Seanad debates

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

4:00 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Tá áthas orm go bhfuil deis agam cúpla focal a rá anseo sa Seanad faoi chúrsaí forbartha tuaithe. Agus fadhbanna san eacnamaíocht domhanda, tá sé thar a bheith tábhachtach nach gcaillfimid ár misneach agus go bhfeicfimid go bhfuil deiseanna iontacha fós ann, ach cur chuige. Ar an tráth seo, go mórmhór, tá deiseanna i bhforbairt tuaithe de bharr go bhfuil clár nua forbartha tuaithe, an ceann is mó riamh, tosaithe. Dé Máirt seo caite, d'fhógair mé na grúpaí agus an maoiniú a bhfaighfidh siad chun a gcuid pleananna faoin gclár forbartha tuaithe 2007-2013 a reachtáil.

Nuair a bhíonn dúshláin ann, is ea a chruthaíonn daoine a gcumas. In ainneoin na ndúshlán atá ann, creidim go bhfuil sé de chumas ag pobal na tuaithe leas a bhaint as na deiseanna atá ann agus forbairt mhór a dhéanamh sna blianta beaga atá romhainn. Tá go leor acmhainní nádúrtha faoin tuath nach bhfuil leas iomlán bainte astu agus orthu siúd tá an t-áineas mara agus tuaithe a bhféadfaí forbairt mhór a dhéanamh orthu agus go mbeidh mise ag obair leis na pobail tuaithe le forbairt sna blianta beaga atá romhainn.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the Seanad about rural development. There is no question that this is a time of great challenge but it is also a time of great opportunity and it is very important we focus on the opportunities as a method of overcoming the challenges we face. Despite the downturn in the economy and the huge challenges faced particularly by those involved in the building industry in rural Ireland, there are also huge untapped opportunities. It is our obligation now to focus on these opportunities and to ensure the work done in recent years on rural development is consolidated.

Last Tuesday, I was delighted to announce the allocations of funding to local action groups under axes 3 and 4 of the new rural development programme. Starting this month, this programme will inject €425.4 million of State and European finance into the rural economy. This, matched with another €600 million of community and private finance, means there will be a boost to the rural economy of €1 billion over the coming five years. This is three times as much as the previous rural development programme and is the largest ever package for rural development in the history of the State.

The €425.4 million in funding will be channelled through 36 new and integrated local action groups to the continued development of rural communities all over Ireland. Their applications were evaluated by independent consultants, Fitzpatrick and Associates, under various criteria. The allocation of funding to each group was based on these criteria as well as on both population and rurality, so that we can ensure the funding granted is directly related to need. Each of these local action groups will distribute funding to community groups and individuals in rural areas for the range of varied activities, including diversification into non-agricultural activities, support for business creation, encouragement of tourism activities, basic services for the economy and rural population, village renewal and development, conservation and upgrading of rural heritage, and training and information.

This rural development programme will have a particular focus on the opportunities of indigenous small-scale industry, particularly in the small food sector. Even in the present atmosphere of global economic restraint, the food sector continues to thrive. Today there are an estimated 320 businesses producing artisan and speciality food in Ireland. Together, our producers have a combined turnover of €450 million. That means €450 million in sales value to 320 small and speciality food producers throughout Ireland.

Importantly, our sales are growing by at least 12% per annum, reflecting the growing market demand for artisan and speciality food. My Department will continue to provide support for artisan and speciality food production in Ireland under the new rural development programme 2007-2013. Among other things, this funding will support niche speciality food provision, farm shops and farmers' markets.

Particular emphasis will also be placed on rural recreation under this new rural development programme. When we consider the continuing urbanisation of Europe and even of our own country, it is clear there are significant opportunities in rural recreation still untapped. We are lucky to have one of the most diverse and beautiful countrysides, relative to our size, of any country, with beautiful mountains, rivers, lakes and a general landscape that largely remains undeveloped in terms of the potential of rural recreation. I believe there is an unparalleled opportunity to develop those assets through the rural recreation policy of my Department and through the Leader programme.

I wish to outline the practicalities of some of the progress achieved in rural recreation to date. I made provision this year for funding for Coillte Teoranta, which owns 7.5% of the land mass of the country, in recognition of its important role in the provision of rural recreation. My Department is currently completing a partnership agreement with Coillte to improve the management of recreation services across the country and to develop diverse products on its lands including scrambler bikes, riding, hiking, loop walks, wilderness, etc. Coillte Teoranta has been proactive in this regard in the past year and many useful developments have taken place.

My Department, with Fáilte Ireland, the National Trails Office and others, assisted Coillte Teoranta in the organisation of the first ever National Trails Day to enhance awareness and use of our trails. National Trails Day took place on Sunday, 28 September last and more than 70 events were organised countrywide. It was a great success and I look forward to seeing it go from strength to strength in the coming years. The National Trails Day activities were mirrored in the North where the forest service there held an open day on its forest trails to highlight the rural recreation facilities in that part of the island of Ireland.

Other important developments by State agencies include the Coillte welcome initiative and Coillte Outdoors website to attract walkers and cyclists to use Coillte's recreational facilities around the country. I encourage everyone to visit this website, I am sure people will be pleasantly surprised by the number and range of beautiful walks and activities available free of charge all around the country.

Discussions are taking place with larnród Éireann and community groups on the development of the Limerick to Tralee railway line as a cycle-walkway. There are also huge possibilities for the development of totally abandoned railway lines as cycle-walkways and my Department will, in the coming months, develop a programme to try to facilitate that. Such development depends on the goodwill and the assistance of landowners and we will be seeking this confident in the knowledge that the rural community see the advantage of such developments.

This year has seen the institution of the new walks scheme, which I launched in early March. I thank farmers and landowners for their enthusiastic participation in this scheme that is facilitating the development and maintenance of a high quality network of walks throughout the country. Under the scheme, landholders receive payment for the development, maintenance and enhancement of approved national waymarked ways, NWMW, and looped walking routes that pass through their land or, alternatively, their maintenance under the rural social scheme. Participation in the scheme is optional and access is granted by the permission of the landholder. The measure is based on mutual agreement and co-operation. This is a win-win situation for everybody as it gives people living in rural Ireland not alone new opportunities but also ensures the maintenance of the walkways to a high quality.

We took a large step forward this year with the appointment of 12 rural recreation officers. An integral part of their role will be to promote walking tourism in areas where there are clusters of suitable, accessible walks. The rural recreation officer will act as a contact person for walking tourists and will provide a wide range of support and advice. These officers will provide vital support in rolling out the walks scheme.

I have provided approximately €650,000 in capital funding to Fáilte Ireland this year to assist in the development of the national network of looped walks to a total of 50 trailheads and more than 80 Loops in 19 counties. We expect to have at least one looped walk in each county by the end of this year. It is interesting and heartening to see Fáilte Ireland's figures for walking tourism from overseas visitors, as they reflect a dramatic increase in the numbers of tourists coming to Ireland to walk. The number has grown from a low of 168,000 in 2003 in the wake of the foot and mouth crisis to 511,000 in 2007. As we make more progress, we want to see the increase in the numbers of people walking, hiking, cycling and involved in water-based activities sustained. Walking is an activity that suits people of all ages and fitness levels and has social and health benefits for all of us. Rural areas have a clear advantage in the area of walking tourism and this rural tourism contributes to more diverse and vibrant rural communities in which people live and do not just visit at weekends.

