Seanad debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

5:00 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann,

noting:

that the continued provision of public rural transport links is essential to the social and economic health of rural life;

the withdrawal of these services will plunge homes all over Ireland into isolation, loneliness and expense;

that huge fear and worry has been provoked by the threatened withdrawal of rural transport links, particularly the pilot evening rural transport scheme which is a crucial service for many elderly people living in isolation;

and considering:

the CSO indicates that 50% of rural families experience difficulty in accessing public transport;

an estimated 21% of rural families experience great difficulty in accessing basic services such as shops, post offices and GPs due to a lack of public transport;

nationwide bus routes are currently under review and it is likely that a large number of services on routes in rural areas will be withdrawn;

the proposal in the McCarthy Report to cease funding for the Rural Transport Programme;

the comparatively low cost of the Rural Transport Programme in the wider context of transport expenditure;

calls on the Government to:

introduce a national transport regulator responsible for opening up transport networks to new competition and to facilitate better targeted subsidies that protect transport options in rural areas at least cost;

pending the introduction of a transport regulator, do everything possible to ensure existing rural transport services are maintained; and

reject attempts to damage the social fabric of rural Ireland.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady. This is the second occasion in three months on which we have debated rural transport and the issue of rural life. This is a timely and important debate, not just as it relates to rural transport but also in the context of the type of society we want to obtain in Ireland in the future. I place my comments in this regard in the context of the current economic recession, the issues relating to the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, which the House has just been debating, and the very real threat that services will be withdrawn from rural areas.

At the core of everything we, as politicians, seek to achieve must be the creation of sustainable urban and rural communities. We cannot do anything which might accentuate the divide that already exists between such communities. It behoves each of us to bridge that divide. Of central importance in the context of everything we might do in this regard is the provision of services, such as those relating to rural transport.

It is vital that we should engage in a coherent debate which focuses on the long-term viability of rural areas and on the communities that live therein. The Government appears to have lost focus in this regard. One need only consider the position in respect of agriculture, the findings of successive OECD and CSO reports and the way in which rural society has been decimated to understand what I mean.

Senator Ó Murchú, who is an extremely good advocate for rural Ireland and for Irish culture, knows what I mean. There is a growing divide between urban areas and rural areas. Sometimes those who live within the Pale tend to forget that rural Ireland does not just begin or end at the boundaries thereof. We must engage in a debate on how we might create a sound and vibrant rural Ireland. The latter is the key for the future prosperity of our country. Linked to this is the issue of connectivity, particularly as it relates to people. The words or phrases I would use in this regard are "county", "country", "town", "urban" and "not so urban". Job creation is another key component in protecting rural communities. In the absence of the link which public transport can offer, the opportunities in this regard will be lost.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009 which the House debated earlier relates to how we might encourage people to engage in strategic land use. Rural Ireland is suffering from an infrastructural deficit. This is evidenced by the condition of some secondary roads. The Minister of State, who came from Galway originally but now lives in Kildare, will be aware of the position in this regard. Earlier today, county councils complained that they do not have the money to repair these roads. In fact, funding in this regard has been frozen. In addition, access to social services and broadband roll-out has been almost non-existent. If such access to broadband services does exist, the speed is poor and the quality is not great. There is also the issue of people not wanting to do business.

When we debated this matter on 23 June last, I used a quote from the Farrell Grant Sparks report. That quote remains relevant, particularly in light of the CSO report which was published in the interim and which paints a damning and bleak picture of where matters stand with regard to rural Ireland. We appear to have forgotten that rural Ireland exists. The CSO report indicates that 50% of families in rural areas experience difficulties in accessing public transport and 21% experience difficulties in accessing basic services such those provided by shops, post offices and GPs as a result of a lack of public transport.

Bus Éireann is carrying out a review of its bus routes nationwide. Members from both urban and rural areas will have witnessed the decline in the number of buses on our roads and the reduction in the number of services on offer. If a bus service which operates in the middle of the day in a rural area is withdrawn, people are obliged to leave home early in the morning and not return until late at night.

I look forward to hearing whether the Minister of State is sympathetic with the Tánaiste's view on the McCarthy report or whether she is of a different school of thought. In the debate on this matter on 23 June, the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, admitted that the pilot rural transport scheme had been a success and that the implication with regard to costs was not really a factor.

Everything I have stated highlights the fact the withdrawal of the rural transport programme will have profound implications of catastrophic proportions for rural areas. The motion makes a number of straightforward and quite cost-neutral proposals. We are seeking that a national transport regulator, who would be responsible for opening transport networks to new competition and facilitating better targeted subsidies that protect transport options in rural areas at least cost, be appointed.

I accept there are vested interests involved which are afraid of competition. However, what has happened on routes from the airport and those which run to and from colleges shows that competition has a role to play in the area of transport. I appeal to Bus Éireann and the unions which represent its staff to consider this matter in the interest of protection of life in rural areas as well as that of employment within the company.

The motion also seeks that the rural transport service be maintained in order to curtail any attempt to damage the social fabric of rural Ireland. The core of the motion relates to that social fabric. I am disappointed by the amendment tabled by the Government. The motion is not in any way critical of the Government. It is positively framed, person-centred and community-focused in nature. We could have been much more critical of the Government.

In light of the remarks made by the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, on the previous occasion, will the Minister of State indicate whether the funding for this scheme, which expires in December, will be continued? There is uncertainty in respect of the future of the scheme. We recognise that the pilot scheme relating to rural transport has, in some cases, been a success. Clarification is required from the Government with regard to whether rural transport is going to continue to be provided. Accessibility is critical and if we say this is not the case, we will accentuate the divide that exists between urban and rural communities.

As already stated, the CSO report indicates that 50% of rural families reported difficulty in accessing public transport. By comparison, only 11% of people living in urban areas experienced difficulty. This constitutes an enormous deficit and gap that must be bridged. On the issue of education, the report shows that 21% of rural householders have had difficulty in accessing public transport for schools, while the equivalent figure for urban dwellers is 11%.

I now turn to the McCarthy report. At this point I feel as though I am acquainted with Colm McCarthy because I have seen and heard him so often. However, I wonder whether anyone has studied the McCarthy report's effects on rural Ireland and those who live there. It has been well documented by research and educated scholars that the benefit of transport to the vulnerable and those who most need it is immense. Although the report refers to an alternate transport system, it misses the fundamental point of rural transport, which is that it is of absolute benefit to both young and old. It has a multiplicity of uses and is not simply about bringing people to and from the pub. As all Members acknowledge, it is about much more than this.

The evaluation of rural transport should not simply be about pounds, shillings and pence. It must pertain to the benefit to people and how one can build a vibrant rural Ireland in which people will come to live, socialise and work. It is about placing people at the core and the centre. Ní neart go cur le chéile. However, were this scheme to lapse or one to allow the implications for rural Ireland of the McCarthy report to take root, we would have no agriculture or marine sectors. There would be no one living in rural Ireland, as everyone would end up living in apartment dwellings between the M50 and Dublin, like Hong Kong or Beijing. We would have lost Eamon de Valera's comely maidens at the crossroads effect and might as well simply abandon ship and become an island nation of apartment dwellers.

