Hogan, and the Putting People First policy. All the local and rural development programmes were aligned with the community development committees set up under the local authorities.
The nature of community on the islands is evolving. Now that we are emerging from Covid-19, there are significant challenges and opportunities facing our communities, including a transition to a zero-carbon economy and climate change mitigation. Believe me, no one is more worried about climate change than islanders as we are all very vulnerable to any changes in the environment around us. Biodiversity is crucial to us and it is the reason most islands are very special. There are high nature value landscapes all over the islands. Youth involvement, social enterprise, community planning and smart villages - we are working towards all these things the whole time. This evolving community make-up brings challenges and opportunities, social, cultural and economic. All our objectives in our organisation and working with others are based on supporting communities to use their own assets, building their capacity in order that they are stronger, resilient, enterprising, integrated and sustainable.
The most important aspect of this is community and local animation and capacity-building to stimulate ideas and enterprise, particularly in disadvantaged, peripheral island communities, with most islands in that category. Every island deserves an equal opportunity to access resources and funding and develop projects that benefit its local area. That is our role. We provide the capacity-building and animation on the ground in order that communities can access programmes.
Comhar na nOileán is the only local development company based in the Gaeltacht and also located on an offshore island, Inis Oírr, Oileáin Árann. Comhar na nOileán and its predecessor, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, have successfully delivered, for example, the LEADER programme, the rural development programme, on the islands since 2000.
Comhar na nOileán functions because of the funding we receive for the various programmes that we administer. We are very grateful for it. The majority of our funding is through the Departments of Rural and Community Development and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and various other Departments.
I would like to thank all present for giving us the opportunity to come here and explain ourselves and to congratulate and thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the officials in her Department for supporting rural communities in Ireland through the transitional LEADER funds and other rural development funds. This is the first time we have seen an interim programme for LEADER. The interim programme is especially important at this crucial time, after the pandemic and Brexit, to support our rural communities and islands until the next LEADER programming period in 2023. We also welcome the increase in the funding rate for community and private projects, which has been especially important for the islands. This funding has been crucial for communities which have limited borrowing power and cash flow and which incurred additional costs relating to completing projects on the islands.
We welcome the policy document Our Rural Future, which runs to 120 pages and outlines 150 different actions to revive rural Ireland. We especially welcome Chapter 10 - Supporting the Sustainability of our Islands and Coastal Communities. It is heartening to see that we have some of the same ambitions as those outlined in Our Rural Future, which states: "Our ambition is to ensure our offshore islands continue to support sustainable and vibrant communities and that visitors have an opportunity to experience and appreciate the unique culture, heritage and environmental richness the islands have to offer." The reference to visitors is a little worrying. We feel that the islands should not just be sustained for visitors. The islands contribute greatly to the economy and culture. They often stimulating the economies of nearby mainland areas, especially in the context of tourism.
There are 12 policy measures relating to the islands and coastal communities mentioned in the document. The main one for us is the ten-year policy for islands development to 2030. Our Rural Future promises an extensive consultation process with island communities and there is a commitment to address issues such as housing, health, energy, utilities, waste management, climate change, education, connectivity, infrastructure and transport. There is also a commitment regarding three-year action plans for delivery across various Departments.
In recent years we have seen the publication of a number of policies and health reports in this regard. We should think about revisiting some of those reports, of which the Primary Care Island Services Review April 2017 is one. I know that it experienced setbacks due to Covid-19 but that report should be revisited. There was a great deal of work, involving consultation with the islands, done on that.
Fibre, in the context of broadband, is completely crucial to all of us. We want to see it coming to the islands
The past five years have been quite challenging in the context of delivering various programmes on the islands. Most of the programmes are being delivered, administered and managed through the local community development committee, LCDC, structures on a county-wide basis. As a result of this, islanders have to compete for limited resources with populations and interests that are much more advanced. Island-specific strategies need to be delivered by a body or organisation with an understanding and experience of the particular challenges of developing community enterprises and projects on the offshore islands. This was happening before 2015 and it has been shown to work effectively.
In order to allay concerns that specific calls for island strategies may conflict with the alignment policy introduced in the previous programme and ensure that work under the programmes is aligned with the work of the relevant LCDCs, we recommend that the strategies under the programmes be agreed and approved by the LCDCs in the island counties. Once they are agreed as policy, there should then be separate island strategies and mechanisms that can be devised in order to ensure that anything that happens is in line with national policy.
We in Comhar na nOileán believe that our organisation and Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann are key agencies in delivering on the actions and policy measures outlined in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future in conjunction with other groups such as Údarás na Gaeltachta, local authorities, the HSE and Departments. We also believe that agencies already in existence on the islands be used during the promised consultation process. Our Rural Future sits perfectly with Comhar na nOileán's strategic plan for the period 2021 to 2028. Our objectives are: sustaining the organisation and maintaining excellent governance; strengthening communities; stimulating enterprise; addressing poverty and social inclusion; education and training; culture and language; the natural environment; and harnessing our natural resources, which, of course, is very important. All this can be achieved by cohesion between the various funding streams such as LEADER, the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, the walks scheme, the rural social scheme, the rural regeneration programme and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme.
We recommend the following to be taken into account: LEADER funds for the period 2021 to 2027 to be allocated nationally and ring-fenced for the islands and that Comhar na nOileán or a similar body be the delivery body for the next LEADER programme and other programmes; that the islands of Ireland be treated as one geographic area and not dispersed across four LCDCs in order that there would be no need to deal with up to six or seven evaluation committees during that process; and that the request for grant aid for private individual projects be increased from 50% to 75% and from 75% to 85% for community projects on the islands. The current LEADER programme is not suitable for the islands because islanders have limited borrowing power and cash flow and have additional costs involved in completing projects on the islands. As an example, a few years ago the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, increased the grant amount available to the islands by 50% because it recognised that there were additional cargo and VAT costs involved with bringing materials on to the offshore islands and in completing projects there.
We are of the view that the islands should be treated as one area and one lot under SICAP and not be viewed as part of the wider electoral divisions within the four relevant counties. The funding allocation under SICAP should not be based on population figures. The islands will never win the contest in that regard because their populations are so small. The population of the islands should be treated as a specific target group under SICAP. The current target groups are the unemployed, Travellers, and the Roma community, etc. We we would like islanders to be seen as a specific target group as well. We have requested this on a number of occasions and have been told that we need to prove that point and carry out a socioeconomic studies in respect of each of the islands. However, there is already acceptance, in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future, that, for instance, employment is less than the national average and that the proportion of the island population with no formal or primary education is higher than the national average. Do we really need to prove this? We can do so.