The measures we are taking in co-operation with local communities are being developed to facilitate agreed access to the countryside and the development of rural recreation. All this work is about improving the quality of rural recreation product available to market to overseas visitors and to attract our own communities to avail of the social and economic benefits of rural recreation.

In September, I had a meeting with my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, and Ms Michelle Gildernew, the Northern Ireland Minister for Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and Rural Development. That was a very positive meeting and I hope we will be able to develop a joint all-Ireland approach to the development of trails in order that we will have a seamless product to put on the international tourism market. All-island co-operation makes sense, as people who visit Ireland from abroad tend to see it as one geographic unit and it is now marketed as such through Tourism Ireland.

I also had a very constructive meeting in September in Scotland with my counterpart, Mr. Richard Lochhead, MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, who was very positive about sharing knowledge and best practice with us in order that we can learn from the experiences in Scotland, just as we will assist them in any way with information regarding the approach been taken in this jurisdiction.

Rural recreation should not be confined to the land and I will work with my colleague, the Minister for the Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on the development of rural recreation on the lakes and rivers of Ireland. These, traditionally, have been a source of interest to many people, however, there is room for further expansion. Angling and water sports are growing interests with many people and there are still huge untapped resources on our lakes and rivers. As Minister with responsibility for Waterways Ireland, along with my counterpart in Northern Ireland, Mr. Gregory Campbell, MLA, we are determined to continue to develop the inland waterways of Ireland for leisure purposes. Next year we will see the opening of the Royal Canal connecting Dublin to the Shannon and this will be a major milestone in the restoration of our waterways. Work is progressing on the development of the Ulster Canal and we are on target to achieve the opening of the first section of this canal by 2012. This section will open the canal from the Erne to Clones. Once this section is completed further, examination will be given to the further development of the canal until it eventually links Lough Neagh to Lough Erne, which will mean we will have continuous waterway from Limerick to the North Sea near Coleraine.

Around the coasts of Ireland we have some of the most interesting seas, which are a haven for those interested in water sports of every type, from diving to surfboarding to yachting. Traditionally, we have undervalued the oceans around us and I believe there is a unique opportunity for us with the Volvo ocean race coming to Galway in 2009 to exploit the incredible resource that our coastline gives us for marine leisure. I will work with my colleagues in the coming years to ensure this potential is tapped. I believe that 2009 will be a watershed year in this regard, with the putting in place of a clear vision of how we can proceed with the development in an orderly way of marine leisure around our coasts.

Given what has happened in other countries, there are huge untapped resources in the private sector in this regard. I believe the role of Government in regard to rural development and marine leisure is to be one of facilitator investing where necessary but, in particular, encouraging the private sector to invest in the development of services, infrastructure and employment by creating the right circumstances for same. I am confident that under the new rural development programme, Exchequer and European Union funding, in combination with private investment, will ensure that, together, we will continue on our journey to see rural Ireland realise its potential.

I compliment the Seanad on having this debate, which is my first opportunity to speak in the Houses of the Oireachtas about the new rural development programme. At a time when many people are somewhat downbeat, looking at the two big areas of development, namely, people and natural resources, we have both in rural Ireland and this could be a time of expansion there when many other people are talking about contraction.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Maraon leis an Aire, tá áthas orm cúpla focal a rá faoi chursaí forbartha tuaithe mar tá a lán fadhbanna i measc pobal na tuaithe. Fine Gael welcomes the publication of the Leader programme or rural development programme, despite the delay. As the Minister stated in his address, rural Ireland has two great assets, its natural resources and its people. It should be recognised that a significant proportion of the money being provided is from the European Union. I hope the people of rural Ireland who voted against the Lisbon treaty in June 2008 will take cognisance of the fact that, without funding from the European Union, we would not have significant resources to invest in rural Ireland. In fairness to our EU counterparts, we must acknowledge the support they give us. I hope this will be recognised by na gnáth daoine.

While the funding is clearly welcome, there has been a long delay in bringing the programme to fruition. We all accept it was necessary to have reform but, as the Minister stated, it has come at a time when the regions are suffering. Let us be honest and realise we face an economic downturn, partly as a consequence of Government policy and partly due to the global downturn. The number of unemployed on the live register has increased massively. It is the largest increase in over a quarter of a century. One person is losing his job every three minutes, amounting to 70,000 jobs since the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, took office.

In this economic context, 45% of multinationals based in Ireland said they would not come here again, primarily because of the high cost of doing business here and the poor quality of our infrastructure. Unfortunately, as the Minister and Senators know, the areas of the country worst hit by the stark reality of the recession are the rural, peripheral regions. Despite the fanfare at the launch of the programme and many of the Minister's fine remarks, we must be clear that it is critical to stimulate growth in regional areas. I do not know whether that is addressed in the programme. I hope so but I do not believe it.

Funding for business creation and the development of tourism activities is welcome and to be lauded but there must be adequate supports to ensure these activities will not just be soundbites or a short-lived success. The Minister referred to canals and the Volvo Ocean Race in Galway in 2009. Baltimore in west Cork and Crosshaven, with their ability to attract sailors and others involved in ocean-related activity, must be developed. We must use our ocean more and I support the Minister fully in this regard. His words need to be more than soundbites and simple throwaway remarks, which I hope they will not be.

The Minister is introducing this programme after having decided at Cabinet to introduce levies that will hit tourism at a time when visitor numbers are decreasing. The chairman of Ireland West Airport Knock referred to this prospect this morning. Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland were before the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in recent weeks. The agricultural community in particular was hit in the budget through the axing of many of the schemes designed to rejuvenate the sector and encourage young people to stay in farming.

Infrastructure is critical to the development of the regions. The Leader of the Seanad spoke correctly about the fact that Ireland does not end at the border of Dublin or the M50. The Minister lives in a rural area in Galway West and I am from Cork city, although my family is from west Cork and north Cork. Rural Ireland is the lifeblood of our country and, if we are to be serious, we must not stall infrastructure projects under Transport 21. I refer to the western rail corridor, the Cork commuter rail plan——

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is going ahead.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Not only do they need to go ahead but they must also come to fruition. They cannot be stalled in a piecemeal manner. The major components of Transport 21 are centred around the hub of Dublin. The commuter belts around the rest of the country must be considered in a balanced way. The bus strategy for rural Ireland, involving Bus Éireann, does not inspire confidence. The company has been allocated approximately €23 million to buy 75 replacement buses. That these buses are not new means many communities will not benefit from the investment.