This is the bottom line because the rural transport scheme offers a central lifeline to those who need it most. It is of critical importance and benefit to the isolated members of rural Ireland. If one takes the Lisbon treaty campaign as an example, Members should consider the number throughout rural Ireland who were afraid to open their doors, were one to drive into their yards at night to canvass. Alternatively, others were delighted to talk to, or converse with, canvassers. It was unbelievable. I visited a number of rural parts of my constituency, of which there are not many, and one Tuesday I met a gentleman in his 70s who had spoken to no one since attending mass the previous Sunday. If this is the rural Ireland one seeks, the Government has failed. We must promote policies to bolster the quality of the lives of rural dwellers, despite the cost factor, which in this case is not huge. The economic benefit of having vibrant communities in rural Ireland is unending.

Despite the protestations, the fortunes of rural Ireland and its people have been ignored by the Government. In its renewed programme for Government it should place considerable emphasis on a strong rural transport scheme. Such a scheme should be put in place. Moreover, I hope the night-time rural transport scheme will not be lost because the vibrancy, well-being and health of many depend on it.

I commend the motion to the House. Members on the benches opposite, behind and beside me should support it. It is a positive one, one about people and connectivity and, above all, creating an Ireland of equals. That is the reason I commend it to the House.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Fáiltím roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim comhghairdeas léi as a ceapachán mar Aire Stáit. I second the motion tabled by my colleague, Senator Buttimer, and in so doing congratulate him on his grasp of the issues in rural Ireland and the passion he displays for them. This is reflected in the motion, its considered nature and his exposition of the issues dealt with therein.

In 2005 I stood as a local election candidate in County Cavan. In contrast to candidates in national or European elections or participants in referendum campaigns, local election candidates visit houses in a thorough fashion and canvass virtually every house in a given catchment area. During such a canvas one gains a detailed knowledge of the community and how matters stand. The process is highly detailed and there is a focus on individuals and houses. If one misses people, one returns and so on. I need not explain this process to Members. However, after that election, I remember attending a local authority meeting at which I listed what I had learned during the campaign about what was needed in rural Ireland.

My distinguished colleague opposite, Senator Ó Murchú, also has a well tuned awareness of such issues. He will agree that the shocking discovery one makes when one travels through rural Ireland in a focused, detailed and slow way concerns the level of isolation one encounters. I refer to those who live in real isolation, are very lonely and whose only companions are radio and television sets. Such persons have minimal human contact, like the gentleman Senator Buttimer mentioned who had not spoken to another human being between attending mass on a Sunday and the following Tuesday. In many cases the position is even worse. One discovers this isolation and notes the importance to the people concerned of Irish music, culture, song and so on that can be heard on the radio. Members can discuss this point on another occasion. However, a number of people in rural Ireland live in isolation.

Without entering into a discussion on the merits or otherwise of what constitutes an appropriate level, the changes in breathalyser regulations, rightly or wrongly and no matter how one evaluates them, also have had a great impact in this regard. Moreover, people in rural Ireland have difficulty in leaving their local area to visit town or even to go to church or get out to meet others. Some live alone and it is very difficult for them to so do. The CSO figures cited by Senator Buttimer which were included in the wording of the motion substantiate this point.

An economist, a sociologist or someone who comments on such matters might argue that the car population has increased greatly in rural Ireland. Moreover, it might be argued that a number of bus companies are now operating. However, while it is the case that the car population has increased and that, theoretically, there may be a number of competing bus companies etc., the reality is that a great number of those people who are the subject of this debate are unable to access cars. In some instances, they may be unable to drive. This frequently is the case. In other instances, although a family might own a car or two, they are used by younger members to go to work. Alternatively, there may be an abusive dimension to the family relationship, whereby the older people or disabled persons are ignored and left to fend for themselves, are not properly looked after and not given access to the car. While there are many ideal and happy situations, this is not what is being addressed. Consequently, it is important for Members to realise that the availability of cars or improved roadways does not necessarily solve the problem.

I met representatives of the Rural Transport Network at the special awareness day event it held in County Cavan. I presume this was replicated all over the country. I spent time on each of the buses and met the people there. There was a variety of people on them, including those who lived alone, those who could not drive, those who had some form of disability and those who had indifferent relations who were not bothered whether the people could travel. They needed the service and I could see the rural transport scheme meant so much to the quality of life of the service users. It is life altering to those people.

Although it is difficult to quantify this, it must save a considerable amount of money in the health service and in institutional care because it gives people dignity, quality of life and self-esteem that allows them to live in the circumstances they are in. This allows them to avoid institutional care and a higher level of dependency on the health services. It greatly improves quality of life because they can meet up with people, go to town and experience warmth, friendship and interaction with other human beings. This is what we all desire.

The great exhortation in our Constitution and the Proclamation of 1916 is to cherish all the children of the nation equally. These people must be cherished to the degree that every other citizen is cherished. They have the same rights and issues as others and have the same constitutional right to the equality of access to travel, shopping, meeting other human beings and quality of life.

It will resonate with the Minister of State that this is a women's issue. It is an issue for many rural women. I noticed this when I met people on the buses, which comprised two thirds women. When I was a Member of a previous Seanad, I was a member of the committee on women's rights and I raised this matter. The scheme did not exist at the time but I constantly raised the issue. Access and the potential for travel for rural women was a real issue and this scheme has addressed that matter.

I recognise that the proposals of an bord snip nua are merely proposals. I join Senator Buttimer in his call for an unequivocal statement from the Minister of State and a commitment to the continuation of the rural transport scheme. It is a good scheme that stands on its merits. I appeal to the Minister of State to flatter the Seanad, as the Upper House of Parliament, by stating that the scheme will continue, that it is meritorious and that it is not up for bargaining. There are certain core issues. I always try to say on the Order of Business that we cannot solve the problems of the past and the years of waste and ineptitude on the backs of the weak, the disabled, the isolated, the lonely or the needy. These vulnerable people cannot become our way of dealing with this. It is easy to target these people because they do not have a great voice, they are not fit to have great marches outside the Dáil and they are not fit to have the press and a battery of public relations people presenting their case through multimedia outlets. Many people I met are not fit to hold marches on O'Connell Street but that makes the case all the more meritorious.

The scheme costs €11 million per year and its return is enormous. I commend the scheme to the Minister of State. I am not being glib because Senator Buttimer is correct. These people must be put at ease and a statement from the Government on this issue will not compromise the Government's ambition to save the requisite €4 billion. The Government could state that it will save what it must but will not do so at the expense of the rural transport scheme, which is vital to rural Ireland. The Minister of State must give us that commitment today. I appeal to Senator Ó Murchú to commit to the same principle in his address. We must protect this scheme and state that it is not up for grabs. Fiscal rectitude cannot be built on the backs of people I met on the buses during the transport open day.

