Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions
4. To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the current status of the airstrips at Inishbofin and Cleggan in Connemara; the way his Department plans to ensure that the airstrips are successful in their operations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51572/13]
This question focuses on the interconnectivity between Cleggan and Inishbofin Island, Connemara, County Galway. Up to €8.6 million in public funding was allocated to the provision of two runways at the two sites. The intention of providing an air service between the two sites was that economic activity on Inishbofin, with 160 inhabitants, would be enhanced through tourism. It appears now the runways are not in use, other than for emergencies by the Air Corps. What does the future hold in respect of these airstrips?
My Department does not intend to engage in any further development at the airstrips on Inishbofin and at Cleggan in County Galway. A decision has been made to dispose of the airstrips. This decision was made in view of the economic downturn, the ongoing cost of maintaining the airstrips and the unlikelihood that my Department will, at any time in the near future, have the resources to subsidise a regular air service between the island and the mainland. My Department is assessing the disposal options available to it and a decision in this regard will be announced in due course.
I am disappointed and horrified by the Minister’s response. My understanding was that the Minister appointed a firm of consultants to carry out a detailed design and costing in order to prepare tender documents for the construction phase of the terminals at Cluain Leacht, Cleggan, and at Inishbofin. Planning permission was granted for these two terminal buildings. Funding required at this point to complete the project is approximately €500,000. I stand to be corrected by the Minister if he has more up-to-date information on that.
Is the Minister saying the population of Inishbofin will not be served by this air interconnector, that the economic development of the area is being abandoned and that the Government is powerless to do anything about this?
My priorities are to maintain the existing level of access services currently available to the island, and I conveyed that to the Irish Islands Federation when I met its representatives shortly after being appointed to office. I am glad to say that so far, we have succeeded in doing that for passenger service access, cargo access, air service access or transport to the mainland to people who want to visit Galway and other areas.
As the Deputy has pointed out, the air strips at Cleggan and Inishbofin were developed at a cost of €8.6 million at a time when we thought we had unlimited economic resources in this country, although later we found out that we did not. My entire budget for maintaining the services for the islands is €6 million. I think we did very well, in spite of the cutbacks brought in across the board in every other Department, to maintain that €6 million last year, this year and next year to keep providing the services that are already there. Unfortunately, at this stage, due to the economic downturn and the cutbacks, we cannot afford to develop and maintain further air services. That is the economic reality of the position in which we find ourselves.
It is also a reality that the Minister of State commissioned consultants to design the next phase of the development and that the €8.6 million of public money which has been invested appears to be abandoned by him and his Department. I plead with him not to do that. I ask him to give us some indication of what his Department intends to do to ensure that the money already spent is not rendered useless, and to ensure that the airstrips are maintained so that when the economy improves, these strips can be used by the public, as well as for the development of Inishbofin. We are all committed to seeing the islands along our western coast developed, and this is an essential part of the infrastructure that is necessary and has been deemed necessary to see the proper development of Inishbofin.
We have just initiated a process on whether to sell or lease or whatever. No decision has been made yet. We are in touch with the island community as well. I was there during the summer and I took the very efficient ferry from Cleggan out to Inishbofin and back, and had a very pleasant day on the island. What we want is in the best interest of the islanders. Perhaps an interest may be expressed locally in operating that service. We are wide open to suggestions. The Department is providing services to 24 inhabited islands, and in an ideal world I would like to have an airstrip in every island of the country, but that is not possible. We have airstrips in Inishmore, Inisheer, Inishmaan, Inishbofin, Cleggan, Spiddal and Galway itself. There is quite a number of airstrips in the area. We are maintaining the existing services and we are not just in a position to incur the extra costs, but in anything that is done, we will certainly consider the needs of the islanders. The process is only beginning.