Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 13 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Social Protection
National Action Plan on the Development of the Islands: Department of Rural and Community Development
Before we commence, I remind members participating remotely that they must do so from within the precincts of Leinster House.
I am pleased to hold our second session on the priority item on our work programme, which is our consideration of the proposed national action plan for the development of the islands. Having heard the voice of islanders last week, the committee welcomes the opportunity to hear from the Department about the development of the action plan. As I said last week, the coastal islands and their communities are a crucial part of our history and heritage. This action plan is long overdue and the committee is not only interested in hearing the reasons for the delay, but also wants to use the interim period between now and the publication of the plan to have a constructive and valuable input into the final report. It is essential that the promised plan for island development not only maintains our island populations, but also allows our island communities to grow and flourish. Furthermore, we hope to get a briefing today on the work programme of the interdepartmental committee on island development, which was set up in 2019 with a mandate to develop cross-government policy for island development, on the consultation it has been engaged in and on the challenges and opportunities facing our island communities that have been identified to date.
In this regard, I welcome to our meeting today Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa, assistant secretary, and Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile, assistant principal officer, from the Department of Rural and Community Development.
Before we commence, I will read 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.
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 Ms Nic Aongusa to make her opening statement on behalf of the Department.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
I thank the committee for the invitation to appear before it today to speak about the development of a national policy for the islands. I am joined today by my colleague, Bríd Ní Chonghaile, assistant principal in the Department’s islands unit.
Offshore islands and their communities are an integral part of the fabric of rural Ireland. The islands are also home to some of our most vibrant and culturally distinctive communities. They are an integral part of the State’s heritage and have a special significance in Irish culture.
It is 23 years since the most recent national policy for the islands was published. The intervening years have seen significant progress in improving services and facilities on the islands. Greatly improved ferry services and pier and road improvements are particularly notable. However, Irish society and lifestyles have also changed significantly since then. People’s expectations are higher and there is a demand from island communities to facilitate their efforts and aspirations to retain the next generation of islanders and to help overcome the challenging issues that arise from their separation from the mainland.
The commitment to develop a cross-government islands policy was a key commitment in the programme for Government. The Government’s ambition regarding a national policy and action plan for the islands was set out in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future, the action plan for rural development for the period from 2021 to 2025, published in April of this year. The key objective of the new islands policy will be to ensure our offshore islands continue to support sustainable and vibrant communities. Related to this objective is an ambition that visitors would continue to have opportunities to experience and appreciate the unique culture, heritage and environmental richness the islands have to offer.
The challenges affecting our islands are similar in many ways to those experienced in the rest of rural Ireland, whether they relate to employment opportunities, access to services or the social and economic impact of Covid-19. However, these challenges can be even more pronounced on the islands due to their geographical isolation and separation from the mainland. In addition, as anyone who has visited the islands can attest, island communities are challenged by the practical issues of access to and from the mainland.
One of the main challenges for island communities, and for Government in responding to them, is that issues relating to the islands comprise functions of 14 different Departments and their associated agencies. Island development, similar to rural development, is therefore a whole-of-government concern and requires a whole-of-government response. With this in mind, the Government established an interdepartmental committee with a mandate to develop a cross-government policy for island development.
From the outset, the committee recognised the crucial importance of obtaining input from island communities through a comprehensive consultation process. In December 2019, a consultation paper was prepared with input from the participating Departments to act as a basis to advance the development of the islands policy. It was agreed that officials from the Department would visit the islands in the initial stage of the consultation process, engaging directly with the communities and, where applicable, with the local development group or comharchumann representatives.
Public meetings were organised on 11 islands, planned to take place from January to April 2020. However, due to the risks posed by the emergence of Covid-19, the Department was obliged to temporarily suspend the consultation process. To address the situation, online meetings were subsequently arranged with focus groups from the remaining islands. Islanders who could not attend consultation meetings were encouraged to send written submissions to the Department.
The submissions and questionnaires completed by islanders at the island consultation meetings held publicly in 2020, as well as submissions sent directly to the Department, have been collated. What has emerged from the data is that, while many of the islands have individual or specific issues, a number of themes are common across the islands. The main issues highlighted in the consultation meetings related to education, health, housing and planning, employment, broadband, transport and access to services.
The data gained from the consultation process have provided a useful basis for informing the bilateral discussions with colleagues in Departments and agencies, which are now in progress. So far, bilateral meetings have been held with 12 Departments. During these meetings, the key issues raised by island communities relating to the particular Department’s remit are outlined and possible measures or actions which could be included in a national policy or action plan are explored. Meetings with the two remaining Departments have been scheduled for the coming weeks. It is also intended to meet with the HSE, Údarás na Gaeltachta, Enterprise Ireland and the education and training boards.
The inclusion of the islands function under the remit of the Department of Rural and Community Development since July 2020 has enabled a more integrated and cohesive approach to rural and community policy development for island communities and their economies. This closer policy alignment with the Department’s suite of programmes that support community development, rural economic development and digital innovation is yielding dividends on a number of fronts and will become more apparent as the national islands policy is developed. The Department has a strong track record of developing innovative policies and strategies in consultation with communities and stakeholder groups.
The five-year strategy for community and voluntary sector, Sustainable, Inclusive and Empowered Communities, published in 2019; the National Volunteering Strategy published in December 2020; and Our Rural Future, published in April 2021 were all based on close and continued consultation and collaboration with the relevant communities and stakeholder groups. Our approach to the development of the new national policy for the islands will be no different.
The island representative bodies, island development companies and the island co-operatives have been very effective over the years in supporting their communities and raising their issues of concern with the Government. We see these groups as key stakeholders in the development of the island policy and we are committed to engaging with them as the work progresses.