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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Tairgim leasú a 1:

To delete all words after ''Seanad Éireann'' and substitute the following:

''congratulates this and previous Governments for their foresight in introducing and expanding the Rural Transport Initiative that has seen:

it develop from a pilot scheme carrying 151,000 passengers in 2003 to 1.2 million passenger journeys in 2008;

an increase in the numbers of services from 40,000 in 2003 to 140,000 in 2008,

further development in 2009;

increased funding from €3 million in 2003 to €11 million in 2009;

and acknowledges:

the Government's commitment to the Rural Transport Programme as articulated in Towards 2016, the National Development Plan 2007-2013 and the Department of Transport's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005;

Seanad Éireann also:

notes the high levels of current and capital expenditure that has been provided by the Government in its term of office to provide public transport infrastructure and to support public transport services;

endorses the provisions in the Public Transport Regulation Bill 2009 which establishes a modern regime for the licensing of commercial public bus transport services and facilitates a national statutory framework for the procurement of public transport services by way of public transport services contracts;

endorses also the provisions of the Planning and Development Bill requiring transport plans as an integral component of local authorities' development plans;

acknowledges the relevance for public rural transport of the Government's policy on sustainable travel, and

recognises the mutual dependencies between the Government's rural development and local community support policies and effective and efficient public rural transport.''

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chuig an Teach. Déarfainn gur beag duine go bhfuil an t-eolas céanna aici agus atá ag an Aire maidir le cúrsaí na tuaithe, na buanna a bhaineann leis an dtuath agus na riachtanais a bhaineann leis chomh maith. Táim lán chinnte go bhfuil a croí san áit cheart agus go mbeidh sin soiléir amach anseo. Munar féidir linn é sin a léiriú inniu, táim cinnte go léireofar níos déanaí é. Senators Buttimer and O'Reilly have made a passionate and informed plea on behalf of rural Ireland. I have noticed that we have strong, articulate people undertaking advocacy on behalf of rural Ireland. Whether on the Order of Business or on more substantive debates on legislation, rural Ireland is never short of an advocate on both sides of this House. Long may that continue. Apart from business, as human beings we live in a competitive world and we are looking at a diminished treasure chest. We must ensure that each section of society is represented when we develop and distribute the fruits of the work of the nation. We should take off our hats to the organisations in rural Ireland. I am thinking of farming organisations, particularly Macra na Feirme and Macra na Tuaithe. These organisations help young people to enunciate the requirements of rural Ireland and to point to its needs and potential. The Irish Countrywomens Association, GAA and Comhaltas have been to the fore in this respect. We should salute them for this because much of the development that took place and the legislation passed came as a result of the research and exhortations of these organisations. As a result, we have a confident rural Ireland. Over one third of the population, a considerable amount, lives in rural Ireland. We should quote this statistic often.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Did Senator Ó Murchú move the amendment?

Photo of Labhrás Ó MurchúLabhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fail)
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I did, as Gaeilge. Chuala an Seanadóir O'Reilly é sin.

When I spoke on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill earlier I made many of the same points as Senator O'Reilly made just now. It is vital that young people investing their confidence in rural Ireland, which is different to what it was 30 or 40 years ago, should be facilitated, particularly if they want to build houses on their land. The social dimension to this is that grandparents look after the grandchildren and children look after their parents. This keeps people out of nursing homes and hospitals. I agree with Senator O'Reilly in this respect. I hope the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill we debated earlier and the upcoming ministerial guidelines will keep this aspect in mind.

I was particularly taken by Mr. Jack Roche, chairman of the Rural Transport Network. At a recent presentation, I heard him on the radio with a fine rich Cork accent and I was impressed with the common sense he spoke when he put emphasis on what the scheme meant to the lives of people, not just in terms of security but their overall quality of life. What came to mind was a famous debate on "The Late Late Show" when Monsignor Horan appeared on the panel, ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. It was put to him that we were spending much money on developing Knock Airport when the project seemed like a white elephant. I remember him describing himself as an ordinary, modest, humble parish priest and stating it would cost less to run Knock Airport than to put one carriage on the DART line and maintain and service it. The point he was making was that when there was an argument about something that benefited rural Ireland, we should not always feel it did not require the same attention as what happened in the cities. Human beings are the same everywhere and people have challenges, whether they live in a built up or rural area. For that reason, when the pilot rural transport scheme was initiated in 2003, we immediately saw a demand for it because 151,000 journeys were taken. In 2008 that number had risen to 1.2 million. The amount of Government investment rose from €3 million at the beginning to €11 million in 2008 and further money was allocated in 2009. The pilot scheme proved beyond a shadow of a doubt the need for a rural transport scheme and that people wished to use it.

I know issues arise with regard to the rural transport scheme which we should not ignore. In some cases there is great value for money in the number of journeys taken but in others the administrative costs are particularly high with regard to output. Therefore, it would be wrong to generalise and state every aspect of the scheme is as it should be. We should examine the findings of what we can view as a five year pilot scheme and successful models should be exported to areas in which value for money is not given. This does not name or denigrate anybody; it just shows that in certain cases initiative was shown by some to ensure there was value for money and that the money was invested and used in the manner intended, which was to provide a cost saving, valuable and worthwhile rural transport scheme. I cannot speak on behalf of the Government on this matter but we should not take for granted that it will happen. On a previous occasion when the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, discussed the rural transport scheme in the House, he pointed out that there was more than one Department involved. While the scheme was rolled out by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, it also seems to have a bearing on the Department of Transport. It is a matter of rationalisation, with which we would all agree.

We are living in an age when it should never more be said of us that we took for granted that if we provided money, any result was acceptable. However, in terms of human and social considerations, any suggestion the rural transport scheme can be done without - in whatever form it takes or whoever is responsible for running it - is not possible. It was bad enough when the amenity was not available but to have it and then have it removed would be a devastating blow to rural Ireland.

I know how well intentioned this Private Members' motion is because Senator Buttimer was 100% correct to state that as we canvassed on the Lisbon treaty the discussion was not always about the bigger issues; it was about the ordinary day-to-day facilities and amenities available and how necessary they were. I am not an advocate for drink or pubs but I know the new drink laws had a terrible impact on rural Ireland. People who went out for their usual pint of Guinness and drove home on a country road could no longer do so; to all intents and purposes, if they were elderly and living on their own, they were imprisoned. I do not state this is directly related to the matter but President McAleese made reference to the isolation felt by people in rural Ireland, which leads to issues of suicide, a sense of having no security in the home and no contact with the outside community. We are all aware and conscious of the issue of road safety but we must keep these rural issues in mind.

When the rural transport scheme was introduced, it was ridiculed to a certain degree, as if it were intended to bring people to and from the pub, but it was about much more than this. From the open day we held and the campaign we ran on the retention of the scheme, it is quite clear that a good infrastructure is in place which we must maintain. We must not take for granted that it will disappear and we should pool our ideas on how we can maintain and structure it in the future. The Minister of State, Deputy Áine Brady, knows the needs and strengths of rural Ireland and I have no doubt she listens to us with a willing ear and will bring our views to the table where they will matter.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire don dara uair inniu. Tagann sé as mo pharóiste féin. Cé nach bhfuil sé iargúlta, tá sé cinnte go bhfuil sé faoin tuath. I strongly support the thrust of the motion and congratulate the Senators who tabled it. I endorse any sensible motion which seeks to support rural Ireland in these troubled times. The past year has been one of the toughest in living memory for farm families as rural Ireland has reeled from a series of economic shocks, any one of which would have been serious but arriving together they have had a devastating impact on farm incomes and rural communities.