We have the skills in our organisations to do that, and we will come back and revisit the matter. It would be extremely useful if, under programmes such as SICAP, islanders were recognised as a specific target group.
My main point is that we should have island-specific programmes. We can deliver on many of the actions mentioned in Our Rural Future. We welcome the latter. We thank the committee for giving us a chance to comment on the proposed action plan. We look forward to assisting with it and participating in it.
Gabhaim buíochas leis na finnéithe agus tá fáilte rompu. It is good to have the submissions. Every facet of life on an island is different from on the mainland. You have to look right across the differences in accessing services and so on from the time you are born until the time you die. Was the loss of the status and the automatic choice for the delivery of programmes such as LEADER, SICAP, etc., which previously included all the islands, a significant blow to Comhar na nOileán?
Preschools and crèches are a significant issue but there are obviously some constrained numbers on some of the small islands all the way up to Inis Mór, but even its numbers are constrained. Should there be a special scheme that would deal with preschool childcare of all types, including early childhood care and education, ECCE, and crèches, in order to make it viable to have preschool care for children?
The next issue is energy. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil Comharchumann Fuinnimh Oileáin Árann ann. On that, if you were to use or exploit the possibilities of renewable energy, how important will it be for the State to provide the cable to the mainland in order to export any surplus energy from the islands, which could become a significant energy generator? Do the witnesses believe that the Department responsible for the islands should have capital funding to pay for the extra cost of installing an undersea cable, and maybe fibre at the same time, and in the case of Aran, possibly installing water infrastructure at the same time? That was done at Gola many years ago. How key is this co-funding from the Department to make sure that expensive things actually happen?
Co-funding peaked at between €20 million and €30 million and dropped back to €2 million to €3 million. Is there an adequate small works programme every year on the islands? There used to be. The co-funding for health centres and so on dried up in the past ten years. What is the effect of that on inhibiting the development of necessary social infrastructure on the islands? How big is the outstanding large-scale capital programme? We know about Inis Oírr and Inis Meáin. There are piers all around the coast, for example, Roonagh Pier and in Donegal, where work needs to be done. How substantial a capital programme would be needed just for major marine projects?
Do the county councils' housing plans, when it comes to planning permission for private housing, meet the needs of permanent dwellers on islands, businesses and farming? Are any social houses being built on the islands at the moment? My experience is that few social houses, and possibly none, have been built on islands in recent years. How important would it be to have a social housing programme to retain the same mix of population that anywhere else in the country would have?
Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill:
I thought I was off the hook in that I hate being the last speaker because my three colleagues have eloquently covered the issues that the islands face. I was sitting here wondering what I was going to say. I am going to speak as an islander born and bred. As a development officer for 30 years, I am afraid to say the number working for Comharchumann Forbartha Árann and the local development organisation. I am a member of Comhar na nOileán and of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. I will speak from my heart as an islander. I know the politically correct thing to do is to welcome the plan. I welcome it wholeheartedly. I have seen enough plans in the past 30 years for the islands that they would keep my chair up if it disintegrated tomorrow. As much as I welcome the plan, my fear is - this was also the case with previous plans - that it will not be implemented. There is still an idyllic notion of the islands. Other speakers mentioned how crucial they are to island, both historically and culturally. I still feel that we are the poor relations of Ireland. There is an image of the islands being idyllic and beautiful, which they are. There are still people who think we all write poems and paint, and that grants are thrown at us right, left and centre. Many ordinary people have that image of the islands.
As beautiful and amazing as the islands are, with our unique way of life, island life is difficult and living on islands is difficult due to the cost of living, the logistics and this constant battle to try to preserve what we have. We have battled with many Governments over the years to keep essential services. We have had to fight tooth and nail to keep an air service to the Aran Islands. We should not have had to do that. It should have been taken as a given. Examples from Europe are always given. Those examples are taken when it suits and they are not at other times. I have just come back from an annual general meeting of the European Small Islands Federation. I talked to our island counterparts in Europe. They are treated totally differently by their governments.
I hate being a negative ninny here. Much good work has been done on the islands. Ministers have done excellent work. I am looking at one across from me, Deputy Ó Cuív, who had such an understanding of the islands. We should not be depending on individual Deputies or Ministers to have that understanding. There should be a policy in place for the islands from the top down, that has listened to the islanders and the needs of the islands. Our counterparts in Europe have free travel and freight to the islands. They take it that the islands are part of the country and that they should not be penalised for living on an island. I often feel that we are penalised for living on an island. The cost of living is 30% to 40% higher. Incentives for health and education have been taken away. For example, an extra allowance for teachers to come in was taken away. There are significant difficulties in obtaining teachers. It is double the cost to come out, with maybe shorter hours. We know that it is difficult to get teachers nationally. We will have issues with doctors, health, and so on. As much as I welcome the plan, we need plans relating to the islands to be implemented.
We need that ten-year policy for the islands that has been completed. That could be the saviour of the islands. We are now at a critical crossroads. Chapter 10 covers the population decline and the ageing population. It is difficult to get people to return home because of the difficulties on the islands. We have seen during Covid-19 that some came home and would love to stay home.
There are huge problems with planning on the islands, because many in "the powers that be" feel that islands should be kept as open-air museums. Islands are only worth the people that live on them. We can have all the forts and Dún Aonghases in the world, and they are lovely. However, if there is no vibrant community there, then what is an island? What makes an island? I would like to think that it is more than these ancient forts: it is the people who have lived there and who want to live there. We need a policy and a plan from the Government to identify the islands, as Ms Uí Mhaoláin has mentioned, as a specific group in their own right, and to put strategic funding and supports in place. We should not have to depend on a new Minister who may or may not understand the islands, every time Government changes. We need to have security. If Ireland and the Government is serious about the future of the islands, it is critical that these plans are implemented.
Ms Moran touched on a tax incentive. I have often brought this up. What is needed and what could change the future of the islands was if there were a specific rate tax incentive for islanders. We broached this before and were told that it could not happen under EU rules. However, we all know that since Covid-19 hit, things can be done, changed and implemented. This is a small population base and we need to get people back. People now want to work from the islands.
