Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 November 2005

6:00 pm

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring this matter to the House. I am particularly pleased that my friend and colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Gallagher, is taking this Adjournment matter because we come from the same region. We could discuss the quality of reception in our part of the world. However, this matter is not only about the quality of reception, it is about whether the Irish in Britain will get any reception.

For a number of years the Irish in Britain have had a growing desire for increased access to RTE's radio and television services. This desire was exacerbated by the collapse of Tara Television in 2001, prior to which it re-transmitted RTE television services to a large number of people in the Irish community in Britain. Those people were extremely happy with the service. Sadly, economic and commercial interests prevailed. Tara Television is no more and for the past number of years any Senator or Deputy, and particularly any Minister, who travels to England will find that people inquire as to when RTE television services will be restored to the Irish community in Britain. I am sure the Minister of State will allude to that point. It is in that context I gave notice of this matter.

During the past number of months, developments have taken place on this matter. RTE is engaged in on-going discussions with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the provision of the service. I understand a question of money is involved. It is seen as a public service obligation rather than having commercial potential. I would argue whether that is absolutely true. More important are the legal dimensions surrounding the question of transmitting RTE services outside the State. I hope the Minister of State clarifies that situation in his reply and explains what action will be taken.

The original Broadcasting Authority Acts, which established Radio Telefís Éireann, placed legal constraints on RTE broadcasting outside the jurisdiction of the State, and these constraints remain in place. Unless the primary legislation is changed, it is well nigh impossible for RTE to accelerate any plans it may have to extend existing television services to the United Kingdom. The same would be true of radio and it also applies within the island. There is a legal limbo which needs to be clarified. Does the Minister intend bringing forward a suitable amendment in his proposed broadcasting Bill which is currently being drafted?

It is vitally important that the Irish community in Britain remains engaged and connected to the mother country. In this era of modern communications there is no better way than through the provision of RTE radio and television services. RTE is the State broadcaster and as a public service it acknowledges the importance of the Irish community in Britain and beyond.

The House will be aware that I derive some of my income from RTE and therefore anything I say in this regard will need to be interpreted in that context but I make no apologies for that. I am very proud of my connections with RTE. I am currently preparing a series of programmes which will be transmitted prior to Christmas and which are being recorded at Irish centres in the UK, in Leeds, Nottingham, Milton Keynes and Portsmouth. This is another indication of the importance which RTE attaches to the Irish community in Britain.

As a broadcaster I have been identified to some degree with Irish interests in Britain. This issue will not go away and it has been a constant with the various Irish communities throughout the UK. It has been articulated by the Federation of Irish Societies which is an umbrella body funded directly by DION, to the tune of almost €1 million annually. It represents over 100 affiliates across the United Kingdom. Along with a colleague of mine in RTE, Paddy Glackin, I attended its conference last June to hear at first hand the priorities of the Irish community in broadcasting terms. The message was loud and clear that they wanted more programming from RTE and in particular, they wanted to be able to turn on their television sets and pick up RTE television services, especially news and current affairs. I thank the Minister of State for his attention and await his reply.

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal South West, Fianna Fail)
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On behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, I thank Senator Mooney for raising this important issue, the provision of Irish television services to the Irish community in Britain. RTE's mandate to provide radio and television services is defined in section 28(1) of the Broadcasting Act 2001. This Act states that the national television and sound broadcasting service required to be maintained by the RTE Authority under section 16 of the Act of 1960 shall have the character of a public service, continue to be a free-to-air service and be made available, in so far as is reasonably practicable, to the whole community on the island of Ireland. RTE's statutory mandate is quite clear in that RTE is obliged to endeavour to make its services accessible to all of the people living on the island of Ireland.

As RTE's statutory mandate is specifically focused on the provision of services on the island of Ireland it follows that its mandate could not be interpreted as extending to RTE taking any action which had as its sole objective the delivery of a radio or television service in the UK. The debate about RTE providing a service to the Irish in Britain should, in the first instance, focus on RTE's statutory mandate and how it would need to be redefined. More practical issues could then be considered such as, who would pay for the cost of RTE delivering a service in the UK, whether RTE would own the broadcasting rights for programmes transmitted in the UK market and on which platform such a service would be made available.

At present some of RTE's services are available to the Irish abroad. In addition to being available in Ireland, RTE's long wave and medium wave radio services can be received in many parts of the UK. The voice of one Paschal Mooney who has raised the issue, was heard on RTE radio for many years. I have heard many people say that during the 1970s he was a contact between Ireland and Britain. In those days many people were forced to emigrate. His voice kept them company and they looked forward to his programme. On behalf of all those people, I thank Senator Mooney. There was no information technology available in the 1970s.

The value attributed by the Irish audience in the UK to RTE's long wave radio service was evidenced earlier this year when a scheduling decision by RTE gave rise to a major public debate. It was very evident from that debate that the Irish community in the UK placed a high value on the programming they accessed via RTE's long wave radio service.

The Internet is a vital tool for the communication of information in the modern world. RTE's stations, RTE 1 and 2, Lyric FM and Raidió na Gaeltachta are available on the Internet. Some of RTE's television programmes can also be accessed on the Internet. RTE's on-line services are a very good example of a service that can be availed of by Irish audiences in Ireland and by those living abroad.

In the past a private subscription television channel, Tara Television, also provided a means for the Irish community in parts of the UK to access some of RTE's television programming. This was not an RTE service but a private company in which RTE had used its programming to invest in a commercial venture that resulted in a new and valued service being offered in the UK. Tara Television did not manage to attract sufficient subscribers and ceased to broadcast.

The task force on policy regarding emigrants was established by the Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2001 and published its report in 2002. The report contained many detailed recommendations relating to a range of stakeholders, including a number of State bodies. It recognised the value to emigrants of being able to access Irish radio and television services and noted that throughout its discussions with the Irish abroad, a constant theme was the issue of contact with Ireland. It stated there was a great desire for information about contemporary Ireland and a wish to stay in touch with developments in this country.

The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, has asked me to state he fully recognises the value to the Irish abroad of being able to access Irish radio and television services and I concur with that view. In the broadcasting Bill under preparation the Minister is considering how RTE's public service mandate needs to be amended to ensure that it remains appropriate and relevant to the needs of the audience as the digital-only era approaches. Advances in technology will continue to offer new opportunities for broadcasters to meet the needs of their audiences.

In bringing forward his new legislative proposals the Minister is committed to considering the recommendations of the task force on emigrants in the context of any amendment to RTE's existing statutory mandate. I fully appreciate the importance of the Irish community of whatever generation or the many others in Britain who are anxious to keep in touch with Ireland. There is a strong ethnic connection between Ireland and the UK. It is important they have access to the Irish language on Raidió na Gaeltachta and by means of other programmes in Irish on RTE and TG4. Our language, culture and heritage are important.

When we meet first, second and third generation Irish people at feiseanna and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí events in other parts of the world we sometimes view them as more Irish than ourselves. We have a duty to try to allow this group to keep in touch with home. Bearing in mind the Minister's desire to take action on this issue and the digital era in which we live, I hope there will be developments on the issue in the future.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply, particularly his gracious remarks about my modest contribution to broadcasting. I am also pleased he will consider the recommendations of the task force report on emigration. I hope the Minister of State will return to the Minister with the message that the question of money should not arise on this issue.