When the property bubble burst, the economist Ronnie O'Toole predicted that it would have a far greater impact on rural Ireland than on urban areas and he was right. In many areas of the west off-farm income from working on building sites which had become the main source of income for many rural families disappeared overnight. Just a few years ago we spoke about how milk prices had increased dramatically, driven by, of all things, the Chinese discovery of the health benefits of milk and the less healthy delights of a newly acquired taste for cheeseburgers. However, in 2008 a contaminated infant milk formula scandal destroyed the trade and the global credit crunch caused a collapse in commodity prices, leading to farmers being paid less than what it cost to produce milk.

The global credit crunch also led to a 20% drop in the value of sterling, making Irish food exports to the United Kingdom 20% more expensive and putting the Irish food industry and particularly smaller Irish companies under a great deal of pressure. I mention this as a context for the crisis, with the near collapse of the Irish banking system, and how it has dried up credit and working capital at the worst possible time. We find ourselves in a difficult situation, which is why the McCarthy report makes its many radical swingeing proposals, including the recommendation that the rural transport initiative be eliminated to save the princely sum of €11 million. To put this figure in context, the Government overspends by €400 million a week. Taken in that context, €11 million is a modest sum.

By way of comparison, data centre expert Stephen McCarron of Dublin-based Hosting365 examined the number of computer servers being run by the Government. He estimates the Government could save the Exchequer at least €23 million per annum through virtualisation, reducing energy costs and carbon emissions but with no negative impact on services or employment levels in the public service. This is the type of issue we should examine when it comes to making cuts. Oscar Wilde's phrase about the cynic being the person who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing comes to mind when cuts are proposed for the rural transport initiative. There is a danger of seeing a scheme solely for its economic value and forgetting about its social importance and necessity.

I was delighted Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú referred to Monsignor James Horan, a man who exemplified the pioneering and can-do spirit, and his typical response in which he cleverly and craftily compared the differences in attitudes towards investment in urban areas and rural areas. I will not remind my Fine Gael colleagues about their comments about a "foggy, boggy site" in Mayo. Whenever I think of Monsignor Horan and his clever response, I am reminded of a similar one attributed to the late Pope John Paul II. When he decided to have a swimming pool installed in the Vatican, officials in the Curia were worried about how expensive it would be. To this, the late pontiff said it would less expensive than another conclave. This kind of crafty logic served Monsignor Horan well when he argued the case for his much cherished airport project.

This is the type of spirit needed in rural Ireland that faces so many different challenges which many in urban areas do not understand. Accessibility of services, the near availability of schools and the availability of services for older people are taken for granted by many in urban areas. These can become more of a challenging reality in rural Ireland. We must examine expenditure on facilitating the quality of life in rural Ireland through a different kind of lens than just the mere economic one.

The impact of cuts to the rural transport initiative will be out of all proportion to the amount of moneys saved. According to a Department of Transport report, transport is a serious unmet need for many people living in rural Ireland and it has been identified as a key factor underlying levels of exclusion in rural areas. Estimates derived from the 2002 national rural transport survey suggested as many as 380,000 people in rural areas perceive themselves as having unmet transport needs. Certain key target groups are also especially vulnerable to a lack of transport, including older people, young people, people on low incomes, and people with mobility, sensory or cognitive impairments. Combined, these groups alone account for an estimated 200,000 people of the persons reporting unmet needs.

Demographic trends, in particular overall population growth and changes in the age profile, suggest the numbers of people with unmet rural transport needs are likely to persist. Projections indicate an estimated 450,000 rural dwellers could have unmet transport needs by 2021, for example, including 250,000 people in key target groups. In short the McCarthy report is suggesting cuts at a time when the need for rural transport is growing and indeed is greater than ever.

The current rural transport is cost effective which frankly is far more than can be said of much expenditure figures in the Government and Oireachtas which has dominated debate in recent days. The rural transport programme received just €9 million in funding from the Department of Transport in 2008, with a further €2 million coming from the national development plan. Yet operators in the network provided over 1.2 million passenger journeys in rural areas where people have simply no other public or private transport options to go about their business.

The rural transport programme is also a critical source of local employment with 80 drivers directly employed by programme companies and a further 657 privately employed drivers. According to Pobal's performance and impact report, the programme met or exceeded all of its key performance indicators and targets.

It is not easy to cost the impact of social isolation on the elderly in rural Ireland. However, I would hazard a guess that it is far higher than €11 million a year. The editorial of one regional paper put it well when it described the rural transport programme as follows:

It is a vital link for elderly and isolated people in rural areas, a social outlet, something that helps them maintain their independence and confidence, something for them to look forward to once or twice a week and a reason to keep on living life to the full. For these people, many of whom would have worked hard all their lives and paid their dues, it is a deserved support and service.

I have no doubt the Government will need to make significant cuts to expenditure. We must, however, cut the fat rather than the muscle, cut the waste endemic in the system rather than modest and targeted programmes which deliver a significant return on investment. The elderly have paid their dues to society from years of hard work and service and should not be betrayed now. In a case study of the Meath accessible transport project, the social value of the project is evident. One user described it as the best programme introduced in her area, how if it were not in place she would not be able to collect her pension and how she hoped it would last for a long time.

Tá sé ró-éasca bheith soiniciúil - á rá nach bhfuil an t-airgead againn, nó nach féidir linn é a chur ar fáil a thiulleadh - faoin sórt dearcadh sin. Tá an eacnamaíocht ann chun cabhrú le daoine. Níl na daoine ann ar mhaithe leis an eacnamaíocht - is a mhalairt atá fíor. Caithfimid díriú isteach ar tábhacht sóisialta na seirbhísí beaga seo. Nuair atáimid ag déanamh na ciorruithe atá riachtanach, ba chóir dúinn bheith cinnte go bhfuilimid ag díriú isteach ar droch-chaiteachas agus ar cur amú airgead. Thug mé sampla maidir le ríomhaireacht. Luaigh mé roinnt earnálacha ina féidir linn airgead a spáráil. Is féidir €23 milliún a shábháil le athrú sa chóras ríomhaireachta agus le gearradh siar ar chaiteachas fuinnimh, srl. Má táimid ciallmhar leis na ciorruithe sin, beidh go leor airgead againn le caitheamh ar seirbhísí tábhachtacha, ar nós an chóras iompair tuaithe. Ní cheart dúinn grúpaí éagsúla sna áiteanna iargúlta a ligint síos. Ba cheart dúinn an dea-aidhm atá laistiar den chóras iompair tuaithe - seirbhís a sholáthar do dhaoine atá i gcontúirt aonarachas sóisialta - a choinneáil. Tréaslaím leis na Seanadóirí a chuir an rún seo faoin ár mbráid.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share time with Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Ann OrmondeAnn Ormonde (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Power.