Fibre broadband was mentioned. That needs to be put in place urgently. There should be a tax incentive to encourage teachers, doctors, etc., to go back to the islands. They are not going to have the population base. The economies of scale are not there on the islands. It is just not there, for a lot of those areas of work. If we were to try to encourage a GP to move from a practice in the city to a small island, there have to be incentives in place. While I genuinely welcome the plan, my fear comes from seeing more plans being published without being implemented. Someone at the higher level of Government needs to ask if we are serious about islands and their way of life. If the Government and if the committee are serious about this, then the plan needs to be implemented, and it needs to be implemented urgently, because we are at a crossroads. The islands, as stated, are in population decline and have an ageing population.We are going to lose a way of life and a culture. When it is gone, it will be difficult to turn the clock back. As an islander, as a development officer, and as a member - and my three colleagues covered all the other points - this needs to be taken seriously. It cannot be another plan to sit on another shelf, beside all the other plans that have been published over the years without being implemented. My hope is that this group and committee will follow through. We need a committee, group and Government to be serious about the islands, and to not just ad libabout how great and culturally important we are. I do not say this in a derogatory way. While I appreciate it, and I know the Government understands the islands, we need follow up and follow through.
People want to come back to the islands, but we have educated our youth to leave. It is great that they can do that. When I was growing up, there were 32 in our class. Most of the lads went fishing, they came back, and they lived on the islands. Now they are all going on. They are doing the leaving certificate. They are going to college. They are getting degrees and PhDs. They need an opportunity to come back. Remote working is a huge opportunity now. However, the infrastructure is not in place and the cost of living is huge. There are many other issues, such as difficulties for pregnant women and all those concerns, etc. We therefore need the supports in place.
On the whole, we need a tax incentive to encourage people. It should be specifically aimed at the islands, and a policy should follow up on that. We do not want to be back when another Government and another Minister comes in, to battle and keep fighting for essential services that should be taken as a given. We should have our transport. We should have our freight delivered. We should not have to pay through the nose. That should be a given as national policy, and taken by each Government going forward. I will shut up now and go raibh maith agaibh for listening.
Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin:
Can I please answer some of Deputy Ó Cuív’s questions? There was the fact that the programmes were divvied out in lots. He asked if the last programming period for LEADER and the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, was a big blow to the islands. It almost decimated our company, to be quite honest. It transpires from our experience that it did not work for the islands, to a great extent. We currently deliver the LEADER programme in the Donegal islands, the Mayo islands and the Cork islands. We also deliver the LEADER programme on the mainland in Cork. We have the rural social scheme, RSS, all over the Irish islands. We also have the rural recreation and walks scheme in Cork. We are therefore spread out country-wide, but we are based on Inis Oírr, one of the Aran Islands. It is always a shock to people, and to the islanders on the three Aran Islands and on Inishbofin Island, that we do not deliver any programmes, the LEADER programme specifically, or SICAP to those islands. Even people from Government Departments have remarked that although we are based on the Aran Islands we do not deliver the programmes to them. It is just ridiculous. As well as that, the last programming period had huge implications on our company, where we had to cut staff hours and cut our cloth according to our measure. We have managed to keep going.
On the Deputy's question as to how it affected us, the LEADER programme is now under the Local Community Development Committee, LCDC, on a county-wide basis. We managed to get money ringfenced for the Donegal islands and the Cork islands. However, we had to fight hard for it. We were fighting against all the other local development companies as well. It is a huge waste of resources to have groups that are trying to achieve the same thing up against each other and competing for resources in that way. Of course, we have a tiny population, so it was difficult for us to have to fight for money, but we did.-----
Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin:
Yes. Within our own company it was fairly distributed to all the islands. If one takes, for instance, the Mayo islands and the LEADER programme, no money was ringfenced for the Mayo islands during the last LEADER programme. That means that it was allocated on a first come, first served, county-wide basis. It ended up that the expenditure on the Mayo islands was small, because the islands could not compete with Castlebar, Ballina and the wider county. In other areas, like Donegal, they came to an agreement whereby they would put €500,000 of the LEADER funds aside for the Donegal islands. We spent all that money on the Donegal islands. The same thing happened in Cork; we spent all that money in Cork. However, in Mayo, funds were allocated on a first come, first served basis, so the islands lost out. They did not have the resources to compete with the mainland for money. I am therefore not sure if it works. If one wants to target funding to an area, it has to be based on a local development strategy for that specific area. That is why we would like to see one local development strategy for all the Irish islands taking in all the Government programmes. Many resources are delivered through programmes, and they can be useful.
There were a few other things that Deputy Ó Cuív brought up, such as preschools and crèches, which are crucially needed on the islands. Many islands now have little working hubs. Inis Oírr has one, as does Clare Island. Some of the Donegal islands, such as Árainn Mhór have one. However, to have a hub, one needs childcare as well. Apart from all that, every preschool child in Ireland deserves a preschool education.
The children on the islands are no different. It is even more crucial on Gaeltacht islands as language is transferred through these mechanisms and through the supports for families who have moved to the islands who may be struggling.
We are looking forward to na pleananna teanga i leith na hoileáin Ghaeltachta. Hopefully, that will be a turning point; beidh sé cinniúnach i saol na n-oileán Gaeltachta go mbeadh na pleananna teanga á bhfeidhmiú agus dá bhrí sin go mbeadh tacaíocht do na naíonraí agus go mbeadh cúram leanaí ann.
The small works scheme is a major issue and it is raised among groups all the time. I understand there is no small works scheme and there has not been for the past few years. It is an issue for the Donegal islands and some of the smaller islands which may only want to improve a few hundred, or much fewer, metres, of a local road. It is important we have a small works scheme.
I will leave it to Mr. Murray and Ms Moran to address the question on health centres.
Ms Moran mentioned the issue of planning. Housing is a major issue. A very large proportion of the area of many of our islands is designated as a special area of conversation, including the island I live on, Inis Meáin and the Aran Islands. Tory Island is another island where it is almost impossible to get planning. There are no houses for sale on the islands. The houses remain in the ownership of families. Islanders have limited borrowing power as well. Even if a house comes up for sale, it often ends up in the ownership of someone who could pay much more for it than an islander could afford. Planning is a major issue. Under a housing study being done, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann has emphasised that planning should be specifically addressed. The circumstances are different across the islands. The issues of planning and housing are the biggest threats to population loss on the islands.
We have had good success with renewable energy on the Galway islands. There is a master plan for Inis Oírr and every island needs to have a master plan. We would all work to progress that. Energy and climate change mitigation will be a major feature in all the programmes that will be developed in the new few years. If there was a master plan for the individual islands it would be easy to identify priorities for each year and work to address them in that way.
If an undersea cable for any utilities is being laid it would make sense to include in it fibre, electricity provision and all such provision. There should be more joined-up thinking across the various Departments and agencies such as Irish Water and the HSE when it comes to any capital expenditure for health centres or other facilities. Such resources are crucial. Water supply, energy resources and piers cannot be considered in isolation. The piers are our motorways and roads and they are extremely important for people living on the islands. Such resources and facilities should be dealt with in a much more integrated and joined-up way across Departments. We believe that could be achieved through co-funding budgets and that type of approach.