The most recent meeting of the interdepartmental committee, which I now chair, was held on 30 June. It was attended by representatives of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann who gave a comprehensive presentation on the challenges faced by island communities. They also outlined their perspective on the many potential opportunities for island development which currently exist. Above all, they stressed to us the importance of taking the time to get the policy right, and allowing for further consultation with island representatives before the policy is finalised. The Department has since taken these views on board. While the original intention had been to publish the policy by the end of this year, we now accept that it will take somewhat longer. We have also indicated our intention to facilitate further engagement between Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann and the interdepartmental committee. A further meeting of the committee is planned for November.
Our intention, as signalled in Our Rural Future, is to develop a ten-year policy which will identify and address the main challenges and opportunities for our island communities and determine measures to support their social, economic and cultural development in the longer term. The policy will set out high level objectives and will be accompanied by more detailed three-year action plans incorporating actions relating to improving connectivity, transport links, education, job creation and fully exploiting the potential for tourism on our islands.
Overall, our vision is that the policy development process will lead to the agreement of a number of objectives across all policy areas to support, promote and empower our island communities. Implementation of the policy, through the three-year action plans, will improve the quality of life of island communities by fully taking into account the unique context of each island and by developing a system of reporting and review that will promote accountability. As noted in Our Rural Future, this new islands policy will be the first focused policy initiative for the islands for more than 20 years. It will focus on providing new opportunities for islanders and building sustainable futures for island communities. It will be developed in consultation with island communities and with input from across the whole of the Government to provide a blueprint for sustainable island development that will safeguard our island communities for generations to come.
We welcome the views of the committee as a valuable input into the policy development process and we look forward to the discussion today. We are very happy to answer any questions the committee may have agus táimid beirt breá sásta ceisteanna a fhreagairt i nGaeilge agus i mBéarla. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
Mar a dúirt mé i mo ráiteas, tá sé an-tábhachtach go dtógfaimid an t-am chun an plean seo a fháil i gceart. B’shin an príomhtheachtaireacht a fuair an tAire, an Teachta Humphreys, ó Chomhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann agus ó na hoileánaigh nuair a rinne siad freastal ar an gcruinniú cinn bliana a bhí ag an gcomhdháil i mí Iúil. Dúirt muintir na n-oileán linn nach dteastaíonn uathu go mbeidh polasaí a fhéachann go hálainn foilsithe roimh dheireadh na bliana ach gan aon de na cúinsí a bhfuil siadsan buartha fúthu a bheith clúdaithe ann. Is é sin an fáth gur mhaith linn breis ama a thógáil le dul i gcomhairle níos mó le muintir na n-oileán agus breis ama a thógáil le dul i gcomhairle le Ranna Stáit eile chun go mbeidh polasaí againn a bhfuil gach duine sásta leis.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
Tá spriocdháta ar intinn againn. Tá súil againn go mbeidh na cruinnithe déthaobhacha leis na Ranna Stáit críochnaithe sna seachtainí atá romhainn agus ansin beidh cruinniú den choiste againn leis na Ranna Stáit ar fad ann agus measaimid go mbeidh tuilleadh plé ag teastáil ansin le muintir na n-oileán. Is é an príomhdhúshláin a bheidh againn ná a bheith ag plé leis na Ranna Stáit eile chun rudaí a fháil chun cur isteach sna action plans. É sin ráite tá súil agam go mbeidh dréacht againn le cur faoi bhráid an Aire agus le tabhairt don Rialtas sa chéad leath den bhliain seo chugainn, 2022.
Dia dhaoibh. Níl ach ceist amháin agam. Maidir leis an liosta sin, dúirt an Chomh-aireacht go n-aontaíonn sí leis an liosta sin o mhí Iúil 2019. Cad é an tslí is fearr chun déileáil leis seo? Ar shlí amháin tá liosta ann agus tá a lán Airí gafa leis seo. Mar shampla má tá daoine sa choiste seo ag déileáil le hAirí éagsúla ina pháirtí féin, an ceart dúinne cabhrú leis an Roinn Forbartha Tuaithe agus Pobail chun iad siúd a spreagadh chun déileáil leis an liosta seo, mar shampla, le taisteal, fuinneamh, employment affairs, communications agus rudaí mar sin? Tá dhá rud ansin gafa lenár Aire, an Teachta Eamon Ryan. An mbeadh sé cabhrach déileáil leis ar na pointí sin agus chabhróinn féin agus an Teachta Ó Cathasaigh chun é sin na eagrú? Cad é an tslí is fearr chun brú a chur ar an liosta seo, mar tá sé an-ghinearálta, agus chun cabhrú leis an Roinn mar tá na hoifigigh os ár gcomhair anois? An mbeadh sé sin úsáideach?
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
Is é an príomhrud dúinn féin, mar Roinn, ná dul i ngleic leis na Ranna eile agus na ceisteanna ar fad seo a phlé. Is dócha, má bhíonn an deis ag an gcoiste seo ceisteanna a chur ar Airí eile, nach ndéanfadh sé sin aon dochar. Ba cheart dom a rá, agus tá sé ullmhaithe agam anseo i mBéarla, that the Government is absolutely committed to the sustainable development of our island communities. Is cuid den Our Rural Future atá ann agus tá sé i gceist againn an plean a ullmhú. Bheadh cabhair-----
Tá an liosta soiléir ansin agus níl mé ag cur ceisteanna air. It is obvious from the list in front of us that the Cabinet has agreed to it, which is brilliant but this was in July 2019 and we have had Covid-19 in the meantime. How can we best, as a committee, help the Department to expedite this because we heard from the islanders last week and they seem to be seriously concerned? Some of them have been dealing with this and looking for support for 20 years. Can our committee expedite anything in any way? It may take the Department forever to get around to all of the Departments and Ministers.
