Thursday, 17 December 2020
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
6. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the national islands policy; if the consultation process has been completed to date; when the new policy will be finalised; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [43332/20]
Tá ceist agam maidir le cúrsaí oileánda agus an polasaí atá beartaithe ag an Rialtas. My question is on the policy for the islands, which has been planned for a long time. Where does it stand and when will it be ready and published?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department is charged with progressing the development of a new policy for the islands. Prior to the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, my officials had been engaged in a process of consultation with island communities on the policy's development. This consultation, which was a key element in informing the policy, was carried out through public meetings on the islands. Eleven such meetings were held.
Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, and to avoid health risks for the island communities, this process was temporarily suspended. With the assistance of the island development companies and co-operatives, my Department has been holding online consultations, giving island-based focus groups an opportunity to provide input from their communities. Three such online consultations have been completed and discussions are in progress to arrange meetings with focus groups from the final three islands.
My Department will consult other key parties in the new year, with meetings being arranged with stakeholders such as the education and training boards, relevant local authorities, the HSE, the Irish Coast Guard and the Irish Islands Federation, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. To reflect on the key issues that have emerged from the consultation process, my Department will also reconvene the interdepartmental committee charged with overseeing the development of the policy.
In tandem with these final consultations, work will proceed on drafting the new policy. An action plan to address all aspects of the sustainability of island communities will then be developed and form an integral part of the policy's delivery.
I appreciate the problems owing to Covid and that it has not been easy, but there is a serious background to this. "Serious" is not an appropriate word. Rather, there is a long background to the failure of every Government to provide a policy for the islands based on legislation. In September 2019, we tabled a motion in the Dáil that was accepted by the majority of Deputies. I believe the Government did not vote for it but accepted it regardless. As a result, a policy process was started. The 1998 planning framework referred to a policy. There was an interdepartmental committee in 1996. We are now back to having an interdepartmental committee. In the meantime, the population of the islands has declined seriously. Between the 2011 and 2016 censuses, there was a decline of 5.4%. This is in stark contrast to the Scottish islands, which have seen their population increase because of a strong and robust policy based on legislation.
Notwithstanding the limitations imposed by Covid, perhaps the Minister will focus on the urgent need for a policy based on legislation.
A policy process was set up. The Deputy will appreciate that I took responsibility for the islands just a few months ago. I managed to visit an island this summer as well as last summer. Even in the short time I have had responsibility, I have shown my commitment to supporting our islanders. I increased the weekly island allowance from €12.70 to €20 in the budget. This allowance is paid to persons who live on the islands and are in receipt of a social welfare payment. I am the first Minister for Social Protection to increase the island allowance since it was introduced more than two decades ago. I secured an extra €2 million in capital funding for the islands as part of the July stimulus package. This will provide €1 million for small capital works on the islands, €500,000 for capital works required at Connemara airport and €500,000 towards development of the pier on Inisheer, which is an important project.
I am committed to working closely with the islanders and delivering this strategy. I am happy to work with Deputies in developing the strategy so that we get the best outcome for our islanders. Living in remote parts of rural Ireland is difficult, but living on islands can present even more challenges. We want to ensure that we can support them in every way possible.
I welcome the positive changes, including the change in the allowance, but we are missing a policy. We need a policy that is positive, sets out specific targets and is based on legislation. Our neighbour, Scotland, has managed to do this. Surely we could take the best lessons from it. I appreciate the Minister's efforts, but there was a change in Governments and Departments after this process was set in progress and now it lies with her.
There is a serious issue with the declining population and the Irish language. I come from a constituency that has four islands, the three Oileáin Árann agus Inis Bó Finne. I mBéarla, Inishbofin has been struggling for years to get a basic service like a primary care centre.
All the good things mentioned by the Minister are being done in a vacuum. We cannot continue to operate in a vacuum with regard to our island communities. Not alone are they struggling, and I would like to put it in a more positive way, but they have shown us the way forward in terms of sustainabe living, creative projects, energy renewal and so on. They are not asking for handouts or anything like that, but a policy based on legislation that recognises their intrinsic importance to us if we are going to survive.
I thank the Deputy. We will have a policy and we will deliver it. Much work has been done and, in fairness, Senator Seán Kyne was involved in that work as well. He and Deputy Ó Cuív are committed, as the Deputy is, to delivering for the islands. I am also committed to doing that. We have done a considerable amount of consultation. A few more meetings need to be held. The interdepartmental group is involved because the Deputy is right that it is not just one Department. The Departments of Health and Education and a number of other Departments are involved in that. We will work hard to deliver this policy for the islands.