Ms Aisling Moran:
I thank my two colleagues in Comhar na nOileán. I have been fortunate and unfortunate enough to be part of both of the Leader funding scheme when the islands were regarded as one lot and when they were divided up. Ms Uí Mhaoláin spoke eloquently about this. From a Cork island perspective, I see the benefits hand over fist of having Comhar na nÓileán deliver that programme. It comes back to the point that while we are all representing islands they are all different. The project workers in Comhar na nOileán understand the difficulties and challenges islanders might have in applying for or accessing funding. Not other company would have the capabilities to have that understanding and to deliver on that. It stretches Comhar na nÓileán to have to deal with the local community development committees, LCDCs, across the four regions. I wholeheartedly believe the islands need to be regarded as one lot under the new LEADER funding. For the islands to be sustainable and vibrant into the future, that decision needs to be made at a national level and put out to tender.
With respect to energy issues, having a cable and the capital funds to provide that are definitely important. We struggle to understand the lack of joined-up thinking. In the case of two of the Cork islands, and Sherkin Island in particular which is where I work, there is a fibre cable but we cannot get it connected. We are fighting to get it connected. Eir laid a fibre after Storm Ophelia a few years ago. We have a fibre subsea cable which we cannot get connected. On Bere Island there are people willing to lay the cable but they cannot get a service provider to deliver it. Those are two examples, one, where fibre is available and for some reason it cannot be connected and the other where we have encountered a stumbling block. It is vital we are supported at national level in having cables laid and connected. Hopefully, that would improve our communications.
Renewable energy is the way forward. There is an EU islands secretariat for clean energy and we are part of that. Regarding climate change and the resources islands have to produce renewable energy, we must be forward thinking in terms of a cable to outsource renewable energy if we are seriously thinking about the future of the islands.
On the small works programme, we are very lucky in the Cork islands and I would highlight the positives. The Cork islands have a matched funding programme with the local authority for some of the small roads. We see the benefits of that hand over fist. That should not be dependent on matching funding being provided by the authority in Cork. This should be happening on all of the islands. They all should be treated equally. As is said in our locality, a rising tide should lift all boats. If we are getting a small amount of funding, all the other local authorities should be engaged with the islands in that manner to provide funding for works to roads. An increase in that funding is definitely required.
Funding is needed for the social structures we lack and we continually seek to improve them with the capital works programme. For example, Roonagh Pier and other piers need to be upgraded. Piers need to be constantly upgraded. They should remain on the agenda on health and safety ground as there is wear and tear on the islands all the time. By the time Roonagh Pier is upgraded another island will need its pier upgraded. That is just part of island life and we need to accept that if we are going to embrace the islands as part of Ireland as we go forward. Making the case for that should not be a battle. The approach should not be that the pier was upgraded ten years ago. People need to replace their cars every few years. As piers suffer wear and tear, they need to be upgraded. The boats are getting bigger and there are many different challenges. We need to take a realistic approach to the way we maintain that vital infrastructure.
The education issue is tricky. I would love to engage with the Department of Education. Childcare provision is definitely needed. The challenges in terms of education are different on each island. We need to engage with interested parties and the Department of Education on access to education, getting teachers into schools on the islands, the transport issue, subject choices, blended learning and childcare provision.
We have to look after the children of the islands. They literally are the future. That has to be part of the policy. Earlier, I referenced meaningful consultation and engagement. Ms Ní Ghoill also referenced implementation and that engagement with islanders needs to be meaningful. We have to decide if we are in this or not. We are definitely in it.
Mr. Murray might want to add some details on the capital funding programmes and any other issues I might have missed.
Mr. Simon Murray:
On the capital budget we would hope to have reinstated and what that means for the islands, the islands division specifically and the Minister with responsibility for the islands, it means that for projects on individual islands - for example, a HSE clinic, pier works, road works or other works related to island life - if you are going to the relevant entity, from the islands' perspective and from the islands division perspective, and you have 50% of the budget to do that job then that door is automatically very open as opposed to closed when you were looking for 100% funding. This has worked in the past. There is no reason it will not work in the future. Money gets work done. We know this from the funded projects completed historically and the amount of work we managed to get done at that time. Not too long ago, I was shocked to learn that the islands division had not looked for funding for the capital budget. I guess they just believed it was not there, but that is not the point; the funding should always be looked for.
On the islands' future, if we want continuity of life on the islands and to sustain the communities we are all a part of, although they are ever-dwindling communities, unfortunately, that takes money. Islands are net contributors to the economy from a tourism perspective, not to mention all of the works in terms of fishing, farming and so on that go on across the islands. We are looking only for something to come back our way in return for everything going out. In terms of what that would mean for us as a group from Donegal to Cork, including Mayo and Galway, it means we would still be here in 100 years' time. The past 100 years have been a disgrace in terms of the deliberate Government policies, which are in the archives, that resulted in depopulation of the islands for the want of tiny expenditure. A reduction from 34,000 to 2,300 is a massive collapse from a population perspective. These islands are empty; the lights are out. Inisbofin is in north-west Galway. The three islands next to it, Turbot, Inisturk South and Omey, are all depopulated since the 1970s or later. This is the end result of a lack of everything we are looking for. As I said earlier, a shadow stalks people living on the island in terms of who will be next and the possibility that that could happen in their lifetime. How do you prevent that? It requires co-ordinated, joined-up thinking and a budget that is realistic for the islands to maintain their futures.
I have given a great deal of latitude in terms of witnesses' responses. I ask now that they try to keep their responses tighter in order that I can facilitate members to ask questions and to allow time for the committee to complete another body of work after this session. The next speaker is Deputy Ó Cathasaigh.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. Ar dtús báire, is mór an trua é nach raibh Máire Uí Mhaoláin go huile ar a compord a cur a láthair a thabhairt trí mheán na Gaolainne. Léiríonn sé sin an meon atá istigh anseo i dTeach Laighin faoi úsáid na Gaolainne. Má táimid dáiríre faoi úsáid na Gaolainne istigh anseo, caithfidh go mbeidh sé mar nós comónta do na Teachtaí agus na Seanadóirí anseo na cluasáin a chur orthu muna bhfuil Gaolainn ar a dtoil acu, chun go mbeidh Máire, Cathy agus a leithéid go huile agus go hiomlán ar a gcompord a gcuid gnó a dhéanamh trí mheán na Gaeilge. Is mór an trua é sin.