Having read both motions, I am struck at how all parties are singing from the same hymnsheet. Some time ago in a paper I gave on vibrant rural community development, I pointed out how cogent reasons show the maintenance of rural populations and ensuring the growth of our cities is not at the expense of rural communities not only makes economic but also social sense. If there were no rural public transport network, our rural communities would as well be dead. We cannot marginalise or isolate our rural population. I acknowledge the Government has done much in this area and it is a policy contained in the programme for Government, the national development plan and the Department of Transport's sectorial plan under the Disability Act 2005.

However, after an bord snip nua's report, we all have heard how rural transport schemes may be snipped in the next budget. I do not want that to happen. Earlier on the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill, I raised my concerns that our rural communities are being neglected. Rural transport should be incorporated into county development plans. It does not make sense in rural areas with a wide range of services including schools, health links or social facilities. If we do not have rural transport we do not have those services. There is talk of pubs closing because of the new licensing laws. I do not want ghost towns or urbanisation to that extent. I want every part of Ireland to be vibrant such that if I wish to live in a rural area I will have services.

One key aspect of those services is transport. It is very important that the Minister of State bring this message back to the Government and that it maintain rural transport at all costs. It is not up for bargaining. I do not want to see the weak and the vulnerable affected because those who have cars have transport. There are many old age pensioners who have made a significant contribution to society but do not have services. They do not even have the power to go out to campaign for this. They are the silent people in society and could be neglected. It is very important we do not marginalise those people.

I hope that in his reply the Minister of State will offer positive thinking on rural transport. It is so important that our vibrant communities are not further neglected through lack of these services. Rural transport is at the core of these communities. Enough has already been taken away; post offices, local Garda stations and local shops are closing. These places will be ghost towns from the middle of November. I do not want to see that. I want people to have transport at night if they want to go to play bingo, or to the local pub for a chat and to play a game of cards. I want action. The only way to get that is through rural transport. I hope that we will all sing the same tune on this issue.

Photo of Brian Ó DomhnaillBrian Ó Domhnaill (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator Ormonde for sharing time. This issue affects the area in which I live in south west Donegal, a very rural area. The scheme introduced several years ago by the late Seamus Brennan who was then Minister for Transport was initially a pilot initiative to fill a gap between private and public transport providers in rural areas.

This debate arises from the McCarthy report which advises that €11 million would be saved if the scheme ceased. I and some colleagues attended a public meeting in Donegal at which approximately 450 people, the users and some of the operators of the rural transport scheme, were present. The theme at the meeting was that many of those who avail of the service do not have access to private or public transport and do not own cars. If the rural transport initiative was not available to them they would not be able to go to the post office to collect their pensions and do all the things that other Members spoke of.

The McCarthy report states "The availability of private sector bus alternatives, the high level of car ownership and the under-utilisation of synergies with other publicly-funded local transport services support the view that the level of direct Exchequer assistance can and should be eliminated particularly in light of current budgetary circumstances". I find it hard to accept that recommendation because this initiative was part of the Government's commitment to rural development. Cities such as Dublin, and towns, have bus corridors and public and private bus operators because it is economically viable for them to operate. This scheme was put in place because it was not economically viable for private operators to provide a service in rural areas where there was a need.

I commend my colleagues for tabling this important motion. I worked with Deputies from other parties who attended the meeting in Donegal and we shared the view that we need to try to protect this service. It is, however, only a recommendation in the McCarthy report and will save only €11 million of the total €5.3 billion savings outlined there. In the overall scheme it is not a great deal of money.

We must protect that service. I am strongly of the view that there should be no cutback in the rural transport service, including the evening service. I raised that issue here in July when we debated the extension of the evening service after 10 July because the funding made available in 2007 was due to expire on that date. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs extended the service to the end of the year. I hope the rural transport and evening rural transport initiatives will run in tandem from next January and will not be cut.

We are protecting vulnerable people. The person sitting in the Mercedes does not avail of this service, but the person with the medical card or the pension book who needs access to the post office maybe to send a letter to a relative or friend does. He may need to go into the village. The postman is often the only person with whom many of those people communicate daily or bi-daily unless they can communicate with others by using this service to get to the village. If we are sincere about implementing a rural development strategy this service must be kept. McCarthy should have considered other areas if he wanted to recommend cutting expenditure on public transport. He could perhaps have found efficiencies in Dublin Bus without affecting the most vulnerable on the western seaboard who avail of this service.

Some of the other recommendations in the report affect other aspects of rural development, for example, the proposal to terminate the role of the Western Development Commission and transfer its functions to Enterprise Ireland, and the termination of the Clár programme over the next three years. Accountants and people in Dublin 4 may be able to write recommendations and find efficiencies and some of the contents of the McCarthy report make sense but proposals such as this make no sense to people living in rural Ireland, particularly in light of the small sum of money involved in this critical service. I support my colleagues' views.

These, however, are only recommendations contained in a report drawn up by an outside, so-called expert. The Government is scrutinising them and it will be the Government and politicians who will implement some of those recommendations if any are to be implemented. Having talked to the Ministers for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and Transport I am confident they are cognisant of the reality in rural Ireland and the necessity to keep this scheme and to ringfence the small sum of money available to it.

6:00 pm

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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Colm McCarthy and an bord snip nua have made several recommendations on where cuts in public spending may be made. It seems that the Government will implement some but not all of the recommendations in the budget. In general there is no point debating every potential cut recommended in the report. It is preferable to wait until the proposed cuts come close to reality. Some may not become a reality. The Tánaiste and a few other Ministers have indicated that some of them make no sense. There are several proposed cuts that I could not even contemplate, one being the proposal to cease funding the rural transport initiative. I was going to read out the reference in the report but the previous speaker has done so. It is an unfortunate paragraph, unclear in its general structure. The bottom line is that there is a proposal to cease funding the programme. Of the €4 billion the Government states it wishes to take out of the economy in expenditure savings, the proposal involves a sum of €11 million, a relatively small amount. I can only hope this is one of those suggestions the Tánaiste considers makes no sense. It is clear there is a major gap between the thinking in the McCarthy report on this matter and the situation on the ground for people living in rural areas.

There is a large rural area in my constituency, Dublin North, and I know the benefits of the initiative. Naul, Garristown, Oldtown, Ballyboughal and Balscadden are the rural villages of north County Dublin. Together with the townlands in between, they make up the rural hinterland of Fingal which is served by the North Fingal Rural Transport Initiative. Passenger numbers in the area have risen, from approximately 7,000 in the first year to about 30,000 last year. Nationally, there were 1.2 million passenger trips last year, with 1,354 volunteers, 326 private operators and 737 drivers. It is and has been a success story. It has helped all members of society, including the elderly, schoolchildren, students, people with disabilities and others. One can ask the elderly population of Garristown, Oldtown, Naul and Ballyboughal who might be looking forward to their outing to bingo in Swords on a Tuesday night about the private sector alternatives. One can ask young parents from Naul or Ballyboughal who depend on the Friday shopping trip to Swords about the under-utilisation of synergies in other services. They would tell us where to get off.

