Thursday, 15 July 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
85. To ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development further to Parliamentary Question No. 43 of 25 May 2021, to outline the status of the new policy for the islands; when she expects the new policy to be finalised; the position regarding the last meeting of the interdepartmental committee for the development of the islands which was scheduled for 30 June 2021; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38316/21]
I am taking the Minister on a tour of the islands again. There are 30 island communities, eight of which, in Gaeltacht areas, represent 70% of the island population. My questions are specific. Where is the promised policy? When will it be published? What happened at the most recent interdepartmental meeting, bearing in mind that a motion in respect of this matter was put almost two years ago? I will come back to the finer details.
The development of a new islands policy is one of the key elements of Our Rural Future, the Government's new rural development policy. The central objective of the islands policy will be to ensure that sustainable vibrant communities continue to live on the offshore islands. The consultation process undertaken by my Department has assisted in identifying the main challenges faced by communities living on the offshore islands.
Issues highlighted by the island communities included education, health, housing, energy, employment, broadband and access to services. My officials are now engaging bilaterally with the relevant Departments and agencies to discuss the issues raised by island communities and to assess how they might be addressed. I was pleased to address the annual general meeting of the island representative group, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, last month and to reaffirm the Government's commitment to the sustainable development of our islands. I can also confirm that the scheduled meeting of the interdepartmental committee for the islands was held on 30 June at which Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann gave a very constructive presentation. Work has begun on preparing a first draft of the islands policy. While it was originally envisaged that the new policy would be published this year, I am conscious that getting it right is the real priority. This will be my guiding principle. Having said that, I expect that a final draft will be ready for my consideration by the end of the year.
I am delighted that the Minister and Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann had an opportunity to give presentations. I welcome the fact that some progress has been made and that the Minister hopes for the draft policy to be published by the end of the year. It is important to put this in context. Some 24 years ago, there was an interdepartmental report which acknowledged what was needed and that those on the islands were leading the way but that we needed to back them. Notwithstanding the Herculean efforts of the islands to show us a sustainable way forward, 24 years later we have no policy and no underpinning legislation, unlike Scotland which has policy and underpinning legislation and where the population of the islands has increased. We need a policy. That is the most basic thing. We then need legislation to underpin that policy. Will the Minister comment on the issue of legislation?
I thank the Deputy. I agree with her. I come from a landlocked, inland county but I hope the Deputy accepts my bona fides in being absolutely committed to supporting island communities. It is my plan to visit a number of islands the week after next to meet the residents and to have conversations with them to see at first hand the issues, challenges and opportunities they are presented with. As the Deputy knows, I have approved the business case for Inis Oírr. I am meeting with representatives of Tory Island next week. I have been out to Arranmore and Clare Island. The Deputy will know that there was a problem with the ferry in Clare Island. I got that sorted. This policy document is extremely important but I want to make sure we get it right. I want to listen to the stakeholders and to have continued engagement with them.
I thank the Minister. I accept her bona fides. I hope she will visit Galway, where there are a number of islands including the Aran Islands and Inishbofin. Huge progress has been made on ecotourism and dark skies on Inishbofin but the island is struggling for something as basic as a primary care centre. That is just one example. The Minister has made progress on the business case for Inis Oírr, which I welcome, but there are many other problems on the ground. It is not bona fides that are missing, but a policy and legislation to underpin it. I have mentioned the interdepartmental report from 1996. We then had a report from an Oireachtas joint committee in 2014 and a study on the islands of west Cork which covered the period from 1998 to 2004. We have had any amount of reports and recommendations but we have had no action. That is the difficulty. We need policy underpinned by legislation. Perhaps, when the Covid restrictions allow, we might all take a little trip over to Scotland to hear a presentation on that country's policy and legislation and how it has managed to increase the population.
I am happy to look at the model employed in Scotland and to learn from the things that have worked there. I am absolutely committed to delivering this policy for the islands. A number of agencies are involved. It cuts across Departments. As the Deputy will know, it does not only involve my Department, but a number of Departments. We are consulting with them. The Deputy mentioned a healthcare centre. That would involve the Department of Health. I want commitments from these different Departments as to what they are going to do and as to how they are going to make a difference to the lives of the islanders. I am working on it and will ensure that we get it finished as quickly as possible. The Deputy is right to say that this has gone on too long. It has but at this stage, it is better to wait a little bit longer, to get it right and to have a meaningful policy that will make a difference to those living on the different islands right across the country. The week after next, I am going to visit three islands. An island in Galway is on the list.