The one thing Waterford is missing is an island. We have everything else, but no island. I have visited three of the four islands represented here. Ní rabhas ar Inis Oírr go dtí seo. I am very interested in this unit of work that the committee has taken on because it is a huge learning experience for me. The message regarding meaningful consultation comes across strongly. Without the lived experience of an island, you cannot really understand the challenges going on there. I will direct my questions on the education front, which is my own background, to Ms Moran. I would like to understand the challenges a bit more. I note Oileán Chléire is looking to recruit a príomhoide at primary level and it is finding that really difficult to do. I ask Mr. Moran to expand the challenges that face the islands at primary level. I assume the situation in respect of second level is different in terms of subject choices and the numbers coming through the schools. I would like a better understanding as well of the housing challenges. We have talked about planning. The island populations are more dispersed in general. The Town Centre First initiative is welcome in most contexts but I know that it will not lend itself well to most of the island contexts. I ask the witnesses to give me a better insight into the challenges in terms of housing. For example, is it about the cost of land, the cost of housing, access to borrowing and so on?
On the same theme, does the dispersed nature of the population on the islands lock out the islands from certain funding streams? The rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF, and the town and village renewal scheme come to mind. Is it difficult for the islands to access that funding? I assume they may not be eligible for it. I would also welcome an understanding of the demographics of the islands. I assume - and I hope I am not doing so incorrectly - that we are looking at a demographic doughnut whereby there are children but no people in their 20s and 30s and an older population. I am coming from a position of ignorance in that regard. I would genuinely like an overview of the population challenges in terms of demographics and if that creates specific challenges in terms of education, service provision, health provision, etc.
Ms Aisling Moran:
Go raibh maith agat Teachta Ó Cathasaigh. I thank the Deputy for the questions, which are challenging to answer. On education and the specific challenges there, the easiest way to respond to that question is by doing so in regard to one of the main islands that I work with. On the policy for primary school education, the Government has said that it would never close an island school. In 2012, the pupil-teacher ratio for the islands was 8:2, which was less than the ratio in respect of the mainland. However, if a school lost a teacher it had to have 12 students to gain that teacher back. Sherkin Island lost out because of the requirement to have the numbers in by 30 September. Our numbers went below eight for two weeks. They went back up to nine but never reached 12 and that was the beginning of the end for Sherkin Island. We lobbied really hard but we could not get anywhere with it. By the time that was rectified it helped some of the other islands but for Sherkin Island it did not matter. This is the fight Ms Ní Ghoill spoke about. It was too little too late for us by the time that happened.
It starts to fall down once that second teacher is lost. It is a factor when people come to look at the island. A family of four came to look and we had a one-teacher school and were not moving to a two-teacher school. There are issues with access to education at primary school level. As Ms Ní Ghoill said, Cape Clear had a major issue attracting teachers because it is much more expensive to live on an island. There are additional challenges, yet the Government incentives that were there before have all disappeared. There is no incentive to attract teachers in now and there is a huge challenge involved with trying to get teachers in to teach the island children. It is an issue for us at primary level and often for the islands around Cork.
If a school closes and parents want their children to travel in and out to school, then the existing policies do not cater for those children doing so or for their parents to go with them. It could cost up to €120 a week for parents to get their children to and from school. There is a waiting time of around five hours, including collecting them and bringing them back. In anyone's terms, that is not viable. It is not possible to educate our children that way. It is a small minority because we have the inshore islands down here with us. An island like Inisturk, however, has smaller numbers, but parents and children there will not be doing the same thing because daily travel in and out to school is not viable. Therefore, we must have discussions where people understand the nuances of the challenges involved.
I am not as qualified to talk about the situation with the secondary schools. Ms Ní Ghoill mentioned the resources. On Arranmore, they also talk about the challenges with subject choice and getting the children in. We are in the age of technology and blended learning, but children leave Inishbofin at the age of 12. The people on the island also had to fight to ensure that they were not forking out a fortune to get their children to and from school. Each island is a little different and it is necessary to understand the nuances in each context. This is never going to set a major precedent or cost the State a great deal of money. It will just take someone in the right Department with the right will a little bit of time and understanding. The knock-on effect of understanding this situation and doing this properly will be huge for the islands in the future. It should not take much in respect of developing new policies to put back in place what was there before in that regard. We have experts within the education and training boards and different Departments willing to give time. We are willing to come to the table to discuss the challenges at primary and secondary levels and acknowledge that they are different on each island. It is necessary to categorise them that way as well. It is important that people understand that aspect. I ask anyone else who wishes to talk about education from the perspective of their island to please feel free to do so.
Turning to the specific challenges with housing, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann held a housing seminar workshop in partnership with Comhar na nOileán. I will read out some of the topics that came up. These are observations from island participants. Mention was made of issues such the lack of availability of year-round rental properties, houses available for the winter often being poorly insulated or difficult to heat because they are summer homes and in poor condition, the disproportionate number of holiday homes and many derelict and disused houses. Planning is a major issue. Deputy Ó Cuív asked about this topic. It comes across as an issue in all four counties. The way we live has changed. Years ago, we lived intergenerationally and the islands did not have as many holiday homes. We must now build more homes to accommodate the population. No policy considers this way of thinking. Ireland has more holiday homes now and we no longer live with our parents and grandparents. Therefore, if we want people to live on islands we must build more homes.
All the existing policies in this regard state, however, that we are in special areas of conservation, SACs, that it will cost us €10,000 extra to build and that it is necessary to build in a town, even though many of the islands have dispersed villages or the available land is not within the town. Again, what we need is a meaningful conversation to enable everyone to understand the nuances in this regard. More broadly, if people do not have a house or cannot build on an island then they will go. Once they are gone, they are gone for good. As Mr. Murray said, once people are gone from an island, they are gone. It is not like in a rural village or town, where people might go five or ten miles down the road. When people leave an island, it is very hard to come back. That is a major challenge. We must also measure what I call "latent homelessness", that is situations where those aged 25, 30 or 35 are living with their parents. People are also living in mobile homes. Some people can get into the summer houses from October to May, but then they have to find somewhere else to live. They might need to live in tents or with other people during the tourist season.
Those types of situations are never measured and they do not come across when we consider the islands. We have talked about this issue. Our numbers in this regard will never show up in social housing statistics compared with bigger towns or cities. However, I guarantee that if social and affordable housing was provided on any island it will be filled and will increase our population. In addition, I mention the concept of gateway-style housing in the context of a capital works funding programme. Such gateway housing exists on the Scottish islands. People seeking to come to those islands might be able to rent a house from the local authority or the local development company. It is possible to rent such a house for five years and then to move on. There are many options but, again, we need help with them. We are willing to come to the table with our own solutions and then to see what aspects we can merge and make work in that regard.
