Seanad debates

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

6:00 pm

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator O'Brien, who represents the same constituency as I do.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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The Tanagh outdoor education centre was established in 1992 by County Monaghan Vocational Education Committee. It is situated in Tanagh, on the Cavan-Monaghan border just outside Cootehill. It is set in the heart of the Dromore water system, adjoining Dartrey forest. The centre is located 112 km from both Dublin and Belfast. The original building served as a residence for the land steward of the nearby Dartrey estate, later becoming a seminary and later still an army barracks. Since 1992, it has served as a centre for outdoor pursuits, under the auspices of County Monaghan VEC.

I have tabled this Adjournment matter because the lease on this building comes to an end in September 2007. In any event, the existing building is coming to the end of its useful life and a new centre is required. In 2004, there were 6,059 visitors to the centre and that figure rose to 8,691 in 2005. So far this year, there have been 10,000 visitors to the centre. Some 2,000 potential visitors had to be refused because the centre did not have the capacity to deal with them.

Coillte has agreed to sell County Monaghan VEC five acres of land for €106,000. The site is located in the centre of Dartrey forest, which comprises 2,000 acres of afforestation. The Tanagh centre serves a useful purpose for communities both in Counties Cavan and Monaghan, as well as other counties North and South of the Border. It is a vitally necessary piece of infrastructure. In September this year, I understand that County Monaghan VEC received a letter from the Minister for Education and Science. The letter stated that capital investment in the outdoor education centre at Tanagh, or indeed any other education centres, is likely to fall into a band 4 rating, which is not a high priority, in dispersing the Department's capital allocation. The letter stated that, accordingly, the Department is not in a position to approve the proposed expenditure in this regard. This is unacceptable, however. County Monaghan VEC would like permission to purchase from Coillte the five acres needed for the future expansion of the Tanagh outdoor education centre.

I wish to pay tribute to the hard-working committee in charge of the centre, as well as its 18 dedicated volunteers. The committee managing the centre represents the whole community in that area. I urge the Minister to do his best to accede to these demands.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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Like Senator Wilson, I wish to impress upon the Minister for Education and Science the importance of this venture on the Cavan-Monaghan border. As Senator Wilson stated, the Tanagh outdoor education centre has been operating there since 1992 and has grown to a position where it attracted 10,000 visitors this year. Over 2,000 others were turned away from it in 2006 due to a lack of capacity. Large numbers of young people are visiting the centre annually. The Tanagh centre is a great asset for vocational schools in counties Monaghan and Cavan, as well as schools across the Border in the neighbouring counties of Armagh and Fermanagh. It would be a shame to see it being closed down at the end of 2007 because the Minister will not allow the purchase of the five-acre Coillte site for €100,000. Such an expenditure is quite small given the Department's overall budget, so I am surprised that the Minister cannot see her way to approving this purchase. I hope she will re-think the matter and support the project in order to be fair to everybody. Over the past 15 years, a huge effort has been put into running the centre, which has been of great benefit to the community.

Senator Wilson mentioned the Dromore water system, which is renowned both in Cavan and Monaghan. It flows through the town of Ballybay, on to Dartrey and into the Erne in County Fermanagh. In recent years, many young people have made great use of the Tanagh facility. They have enjoyed various outdoor pursuits there, including water-skiing. I have seen the facilities at first hand, as has Senator Wilson. I live closer to the area than the Senator but, nevertheless, I am delighted that he has raised this matter on the Adjournment. It was refused a few weeks ago, but I am glad that the Cathaoirleach accepted this matter for discussion today. I support the proposal and I hope the Minister will see fit to allow the VEC to purchase the site from Coillte.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Senators for making a coherent case in respect of Tanagh outdoor education centre. I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, who is unable to attend the debate. As Senators will learn, I have a personal interest in this matter.

Outdoor education centres, such as the centre in Tanagh, County Monaghan, have been developed by vocational education committees in the interests of providing outdoor education programmes to enhance the quality of the educational experience for young people. The core areas that outdoor education programmes aim to facilitate include fostering greater environmental awareness; breaking down of social barriers and prejudices; developing personal competencies and enhancement of life skills; and promoting healthy lifestyles.

The VEC outdoor education centres cater mainly for primary and post-primary students, including young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, third-level students, youth groups, special needs groups and adults. During periods when centres are not fully utilised for educational purposes, school holidays in particular, they generate additional income by providing courses on a commercial basis for the leisure and tourism market. More than 100,000 activity days are provided by the outdoor education centres for school pupils.

The nine recognised VEC outdoor education centres are Gartan, County Donegal; Achill, County Mayo; Petersburg, County Galway; Burren, County Clare; Kinsale, County Cork; Shielbaggan, County Wexford; Birr, County Offaly; Kilfinane, County Limerick; and Cappanalea, County Kerry. A further three centres, Tanagh in County Monaghan, Baltinglass in County Wicklow — hence my personal interest in this issue — and Schull in County Cork, are not recognised by the Department.

Funding was originally approved for the outdoor education centres on the basis that they would be self-financing and their financial activities would be separate from the overall VEC finances. Accordingly, the Department's annual grants are contributory in nature and the allocations are made mainly towards the core staffing costs involved in running the centres. The funding provided by the Department of Education and Science for the centres, including Tanagh outdoor education centre, has increased considerably in recent years and now stands at approximately €2 million annually. Tanagh outdoor education centre has also benefited from a significant increase in its allocation, which has been increased from €98,000 in 1998 to €130,000 this year.

I understand County Monaghan VEC has requested that formal recognition be given by the Department to the Tanagh outdoor education centre. Discussions have taken place between the Department and the VEC in the matter and the Department anticipates that once governance, management and financial arrangements to apply in the centre have been finalised with the VEC, the matter of the recognition of Tanagh outdoor education centre can be addressed.

I thank Senators for raising this matter. I will pass on their positive comments about the role of Tanagh outdoor education centre to the Minister for Education and Science, specifically their point that a bargain appears to be on offer.