Regional airports are having their investments delayed due to the deterioration in the health of the public finances. This implies that essential infrastructure and equipment upgrades will not take place. This morning the director of Ireland West Airport Knock, Liam Scollan, said the airport tax introduced in the budget will devastate the airport. According to The Irish Times, he stated a reduction of between 5% and 10% in passenger numbers into Knock "would result in a loss of between €5.2 million and €10.5 million in tourism revenue to the region — far more than the revenue collected". Today Aer Lingus spoke about a €30 million hit as a consequence of the tax. On one level we are announcing massive plans while, on another, we are making cuts. Is it a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Will the Atlantic road corridor, due for completion in 2015, proceed? Will the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, create a stop-gap? Already we have seen the postponement of construction of part of the Cork-Dublin motorway. What is the position on the Rosslare-Waterford road project? I hope transport infrastructure in rural areas will not be neglected in favour of the metro in Dublin. Although we need a metro, we need sustainable and viable rural infrastructure.

The Minister did not mention broadband in his address. It is a major issue for rural development. Fine Gael has always stated and has produced documents on the fact that we should support high-speed wireless connectivity to areas too remote to justify ducting and fibre-optic connections. This will help our competitiveness in a global market as IT becomes an integral part of our economy. Foreign companies are still attracted to such connectivity and it will influence their decision to invest here. Ireland is 33rd of 35 countries in terms of average Internet speed, behind countries such as Mexico and Turkey. Will the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs apprise the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, of this? We need to consider this.

The national spatial strategy states regional development is essential. Amenities such as hospitals, schools and child care facilities are essential in rural Ireland. With the cutbacks in education, the amalgamation of hospitals and the creation of centres of excellence, I, as a schoolteacher, believe we are sending a wrong message to the three-teacher and four-teacher schools in rural Ireland. I would like to hear the remarks of the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, on this. We should not be closing schools in rural Ireland and amalgamating them with others.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We are not.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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That is what was proposed by the Minister, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, in his remarks on the budget. I look forward to debating this with the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. The closure of many hospitals in regional Ireland sends out the wrong message because patients must now travel farther to gain access to basic medical facilities. Senator MacSharry refers in this House day after day to cancer services in the north west.

The rate of unemployment has increased since the Government came into office. Rural areas have been particularly hit. Ballybofey in County Donegal has had an increase of 107% in unemployment; Carrickmacross in County Monaghan, 99%, Kenmare in County Kerry,110%; and my own county, Cork, has had a 53% increase in people signing on. We see nothing but cutting back in the budget. It is not a budget of renewal that rewards enterprise and promotes rural Ireland.

As the Minister knows, agriculture was and is a major component of rural Irish life. It has provided substantial employment and one hopes it will continue to do so. Many commitments made to agriculture in the programme for Government have not been met. At the first sign of fiscal trouble there are cutbacks for rural life and the disadvantaged areas, early retirement, young farmer, installation aid and farm investment schemes have been reduced. The IFA produced a document which shows the numbers of people affected.

Where is the programme for Government now? Will the Minister, as stated in that programme: "implement proposals for a Community Development Plan which will deliver community facilities such as playgrounds, community centres, local markets, recycling and sports recreation facilities throughout the country". That was to be the plan over a five-year period. Where is that plan now? Is it all contained in the Minister's plan today? Is that it?

I have questions regarding matching funding in the scheme. If, for example, a community centre receives an allocation from Pobal or from Leader, is it allowed to receive funding from another source or must it be funded from only one source? Can we not have matching funding given to community groups that will allow them to bring projects to fruition? From having spoken to some groups in recent days since the Minister announced this plan, I know they have an issue regarding matching funding. Is there a plan for the drawing down of moneys in the first year? Is there a cap on the amount that can be drawn down by groups in the same year? If that is the case, what is the logic behind it? In fairness, I know we must encourage groups to spend and I am involved in a sporting club that received capital funding from the lottery sports programme. Perhaps the Minister will indicate whether there is a cap.

I hope we might see enterprise hubs in each county. Deputy Leo Varadkar, the Fine Gael spokesperson on enterprise, trade and employment, has pointed out that energy projects, microenterprises, centres of specialist food production and sustainable tourism projects deserve to be supported. We have an obligation to look after rural Ireland and it should not be seen as isolated and detached from the rest of society. It requires a level of investment that will bring major benefit to the country at large.

Did the Minister consider the abolition of all the Leader programmes and those that are now amalgamated under the councils? At a time of recession there might be accountability and no further quangos. I do not say that these programmes are quangos but one might then have local authorities in charge and accountability through elected people. Sometimes that does not obtain.

As mentioned in the Minister's speech, the national trades day was a good initiative and the events that took place were welcome. The Heritage Council has a wonderful season pass that is not well promoted. It might be used to encourage more people to visit our heritage sites and might also be tied into the Minister's walking and trails scheme. As a person who walks a lot, it is important to commend our farming community who have allowed people to enter their lands and it is also important to promote rural Ireland in this way. The Minister is right in that sense. There must be an increase in walking and cycling programmes and in the use of our waterways and oceans. I look forward to the Minister's reply at the end of the debate.

Broadband penetration, infrastructural development and a reduction in the cost of doing business must be tackled if we are to promote seriously an alternative to our cities and metropolitan areas.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Tá áthas orm freisin go mbeidh seans againn forbairt pobail agus tuaithe a phlé anseo inniu. Aontaím go mór leis go bhfuil freagracht orainn uilig, ní hamháin dúchas, ach dóchas a chothú. Ba chóir go bhféadaimíd seasamh a thógaint ar an mbonn sin. Ag féachaint siar ar na daoine a bhí chun tosaigh nuair nach raibh an stadás eacnamaíochta chomh maith na blianta fada ó shin, níl le feiceáil ach amháin an tír ghrá a léirigh siad siúd agus an dea-shampla a thug siad. Murach an tslí inar spreag siad an pobal, ní bheadh an buncloch ann fiú chun an córas eacnamaíochta nua atá againn inniu a thógáil. D'fhéadaimis inspioráid a fháil ó na daoine sin.

Ní gá dúinn féachaint ró-fhada siar ar bhóithrín na smaointe, mar tá daoine mar sin fós againn, daoine atá ag saothrú chuile lá ar son an phobail agus ar son bhróid agus stádais an phobail. Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil gach rud ag brath ar airgead. Tá an t-airgead thar a bheith tábhachtach, ach tá an spiorad agus an tuiscint ar na riachtanais áitiúla chomh tábhachtach. Ní gá ach féachaint ar an struchtúr atá go forleathan chun sin a fheiceáil. Tharla sin toisc go raibh páirtnéireacht ann idir an Stát agus an obair dheonach a bhí ar siúl. Sin mar ba chóir é a bheith agus mar ba chóir dúinn leanúint ar aghaidh amach anseo.

I welcome the Minister. We now have an opportunity to discuss the programme that has been launched and to talk about some of the aims and opportunities that exist within it. I agree with the Minister that in this time of economic challenges there is considerable opportunity for us to tap into that wellspring of commitment, voluntary service and pride of place that is to be found in the rural community.

