Tuesday, 22 November 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Before I commence my Topical Issue matter, my understanding is that, under Standing Orders, if a Minister cannot come into the House to deal with a matter, he or she should notify the Deputy concerned, who is meant to have the opportunity to get the matter deferred until the Minister is able to come to the House.
I checked all my emails when I came down here this evening from Belfast. I cannot find an email from the office of the Minister, or from anybody else, to say that the Minister wanted to defer the matter. I have been waiting weeks to have this matter taken. That decision is at the discretion of the Ceann Comhairle and I accept that. However, I find it totally unsatisfactory that when I eventually get what is a very important issue taken, I find that all I am going to get, with no disrespect to the Minister of State who is present, is a standard answer with no feedback. We changed the Standing Order so that a Deputy can get the Minister in if he or she believes it is an issue that needs to be addressed by the Minister. I ask the Acting Chairman to pass on to the Ceann Comhairle that I am very disappointed the Minister is not here, that I am dealing with the matter now under protest and that, on the next occasion, I expect to be treated in a courteous manner and in accordance with Standing Orders in respect of this matter.
The issue I wish to raise is a serious one. Under the LEADER programme before last, a LEADER company was delivering the programme in east Galway, another was delivering it in Connemara, including all the Gaeltacht, and a third, based on Inis Oírr, was delivering LEADER for all the offshore islands not connected to the mainland by a bridge or causeway. More than half the island population of the country live in County Galway. Under the most recent programme, everybody involved in LEADER in Galway was shocked by a high-handed decision that Galway would have only one LEADER company and one sub-regional group. That decision was opposed on the ground. Eventually, the LEADER programme was delivered by two companies, namely, Galway Rural Development in east Galway and Forum Connemara in Connemara. We lost the battle on the islands, however.
It is important to point out to the Minister that, geographically, Galway is the second-largest county. Not only that, one could almost say it is two counties geographically. A person cannot get from Connemara to the huge area east of Galway without going through another local authority area, that is, through the city, unless one takes a boat across the lake.
Connemara is cut off completely and the area from Ballinasloe to Clifden is 166 km long. Galway is also a very long county from north to south, stretching on the east side from Dunmore in the north right down to Gort and Portumna in the south, and on the west side, from Cornamona, where I live, and Cong in the north all the way down to south Connemara.
There was a huge protest the last time. The people there got the two companies but, amazingly, the Department has decided that this will be one subregional area again. I find this extraordinary. The Department has also told the islanders they will be part, and a very small subpart, of the county LEADER programme. This has a significant effect because the way the money is being divvied out is by subregional area. For example, Cork, has three such areas - south, north and west - while we have only one for this huge county. The way the money is divvied out is that €3 million goes to each subregional area. We claim that since we have two companies, we should be getting two allocations of €3 million and the rest should be divvied out on the basis of rurality, or density of population, and disadvantage, against which we have no argument.
We ask the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, to reverse two decisions before it is too late. One is that she declares that Galway is now two subregional areas, one for Connemara, which is the way it will be delivered one way or the other. The companies and people have agreed that and everyone wants it. I ask, therefore, that we get it delivered that way and that we get the reinstatement of our island LEADER company.
On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, I thank the Deputy for raising this important matter. LEADER is a key programme within Our Rural Future and, as announced recently, the expression of interest stage to select the groups to deliver the next LEADER programme is now open. The allocation for each LEADER area was also announced as part of the process.
The programme has made an immense contribution to the development of rural Ireland, including the offshore islands. The funding allocation commitment of €180 million for 2023 to 2027, when taken together with the allocation of €70 million under the transitional programme for 2021 and 2022, shows that all LEADER areas have an increased allocation of core programme funding compared with the core programme funding allocated for the corresponding seven-year period of 2014 to 2020. Importantly, all of the €180 million will be allocated up front to LEADER areas. This is a change from the 2014 to 2020 programme where €30 million was withheld to fund initiatives delivered at a national level, such as the LEADER food initiative. The subregional area of County Galway has been allocated €9 million for the 2023 to 2027 period. When taken in conjunction with the transitional funding for County Galway of €3.6 million for 2021 and 2022, this gives a total LEADER allocation of €12.6 million for the period 2021 to 2027. This represents a 3.55% increase of approximately €430,000 on the 2014 to 2020 period.