The reality is the rural bus service would not be the success it is today if the motor car alternatives were available, as suggested in the McCarthy report. In the current recession a second runaround car is a luxury many can no longer afford and it is at times like this tht there is a greater need for the service. In 2005 the Minister for Transport stated projects operating under the rural transport initiative had proved to be "a very successful, dynamic and innovative set of projects that collectively make a huge difference to the daily lives of thousands of people in rural Ireland." I agree absolutely with that statement and find it hard to fathom why the Government can now consider scrapping such an important scheme that makes huge strides towards social inclusion. I hope it will not do so.

In its mid-term evaluation of the first National Development Plan in 2003 the ESRI described the then pilot rural initiative as successful in providing those living in rural areas with access to vital services. The Fitzpatrick Associates' report for the Department of Transport, published in 2006, estimated that 380,000 people in rural areas had unmet transport needs. These included older people, young people, those on low incomes and people with mobility, sensory and cognitive impairments. The Government cannot now row back on progress for which rural communities have spent years fighting. They did the footwork in communicating the need for the service and surveying people in rural areas to understand fully their needs. The Government cannot now deny them the chance to get to the big town once a week to go shopping or to bingo, or avail of the opportunity to visit friends, neighbours or relatives once or twice a week.

It seems a special group is disconnected from rural realities and the benefits these transport services provide for people whose means are limited and who have no alternative transport options. The rural transport scheme is very important to the rural economy and is the lifeblood of the rural community. Its removal would be devastating for persons living alone in isolated townlands. An adequate rural transport service is required to ensure those at risk of social exclusion in rural areas have access to essential facilities and public services. It is widely accepted that the availability of transport is key to sustaining rural life.

This cut is deeply unpopular among Fianna Fáil backbench Deputies and Senators who view the McCarthy report as being biased against rural Ireland. I hope this view will finally prevail and that the Minister for Transport will be able to find elsewhere the savings he must make. The rural transport programme should be expanded, not downgraded or discontinued.

I thank the Fine Gael group for giving us the opportunity to debate this very important issue.

Photo of Cecilia KeaveneyCecilia Keaveney (Fianna Fail)
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It is very difficult to come into the Chamber and say no to cuts and battle against the McCarthy report in so many respects. We object to this proposal today, will object to something else tomorrow, another item the next day and finally will run out of anything to cut because we will have no targets left.

I come from a peninsula, an area with a population of 32,000, where the biggest town has a population of approximately 5,000 and two other towns have a population of about 1,700. I was thinking about this issue while others were speaking and the phrase, "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave," came to mind. County Donegal voted against the Lisbon treaty. Was it because people still went to Mass, or is it the case that activity in the county is still heavily based on fishing and farming and that people believed much of what had been said, whether it was true or false? We believed it to be false. These are fundamental issues in my constituency which is a rural one in which people have to be able to get around. The alternative is to sit at home. The lack of such socialisation leads to various issues concerning mental health and illness. Everybody knows that getting out and having a laugh with friends is one of the best forms of medicine available.

From that perspective, I object to or have a serious problem with the concept, based on what is contained in the McCarthy report, that not only the rural transport scheme but the Department also should disappear. I am partial because I support the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív. I say this with due respect to the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe, who is present and also a very effective Minister. However, it was a different scenario to have to try to create a niche, which is what the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, did in rural and Gaeltacht areas. There is nothing he has not done for these areas. He has tried to get people to stay there, developing the CLÁR programme and providing supports. Why does the Opposition state the Government cannot remove this niche support now? Why do the people living in these communities say it cannot be taken away? It is because that in the past decade the Government put all of these measures in place and made the service important.

It is fascinating to speak straight after a Dub on the issue of rural transport. I never thought I would see the day because I would have thought rural areas in Dublin were well served in ways those of us living in rural Ireland might begrudge. We are driving other policies such tackling drink driving but, on the other hand, with this cut we say people cannot go to the pub, as they will have no way home if they have a drink. We say the same to those who seek access to mature student education courses which the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy O'Keeffe, has rolled out around the country in areas such as Clonmanny which is very well known for the high standard mature student courses delivered there. We are saying that unless people have cars, they cannot access these courses. The many people who do not have cars are the very ones we must bring into the system in order that eventually they will be able to run a car.

I am not blind to the other side of the argument. I know that there were many rural bus services which only three people were using. However, when they were to be removed, all of a sudden 400 people complained. The bus company might well have stated that if any of those 400 were using it, the service would not be removed. I understand there are arguments on many sides. From before 2003 I fought for Inishowen to be included as one of the zones for the pilot rural transport programme. I argued the case with the many Ministers who held the relevant portfolio. In my area a staggering amount of work was done to identify the right routes and the people who needed a service the most to ensure it was delivered. Now we can look at the statistics. We have talked about expanding the numbers from 40,000 to 140,000 in five years.

Let us look at rural transport but let us also look at how we can do it better. People speak about wasting money conducting feasibility studies. I do not want to see money spent in that way. People talk about school buses not being used from one end of the day to the other when they could be usefully deployed. The same is true of school buildings. Why are they closed at a certain time and not opened to the public?

This debate is bigger than rural transport. It is fundamentally about the need for a Minister with responsibility for rural affairs and a Department of rural and Gaeltacht affairs. Such a Department cannot operate on its own and the Minister does not do so. He wangles, if that is not a terribly bad expression, provisions from the Ministers with responsibility for education and the environment and other Departments to ensure that if another Department gives a euro, his Department will provide, perhaps, 50 cent.

The Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs has been very effective. Things must be run with a bottom-up approach. Someone cannot sit back in an ivory tower in Dublin and identify an easy way to save money. I challenge anyone who has engaged with the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, and his Department, at a local or national level, to say his is not the best operating Department.

I quoted the lines:

Romantic Ireland's dead and gone

It's with O'Leary in the grave.

Maintaining rural Ireland should not be a romantic notion. It should be a factual position to accommodate people in their own areas. I challenge people to continue to use rural transport, to continue to develop the service and to try to cut costs, where possible, by using other services in the area. However, we cannot cut off the rural transport service. It was only recently provided after a long battle and it is highly valued. Far from romantic Ireland being with O'Leary in the grave, rural Ireland could be dead and gone and put by McCarthy in the grave, which would not be to the benefit of anyone or any community. It is certainly not to the benefit of Ireland Incorporated.

The motion and counter-motion have the same thrust. There are challenges in the rural transport service but babies and bathwater should not be confused on this occasion.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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"Rural transport is a gift and a godsend that meets a huge social need in rural Ireland. The proposal on €11 million for the rural transport scheme does not seem to make sense, given the great and important good the scheme is doing right across the entire nation. Every Member of the House knows the value of rural transport. Under no circumstances will we stand by and allow rural transport services to be taken away for the sake of €11 million." They are not my words but those of the Leader of the House when he spoke on the issue of rural transport on the Order of Business two weeks ago. Senator Cassidy was correct in every aspect of his contribution. The rural transport scheme meets a huge social need. It is a need that is very difficult to assess and quantify unless one meets, as many Senators have, the people who avail of this valuable service. One needs to speak directly with them and see the positive experience they have had.