It is also significant that the urban-rural divide is not accentuated to the same extent as it was in the past. One reason for that is the success of rural Ireland and the balance that has been achieved. Of course, there are requests and demands for more resources. One would be very surprised if this were not the case but it is well worthwhile to have a historical perspective on rural development. One must think of people such as Canon Hayes, the founder of Muintir na Tíre, Father McDyer, who played a very significant role in the development of his region, and Monsignor Horan, who acted in the same way. It is interesting that all three were clergymen who happened to be leaders in the community. When one thinks of what they achieved with limited resources at that time and realises the resources we have at our disposal now there is no reason for despondency. Imagine if somebody had told us that the funding allocation for this programme would be three times greater than that allocated to the previous one. The sum of €425.4 million is a considerable sum of money and if we add to that the extra €600 million to which the Minister referred, this makes a huge resource. We are not starting from a greenfield situation. A major part of the required infrastructure for rural areas is in place and we must now make the best possible use of these resources. I am pleased that, under the Leader programme, the proportion of community projects that may be funded has been increased from 50% to 75% and the ceiling on capital grants has increased from €100,000 to €200,000. These measures are indicative of hope and positive thinking.

It is interesting to note the diverse nature of the headings under which the programme will operate, by which I do not mean only the need to achieve the important goal of diversification in agriculture. Anyone who is familiar with small farming will be aware that the sector faces challenging times. We must not allow it to be viewed as a hobby because small farms can be productive in many ways. People have shown initiative in this area, for example, in developing farmers' markets and different types of food products. People are prepared to pay for quality, particularly those who are health conscious. I am pleased to note the importance attached to diversification.

In recent weeks, delegations from four groups connected with tourism, Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland, the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation and the Irish Tour Operators Association, appeared before the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. The meeting, at which Senator Buttimer made an important contribution, provided an opportunity for the joint committee to receive an update from representatives of the tourism sector. The key message delivered by all the groups was that there is no room for despondency in tourism and all of them are working in a positive manner. There was also general agreement on the need to extend tourism from urban areas into the regions. A spokesperson for Fáilte Ireland noted, for example, that the organisation had invested €3 million in the development of the Shannon area, which linked in to the west.

Tourism is a strong element of the Leader programme. Heritage is an element of tourism that can be successfully promoted, even in the most isolated areas because people are prepared to travel to visit living and built heritage attractions. While these sites depend on the goodwill of tour operators and others, by and large, the heritage sector has been successful throughout rural Ireland.

I made a suggestion, which may not come within the ambit of the Leader programme, at a number of meetings of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. It would be disappointing if the bed and breakfast industry was diminished in any way because it is under major pressure, primarily as a result of overhead costs arising from health, hygiene and insurance regulations. I do not contend that this bureaucracy is unnecessary but it should be revisited to alleviate the problems faced by bed and breakfast establishments, particularly in rural areas where hotels may not be available to service heritage attractions. It may be worthwhile to introduce a programme to assist the sector. I understand measures are in place in the Gaeltacht areas, perhaps relating to mná tí. Such a programme would be a radical but necessary step because if bed and breakfast establishments disappear, the younger generation will not start them up again as they are not prepared to make themselves available for the long hours necessary. If bed and breakfast infrastructure is weakened, it will cause serious harm to tourism.

I am not sure the cost of services and food are high when one compares like with like. Ireland has a unique record internationally for the standard of its hotels, restaurants and bed and breakfast establishments. We must not interfere with quality on the basis that the price is considered too high. Likewise, one must compare like with like in the case of entertainment and attractions. In rural areas, one can pay as little as €20 or €25 to attend high class entertainment events. That is not expensive.

I read a survey on tourism carried out many years ago. As part of the study, tourists were asked to identify the six main attractions in visiting Ireland. The main attraction was national monuments, an area in which rural areas are to the fore. Tourists continue to visit these sites because they use their imagination and are discerning. They want a totally new experience, not to replicate that which they have left behind.

The second most important attraction was high class evening and traditional entertainment. Where does one find traditional entertainment? While it is available in urban areas, it is widespread in rural areas. A third important attraction was the ability to trace one's roots. Currently, 33 centres on the island, North and South, offer a genealogical service using church and, in many cases, civil records. These services are available on-line and have been accessed by millions of people who are willing to pay a small amount to do so. Genealogy attracts people from abroad to visit the places from which their ancestors came. We should not underestimate the power of the diaspora in that regard because, as the saying goes, the savage loves his native shore. It is important to attract people to visit the places from which their forefathers came, many of which are obviously in rural areas.

The key issues, therefore, are the threefold increase in funding, the increase in the proportion of funding available for projects, the increase in the capital ceiling and the diversity of headings under which it is possible to secure funding. While I do not wish to start a debate at this late stage in my contribution, the message from this discussion is that the Government will face the challenge presented to it, not by the accession of Deputy Brian Cowen to the office of the Taoiseach but by the onset of a global recession. The manner in which the Government responded to the banking crisis by introducing a bank guarantee showed that it was up to the challenge when the time came.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The Senator is being political.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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As Senators stated on the Order of Business — Senator Quinn did so on a previous occasion — let us face this challenge in a united manner and show genuine admiration for the great visionaries of the past who developed rural Ireland. Let us support the Minister who is also a great visionary.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am impressed with the rural development programme for the coming six years. I am always fearful, however, when I learn that a committee has been established to address a problem because the first step such bodies take is to send a deputation to Dublin to have the problem solved on their behalf. I am anxious to ensure we do not attempt to do that in this case. Rather, we must tell people if they have a problem in their rural area that we here in Dublin will do our best to open the doors for them but that they must solve the problems themselves.

I grew up in the tourism business. My father started a holiday camp in Skerries when I was very young and my first job was as a shoeshine boy and so on. The whole objective of that Red Island holiday camp was that the guests paid on the day they arrived. When they paid, everything was included. It was an all-in holiday and the objective was not to take more money from the guests. I have some apprehension in this regard now, lest we have not learned this lesson well enough. The objective was to get the customers to come back again year after year. We need to instil that philosophy into people involved in the tourism business in particular so that people will want to come back year after year.

I was impressed by what Senator Ó Murchú had to say, when he spoke of the various things that happen within Ireland in the country, not the big cities. I recall my wife and I being in Clifden on one occasion and we were wondering what to do one evening. We were directed to the local hall where people were putting on their own show. What a joy it was compared with what we might otherwise have had. We were not looking for anything spectacular.

Again, last weekend, I was so impressed. We were down in Galway for the weekend and on Friday morning drove to Ballyvaughan, County Clare, to Monk's restaurant, which I do not mind mentioning. We were the only Irish people there and it was pouring rain. It was very wet and we had not come prepared for the Burren. People coming in were wearing jeans, wellingtons and so on, but ours were the only Irish voices we heard on a busy Saturday morning, 8 November, in terrible weather, not like today. Clearly there is an opportunity to do things. That particular restaurant seemed to be a Mecca for people. It is said that if one invents a new and better mousetrap, people will beat their way to it. They were certainly beating their way to that little town in west County Clare and to that restaurant. I believe it is possible. The House will recall the old seanfhocal, "Éist le fuaim na habhann, mar gheobhaidh tú breac", or listen to the sound of the river if you are going to catch a trout. I believe that is the opportunity we have in Ireland as regards tourism. Let us open the doors and remove the shackles, controls and regulations to give people the freedom to be creative for themselves.