Deputy Ó Cathasaigh and I could ask to meet the Minister, Deputy Ryan, or his special advisers specifically on two of those 12 points. If we get two of them moving, that would be one sixth of the job done. Action is an rud atá á lorg acu anois. Tá siad bréan de liostaí, de bheith ag déileáil le daoine agus de chomhairle. Tá sé iontach go bhfuil an Cabinet taobh thiar de seo anois. Is é sin an fáth gur féidir linn é a bhrú níos mó anois gan níos mó cainte.
How we can expedite things? The islanders have had many meetings about what they need. It is great to see this comprehensive list the Cabinet has agreed to. How can we best help now? It might take the officials a long time to get around to all the different Departments about this. Would it be helpful if Deputy Ó Cathasaigh and I went to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, about two of them, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Department of Transport? As spokesperson for enterprise trade and employment, I could try to meet some of the islanders to discuss what they want to talk to the Tánaiste about. It might take the officials a long time if they have to go around to all the different Departments. Is there any clear action we can take to help?
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
We have almost completed the bilateral discussions with the Departments. The work started in July 2019, but obviously the Covid pandemic intervened for a while. During that time, online engagements took place with island communities that we could not visit in person. I will ask my colleague, Ms Ní Chonghaile, to provide more detail on the meetings we had. We have had meetings with every Department apart from our own Department, the Department of Rural and Community Development, and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Those meetings are scheduled for the coming weeks. We have almost completed our round of stakeholder engagement. What remains is for us to have a meeting of the interdepartmental committee and then to engage further with the Department where we can have concrete actions put into the action plans. As I said earlier, my hope is that can happen in the early months of next year and that we will have a draft policy ready for presentation to the Minister and the Government in the first half of 2022.
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
As Ms Nic Aongusa said, we have met most of the Departments and we have provided them with feedback from our consultation process and especially our visits to the islands. As part of those meetings, we discussed the comprehensive list of issues that were raised. In some cases, they could provide responses at the meeting and in other cases we asked them to reflect more on what further actions they can take in the context of putting together an action plan with specific actions and timelines. Even though we have held most of the bilateral meetings, in some cases we will need to have further meetings with specific Departments that have a larger remit relating to the islands. This will be discussed in our next interdepartmental committee meeting in November.
I welcome Ms Nic Aongusa and Ms Ní Chonghaile to the committee and I thank them for their presentations. I am delighted that the bilateral meetings within the Department are almost completed. Within the new tourism package being put in place, has any priority been given to the islands? This is an ideal opportunity to prioritise the islands. Have any discussions taken place on the proposal for a new package for advertising our country, and the islands, I presume? It would be an ideal opportunity to promote the islands.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
I agree with the Senator. We are very much aware of the enormous potential tourism has for the islands. I mentioned we have almost finished our bilateral consultations and we have yet to meet two Departments. One of those is the new Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. One of the items on the agenda will be how we can maximise the potential for developing tourism in the islands. It was already signalled in Our Rural Future that one of the ambitions we have is to continue to enable visitors to enjoy all the attractions islands have while also, of course, adhering to our primary objective, which is to support sustainable and vibrant communities on the islands. The development of tourism on the islands needs to be considered with sustainability in mind. We are very conscious of that, as are the island communities themselves. That will certainly be on our agenda for the meeting in the coming weeks.
I am very concerned that the past ten years have seen very slow progress for the islands. The officials referenced the interdepartmental committee 23 years ago. It had very little influence on what happened subsequently. I worked on this document, which was the manifesto on the islands I wrote for the 1997 general election. I was the Minister responsible for most of the period from 1997 to 2011, with the exception of 18 months. I based it on getting things done. I looked at ways of getting things done. I stand on my record.
Let us look at some of the things because it is important we understand what has happened since - we will leave that to the officials to outline - what happened in that period and which is a better method of getting the job done. One of the greatest concerns of this country is that we have plans - ten-year plans and 20-year plans. Every three years we refresh the plans, but are we actually getting the job done anymore? When Ministers for Public Expenditure and Reform can no longer spend the money, I begin to tear my hair out.
When I became Minister of State with responsibility for the islands, there was not one ferry service going to any non-Gaeltacht island. Of course, there were also some Gaeltacht islands that also did not have a ferry service. In a short number of years, we rectified that situation and we had also dramatically changed the services on the Gaeltacht islands. For example, in the case of Árainn Mhór, Údarás na Gaeltachta ran the service. The service to Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr had historically been run by CIÉ. It is funny to think about it now.
When I started working in the Department, there was a boat that used to leave Galway in the morning with cargo and passengers. The days of hitching the passenger wagon on the back of a goods train are long gone. It used to take a whole day to get out and back in again, meaning no islander could get to the mainland and back out again. We rapidly developed systems to get from Ros an Mhíl to the island to the point where there were two services a day.
We also introduced services for all the non-Gaeltacht islands, Sherkin, Whiddy, Bere, Long and Hare. We also did Inis Bigil which is a Gaeltacht island, and Inishbofin, Inishturk and Clare Island. They had private ferry services, but they had no State-subsidised ferry services. That was all done in about four or five years.
As I said, it was informed by one liners, just get the job done. We sanctioned €100 million into contract, the last one being the one for Inis Mór. That was €100 million worth of capital development on the islands, mainly on piers. A few years ago, I asked a question and I do not think any project in excess of €1 million has been sanctioned since.
We introduced the island car tax because many islanders need a car on the mainland and one on the island, and they do not have many roads on the islands. If one has a car that never leaves the island, one has only two or three miles of road to drive on. The biggest island, Inis Mór, has 5 or 6 miles or perhaps 10 km if one literally took a trip from Iaráirne all the way back to Bun Gabhla. That was a great help for the islanders. We also exempted them from the national car test, NCT, on the basis that it was very expensive to bring a car onto the mainland.
