Thursday, 21 February 2008
Curam fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. My motion on the Adjournment of the House relates to the need for the Government to progress a plan to bring rail to County Donegal, connecting the town of Sligo and the city of Derry through Donegal. This would see rail reintroduced to Donegal through the towns of Bundoran, Ballyshannon, Donegal town itself, Ballybofey, Stranorlar, Letterkenny, Lifford, servicing Inishowen and up into the city of Derry.
At the beginning of the last century, there were 200 miles of rail network in Donegal, with four different operators. Today, there is not one mile, yard, foot or inch of operational rail track in Donegal. Anybody who knows Donegal, and the Minister of State certainly does, will know of its infrastructural deficits. One has only to look at a map of the infrastructure in the Republic of Ireland to see this clearly. A Sinn Féin delegation met Mr. Jacques Barrot, the Commissioner for Transport in Europe and showed him such a map. We indicated where Donegal was, in the top left hand corner. He asked about the area on the map that was blank, thinking it was a desert. I explained that it was part of Ulster and he asked why there was no infrastructure in that region. I told him it was due to a lack of investment by both the British and Irish Governments and the fact that the railway lines were closed down, due to lack of use, in the 1960s. Since then, there have been no advances.
The motion calls for the gap between Sligo and Derry to be closed, which will create an all-Ireland rail network or loop. To have a proper all-Ireland loop, we must make sure that the rest of the network is working properly. Last night there was much debate in this House on the issue of the Derry to Coleraine section of the railway network. I wish to draw the attention of the House to the commitment that has been given by the Minister for Regional Development in Northern Ireland, Mr. Conor Murphy, a member of Sinn Féin, to the development of that part of the route. Questions were raised about his political will but I point out that in 2000, during the last Executive in Northern Ireland, when the Minister for Finance was Mr. Mark Durkan, a railway task force report was adopted, which confined investment to core railways. The report recommended that no major investment be put into the remainder of the track, which meant there could not be any investment in the Ballymena to Derry section of the line. That policy was continued in 2004 and 2005 by the direct rule Minister.
I am glad to say that after only a short few months in office, Mr. Conor Murphy has lifted the restriction and has allowed for the preparation of a business case, and funded same, to ensure there is a substantial upgrading of the line between Coleraine and Derry. He has said clearly that this business case will allow his Department to apply for EU funding in support of those works. He has also committed, as has the Assembly in the investment strategy, to re-laying the entire line, beginning in 2011. This will provide a new line, as well as additional signalling and passing loops, at a cost of €64 million. That work will start in 2011, as it takes time to plan, specify and procure such work properly. There also will be additional new trains on the line and the scheme will be finished in 2013. Once completed, the journey time between Derry and Belfast will be reduced by half an hour and trains will be able to leave and arrive in Derry before 9 a.m. This demonstrates that there is political will and commitment in Northern Ireland.
The plan for Derry and Coleraine is good news for the people of Inishowen, who are close to Derry. It is also very good news for the people of the north-west generally, particularly those who live in Derry. However, we must now turn our attention to the other large missing piece of the jigsaw, that is, Donegal. If one looks at the Government's transport infrastructure plan, Transport 21, it is clear that Donegal and the north-west has been left out, in terms of public transport. It is great to see headline figures of €16 billion being invested in public transport infrastructure over a ten year period. It is also great to hear that €4.4 million will be invested every day in public transport but none of that money will be spent on new rail projects or public transport projects in Donegal. At the launch of Transport 21, the then Tánaiste, Deputy Mary Harney referred to "your money", that is, the taxpayer's money. The taxpayers of Donegal will contribute in the region of €555 million to the public transport infrastructure part of that plan but no plans are being put in place to bring public transport infrastructure to that county.
The Minister of State is well aware that Donegal has serious problems in terms of economic development. It has high levels of unemployment, the highest levels of poverty in the State and one of the highest levels of early school leaving. When the then Minister for Transport, Deputy Martin Cullen, launched Transport 21, he said that infrastructure is essential for economic development and I agree with him. The problem is that the infrastructural development being planned by the Government, while badly needed in all areas of the country, is concentrated in areas other than the north-west. It is no surprise that every county in every province in this country has a rail service, bar the counties of Ulster.
I am asking for fair play for the north-west and for Donegal. I do not expect a railway line to be developed overnight or even in two or three years. However, I expect the Government to start planning, particularly in the context of climate change and our dependence on cars, to bring rail back to Donegal.
Sinn Féin has been at the forefront of this campaign in Donegal, along with others from across the political divide, including members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. We welcome that because infrastructure should not be a party-political issue. Nonetheless, my party recognises that the Government holds the purse strings and devises infrastructural plans.
A study was carried out by Donegal County Council into the infrastructural needs of the county. That study recommended that Sligo and Derry be linked via a rail line. It does not make sense that, once the western rail corridor is opened, people will be able to leave Sligo by train and travel right around Ireland but when they arrive in Derry, they will have to transfer to a bus or taxi to get back to Sligo.
The development I am calling for makes economic sense and makes sense in terms of cross-Border co-operation and all-Ireland developments. I am glad the Minister of State who is here today is from Donegal and I ask him to bring this issue to the attention of the Department and Minister for Transport, to ensure the matter is raised at Cabinet and to follow the leadership that is being provided by Mr. Conor Murphy in the Northern Ireland Executive, who is clearly committed to bringing rail to the north-west but he can do that only in his own jurisdiction. However, he has stated clearly that he is willing to co-operate with the Minister for Transport to ensure the north-west has a properly developed public transport infrastructure. That requires the Government in the Republic to demonstrate its commitment to the same by investing in a railway line from Sligo to Derry.