Food is another area in which we can do something similar. We place too many shackles, regulations and controls on people. I think of the number of cheeses that did not exist 20 years ago, from my experience in the food business. There are many examples as well of very successful farmhouse products that have been introduced, but I had better not mention names in case I leave some out. However, the producers are very much hamstrung by regulations. I know we blame Europe for this and say it is a matter of food safety, etc. However, Ms Darina Allen, in County Cork, talks in particular of the need to ensure those entrepreneurs in the countryside are able to produce such products. With so many people now living in urban areas, there is something of a renewed interest in rural activities. I am not just referring to fishing, hiking, camping and boating. As well as renewed interest in small organic food production, there is also a need to preserve our rural heritage and ensure that with so many new developments, rural areas are not inversely harmed. Having said that, rural areas cannot be viewed as stagnant museum pieces and the rural development programme goes a long way towards helping to develop these areas in a constructive way. I welcome the provision of these grants.

One part of the programme that is especially welcome is the funding given to entrepreneurial farm families seeking to diversify into new areas. Entrepreneurship is a really effective part of the rural development programme and, considering that Ireland imports 70% of its organic requirements, that is a real challenge to us. Providing funding for diversification gives farmers a chance to convert to organic and helps to meet the overall target of converting 5% of the total agricultural area to organic production by 2012. I am not a great believer that organic will be of interest to much more than a certain sector, but this is a sector that can well pay for itself because those who buy organic generally do not have price high on the agenda.

I am concerned, however, with the specifics of the plan. I hope the rural development programme will create jobs at a time when many have been lost, for instance in the sugar beet industry in County Wexford. However, has a specific calculation been done as to how many jobs will be created per million euro spent? In addition, has it been estimated what the precise economic benefit will be for the communities in which the money is actually spent? Those working in the construction industry, in particular, have been very hard hit and there is a great need to strive to provide employment for them. I would like to know whether an estimate has been made of how many construction workers will be employed as part of this phase of the rural development programme. Instead of welcoming unquestioningly the funding provided by the rural development programme, I believe these are legitimate questions that need to be asked in order that the funds are distributed wisely.

I support what the Minister is doing, and the enthusiasm we are showing here. I support the concept that we are not doing things for others, but rather opening the door to provide the freedom for individuals to do it themselves. I am confident the people of rural Ireland will grab hold of that opportunity.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Níl mórán le rá agam seachas gur mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire agus a rá freisin go n-aontaím le an-chuid a dúirt mo chomhghleacaí, an Seanadóir Feargal Quinn. Is minic go mbíonn daoine ag gearán faoi dhroch-thionchar na hEorpa nó daoine buartha faoi ghníomhaíochtaí an Aontais Eorpaigh, ach chun an fhírinne a insint——

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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An Seanadóir féin.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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——níl le rá agam anseo inniu ach credit where credit is due, go bhfuil sé go maith dúinn a rá gur dea-scéala atá anseo, amach is amach. Feicim ar an gclár go bhfuil maoiniú de €425 milliún ar fáil, 55% de sin ag teacht ón Aontas Eorpach, agus 45% ón Státchiste, dar ndóigh. Mar atá ráite ag go leor daoine anseo cheana, tá sé seo beagnach trí oiread an méid a bhí ar fáil san gclár deireanach agus an pacáiste is mó riamh le h-aghaidh forbairt tuaithe. Dar ndóigh, mar atá ráite ag an Aire, dáilfidh gach cheann de na grúpaí áitiúla maoiniú ar ghrúpaí pobail agus daoine féin aonaracha i gceantair tuaithe le h-aghaidh an réimse gníomhaíocta atá le maoiniú faoin gclár seo. Sé an rud is tábhactaí i mo thuairimse ná gur deis í seo chun níos mó postanna áitiúla inmharthana agus ceantair tuaithe a fhorbairt, go háirithe san earnáil thairgeoirí beaga bia agus in áineas tuaithe.

In more constrained economic times we should welcome this as a good news story. We have three times the previous spend available under the previous programme, which ran from 2000 to 2006, as well as funding of €425 million and this has to be good news for rural Ireland.

I compliment the Minister on the great work he does and on his intense focus on the needs of rural communities. From his background in working with co-operatives, it is difficult to imagine someone more suited to the brief. I am sure thanks are owed not just to the Minister. I acknowledge the fact that this is one of the good news stories.

Many of us are involved in a debate at the moment on the impact of the European Union on Irish affairs, and many people have concerns that one hopes will be addressed in the weeks and months ahead. They will be matters for discussion at the level of the Sub-committee on Ireland's Future in the European Union, of which I am a member, and I hope it will be the subject of a discussion between the Government and our European partners to see how we may assert our positive European identity. In a way that takes account of the fact that we have distinctive traditions and want the freedom to operate in certain areas and so forth. It is very easy when one is involved in a debate such as that to focus only on the challenges and the potential negatives. We should never lose sight of the fact that the European Union has made so many things possible for our country. We can see that this continues, and it is particularly visible with the LEADER funding, where 55% comes from the European Union and 45% from the Exchequer.

As a son of rural Ireland, I am supportive of anybody, anything or any institution that takes to heart in a serious manner the importance of making life better in rural Ireland and increasing the viability and attractiveness of life there. I am also anxious we do that in sustainable ways. As we make money available to people and bodies for activities such as the upgrading of parks, civic areas or river walks — there are a million things one could mention — it is good we see that in the context of concern and care for the environment, and that the development we support and champion enhances the quality of our environment, which is of benefit not only to rural dwellers but also to the wider community. We should continue to pursue those goals in a sustainable way.

Níl sé i gceist agam níos mó ná sin a rá, seachas tréaslú leis an Aire as ucht an dea-scéala seo. Tá súil agam go mbeidh rath Dé ar obair na ngrúpaí éagsúla ar fud na tíre a chuirfidh isteach le haghaidh acmhainní, tacaíochta agus maoinithe ón scéim.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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Tá lúcháir orm go bhfuil an tAire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta anseo linn chun plé a dhéanamh ar fhorbairt na tuaithe. Tá a lán oibre déanta san iarthar le roinnt blianta anuas chun ceantair iargúlta na tíre a fhorbairt go dtí caighdéan atá inghlactha in áiteanna eile sa tír seo agus ar fud an domhain. Tá go leor den obair sin, go háirithe an obair atá déanta ó 2002, déanta ag an Aire, an Teachta Ó Cuív. Is cuimhin liom nuair a d'fhógair sé an scéim CLÁR sa bhliain 2001-02. Cé gur chuir mórán daoine fáilte roimh an scéim CLÁR, bhí ceisteanna ag go leor dóibh maidir le oibriú na scéime. Ní raibh siad cinnte go mbeadh buntáiste leis an scéim, nó go mbeadh go leor airgid curtha ar fáil. Is fíor a rá go bhfuil CLÁR ag oibriú go hiontach agus go bhfuil buntáiste mór curtha ar fáil ag an scéim don iarthar, go mórmhór na ceantair iargúlta cosúil le iarthar Dhún na nGall. Ní hamháin go bhfuil an scéim ar fáil sna ceantair a leagadh amach i 2002, cuireadh méadú leis an limistéar a bhí faoi chúram an chláir sin ó shin. Dá bhrí sin, tá buntáistí na scéime ar fáil do go leor ceantair in Éirinn.