We introduced the social welfare allowance for islanders and it has been increased in recent years. We introduced the concept that there would be a special recognition that the cost of living is dearer for islanders. Old age pensioners, etc., received that. We progressed education as well. One of the big steps we took was that we brought the school number required down to eight at the time. That has now been brought down to nothing and I agree that two teachers are needed in any school. That is great and represents the progress that has been made in recent years. We also introduced a scholarship scheme that made the secondary schools viable. Without the students coming into the Gaeltacht schools, it would not be viable to run secondary schools on the islands and there would be a migration of island children because there would not be enough variation, etc.
I am a great believer in money being leverage and these are all things that could be done now. We do not need a big policy for doing them. There are other things that one needs to develop policy for, but by developing all of the policy together, one is going by the slowest legion. By just doing the things that need to be done and are obvious before one’s nose, one is getting the job done. The variation of what needs to be done on the different islands is very significant.
The other big thing we had was a very good fund in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands and one could effectively co-fund anything one wanted, effectively. I used that fund; for example, if I wanted something on the health front. One can see a very good example of this in Inis Oírr where there is an excellent health centre. Half of that was co-funded by the Department and the other half came from the HSE. The HSE was willing to go ahead with the health centre in Inishbofin which had planning permission except that the co-funding was pulled and it has been flapping around ever since trying to progress that project. I know that if the Department puts 50% on the table, it will suddenly grease the wheel.
During that period, there was a significant small works programme every year. It was not confined to roads, which are very important everywhere. Small piers were done as was work on coastal erosion, which is a constant challenge on islands. Any other small works that were needed were done. We funded up to 80% of community centres on Gaeltacht and non-Gaeltacht islands alike. We levelled the playing pitch for the non-Gaeltacht islands which had been totally neglected before.
I am saying this because I am utterly frustrated that after ten years we started writing a policy and after two years we still have not got the policy. In the meantime all sorts of new problems have arisen on the islands. We seem to have had many of the obvious things put on the back burner while we are waiting for someone to develop a policy and there are very urgent changes happening in the world. The other thing about the world that we are living in is that ten-year policies are all very fine but the world changes very rapidly. It changed very rapidly in 2008 and equally so two years ago. Policy has to be infinitely variable. For example five years ago remote working was not the opportunity it is now even though some of us were doing it. It was not commonly perceived to be the opportunity that it is now. Even in my time we had been looking at getting people to provide translation services from the Gaeltacht islands because we knew it could be done remotely. Now it is accepted that there are no great psychological barriers that seemed to be there at that time in getting some of these things done.
My question is what has happened, and what is new, in the ten years since 2011? How long will we have to wait by the time we get a very complex plan? Then there will be an implementation committee, or whatever. I am afraid that this Dáil will be over and we will not actually see on the ground what the islanders need to see which is radical changes in how services are provided because the world is changing so rapidly and we need to move forward.
I must also record here that we built an airstrip on Inishbofin. There are already aeroplanes sitting in Aerfort na Mine. It will cost about €600,000 a year, that is all, to fund this. That is not big money when one is providing basic front-line services to be able to fly people three days a week into Inishbofin, where they would come out from the island and would wind up in Aerfort na Mine, near Galway. They would then be able to go into the city, do their business and fly out in the evening and the plane would then bring anybody on the island back in to base. The cost is €600,000 and the airstrips are there. A fire engine would need to be purchased and a very rudimentary building would need to be provided and one is ready then to move. This is the finest airstrip on all of the islands but for some reason daisies and grass are growing on it and the cost of maintenance is significant. I do not know the reason for this. As the Department goes for tender now for the Aran Islands services, is it going to include Inishbofin as an option to find out what it would cost? My understanding is that the cost, including airport charges and running the whole set-up, would be about €600,000 a year. This might be put into the context of the total contract and the total cost of air services, not only the service but also Aerfort na Mine and the existing airport on the Aran Islands, and how much more that would be. I remind the witnesses that if it is advantageous for the Aran Islands, it is ten times more advantageous for an island that is much further from Galway than any of the Aran Islands are. Flying the longer distance is, therefore, always the greater advantage.
I hope that I do not sound too negative but I am very frustrated, not from a personal point of view but from that of the islanders because it seems, unfortunately, that things have not moved forward. I do not blame civil servants for that. They are not running the country. They are there to implement Government policy but if it is not implementing good policies then there is nothing that the civil servants can do about it if they are not given the money. They are not masters in their own house. We, the politicians, are and it is our role to be ultimately responsible to get the money to provide the services.
I will not say anything else except for one other comment. I welcome the partial reconstruction of what used to be the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. I am pleased that the islands have ended up being attached to the Department of Rural and Community Development, which makes sense. What I do not understand is the illogicality of not putting the Gaeltacht with it because two thirds of the islands - the Gaeltacht is a territorial concept - are in the Gaeltacht. When they were all in the one Department and the islands and the Gaeltacht were together, one could use the combined funds so it did not matter if the funding came out of a Gaeltacht fund or an island fund, with for example, sports fields. We completed many sports fields, incidentally. It is amazing how sports fields feature in ads. There is the one on Inishturk which we have all seen but probably do not realise where it is. It is a beautiful football pitch on the edge of the Atlantic in the most extraordinary place. We also did the one on Inis Mór. We put money into the one on Inis Oírr and we did playgrounds. Everything was done. We just did anything that needed to be done because we had the money and got on with it. There was one fund of money and we were not going to other Departments - we were just doing it. In cases like health and things like that we did have to co-fund.
Where are we? When do we get the plan? I keep hearing that €100 million was spent. I know that €100 million was spent but it was all sanctioned and approved ten years ago.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
I might start with the last comment about the islands function coming into the Department of Rural and Community Development. Very recently, the islands unit has been moved under my area of responsibility, which is community development. That is a very positive development because islands are first and foremost about communities. They are about trying to ensure that communities are sustainable, inclusive and empowered, which is the theme of our five-year strategy for the development of the community and voluntary sector. Since the islands unit has been moved into community development, there has been huge potential for the sharing of ideas and the sharing of expertise in terms of how can we best support community development. For example, one of our schemes is the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP. It got additional funding in yesterday's budget announcement, which will enable us to do more work with disadvantaged communities around the country. SICAP is also delivered on some of the islands.
