Wednesday, 26 February 2014
Inland Waterways: Statements
I too thank the Minister for taking this debate, which Senator Whelan and I had called for. I do not think the Minister gets enough praise for the fact that he is prepared to come to this Chamber to listen to Members who express the fears that those in the Visitors' Gallery, among others, have about future mooring charges. Consultation takes place in Government but Ministers do not usually come to the House until the decisions have been taken. I appeal to him to take on board the views expressed in the House today.
In his speech, the Minister mentioned a place in my neck of the woods, Lough Key in Boyle, County Roscommon, as well as Ballinasloe and Leitrim. The Minister acknowledged that the sector is worth between €80 and €100 million per annum. He also recognises the benefits, both direct and indirect, that the waterways bring to the economy. They sustain employment as well as having health and well-being benefits. Central to the vision of the corporate plan of Waterways Ireland is the development of recreational, heritage and environmental opportunities that link people, history and nature, providing both communities and visitors with compelling reasons to spend more time on the waterways. In his concluding remarks the Minister states that mooring spaces are difficult to access due to "continuous harbour hogging." I reject that assertion. That remark is counterproductive. The Minister made no mention of the proposed charges, which are the key to the problem.
Many hundreds of people will be affected by the proposed charges. Hundreds of these people have no other homes; they live on their boats. The proposed charges, which were not mentioned in the Minister's speech, are such that if those people had a property on which they were paying property tax, the value of the property would have to be in the millions to equate to the proposed charge of around €3,500 per year.
I listened to my colleague Senator John Whelan on "Today with Sean O'Rourke" debating the matter with Waterways Ireland. The Waterways Ireland representation was trying to suggest that the proposed charge might only be an increase of €4 per year, when the reality is that we are discussing charges that could be as high as €3,500. I know from listening to that programme that many of those who reside on the waterways have retired from the United Kingdom on very small pensions. Some of them might not have an income of €3,500 per year from their pension. As a result of the imposition of these charges, many will end up homeless. That will put more pressure on the housing lists. They will eventually have to be housed. The Simon Community in the midlands has no money to help the homeless.
This is a way of life. As Senator Whelan said - he stole my thunder - turf-cutting was also a way of life. We saw the trouble caused by those who did not want changes to turf-cutting. I appreciate the efforts the Minister has made to address that situation. I am aware that this EU directive was signed into law by the then Minister ten or 12 years ago. The Minister has had to take the consequences on his neck. Now, before any decisions on the waterways are taken, the Minister has to opportunity to listen to the people. I agree with Senator Ó Domhnaill's suggestion that he should engage with the IWAI and listen to its views, and I am sure an accommodation could be found. I have spoken to some of those who use the waterways who say they have no problem paying an increased charge if they get the services that they are not getting currently - Senator Norris made that point - but they do not have the means to pay the charges that are being proposed at present. These proposed charges could be viewed as a threat to rural Ireland. I would not risk the waterways by implementing draconian charges.