I wish to refer to a number of issues. I listened to Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, and I share many of his views on rural Ireland and how it can be developed. Ireland was established on the basis of the baile feirme, the townland structure, which provides us with a unique geographical structure. I discussed this with officials from Donegal County Council recently and made the point about broadband being available on a universal basis in other EU countries such as Germany, Finland and Sweden, where broadband is readily available, but that it is forgotten that much of the population in those countries live in apartment blocks. It is easy to make broadband available in urban areas where 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 people live in an apartment block, but it is much more difficult to obtain the same objective in a rural area.

I am proud to come from rural Ireland, a part of rural Donegal in the Gaeltacht. I pay tribute to the Minister for the work he has done in progressing rural Ireland. I entered politics in 1999 and since then I have seen at first hand the work and commitment of this Minister to rural Ireland and Gaeltacht areas, and I salute him for that commitment and effort.

Over the last number of days there has been much discussion on the new Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. I met many people in my area in Donegal who have welcomed the programme, the structure, the €425 million, the co-operation from the EU, which Senator Buttimer noted in his opening remarks, and the recognition that rural Ireland is important not only to Ireland but also the European Community. We should acknowledge the input from the European unit in making funding available. There is an increased level of funding over the next six or seven years, the percentage of the funding available to community groups has been increased and funding is also being made available for core things important to people in rural communities, such as diversification into non-agricultural activities for part-time small farmers who want to diversify, the creation of new business ideas, the development of existing businesses and the encouragement of tourism activities.

There are opportunities available to rural Ireland and the Gaeltacht areas in developing tourism products from the natural resources available to us. Nuair a bhí clinicí ar siúl agam i mo dáilcheantar fhéin le linn na deireadh seachtaine, bhuail mé le grúpa mná tí. I had constituency clinics during the weekend and one group who came in was a group of mná tí, and the Minister will recognise their importance to rural Ireland as he has been to the forefront of developing Irish colleges over the past ten years. They were looking to develop walkways in their own area, and developing a tourism product working with the Donegal county walking officer. They had already developed four routes, and were not looking for money. They were looking for help to develop routes themselves, and the men would help out with the work. It will extend the tourism season to allow people come to the Gaeltacht, participate in walking and learn the Irish language while staying with a bean an tí. It is a wonderful idea which has potential, and I ask the Minister to consider it as part of this programme, because while the bean an tí has a seasonal responsibility during June, July and August, we could widen that, develop the language and bring tourists into the Gaeltacht region.

The new programme will have significant benefits. It will strengthen our communities, the backbone of rural Ireland, and build on the work done, especially in the CLÁR programme which has reversed depopulation and fulfilled the objectives laid out in 2001 and 2002, which I welcome. Rural Ireland can grow in the knowledge that there is a future for us all. Third level education is now available in many parts of the west and rural Ireland, and we welcome that and acknowledge the work that has been done. The CLÁR programme brought about the confidence for people to be willing to stay at home because the Government took an interest in rural Ireland and the focus was on not on west to east, but east to west since the programme was launched by the Minister. The Government must be applauded for that.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I am glad to speak on the rural development programme and its role in shaping the Ireland of the future. It is vital that we think about the future because for too long rural development in Ireland has been left behind and has been the poor relation of Government policy. As the economic boom turns to bust, rural Ireland is staring at a decade of stagnation, financial hardship and, potentially, emigration.

The usefulness and integrity of the rural development programme is not in question. The scheme continues to provide training and the support of expert professional advice on business start-ups, agribusinesses, crafts and agricultural innovation. I was a director of Meath Partnership, or Meath Leader as it was then, and I recognise and am well aware of the positive role the partnership and leadership programmes have played in rural Ireland. However, in many areas these programmes are only a drop in the ocean. While rural development programmes go some way to addressing the difficulties inherent in rural living, the overall picture remains decidedly bleak. The new rural development programme is useful and welcome, but it is difficult to avoid the impression that it is just an outdated blueprint designed for more prosperous times.

The scale of the impending economic crisis is such that the impact will be felt differently across the country and the inequality that existed already with regard to the urban-rural split will become painfully more apparent in the difficult times ahead. The question therefore is how can we nurture vibrant rural communities where farmers and non-farmers living there contribute towards the well-being and future of their locality.

I wonder, for example, how we can nurture communities by closing rural post offices. Some 500 post offices have closed throughout Ireland in the past ten years. This has a significant impact on community life. One consequence of post office closures is that elderly people feel more isolated and disconnected from their localities. Post offices are the focus of local communities and decisions on their closure cannot be justified purely on cost terms. We need to consider factors such as the socio-economic benefits of keeping rural post offices open.

This time last year there were 170,000 people unemployed throughout the country. Last week, the Taoiseach said he expects this number to rise to approximately 300,000 in the coming two years. These job losses will be devastating for rural communities. Senator Ó Domhnaill will be well aware that just a few years ago the census figures showed that in rural areas such as Donegal 25% of people were unemployed. In two electoral wards in Mayo, the unemployment rate was as high as 40%. If this is a snapshot of the rural community during the good times, we can only imagine what the situation will be in a few years' time when the full effects of the economic crisis and downturn will be felt.

The most recent budget has not helped the countryside. In agriculture, the much vaunted early retirement scheme for farmers has been cut, installation aid for young farmers is gone, payments in the suckler cow welfare scheme have been halved and the fallen animals aid scheme subvention has been slashed. Cutbacks such as post office closures on one hand and attacks on farmer's allowances on the other mean that rural living as a viable way of life and alternative to urban living is in serious jeopardy. While 40% of the country's population live in the countryside, equity of opportunity in rural as compared to urban areas is grossly deficient.

Earlier this year the Minister wrote an article for the Irish Examiner in which he said: "No rural area has the social, economic or quality of life deprivation found in Ireland's worst off urban communities." Social and economic poverty has many faces. While it may not be as potent, concentrated or visible in rural areas as compared with large towns and cities, this does not imply that poverty does not exist in rural communities.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is nothing like in the urban areas.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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It exists. If the Minister wants to know the impact it is having, he should read some of the submissions from individuals and groups put forward when this programme was being put together.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I do not know anybody in the rural areas in which I live and work who would swap that area for any of the most deprived urban communities.

Photo of Dominic HanniganDominic Hannigan (Labour)
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Let me give the Minister one example. The Summerhill active retirement group submitted a document that depicts what life is like, in terms of poverty, in rural Ireland. The group's submission highlighted the case of an 87 year old woman who came to the group for assistance. She is a widow with poor eyesight who suffers from chronic ill health. Her home was in such poor repair that she had to take all her meals in one room and live in that room because the rest of the house was too cold. Her situation improved with the assistance of the active retirement group. However, her case is a clear indication that poverty exists in the countryside. We must not forget this and must be aware that just because it is less visible, it is no less dangerous or damaging than in urban areas.

Three years ago the National University of Ireland Maynooth, UCD and Teagasc published a report entitled Rural Ireland 2025 which stated that current rural affairs policy would lead to a dramatic reduction in farming numbers and a widespread decline in commercial farming. If the market determines that farming numbers will decrease, there is only so much we can do, but we can ensure we have programmes in place to encourage people to diversify and retrain for areas such as specialist food production and agritourism. We all accept the rural development programme can help them to do that, but only if there are sufficient resources in place.