A number of factors were considered when deciding on the funding allocations. Along with minimum allocations, these factors included population density and deprivation index. This approach is similar to the approach taken in the previous LEADER programme, with the relevant population and deprivation figures updated to take account of the passage of time. This approach ensures the funding is targeted in a transparent and fair manner to the rural communities most in need of LEADER support. As is the case with the current LEADER programme, the subregional areas for the new LEADER programme will correspond with county boundaries. This alignment will help to ensure coherence of LEADER funding with other initiatives and policies delivered on a county basis and so help to deliver the best impact and value for money for LEADER.
The offshore islands will continue to be aligned with their relevant subregional area. However, as island communities have particular needs and priorities, within the context of the emerging national islands policy, it is envisaged that the LEADER programme can play a key role in delivering on these needs. In recognition of this, a number of important elements will be included in the model for the new programme. Any local action groups, LAGs, selected in an area that includes island communities will be required to identify in their LEADER strategy specific actions, developed in consultation with the island communities, to cater for the challenges faced by those communities. These LAGs must include indicative budgets in their LEADER strategy for the implementation of such actions. In addition, a representative of the island grouping in each subregional area must be included in the decision-making body of the LAG.
It is now important that the key public and private stakeholders in communities throughout Ireland come together in partnership to deliver a LEADER programme that will be coherent with, and build on, existing rural development policies and initiatives throughout the country. The Minister looks forward to seeing the new programme being implemented and to ensuring LEADER can continue to deliver real benefits to rural communities throughout Ireland.
The Minister of State said, "As is the case with the current LEADER programme, the subregional areas for the new LEADER programme will correspond ... [to] county boundaries." The Acting Chair can tell him that the LEADER programme in Cork corresponds to the county boundaries but in three parts, which are contiguous. I will address the matter of Galway in the context of the county boundary and leave aside the islands for a minute, which are a separate issue. Leaving the islands aside, we are saying we will stay within the county boundary but we want two subregional areas because our two subregional areas will have two companies that are not contiguous. They do not physically touch each other on land. The difference, of course, is €3 million. That is a significant difference to the county. I will not get into an argument or be drawn down blind alleys that will go into funny money games in terms of this LEADER programme versus the last. The Minister of State is absolutely right that the last LEADER programme was not great.
The next issue I will address is that of the islands. We all love the islands. Everybody says they love the islands. People are still crying after the loss of the Blasket Islands, Inishark and other islands and their populations. When it comes to the islands, however, we often have the talk, and people will talk the talk but will not walk the walk. The reality is islanders are underwhelmed by all these complicated provisions that mean nothing to development on the ground. They will tell you that the last LEADER programme did not work as the previous ones did. It was not funded as the previous ones were. In one sentence, four things are wrong with the programme; money; headquarters that mean employment on the islands, which is very hard to come by; an island plan for islanders; and the fact this is what the offshore islands want because the islanders know what is good for them for their survival into the future.
I believe the Deputy has asked about this issue previously, and I will follow up on those questions. I have been told there are now requirements that these subregional groups specifically include actions relating to the islands, that they have a specific budget for the islands, and that they have representation from the islands. I presume that is on foot of the Deputy's requests or demands. I am not sure whether that was present in the last round. His point is that there is only one subregional area for Galway and there should be at least two on the basis they are not contiguous and are separated by Galway City Council. I will bring those comments back to the Minister. Leaving aside the fact the islands do not have a subregional area, the Deputy made the point that there is much more talk than action, that we should do beart de réir ár mbriathair and that talk is cheap. Galway is a very large county at more than 160 km. I come from a county that is 10 sq. km, so I understand where the Deputy is coming from. I will take his comments on this matter back to the Minister for comment.