The Deputy mentioned remote working. The inclusion of the islands in the Department's plans for the broadband connection points has been a huge achievement in the last couple of years. Of the ten island broadband connection points that are in the plan, eight have been delivered to date. Broadband connection points are a wireless temporary high-speed broadband connection for public use and the majority of its costs are covered by the Government. They provide long-term digitally enabled community assets and on-site Internet use by the public. They can be used for remote work, study, e-health services, arts and culture activities, skills training and digital literacy. To date, the broadband connection points have been delivered on eight islands.
The Department is also working on a number of pilot projects in the field of e-health. The Deputy mentioned that health centres and e-health virtual consultation rooms are being developed within the broadband connection points on both Tory Island and Clare Island. We hope that they will be operational before the end of the year. The digital innovation section in the Department is very engaged in rolling out the broadband connection points in rural Ireland, including the islands.
There are five remote working hubs located on the offshore islands. Again, we hope to have them connected very shortly. Recently, the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, awarded funding for connected hubs where four of the offshore islands received funding to add to their capacity.
As Deputy Ó Cuív has said, a lot has changed in the last two years in terms of our understanding of the potential for remote working and connectivity in general for everyone. For the islands it would make an even bigger difference, particularly in terms of enabling people to take part in meetings, consultations and health activities. We hope to continue to work closely with the digital inclusion unit to develop services further.
The Deputy mentioned the small works programme. Last week, I was concerned when it was said here at a meeting that there was no small capital works programme anymore because that is not the case. Last May, the Minister announced a total of €1 million in small capital works funding for the islands for a range of different projects, many of which are roads but some are piers, across the islands of Donegal, Cork, Mayo, Galway and Sligo. Last August, in a further announcement, a smaller amount of money was made available. My colleague, Ms Ní Chonghaile, can provide further information.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
The total allocated for 2021 is €1.575 million and that is allocated across the counties of Donegal, Mayo, Galway, Cork and Sligo. In 2020, the total paid out was €1.2 million and €3 million was paid out in 2019. There is an ongoing programme of minor capital works for the islands.
Funding is generally provided on a 75:25 basis with some exceptions but that has been adjusted to 90% for 2021 with the local authorities arranging for the works to be completed. We are committed to providing and continuing to provide minor capital works. Perhaps my colleague might explain more how that is done because we work in conjunction with local authorities in arranging for these works.
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
The Department provides a minor capital works programme in association with the local authorities annually. I understand that we may have received additional funding yesterday in the budget and now we can proceed to asking local authorities to submit their applications for the 2022 works programme.
The Deputy mentioned playgrounds. This year, we co-funded a playground development on Bere Island in association with Cork County Council. We are open to all types of work which local authorities can lead. Earlier he mentioned the provision of funding for community projects on the islands. That issue has arisen in our consultation process and is something that we will probably discuss internally in the Department.
My next question might be slightly at odds with my first question, where I pushed the witnesses for a deadline. The context within which this plan has been drawn up has completely changed from when the work was begun. For good and for ill, everybody can clearly see the challenges faced by island communities but the pandemic may have presented opportunities for remote working. Both Deputy Ó Cuív and I have been heavily involved in the Bille teanga. The recruitment targets in the Bille teanga are a huge opportunity for Gaeltacht islands if we figure out how to decentralise that work.
Traditionally, on the islands there was a need for physical connectivity and it is absolutely essential. Increasingly, the Department is now talking about digital connectivity. Therefore, we need to ensure that the quality of the broadband that goes into the islands is fit for purpose in terms of allowing people to engage in remote working.
In her opening statement, Ms Nic Aongusa talked about "incorporating actions relating to improving connectivity, transport links, education, job creation and fully exploiting the potential for tourism". I contend that climate and renewables are missing from her list. Obviously climate change is having a huge impact on the islands so there is now a massive opportunity for renewables. Last week, at this committee's meeting, it was mentioned that we should have a renewable energy master plan for each individual island with which I agree. I believe that is true for transport as well. In terms of a circular economy, the islands could be a great test bed for renewables and decarbonised transport. The islands can play a central role in developing such technologies.
The islands present a massive opportunity for e-healthcare. Before the committee started I watched the documentary called "Inis Airc: Bás Oileáin", which was recommended to the committee by Mr. Simon Murray last week. One of the death blows for the population on Inis Airc was that one of the people died without access to a doctor or a priest. One would hope with progress and e-healthcare that nobody in any corner of the country would not have access to a doctor even if that is virtually in the case of severe weather.
The other thing that jumped out from last week is housing and how difficult the housing situation is on the islands. Does the Department have a good overview of the existing built stock? Much of it is perhaps vacant or derelict, with a lot of it being used short term as summer houses or whatever. Then there is the difficulty in raising the existing built stock to what we would consider modern energy standards and the difficulty in getting materials out onto the islands. Does the Department have a clear overview of the existing built stock between things that need to be refurbished etc. and the level of demand for housing on the islands? How much of a mismatch is there, and how can we address that shortfall? I assume it is a shortfall.
Returning to the theme of remote working and maybe remote learning, one of the things we have seen in the education sector, in primary but particularly, I think, in secondary, has been the ability of children and students to engage digitally. Is there an opportunity in that for the islands in providing a broader choice of subjects for people attending secondary school on the islands? One of the problems is access to teachers. As well as having remote working hubs, if we had blended learning hubs on the islands, would that offer greater choice to students on the islands and perhaps help maintain a population and a demographic that is very often lost, namely, island commuters?