We have all seen the benefits of diversification away from farming towards the utilisation of the facilities and benefits of the countryside. In my constituency, Rathbeggan Lakes provide an excellent example of what can be done in terms of rural innovation and diversification. They have fisheries, a pet farm and an allotment scheme, which encourages urban dwellers to come and grow vegetables. This is valuable to the community. Other projects have helped to encourage economic diversification elsewhere.

I am aware of a wide range of projects put in place by Meath Leader and Meath Partnership. An artist in Bellewstown has received a donation for a new studio. Community groups in the north of Meath are taking care of their local village greens and a potter has received financial assistance for kilns. These projects are making real differences to life in rural Ireland. Senator Quinn mentioned artisan foods and the production of quality organic cheeses. Senator Ó Domhnaill mentioned mná tí and the encouragement of the development of walking routes. I benefited from going to the Gaeltacht last August to learn Irish in the morning and walk in the afternoons. I am better at walking than I was, but I am not so sure about my Irish. However, I intend to return to the Gaeltacht. It is such schemes that can help improve tourism in the countryside.

Ireland is stalled with regard to the development of walking routes in the countryside. The Minister has tried to improve the situation for walkers in the past couple of years, but this area needs greater emphasis. The Labour Party tried to introduce a Bill recently. Will the Minister take another look at how to encourage more members of rural communities to take part in walking schemes to encourage more people into the countryside.

Projects like these must be nurtured and encouraged. The programme for rural development provides some security and cause for optimism for people living in the countryside, but it will only improve matters if the finances are guaranteed. It is incumbent on the Minister to ensure he maintains these resources and that the rural development programme does not suffer from cutbacks.

5:00 pm

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis as ucht an deá-obair atá déanta aige agus ag an Rialtas. Mar a deirtear, tá a lán déanta, ach tá níos mó le déanamh. Is mian liom mo thuairim a thabhairt ar an gclár forbartha tuaithe.

I welcome the Minister to the House and compliment him and the Government on the improvements that have been made in the area of rural development. The Minister outlined a number of improvements that have been brought forward under the funding allocations pertaining to axes 3 and 4 of the new Rural Development Programme 2007-2013. I will not repeat what the Minister said, but I will touch on the key factors contributing to the development of rural areas and of services to rural dwellers. Senator Hannigan referred to post offices, which I agree form an integral part of rural infrastructure. However, keeping them open is not as easy as people might think. I recall at least two occasions when I had to drive around an area and knock on doors to ask people whether they would take over post offices. In both cases, the answers were negative. To quote a saying, the head was not worth the washing. The money was not there. I acknowledge the vital roles played by post offices, schools, churches and Garda stations in rural development.

I would love to see an end to the famous green man, which used to be in vogue and may still obtain in certain areas. As someone who is proud of being bred, born and reared in the country, I believe more crime was prevented by the actions of gardaí locally in rural areas, towns and villages than was ever committed. They knew what was going on and could identify the blackguards. We had such gardaí in Mullingar, who have gone to their eternal rewards after doing a marvellous job in keeping order.

When we speak about schools we tend to dwell on the related issues of numbers and planning. During the debates this Chamber has held on planning, the issue of serial objectors repeatedly arose. A previous speaker noted that An Taisce is being used to whip young people who apply for planning permission in rural areas, even in respect of their own lands. I could point to somebody who is connected in a family context but that is not an argument. A young man with a farm was granted planning permission by Westmeath County Council but, lo and behold, the area was visited by an aeroplane and an aerial photograph was taken that resulted in the decision being overturned. The serial objector to whom I refer came into this world with a silver spoon in his mouth. What about the ordinary son and daughter of Mary and Pat? Where are they supposed to live? That is why schools and churches are closing, although there may be other reasons in respect of the latter. I belong to a group of people who believe they have a pivotal role to play in churches. GAA clubs are also experiencing a decline as a result of the shrinking rural population.

Rural development is driven by infrastructure and people. It is not driven by crows, which are an important part of the flora and fauna.

Ba mhaith liom focal nó dhó a rá mar gheall ar Chomhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Mar is eol duit, a Chathaoirligh, bunaíodh an chomhaltas i Muileann gCearr i 1951. Tá an-áthas orm a rá go bhfuil ionad réigiúnach againn i Muileann gCearr. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Seanadóir Ó Murchú as ucht an ionaid sin. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann has played a pivotal role in rural development. Visitors to this country want to see us as we are. They do not want to hear a Westmeath or Offaly version of a country and western song, they want us to sing in our native tongue and play our traditional music. One travels to another country to see people as they are and to taste their cuisine and hear their music and language. I commend the farming community on the role it has played in agritourism and rural development.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis na Seanadóirí Buttimer, Ó Murchú, Quinn, Mullen, Ó Domhnaill, Hannigan agus Glynn, a labhair sa díospóireacht seo. Is spreagadh é dom go bhfuil an oiread sin spéise ag Seanadóirí san ábhar seo. Gabhaim comhghairdeas leis na Seanadóirí ar fad a úsáid an Ghaeilge i rith na díospóireachta. Is dóigh liom go bhfuil sé sin thar a bheith sláintiúil. Go minic, is díospóireachtaí mar gheall ar an nGaeilge amháin a tharraingíonn óráidí as Gaeilge sa Teach seo. I thank the Senators who contributed to this debate. I wish to address briefly some of the issues that arose.

I remind Senators that 55% of the funding for this programme comes from the EU. The programme represents a European notion that rural communities have value beyond agriculture. As Senator Glynn noted, our planning process must be compatible with rural development. In January, I met county managers to tell them it would be strange if we could not get planning for rural developments, such as farm diversification and small industrial projects, which are funded by this €425 million rural development programme. The national broadband scheme is to be rolled out to the areas of the country which do not at present have broadband.

In regard to the issue raised by Senator Buttimer on matching funds, I am slightly puzzled as to why it wound up as it did. I am addressing the issue as speedily as I can but must follow a specific procedure. I intend to provide matching funding for local authorities. In terms of community development, non-commercial projects can receive up to 75% funding but communities must put their money where their mouths are by coming up with the remaining25%. In respect of Leader funding, unlike the last round which had a cap of €100,000, projects can now receive up to €500,000. That does not mean a project which includes a crèche and a community development aspect will not be approved separately.

I announced the level of funding for the programme on Tuesday but by Wednesday concerns were expressed that we would run out of money next year. We should not speak about running out of money until it is spent because €27 million has been put aside for next year. One of the reasons I did not provide more funding for next year is that my experience of sanctioning funds, which is not always finalised by 1 January because the contracts and applications have to be prepared, is that people can be very slow in finishing their programmes and drawing down the money. I hope the irony is not lost on the rural community as it bangs down the doors to seek an extension of the farm waste management scheme. It seems that three or four years is not enough time to spend the money sanctioned for that scheme. Leader companies are already claiming that I have not provided sufficient money for next year. We will see who is right. I am saying to the Leader companies to get out there and spend it. There will be plenty of money in 2009 and 2010. The whole €425 million will be provided.