I do not intend to vilify Colm McCarthy for preparing a report on behalf of the Government. He was simply carrying out an assignment given to him by the Minister for Finance. However, I am sure he has never sat in one of the buses served by this scheme. He has never listened to the stories of elderly people, many of whom live on their own in almost complete isolation. He has not spoken, as I did two weeks ago, to an elderly lady who looks forward every week to Friday morning and getting up on that day that is different from all others in the week. She recounted what that day means for her. She does her hair and picks out those nice clothes from her wardrobe that are not worn on other days. From the moment she steps on the bus she is with friends whom she will not see until the following Friday. She is brought to her local town to do all the things she might not otherwise be able to do. She is able to shop, collect her pension, post letters, get her hair done or simply sit with a cup of tea in the local café with her friends catching up on all the week's news. This lady told me it was this interaction that often compensated for the loneliness she felt at times. It is this interaction that convinces her that life has not left her behind, that she is part of a warm and caring community that still values her as a human being and that the contribution she made to the State over many decades has not been totally forgotten.

I refuse to vilify Colm McCarthy for simply doing his job, but I will not hesitate in vilifying a Government which prepared the terms of reference for that job. The Government did not state, "Look Colm, go ahead and recommend to us where you can make savings, but we do have limits. We do have a conscience and are not allowing you to touch the elderly or the disabled." Everyone, no matter how vulnerable, was a target in the Government's quest for cutbacks. Nobody was spared, which is nothing short of shameful. If the recommendation in the McCarthy report to dispense with the scheme is implemented, we will send my friend and many others back into isolation and set back the years of the progress made. Senator Keaveney has said progress was made by the Government. I acknowledge this and congratulate the Government, particularly the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, on making huge progress in the area of rural development and putting the scheme in place.

Having achieved so much and earned the respect of the elderly, why does the Government now choose to dispense with the scheme? Its removal should never have been included in the McCarthy report simply because it is morally wrong to do so. However, in the context of an economic assessment, the proposed axing of the service makes little sense in the overall scheme of things. In a bord snip report outlining almost €5 billion in cuts €11 million represents less than 0.25% of the proposed savings. That is the difference between treating the elderly with the respect they deserve and treating them with complete contempt. This €11 million, or 0.25% of the cuts proposed by Colm McCarthy, provides every year for over 1.2 million passenger journeys in rural areas. It provides for these journeys for people who simply have no other public or private transport options to go about their daily lives. It provides employment for 80 drivers directly employed by rural transport companies and a further 657 drivers privately employed.

Of course, the totally unquantifiable benefit accruing from the scheme is the saving in healthcare costs associated with the service. Many elderly people might end up in long-term care if they were subjected to total isolation. What other psychological problems might they have? We really do not know, but it is safe to assume there would be significant costs associated with dealing with the fallout of the axing of the scheme. Senators on both sides of the House have often praised the contribution of the former Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, to the life of the State. He was never willing to compromise on his values no matter what obstacle he faced. To this day, his values hold true. Given the contributions of Senators on both sides during the past hour or so, the majority of us retain those values.

It should be a matter of protecting the vulnerable.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is in his last minute.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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It should be a matter of not removing a service of value to the people of rural Ireland.

I will conclude with the words spoken by the Leader two weeks ago, when he stated: "Under no circumstances will we stand by and allow rural transport services to be taken away for the sake of €11 million". Many of us have received handwritten letters from the self same elderly people asking us to campaign and fight on their behalf to ensure that the scheme is not axed. Tomorrow morning, they could all be put at ease and their concerns erased were the Minister for Finance or the Taoiseach to express how much the Government values the service and recognises its impact. Out of a mark of respect for the elderly, the Minister or Taoiseach could assure them that the scheme would not be included in the proposed cutbacks of the coming months or years.

Photo of Lisa McDonaldLisa McDonald (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Batt O'Keeffe. I wish to speak to this motion on the rural transport programme, which was introduced by the Government in 2001 and has developed from a pilot project carrying 151,000 passengers to a scheme that carried 1.2 million people in 2008, as stated by Senator Cannon.

The scheme was introduced mainly to address the problem of isolation in rural society. It is noteworthy that President McAleese has put together a committee on rural isolation and brought GAA clubs and various rural clubs together to determine how to address the problem further. It must be acknowledged that organisations like the GAA, the Irish Countrywomens Association and so on have played a significant role in providing rural dwellers with something to do.

We have faced this problem previously in the context of rural post offices and the question of whether a school is required every five miles or whether a county hospital is necessary. At a recent meeting I attended in Wexford on the future of our hospital, it was suggested that maternity services were not required for a population of 100,000 people. Given Ireland's strong rural society, such claims will not work in any shape or form and I would be reticent to support them.

Where rural transport is concerned, we are discussing the same issue of isolation. Some people do not even have footpaths on which to walk from their houses to the local pub. The rural transport scheme has provided those people with a means to visit their local towns, shop one or two days every week, meet friends, go for coffee and so on. The scheme's value cannot be understood except in terms of loneliness and isolation, which is what we must consider when making any decision on its future. Nothing deprives someone more than making him or her lonelier. Every Senator knows someone, such as an uncle or aunt who never married or does not have immediate family, who can no longer go to the local pub for a couple of pints. We are discussing making that person's situation more stringent.

When the issues of rural living and the fabric of rural society were raised last year, I suggested to the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, that he should consider using the rural transport initiative as a means to bring people to and from local pubs at weekends. This area of the scheme could be expanded in time. While I am not suggesting that we do this immediately, we are discussing saving a scheme that was introduced due to foresight.

Since money has already been spent on the buses and so on, the moneys that could be saved by cutting the scheme would not benefit society. When an bord snip sought ways to cut expenditure, it was considering the economy. As politicians, we must consider society. It is easy to view something through accounting or forensically and to cut X, Y and Z. However, cutting this scheme would eliminate a source of enjoyment and a lifeline for those who are isolated. They could end up in hospital or suffer mental health issues because they do not have the necessary connectivity with society. The cost of this would be immeasurable.

The scheme is great and we have all spoken with those who have written to our constituency offices in recent months seeking support. I support the scheme's retention. Although the McCarthy report put it on the table, I hope there will be no political will to worsen people's situations. We have mentioned splendid isolation, but the isolation that would result from this scheme being cut would be anything but splendid. Unfortunately, the issue has worried many people. A scheme that allows people to experience a bit of joy and excitement should be kept. If we cannot look after such people, we would be unmindful to seek those savings.

We must acknowledge that Government policy is to retain the scheme, as stated in the rural transport programme. We are in changing times, but the Minister can tell from today's debate that there is cross-party support for the scheme's retention. We all acknowledge how much it has given to the fabric of our unique rural society. Those of us who come from rural constituencies must acknowledge it.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Does the Minister wish to speak at this point?