Ms Aisling Moran:
I have one last comment on the rural regeneration and development fund, RRDF. Comhar na nOileán submitted an application to that programme. Where we fall down is in the context of how the applications to the RRDF programme will be valued and measured. We are not going to come up in that regard because we do not have the numbers. Even though we need the funding just as much as elsewhere, we are not competing. When our outputs are considered in the context of the programme's assessment criteria, our measurables are not there for that. We require something to weight our measurables for that kind of programme. An enterprise hub, for example, established in our context might effect 100 or 200 people, whereas that could be 1,000 or 2,000 if it was a town centre. I understand the value for money aspect that the Government must seek. Equally, though, how are we ever going to be able to access this type of funding if we are not even standing on the pitch? I thank the Deputy for highlighting these issues and for the questions.
Ms Máire Uí Mhaoláin:
Ms Moran has outlined the issues regarding the RRDF and the town and village fund. I will say only a few words. Those things are measured using the criterion of the maximum benefit for the maximum number of people. We will never be at the races when we make an application in that context. I do not know if anyone ever worked on one of those applications, but it requires six months' work. A huge body of work is required. It is no problem for us to do it, but the same problem arises with all these programmes, including the farming-related programmes. If we make an application for one of those programmes, we will be up against the whole country as well. One of the big challenges we have, therefore, is that we are always competing with the mainland in applying for any programme. That includes the town and village renewal programme, the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme and all of them. None of them are specific to the islands or island-proofed.
On the dispersed nature of our population, an interesting statistic is that the demographics are much better on all the Gaeltacht islands and that is simply because we have second-level education available. It is so important. It is the reason that Ms Ní Ghoill and I are living on an island. We had our children, but many people will not stay on the islands when they have children. They leave when their children reach the age of 12. It might have been different back in the day because there were boarding schools. Those do not exist anymore. That means that we are now talking about sending our 12-year olds to live in bed and breakfasts, or something like that. It is a very important aspect. It is a formative part of a child's life and involves the embedding of the language for the Gaeltacht islands and island culture for all the islands. The years from 12 to 18 are a crucial formative time in that regard. Any chance we have of people coming back is bound up with that period. If we can keep them that long, then the chances are that they might come back to the islands.
I thank the witnesses for coming and for their presentations. I apologise because I missed part of the questions and answers. If I ask questions that have already been answered, therefore, please feel free to skip over them. I will watch the recording of this meeting later.
I will pose my questions to all the witnesses and then whoever wishes to answer may do so. They can suit themselves. I will start with the issue of population decline.
You will have seen a slight increase in population in rural areas due to Covid-19 which of course has been really welcome. Part of that has been because of the remote working hubs. I wonder have witnesses seen that increase in population even slightly on the islands, where people have come back?
In regard to the ten-year plan to 2030 for the islands, obviously we are almost coming into 2022 now so when it is published it will not be a ten-year plan. A recent reply to a parliamentary question from the Minister indicated that the plan is not actually going to be published this year. That does not seem to be the indication. In regard to consultation, all are agreed it is important to listen to people who live on the islands, who have that first hand experience. How did witnesses feel about the level of consultation in regard to the ten-year policy plan that is being drafted at the moment? Was the consultation done well? Did the witnesses feel they were heard? In regard to getting a draft copy of the report before it is finalised and published, is that likely to happen? Has the Minister been asked? How has the Minister responded in regard to that?
Housing is obviously a major issue everywhere but I accept it is a major issue on the islands where people perhaps want to move back to the islands, who are there now and are having difficulty getting somewhere to live. In regard to derelict houses specifically, are there any numbers? Is there a census or data in regard to derelict houses on our islands? What kind of numbers are we looking at?
In regard to the island allowance, perhaps this has not be raised. There was some fanfare last year in the budget when that was announced, it is about €20 now. What is the significance or not of that, for people living on the islands? There was mention of a tax incentive, but who gets that specific allowance? How does it work? Is it a worthwhile payment?
In regard to the rural social scheme, we have issues constantly in regard to vacancies, referrals and issues coming down the track now in regard to the seven year rule. Are there any provisions on the islands in regard to that seven-year rule where we have a problem where people are going to be moving off it, and in some cases those places will not be filled? Obviously they are carrying out really important services in local areas. Is there any provision for the islands in regard to the seven-year rule? If not, can we hear a little about the scheme and how it works on the islands.
The case has been made, and one thing we take away from today is the need for island specific programmes, and island specific funding for the likes of LEADER, which is very important. They are two suggestions we will put forward in our submission as a committee to the Department and to the Minister in regard to the grant aid for private individual projects and the need for that to increase, and the need for specific funding ring-fenced for the islands when it comes to LEADER and also on SICAP, we should be able to see moves that would include the islands. The Government knows, our rural feature states it quite clearly. They have made the case that the islands are disadvantaged so why should they not come under SICAP. That is something we should be able to progress.
Island strategies have been mentioned, and the need for specific island strategies. Is that expected to come out of the ten-year plan being drafted at the moment?
Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill:
There are a few questions, first of all, Deputy Ó Cuív raised, cur sé ceist faoi na naíonra and the free childcare scheme, which in my humble opinion is the worst thing that ever was brought in in the island context. It comes back to having a nationwide policy but it is not relevant to the islands. The reason I say that is, the population base is not there. The free childcare scheme is based on per capitaso our organisation on Inis Mór runs the childcare facility. Every year the parents are fund-raising. The income does not meet the expenditure because we might have six kids, we might have five. If we have ten, we can cover it, if any child falls out then we are down again and running table quizzes to keep in going. That is the reality. So it does not work in an island context, and in a lot of rural areas such as Bencorr and areas of Connemara they have the same issue. They do not have 50 kids. It is not going to be money-making. So this issue needs to be looked at in the island context.
Cur Marc Ó Cathasaigh ceist faoi oideachas. There are five secondary schools on the islands of Ireland. As it happens they are all in Gaeltacht areas. Obtaining teachers is the difficulty, first of all actually getting the teachers and, second, to get them líofa i nGaeilge to be able to teach the subject in Irish. There is a huge shortage of Irish speaking teachers in different subjects. Going back some years Deputy Ó Cuív might remember there was a scheme where there was an additional allowance for gardaí, teachers and perhaps nurses, to live and work on the islands. That made a huge difference. In the school in Inis Mór one might have a teacher who has ten hours, and has another ten on the mainland, but that teacher will have to pay accommodation in two places, plus the cost of coming in. If that allowance was brought back it would make a huge difference to the schools. It is not a huge amount of money. It is a tiny drop in what the national budget would be, but it would make a huge difference in getting teachers back to the islands.