I want to close taking receipts for payment at the end of November. That gives us one month to pay people. It is not acceptable to submit a bill on 20 December and expect to be paid on 25 December with no inspection. There will be 11 months to draw down €27 million. At the end of next year I will be shaking the bushes trying to find legitimate payments to make. We will see who is wrong. I urge the Leader companies to spend what they have and stop worrying until they have it spent.

I do not agree with the idea of Senator Buttimer that the scheme should go under the control of the councils. These new, integrated companies, with a wide representation of community interests, social partners, local authorities and statutory agencies, must be removed from the purely statutory domain so that they have the flexibility they need. It is wrong to see them as only delivering Leader. They deliver the rural social scheme. Do we suggest that this should be delivered by county councils? This would not have worked if it had been done this way. Should the rural recreation office or the rural walkway scheme have been delivered by county councils? If we had done it that way, more bureaucracy would have been involved. I refer also to the local development social inclusion programme.

I have cut the number of bodies from more than 100 to 55 but if local authorities could get on with tarring the roads well and providing water, sewerage, planning and housing well, they would have a great day's work done. They should do this rather than taking on the world. Perhaps I am wrong on this point.

People refer to post offices and sometimes they refer to a world that is gone. We are trying to create a world at the moment. I accept that Senator Buttimer and half of his party is with the Government on decentralisation. The one means to bring jobs to rural Ireland that is within the Government's gift is decentralisation. In fairness to Deputies Kenny, Ring and O'Mahony, they are always asking when the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will be transferred to Charlestown, and rightly so.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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It is stopped now.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It is not. It is going full steam ahead. There are 100 civil servants in Tubbercurry. What is disconcerting is the fact that senior spokespersons in Fine Gael run down the decentralisation programme week in, week out. They do not inform themselves that all this decentralisation has taken place and the Departments are working so efficiently in the decentralised locations that people do not realise the move has taken place.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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What about the take-up? What about the Budget Statement of the Minister for Finance, Deputy Lenihan?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Budget Statement outlined that we will have completed 6,000 out of 10,000 by 2011. If we had announced 6,000 the first day, it would still have been the largest decentralisation programme ever. Perhaps we overshot somewhat; so be it. Decentralisation is one of the great dynamic drivers in rural Ireland. I do not subscribe that we should have decentralised to the gateway towns because they were growing anyway.

Luaigh an Seanadóir Ó Murchú an tábhacht a bhaineann le cúrsaí B&B. Tá sé thar a bheith spéisiúil breathnú a dhéanamh ar na mná tí atá ag coinneáil na nGaeilgeoirí. Tá na daoine atá ag plé le B&B i bhfad níos sine ná na mná tí.

The bed and breakfast sector has a major role to play but it must change its game. The idea of passing trade for bed and breakfast is dead. Rural recreation, activities and bringing guests to the bed and breakfast for a week is important. That is why mná tí work so well. The guests are there for three weeks, the house is full, there is money to be made and the standards are very high. There is also co-ordination with someone else who is filling the house. We must become more sophisticated. I try to encourage an industry of rural leisure, rural recreation, marine leisure, leisure on lakes and every kind of group coming, including artists. People could organise to fill the house of the bed and breakfast so that the owner would not be waiting for someone to pass, as might have been the case 20 years ago.

If we do not modernise, we will not survive. We need a more integrated approach to how we fill bed and breakfast establishments so that they are not the more casual bed and breakfast establishments of the past but will do more business, fill more beds and make more money.

Senator Hannigan referred to post offices, which cannot survive if people do not use them. Young people send e-mails and have credit cards and bank cards. When they want a payment into their account, it is done by electronic transfer. If one is always protecting the past, one will fail on two levels. One will not succeed in keeping open establishments that are uneconomical, as were many of our post offices which were making an average income of €5,000-6,000 per year. On the other hand, if the only policy is to keep open something that is not working and that the new generation has moved beyond, then one is doomed to failure.

My experience in rural Ireland is to be ahead of the game and as innovative as those in urban Ireland, who always accept change. We went from clothes manufacturing and other industries from the time I was growing up to the Irish Financial Services Centre, and we will move on from there in the future. If that is the way cities operate, to keep moving forward, the only way to develop rural Ireland is to seek the new service that young people require because there is a future in that. We must be careful of the nostalgic view of solving problems. It is important that old people have engagement. That is why we invest so much in care of the elderly, day care centres, activities and rural and night buses. We must keep ahead of the situation and be creative in doing so.

I cannot resist the temptation to refer to this and I hope the Senator will forgive me. There is no deprivation in rural Ireland on a community level like that in urban areas. Statistics from sociologists bear me out. As part of the RAPID programme, a remapping process was carried out on this basis and the results are solidly the same. One day I was in Ballycroy, a village with a population of 600 people, 300 of whom were in the hall. I was a little cheeky because I said that while there were challenges with unemployment and migration, I offered to pay, at my expense, for anyone who approached me after the meeting to stay in a deprived urban area of my choice for a week. Not one person challenged me and not one person approached me after the meeting. I said this not to belittle the challenges faced by the community, which were enormous and especially in respect of youth migration, but to give them the self worth they shared with me in the possibilities of the community if they overcame the challenges they faced. Intrinsically, it was a good place to live.

To provide the other side of the story, I remember being in Wexford at a partnership meeting. I made the same comment and a lady put up her hand and asked to speak. She said that I was dead right, that she was from the Aran Islands and that there was no deprivation on the Aran Islands like there was in Wexford town. I was glad and relieved that she validated my point. If rural Ireland was a totally deprived, poor and a terrible place to live, why would we be trying to develop it? The reality is that within rural Ireland there is a potential to have a fantastic society. In terms of the standard of living for a wide spectrum of the community, there is the potential to have probably the best society there because of the closeness, togetherness and structures of society there and all the supports it gives.

This leads me to Senator Glynn's contribution which dealt with a key issue. This programme is about economic development but it also about social development. Why do we as a Government believe that rural development is so important? We believe in that because within rural Ireland we have always had strong community structures. They were informal but strong and driven by people locally as opposed to big organisations or the State. The school and church were mentioned. There is also Comhaltas, which in more recent years has been incredibly strong in promoting traditional music, the cuartaíocht and the GAA clubs. All those tend to bring the whole community together in a way that is difficult to achieve in an urban community. Those structures create a place where people are happy living.

When we talk about developing communities and our society, it is not only about economic development but about getting the right balance of economic, community and social development such that people living in an area are not merely economic units but see themselves as members of a community who care for each other.

Having grown up in Dublin, one aspect of rural Ireland I greatly value is the support of communities for each other in good times and bad. I hope the development companies, in rolling out this programme, take account of such a wider vision and get a balance between economic and social development to ensure we create total communities. Senator Quinn alluded to that vision. It is an important one, namely, about the State facilitating but not taking away that aspect that makes rural Ireland unique. That aspect is that most of what happens comes from the ground up and the State plays the role of a facilitator rather than taking over from the people and deciding for them what should happen.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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When it is proposed to sit again?

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.