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
The list from which the Deputy quoted is not an exhaustive one. Of course, climate action is very important now and the potential for work on climate action on the islands is very much recognised. In fact, I think one of the first bilateral meetings that was held was with the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. There will be discussions ongoing as to what measures could be taken to address that.
As for housing on the islands, one of the most consistent messages we have received from the island groups through the consultation process is the need for affordable quality homes for permanent residents on the islands. That is essential to ensure the long-term viability and sustainability of the communities there. Of course, availability of affordable quality housing is a major issue for people in many parts of Ireland, but there are particular challenges in refurbishing houses on the islands. As we heard last week, there may also be opportunities in refurbishing derelict homes and so on. That is certainly an area we would like to explore with our colleagues in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage.
We have started dialogue and discussions on housing, in particular on planning and how it affects island communities. In fairness, the recently published Government policy, Housing for All, included an action which recognised the housing needs of island communities, stating they would be fully considered in the forthcoming national policy for the islands. That in itself is a sign our engagement with Departments, raising awareness of the issues that concern islanders, is having an impact. We hope to be able to build on that, working with our colleagues.
My colleague might have a little more detail on education.
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
If I may add something relating to housing, we fund Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, which was represented here last week. We give it an annual grant. It requested an increase in that grant this year to cover a housing survey on the islands and it is undertaking that at the moment. That will cover everything from derelict houses to, perhaps, holiday homes. As part of that, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann hopes to build up a picture that may enable it in the near future to establish a forum and maybe a housing association. Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann is best suited and best situated to know what the requirements are and what the potential is on the islands. It will undertake the survey and, in future, probably establish the forum and the housing authority. Following on from that, its intention is to seek funding to upgrade or to purchase housing that would be available for island dwellers.
As for second level schools or education more generally and the expansion of subject choice, it is quite challenging to get teachers to come to the islands, especially to teach a specialised subject at second level. There is a trial ongoing in three schools that enables e-learning. I think it covers physics. It is going very well and it is hoped it will be expanded in the future.
Why is that being trialled at the moment? The schools have had high-speed connections since 2016. That was funded by the Department with responsibility for communications in the past decade. Why has there been such a time lag from the infrastructure being put in place to the pilot being put in place? I accept this is not just an island issue. In the constituency I represent, in County Galway, we have a lot of small rural secondary schools where we could expand the subject choice for students by using the connection the taxpayer paid for more than half a decade ago. Why has it taken so long? What is the time lag with the engagement with the education authorities on this?
I will let Deputy Ó Cuív in in a moment. This comes back to the fundamental problem we have with the islands, that is, we have 14 Departments and we progress at the slowest rate of any Department. The reality is the only reason our second level schools have high-speed Internet connections is the Department with responsibility for communications funded that, yet even when that was done we still did not see the Department of Education come up to the mark and meet that investment halfway. The students on the islands are losing out as a result of that and the students in small rural secondary schools throughout the country are losing out on subject choice, and that is wrong.
In my experience of dealing with islanders, the biggest barrier to housing is planning. What discussions did the Department have with the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage about planning? There are new rural housing planning guidelines coming out. My view is anybody who can establish that he or she is or is likely to be a permanent dweller on the islands and likely to remain so should be eligible under housing need. We are not suffering from an explosion of population on the islands. There is pressure on population but it is downwards.
Ms Nic Aongusa mentioned broadband connection points. I believe in e-hubs, but I am afraid the islanders are in the same place the rest of us are in. They want broadband in every house and they want it tomorrow. My good colleague, the Chairman, has done a lot of work on this. He is aware of my impatience, but I think he is equally impatient. The islanders do not want to get a second-class service. They do not want to get 30 Mbps, 50 Mbps or even 100 Mbps on a radio system; they want fibre. What negotiations and discussions has the Department had with National Broadband Ireland, NBI? Has it discussed with NBI the possibility of co-funding the extra cost that would be involved in putting fibre into the islands in order that islanders too may join the fibre revolution that future-proofs communities? I think the Chair knows I have been fighting this one for a long time, that 30 Mbps is old hat. This is the problem with a lot of what we are doing. By the time we get there the technology is out of date. Thankfully, the solution for 98% - the witnesses might give me the accurate figure - will be fibre because it is the only show in town.
Broadband connection points are worthy but there is a broadband connection point in a certain village near to where I live and the people in the baile fearainn - as we call them - tá siad ag dul craiceáilte mar tá siad ag iarraidh go mbeidh sé ina dtithe féin acu mar go dteastaíonn uathu a ngnó a dhéanamh ansin. Nílim ag rá nach dtiocfaidís go e-hub agus nach mbainfidís úsáid as ó thráth go chéile, ach ní cóir go mbeadh sé mar mhalairt ar a bheith sa teach ach mar rud breise. When I see areas being given these connection points, I worry that they are at the bottom of the list. I presume, and I have not yet been proven wrong, that any area that was gifted one of these things was being gifted a long wait for what it was looking for, that is, fibre to the home. Our guests might provide a list of the co-funding of small works on the islands year by year since 2000.
It is awful easy to produce renewable energy on an island because it has wind in abundance. We are back to the same problem, however. There is a great renewable energy comharchumann on Inis Mór ach caithfear an fuinneamh a thabhairt go dtí an mórthír. It has to be brought to the mainland. Has the Department had negotiations with the ESB about co-funding the provision of upgraded electric cables? Most islands have electric cables. This would have two benefits; it would allow the export of surplus electricity and give resilience. We saw what happened in Ireland when somebody pulled the cable of an anchor of a boat or something and cut off the islands. Has the Department discussed with the ESB the idea of providing a cable that would be capable of taking the export of electricity produced renewably on islands? Our guests mentioned Inishark. Tá sé in aice le hInis Bó Finne. It is only 1 mile away. There is also the possibility of producing renewable energy there but cable is needed. If the cable were to go to Inishbofin, that would not be a great stretch. It might be economical for somebody to run it across that mile.