I thank Senator Pearse Doherty for raising this important issue and giving me the opportunity to respond on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, who is unavoidably absent. He would have liked to be here because this issue is very much a part of his brief.
Transport 21, which is the medium-term investment framework for transport, does not provide for the development of a railway line between Sligo and Derry. The resources for mainline rail investment under Transport 21 are focused on the complete transformation of the rolling stock, including most recently that operating on the Sligo to Dublin line, on infrastructural projects such as the western rail corridor and other upgrade projects in various parts of the country, together with resignalling projects and the interconnector and electrification projects in Dublin.
Transport 21 also provides through the railway safety programme for major ongoing investment to upgrade the rail network throughout the country. It is also the case that the strategic rail review, which fed into Transport 21's mainline rail investment programme, did not identify a Sligo-Derry link as a feasible option. The primary findings of the review are contained in its recommended investment strategy which lists the priority areas for rail development. Rail services between Derry, Letterkenny, Donegal and Sligo are not included in the strategic rail strategy.
As far as the Department and the Minister are aware, there is no plan on the part of the Northern authorities for such a project. I have no reason to doubt Senator Doherty's comments on what Conor Murphy has committed to and we will pursue the matter through the Department of Transport. The Ministers with this responsibility — Mr. Murphy and Deputy Dempsey — will meet again and I will bring to them the Senator's opinions regarding the contributions to which the Northern authorities have committed on their side of the Border.
While rail links are important, we cannot consider transport infrastructure in isolation from road and air services. In considering the case for a Derry-Sligo rail link, it is important to bear in mind the improvements made in transport links to the north west. I stated this yesterday during the debate on Senator Keaveney's Adjournment matter to which Senator Doherty referred, namely, the Derry-Coleraine link. In recent years, upgrades of roads such as the N2, the N14 and the N15 serving the north west have been completed and more are planned. I referred to the investment under Transport 21 leading to further improvements in transport infrastructure serving the region, including the Atlantic corridor from Derry-Letterkenny down the east of the county to Donegal, to the west, the south and on to the south east.
Senator Doherty will be aware, and it is something of which we in Government and in public life should be proud, that the Government has agreed to make available €580 million to provide for a major upgrade of roads, not between Dublin and Donegal-Letterkenny, but within Northern Ireland and serving the north-west gateway of Letterkenny and Derry. This project is being advanced by the National Roads Authority and the Roads Service of Northern Ireland under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council. Progress is being made.
I refer to the funds that have been provided by successive Governments in respect of the public service obligations to the Dublin-Donegal air link and the Dublin-Derry route, which is under the jurisdiction of the Northern Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Irish taxpayer makes a major contribution in this regard. Senator Doherty will be aware of the advantages of the air link between Carrickfinn, Donegal's airport, and Dublin and it is an opportunity to remind many of us who use that link that there is a substantial subsidy. We should not need to thank anyone for this because we are one of the few counties in the country without a rail link. There must be positive discrimination.
I pay tribute to all of those involved in Carrickfinn Airport and the airline in particular for providing a twice daily service between Dublin and Donegal and a thrice weekly service between Donegal and Glasgow Prestwick Airport. As Glasgow has such an ethnic link with Donegal, there is a great demand for the service. We must remind ourselves that the Glasgow leg is not subsidised because it is outside the jurisdiction. However, as Derry is on the island of Ireland, we can provide funding for the capital improvements to Derry Airport.
It is no harm to sell ourselves. If one drives from Dublin to Donegal, one will travel up the M1 and bypass Ardee, Carrickmacross, Castleblayney and the inner relief road in Monaghan. The only town through which one will pass is Emyvale, from which one will travel to Aughnacloy. With the €580 million to be provided by the taxpayer, I hope it will not be too long before there is movement in respect of design, procurement and the actual work, which can take some time, all of which have been acknowledged by the Senator. I had the privilege of opening the Ballyshannon-Bundoran bypass, which cost more than €80 million. The Government is committed to providing €100 million for the Ballybofey-Stranorlar bypass. While we may not have a rail link, substantial funds are being invested.
It is right that we should have an improved infrastructure because everyone acknowledges that this is linked with economic progress and growth. Donegal's rate of unemployment is higher than the national average. This may be owing to its location but neither I nor Senator Doherty could or would change that because we believe Donegal is the centre of the world.
Substantial funds are being made available and I am interested in learning from Senator Doherty of Conor Murphy's commitment. I will ask the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, to discuss it with the Northern Minister at the next available opportunity, possibly at the North-South Ministerial Council.
The Minister of State went off point. I have travelled throughout the country many times. There are airports and motorways in different regions. While the Government's investment in the dual carriageway is welcome, only the Aughnacloy-Derry stretch will be a dual carriageway. It is right that the fourth largest city on the island is connected to the largest, Dublin, because every other city is being connected.
It is clear that Conor Murphy has made a commitment to the north west in respect of rail links, especially a rail service to Derry. The missing piece of the jigsaw is in our jurisdiction because it is in the gift of the Government to provide a rail link from Sligo to Inishowen to the Foyle. Both Ministers must work together to provide a link across the Foyle. Does the Minister of State support the demand for a rail line between Sligo and Derry and will he ask his Cabinet colleagues to support such a demand?
If the Senator wants to interrupt, I can sit down. We have provided €580 million to the Northern Ireland authorities to assist in the provision of roads in the North. Senator Doherty should ascertain the facts because we are heavily subsidising a dual carriageway from Dublin to Derry-Letterkenny. It is not the commitment solely of his colleague in the North. We live in the real world and it is not my call or that of the Senator.