Deputy Kerrane asked about population decline. This is a huge issue. During Covid-19 everyone came running home, as many as could, and loved it. We had a certain freedom on the islands to a point and we could move around possibly more. The issue is keeping them. Now they are moving away again because the connectivity is not there, the broadband is not there. There is also the issue of housing as Ms Moran described. They cannot get houses if they want to leave home. Coming home, they do not want to live with their parents again. There are all these issues. So they came home but how do we keep them? The services are not there.
Derelict houses are a huge issue. At breakfast Ms Uí Mhaoláin and I discussed this and said we should do a profiling on these questions in regard to the islands, and do a study of how many derelict houses are on each island. There are many. It is a planning issue. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the local authority for Galway felt bungalow bliss was the way to go on the Aran islands which was such a pity. There were beautiful two-storey traditional houses in many of the villages. People were not allowed to build a two-storey house. It is back to consultation on what works in an area, and consultation with locals. If the scheme was brought back, in Roinn na Gaeltachta it was called the fuinneoga agus doirse. There was funding available to do up old houses and I availed of it personally. We had an old house and it was an excellent incentive, because it is expensive. There is no comparison between the hassle of renovating an old house versus building a new one so there needs to be those incentives to restore houses traditional to the area. What would the budget be across the islands? It would be nothing, and yet it could change the landscape of the islands.
In regard to the ten-year policy plan and have we been heard, when we see the draft I will answer the Deputy's question on that one.
Mr. Simon Murray:
I will come in briefly on the housing question. As islanders we have a "subsidised" freight system. I use the word "subsidised" in inverted commas. One practical example is usually the best way to explain anything, so if you get batch concrete delivered on the mainland it is poured out of the lorry and away you go. You cannot do that on the islands because the lorry is too heavy to come in. Lorries do not fit on the boats anyway. Then you have to bring in your materials in bulk, so the cost per tonne of delivering that would be €13 to pier in Cleggan, to use our own example, for 804 which is a batch mix for underneath concrete for levelling the ground. That is what it costs on the mainland. Under a subsided freight system, that single tonne costs another €18 per tonne of freight to transport it from the pier, to our own pier. You can quickly see how much it costs to build on an island. That has nothing to do with the people who run the services, because they are bound by a tender process that I have made formal objections to the Department about over the years. I cannot establish who came up with that system and how they can justify it because it puts up the cost of living on the island astronomically. I remind members this is under a so-called subsidised system.
Ms Ní Ghoill mentioned being in the European Small Islands Federation, known as ESIN. Our counterparts in Scandinavia, specifically in Finland, Sweden and Denmark, view the subsidised system of transport to their islands as an extension of the road network, for want of a simple phrase. The costs of living there are much lower because they are adjusted. The subsidised system should actually be a subsidised system and should not increase, in some cases, the cost of living by 200%. That answers a question that was asked on housing in the broader context. Someone who wants housing will either do up an old house, as Ms Ní Ghoill said, or build a new one. Either way, if the cost of doing that has increased by 40%, members can imagine what the cost of building on the islands is. That is just an example of some of the stranger aspects to living on offshore islands.
From the outside looking in, mainlanders will say the islands have a subsidised freight system and think that it is a good thing. It is not because it costs us way more to live through a subsidised system. Before the subsidy was brought in, some of the private operators were bringing in stuff cheaper than is available now under the subsidised system. That needs a root and branch overhaul.
Again, this would not be a huge cost to the State. It would be an adjustment. We are not looking at billions of euro, or millions for that matter. It is just a very small adjustment which would mean people would get stuff in at a very reasonable rate. I pay VAT three times, namely, at the point of purchase, on the transport of the freight and, again, on the transport from the pier and back. That is just another example of the hidden costs. In all the conversations we are having this morning, this is a point we are trying to get across. People do not realise there are lots of hidden costs which add to the cost of living on an island. These could be easily ironed out if the will was there to do it. That would fundamentally change the way we live our lives.
Reference was made to the planning process, special areas of conservation and special protection areas. I live on Inishbofin and 98% of the island is under an SAC or an SPA, while the water around it is an SAC. I do not have an objection against that in theory but there are such things as the red lists, which are under SACs, and very soon we, the actual islanders, will be on a red list as the rarest species of the lot. We are heading that way very quickly.
All we are asking for is joined-up thinking. When thinking about the islands, people should ask the islanders, as Ms Moran said, because we have a lot of solutions. I have been at this for more than 30 years and I ask members to excuse my frustration. All we are looking for is to be listened to and to be given a little bit of help along the way. We are well-equipped to combat most of these problems, provided we are listened to. As Ms Ní Ghoill said with regard to the plan, the whole thing is pointless if a lovely plan is printed and put on a shelf and nobody listens to us again for another 20 years. All I am asking is that we have an input and are listened to.
I just got kicked out of the system for a moment but tá mé ar ais. Tá brón orm. Tá náire orm nach raibh siad compordach Gaeilge a labhairt sa choiste. Tá céad míle fáilte rompu Gaeilge a labhairt sa choiste seo. Mura bhfuil daoine in ann í a thuiscint, is é a bhfadhb é agus níl sé sin fadhb na bhfinnéithe. Tá sé grá mór agam do na hoileáin. D’fhás mé suas cóngarach d’Inis Oírr. Chuaigh mé ann le mo chlann ó bhí mé an-óg, cé go raibh m’athair i gcónaí tinn ag dul trasna na dtonnta. I have a big grá for the islands. It is funny because a few years ago I said to myself I could not keep going to Inis Oírr and Inis Mór the whole time because there are loads of islands. I have been to a new island every year for the past ten years and I love them all. I must admit, however, that I have a particular soft spot for the ones with the Irish. Is cuma faoi sin.
There is something very special about island life and it saddens me to hear the witnesses express such major concerns. I have a few questions for the them as they know more than me about the whole issue. It is great that an organisation was set up in 2006, I believe, for all the islands to give them a stronger voice. The islanders are in a unique situation which I can relate to in some ways. I live in the middle of nowhere, 5 km from a shop in a very small village with one pub. There are similar issues with rural challenges and looking for support and grants, which communities with small populations find hard to get. I can relate to the issues in some ways. I find also that any time I go to the islands and speak Irish people are always welcome my use of Irish, which helps me to keep it going.
I remember meeting Dara Molloy some years ago at a sustainability conference. I was always curious about the islands, which are such an amazing asset to us when it comes to sustainability, for example. Everything the island needs must come in by boat. It is so much easier to track this than it is to track trucks coming in and out of villages and towns all over Ireland. Is mór an luach iad. The islanders are of great value to us when we look at climate challenges and all the other issues we are facing. It is a wonder we are not doing much more work with the islands to see how we can make people more sustainable because the islands are where it starts and finishes.