What is the projected date for the extension of the pier on Inis Oírr to Inis Meáin? What other major marine works, say, of more than €1 million or €2 million, are in train in terms of planning, from Tory Island to Cape Clear? Given the time it is taking to develop them, there would need to be a fair pipeline of them if we are ever to get the job done. There is a crisis on many islands in respect of piers and of matching piers on the mainland. Roonagh Pier is an obvious one. We did some work on that but there is a need for a major investment there or in some alternative adjacent to both Inishturk and Clare Island. It takes a long time to get these projects rocking and rolling. Inis Oírr has had planning permission since 2008. In the 13 years since, it still has not got the contract.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
The discussion we had with that Department ranged across all forms of housing as well as planning. We also talked to its planning officials. We succeeded in raising awareness of the particular circumstances on the islands and there is a commitment to further engagement, which we expect to happen.
Similarly, in respect of engagement with our colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, responsibility for the roll-out of the national broadband plan is for them and policy decisions in that regard is a matter for them------
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
As Ms Ní Chonghaile mentioned earlier, we are willing to examine co-funding for different projects if they are forthcoming. One of the issues we can examine in the context of the policy relates to whether co-funding would be viable or desirable and what the pros and cons would be. That is something we would need to examine in the context of the policy-----
If baffles me that there could be a con to putting fibre onto an island. My two questions are how much it would cost and how much the Department would need. Let us get on with it. It is all coming out of the same pot in any event. It is just a question of how to get a mechanism that allows us to get on with the job. I accept that NBI probably does not have a fibre contract for all the islands, although perhaps it does. If it does, it should be nailed to providing it by a certain point. If it does not, and if it can get away with some other system - there does generally seem to be a get-out-of-jail card in a small number of cases - it should be asked what the difference is and how much it will need.
I can tell Ms Nic Aongusa from experience that this works an absolute treat. The Department need not waste time worrying about the pros and cons of these things. We labour a long time over the obvious. Everybody knows that anybody who went to a deal with money in their pocket came out a winner.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
I will ask my colleague, Ms Ní Chonghaile, to talk about the discussions with the Departments on the other issues relating to cable and so on, as well as the projected dates for the various capital projects the Deputy mentioned.
It is important we acknowledge that in yesterday's budget announcement and the announcement of the allocation for our Department for 2022, we achieved an additional €2 million in capital funding for the islands and an additional €200,000 in current funding for the islands. That additional funding is another example of the commitment the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the Government have to supporting island developments. Moreover, as the Deputy will be aware, in the revised NDP that was published the week before last, all four of the flagship capital projects for the islands, that is, the piers on Inis Meáin, Inis Oírr and Machaire Rabhairtaigh and the new ferry for Tory Island, have been reaffirmed.
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
The Deputy asked about the major capital projects on Inis Oírr and the timelines for that. As he will know, the business case was approved by the Minister and we are now working with consultant engineers and Galway County Council to progress that. There has been an application for a foreshore licence and, obviously, that will take some time. The projection is that the project will be tendered in the first half of next year, with work beginning, we hope, in the second half of the year. I think everyone appreciates that works on the islands, and marine works in particular, are very difficult.
We hope that off-site pre-casting work and that type of development will take place during the winter next year and that the majority of the actual construction would happen in 2023. Work is ongoing to progress the options for the Inis Meáin project. Members may be aware that we did business with the National Maritime College of Ireland to set up a simulation and we need to progress that further. There may be surveys needed to complete the simulation so that it can build a computer replica of the different vessels that go in to see how they would adapt to any changes that would be done to the breakwater or the access to that pier-----
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
There would be various discussions between all parties to consider the optimum solution for the issues at that pier. The other two projects in the national development plan are more or less tied together because the development of Machaire Rabhartaigh Pier will have an impact on the type of vessel that can enter the channel into the pier and that seems to be the difficulty. Until there is a solution to the issue of access, we cannot progress the vessel.
Ms Bríd Ní Chonghaile:
We have approved money to Mayo County Council this year for a survey to look at Roonagh Pier and see what developments can happen there to enable safer access, and whether that entails refurbishment of the existing particular pier or if we should look at a new greenfield site to build a new pier.
Before I bring in Deputy Kerrane, I wish to clarify that the default approach under the national broadband plan is fibre to the home for every home. Only where it is prohibitively expensive should an alternative be looked at. In the case of the islands, to have a high-speed connection on the mainland requires a cable to be brought to the mast. This means it is just as cheap to bring the cable undersea to the islands as it is to put another mast on the islands to distribute that network throughout the islands. Both trees and rainwater have an impact on wireless connections and there is no shortage of either in this country at the moment. I expect that we are looking at a fibre connection for our islands. Senator Garvey asked what one thing the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, could do at the moment. I know from talking to the island communities that getting the fibre out to the islands is the single biggest priority and would change the whole dynamic of the economy there.
I thank the witnesses for coming in this morning and for their presentation. I have a couple of brief questions. First, going back to the document setting out the ten-year plan for the islands, can the witness clarify whether it was the island communities or representatives that suggested that if more time was needed, the Department of Rural and Community Development should take it in order to deliver and publish this report? Second, the representative bodies that came before the committee last week said they are seeking a draft copy of that report before it is published. Is that something that the Department is willing to do?
I know from being out on some of the islands that housing is a major issue. There are many vacant properties and issues around planning. Deputy Ó Cathasaigh has asked my question. I imagine that data on vacant houses and housing stock are really important, and would be important for the islands document. I acknowledge that the witnesses said a survey is under way. That is welcome. Will that be complete in time to feed into the islands document? The data from the survey will be important given the issue that housing is causing on the islands.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
I thank the Deputy. I can confirm that the island representatives said at the annual general meeting of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, which was held in July and was attended by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, who opened the meeting, that they wanted us to take more time to develop a policy. They said they had no appetite for a glossy document that would not address their concerns. They did not want to see that. The Department is responding to that desire on their part.
As I said in my opening statement, the Department has an excellent track record of engaging with communities and stakeholders in developing our policies. We are committed to engaging with Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann and other island groups, and we continue to engage with them throughout the policy development process. We want to make sure that we develop a policy for islands that makes sense and is meaningful for everyone involved. In my experience, the policy development process is an iterative one. It can take a variety of different forms. You can have formal stakeholder engagements but you also have informal meetings, ongoing dialogue and back-and-forth engagement. That is really where the meat of the policy development can happen. Having done this already in regard to our five-year strategy for the community and voluntary sector, I envisage that it will involve much iterative engagement and back-and-forth discussions with all of the stakeholders, with Departments and agencies, including the Department of Rural and Community Development, and with the representative groups. Of course we will include the island representatives in the conversations as the policy is progressed. Indeed, at the annual general meeting our Department made a presentation to the island representatives and all the islanders who attended on the progress of the policy to date. We are absolutely committed to continuing to engage them.
Understandably, there are some conversations that are more productive if the only people in the room are departmental officials. I refer to hard conversations about getting actions over the line and getting measures included in action plans. There is no question about the involvement of the island representatives in the policy development process. To confirm what we are proposing for the policy, as Deputy Kerrane has said we intend to develop a ten-year policy for island development which will be supported by three-year action plans. We see the policy document as being a relatively short, high-level and strategic document that would set out a vision for the island communities and set medium-term and long-term objectives for their economic, cultural and social development. The action plans, on the other hand, will be the operational piece. They will be more operational in nature and will contain specific measurable actions across a range of Departments and agencies. They will be subject to regular monitoring and review. That is the nub. Those action plans will be our focus in the coming months as we seek to bring to fruition a short, high-level strategic document setting out a vision for the islands, and an action plan where we can have measurable actions that everyone can agree to. That is our objective.
Deputy Kerrane also spoke about data on vacant housing. We are certainly going to continue to engage with the island groups and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage to see what can be done to gather data on vacant housing and to explore all the options that are available for refurbishing derelict houses on the islands.
Before I bring in Senator Garvey, who is offering as well, I would like to make a minor clarification.
I have seen documentation referencing it as a ten-year plan and documentation referencing a plan out to 2030. Are we definitely looking at a ten-year plan? Are we looking at 2032 or are we looking at an eight-year plan?
I am glad to hear that the islands are under the same Department as community development. Has a decision been taken yet that the next LEADER programme will be awarded in parcels in order that all of the islands will be included under Comhar na nOileán or one island as a base bidder? The rural development plan has been mentioned a number of times. When was it published? How many updates to it have been published subsequently and what was the commitment in the context of updates?
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
The LEADER programme is the responsibility of our Department. The programme delivery on the islands, as the Deputy heard, involves various implementing partners and local action groups. Comhar na nOileán is the implementing partner delivering LEADER on the islands on behalf of the Donegal local community development committee, the Mayo local community development committee and the west Cork local community development committee.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
The question of the administrative structures for the delivery of the LEADER programme, which includes the structures that will apply to the islands, will be considered as part of the work of the LEADER unit in the Department in the period ahead. The new LEADER programme will be coming in 2023. Until now, the Department's priority was to deliver a transitional LEADER programme to bridge the gap-----
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
This transitional programme is now in place. This was the priority. It is now moving on to look at the design of the new LEADER programme. The issues that will affect the design of the new LEADER programme will be the provisions of the EU regulations governing the structure of the future action groups, a review of the 2014 to 2020 programme, which is under way, and the outcome of consultations with all stakeholders. These three elements - the EU regulations, the outcome of the review and the outcome of consultations - will feed into a decision to be taken. The experience of managing the 2014-20 programme will have an impact on the decisions. Discussions are still ongoing at Brussels level on the EU regulations. There is no clarity on them yet. What I can say to the Deputy is that the Department is very alive to the issue of LEADER for the islands, and it is under active consideration.
Have the islanders asked that it would revert to what it was before the most recent LEADER situation whereby there would be one parcel and local action group for the islands? Ultimately, we have to follow EU law but I doubt whether EU law would preclude the Department from doing something sensible such as having the islands as one parcel. After that, it will be for the Minister to make up her mind. It does not take a heap of time. It certainly did not take me a heap of time to make up my mind.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
Yes, I think it is one of the messages that we have heard pretty loud and clear from the island groups. In particular, last week Comhar na nOileán told the committee it would like to see all of the islands being one local action group for the purposes of LEADER. This is a decision that will be made in the context of the design of the new programme. It is under consideration in the Department.
That is good. We will keep the pressure on the Minister because she will be responsible for this in the end. All of these processes are fine but when there is something as obvious as this, I cannot understand the big obfuscation about it. I also asked about the rural development plan.
By the way, no criticism. I want to repeat here that I am criticising the political system that allows this to happen, not the public servants who are doing, presumably, what they are instructed to do by their political masters. I want to be absolutely clear. I am not trying to shift the responsibility onto public servants who are doing exactly what it says on the tin. They are there to serve the legitimate policy objectives of Ministers.
Ms Bairbre Nic Aongusa:
Just to say, the rural development plan that was published was subject to regular reports. Annual reports were published. The same approach is being adopted in the context of Our Rural Future. We hope that when we publish the national policy on the islands and the action plans that we will have a similar reporting structure available.
I thank the officials for attending and for their constructive and very positive engagement with the committee. The committee will shortly discuss its next considerations on this matter. It is our intention to present a report on our deliberations to the Minister before the action plan is published. We hope the committee's deliberations and recommendations are very much taken on board by the Department closer to that time. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir. The joint committee will now proceed in private session and remain so until adjourning.