Do the witnesses engage with the local development community? There should be community development workers working with the islands to find out what islanders need and then reaching out to politicians like us to see if we can help to get it. Maybe the islanders have been doing this for years. I was involved in getting the number of boats increased for Clare Island, for example. That lovely man, Mr. Murray, mentioned the costs of materials. Islanders are very resilient. Many things can be done on the islands. I am not sure about rainwater harvesting, for example, or how islanders manage their waste. I am aware that in general everything has to be shipped off the islands, unless there is composting.
I am not sure whether Airbnb is an issue on the islands. It is an issue where I live and I am trying to get something done about it. There are rent pressure zones in Dublin and Cork but they do not seem to recognise that rents are an issue in other places. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, is working hard and investing more money in doing up old houses. I have a document on all of the grants that are available for doing up old houses and farm buildings. I will happily email this to one or all of the witnesses if they want. I was also wondering about broadband. How do we get people to live on an island if there is no broadband. What are the challenges with that? Can we expedite broadband connection as a priority to stop the decline of the island population? In rural areas we saw some increase in population, but mainly where we had digital hubs or good broadband.
I do not know if the witnesses have engaged with the Minister of State with responsibility for community development, Deputy Joe O'Brien. It seems to me that these are all community issues. The island is a community of people and all the issues should come under one umbrella because islanders cannot keep going to every Department about every different issue all of the time, as that is difficult. Maybe community development is the overall area and perhaps the Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, or both of them, need to take on this issue.
It saddens me that we could possibly lose populations from islands. Now more than ever, people want places and spaces, which is what islands offer. They offer peace, tranquillity and good mental health if they are vibrant islands. We are missing a trick if we are not saving and supporting our islands.
There is a great system to enable teenagers to go out to the islands. My friend's son loved it so much he went back for three years instead of one year for his transition year. Tá Gaeilge fhlúirseach aige. He came back with a great love for Irish that he never had before, thanks to going to the islands.
The witnesses might think I am mad but on the issue of materials, is anything being done about hempcrete, which is a huge winner. We have been growing hemp in west Clare on poor quality land similar to the land on many of the islands.
Hemp has been used for plastering and hempcrete, where one mixes bags of cement with hemp. There seem to be major opportunities for us to use the islands as a place to trial what we need to do all over Ireland. I would love to work with the witnesses more on this point.
Regarding bulk buying of photovoltaics, we started a community group called the Clare Community Energy Agency. Using grants, we bought photovoltaic cells in bulk for many houses. If 25 houses wanted them, we would ask for the best price. It does that kind of work. Are those initiatives happening on the islands as well?
I should stop talking now, as I could talk about the islands forever.
Ms Aisling Moran:
I am glad to hear that the Senator has such a grá for the islands. I will be brief. The Senator spoke about community development under one umbrella. I hope that Ms Ní Ghóill and Mr. Murray have got the message across. I do not like to use the word "jaded", but both of them have worked in community development for more than 30 years. I am also a worker in the community development industry. Our workers spend longer working on islands than most other places. From my experience over the past decade, "development" should be taken out of the title because we are just fighting to stand still. The ideas the Senator mentioned were amazing and we would love to develop them, but when we are facing issues around education, housing or air and freight services, those become the priority. The Senator spoke about harvesting rainwater and growing hemp, but we do not have the resources to investigate those 100%. We need to be able to, though. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, has engaged. We are lucky, as the islands division has moved into the Department of Rural and Community Development. We met Ms Bairbre Nic Aonghusa, who is keen on community development and recognised many of the issues.
Much of what Senator Garvey has raised has to do with meaningful consultation and being heard within the issues, but I agree that community development is the way forward. As with everyone, we are underresourced. If each comhar cumann, community development project and the wider community development sector had more resources, we could achieve more. I hope that the interdepartmental committee will tackle some of the issues the Senator raised, as we currently need to go to each Department. The islands division does a great job in trying to bring all of this together, but the area is very far ranging. We all need to be sitting at the table and working together. It would be great if there was a national mandate for every Department to have the islands as a priority and to change its policy, as that is when real change would happen.
Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill:
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as an gceist. Tiocfaidh mé isteach go sciobtha ar sustainability agus na hoifigigh forbartha. The Senator asked about whether there were development officers. There are on the majority of the islands. I am one and Ms Moran is another. In Gaeilge-speaking areas, this is funded through Údarás na Gaeltachta, the semi-State body for employment and job creation in Gaeilge-speaking areas, both islands and the mainland. However, Údarás na Gaeltachta is underfunded. It does an excellent job, but it needs funding from the Government to implement its plans. It has supported the islands' development officers and comhar cumanns since the 1970s. Without it, we would be in major trouble. It makes a significant difference. Without development officers and that lobbying group on the islands, we would be in an even bigger dilemma than we are.
We have been firefighting for the past ten years. All we need is the hat and the hose. We have been battling to keep services when we could have been putting our time and resources into new projects and developments. While we have done that as well, we should not have had to spend so much of our time trying to save services that should not have to be saved. They should be taken as a given.
I am sorry, as I had to go to another committee. We get killed if we do not attend our committees, so I was trying to bilocate.
From doing community work, I know that it is exhausting. People spend all of their time filling out forms and they are not sure whether they will get anything out of it. I can see from the witnesses that there is a tiredness, in that they have been at this craic for years and they are wondering where it is all going. Would their request be for something new or just more supports for community development workers, including staff increases? Should I speak to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, about a special programme for the greening of the islands? How can we help?
Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill:
An increase in resources and staff is the issue. There is also a lack of funding. Údarás na Gaeltachta does not have the funding to pass on to us and we cannot apply extra resources. If there were extra bodies on the ground to fight and to lobby for and implement new projects, it would make a significant difference. Resources and extra funding will be key. Údarás na Gaeltachta is an excellent vehicle. It understands that it is there for Gaeltacht and island areas. However, it needs support from Government level. I should say "additional support", as it does get support.
I thank the witnesses for their constructive and positive engagement with the committee. We have invited senior officials from the Department of Rural and Community Development to attend our meeting next week to respond to the points raised by both groups as well as by members. Noting the delay in the publication of the action plan for the development of our islands, we hope that our committee's engagements on this issue will prove a valuable input into the final report, which is to be published by the Department as soon as possible. Furthermore, it is my intention to have a delegation of the committee to visit some of the island communities, meet people on the ground and get a feel for their concerns at first hand before we prepare a report for the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, which we hope will feed into the Department's action plan for island development.