Photo of Batt O'KeeffeBatt O'Keeffe (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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No.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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With the permission of the House, I would like to share half of my time with Senator Doherty.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Joe O'TooleJoe O'Toole (Independent)
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In line with much of what has been stated previously, I wish to speak in strong favour of the scheme's retention. We have heard much about the rural landscape. The fine report put together by Senator Doherty earlier this year constituted a classic example of what needs to be done. The proposed cutback is a plan to denude rural Ireland of infrastructure and support and to isolate communities further. It follows along the lines of what happened to the western rail corridor. We needed to fight to bring it back into partial action. It was even more noticeable in the destruction of the fishing industry, particularly the salmon fisheries off the west coast. We have seen it go minic cheana sna Gaeltachtaí maidir leis an nganntanas acmhainní faoina gcoinne arís agus arís eile agus gan amhras it is now coming to the fore in the sort of Dublin 4 view of the world which is evident in the McCarthy report.

I support what has been said by previous speakers and the point made by Senator McDonald is important. I would like the Government to stand up and be counted because whereas people might have had a go at the Tánaiste about her comment that half the McCarthy report was not worth considering she was 100% right. When the McCarthy report was published we were told that if it were all put into operation it would take €5.9 billion out of infrastructure and public services, and we all said it will be taken out every second month, but as raised this morning by Senator Alex White it now appears the Government is considering putting the entire report into action. It is important to clarify that issue.

My understanding was that the McCarthy report was an À la carte menu which the Government would consider, in conjunction with the taxation report, and then make its judgments. This now appears to be the gospel according to Dublin 4. The idea that they can now decide how the rest of the country will be run and how we can save money here without taking any notice of the hardship and the pressure it will create for ordinary people in living their lives is wrong. There is enough isolation in the community. There is enough lack of support. People are lonely in their houses. The kind of support this initiative provides is invaluable. I defer to my colleague, Senator Doherty, because he has done a huge amount of work on this issue in the past year and even longer.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir O'Toole as a chuid ama a roinnt liom. I welcome the Minister of State. From the contributions I have heard so far, some of which I missed because I was attending a Council for the West meeting at which rural transport was firmly on the agenda, it is clear there is unanimity on both sides of the House on the issue of retention of the rural transport initiative.

I cannot support either motion. I agree with some of the contents in the Fianna Fáil amendment, and my report acknowledged that one of the success stories in the west is the rural transport initiative, but I cannot support the Fine Gael motion because of its call to open these routes to competition. Privatisation of our public transport system is not the best approach for communities. We should follow the examples of cost effective initiatives in Brussels and Stockholm where it has been shown that public transport services can be excellent. They would put our system to shame. I cannot support the motion but I support the spirit of the motion in terms of retention of the rural transport system.

I refer to the report I did on behalf of the Joint Committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. People ask me what I saw as working well in the west. I saw a number of initiatives working well but particularly Shannon Development and the rural transport initiative, which opened up rural communities for the first time in many years. The Minister was commended in my report but at that time the single issue that arose as I met over 100 groups across the west was rural transport. My report called not just for retention of the scheme but its development into a better scheme.

There are examples of these schemes in other countries. The Netherlands, for example, has a dial-up service. It is one of the best regional development tools and was awarded by the regional development Commissioner in Europe as being one of the best examples in terms of these schemes. There are areas where we could do work like that here but, unfortunately, that is not what we are seeing from the McCarthy report.

It is easy for us to blame the McCarthy report but we must remember that the recommendations initially came from the Department of Finance. They were all appraised by that Department. The fingerprints of senior officials in the Department are all over those proposals and unfortunately they are the people who are writing the budget. I agree with Senator O'Toole that we are looking at the McCarthy report being implemented in full because given that the same officials in the Department of Finance got it so wrong in terms of tax receipts recently the Government's only strategy is to go deeper with the cuts.

I attended a meeting some weeks ago with approximately 500 users of this service and it was humbling to be in their presence and to listen to their stories. Some of the contributions earlier mentioned grannies living in isolation and so on but it must be remembered that this scheme is in place because there is no public or private transport in these areas, and people need to get from A to B. It is not about a granny bus or a bingo bus. It is an essential part of transport in rural Ireland. It helps not just elderly people but also young people and other commuters get from A to B. It should not be described as something it is not. From listening to the users of this service it is clear there is palpable anger at even the suggestion that the service be ended and the fact that the Government will not come out and say it is safe. It costs €11 million to provide for 1.2 million journeys. That is pittance in terms of what needs to be spent on this service but the thought of taking that away is wrong.

Sitting here listening to the debate I realised that over the lifetime of the Dáil and the Seanad the expenses drawn down by the 60 Senators and 166 TDs, and we are seeing our expenses being published on a regular basis, and rightly so, is probably in excess of €11 million in terms of travelling from our constituencies to Dublin. When we compare that to the 1.2 million journeys that will be denied if the €11 million funding per year is withdrawn it is an indication of the thinking of the Dublin 4 economists.

I will conclude on this point, which I have made previously and which other people have made to me. They raised the issue of the Ceann Comhairle's expenses and talked about the efficiency of the rural transport scheme and the little cost involved in getting somebody living in an isolated rural area from A to B. Those people would not have that service but for this scheme. They asked me how the Government can even consider abolishing the scheme while at the same time it acquiesced in terms of the Ceann Comhairle spending ST£799 on a limousine to travel from one terminal to a VIP lounge. That is the hypocrisy that exists at this level and it is the problem that must be tackled.

I welcome the statements from the Leader of the Seanad and from other Government Senators but I hope they will be put into action. We must put people at ease and tell them that this service will be continued. Unfortunately, I cannot support either motion.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran. This is my first opportunity since he became Minister of congratulating him publicly. The Minister of State is no stranger to this House. He served as a Member of this House and I wish him well in his portfolio.

If I may be parochial, Latton is a very rural area. It was the location of one of the first pilot rural transport schemes and it has grown through the counties of Monaghan and Cavan. The Monaghan-Cavan rural transport scheme is now one of the best in the country. I do not take credit for that. The credit is due to the people who run it, those who promoted it and the people who use it.

I listened to the debate on the monitor and as previous speakers said, this service provides so many people with a social life who would not be involved in such social activities. They are picked up by the bus at their homes or convenient places near their homes and are returned to their homes. They are brought to the different centres in the towns and the services available to them yet the McCarthy report has suggested this scheme be terminated. We do not want to see this service terminated. It would be dishonest to take that service from so many vulnerable people who look forward to the bus picking them up perhaps twice a week. The people who run the system in Cavan and Monaghan are contacting public representatives. Five Oireachtas Members from Cavan-Monaghan held meetings with the operators and they were very well attended. The operators are saying to us the scheme could be broadened to take in certain parts of the educational system and to facilitate centres such as nursing homes. Instead of having the rural transport system taken away from us, it could be enhanced. The amount of money required to run the scheme, €11 million, is very small. I am told that if the allocation were cut by a little, the scheme could still be run very efficiently.

It is not often that I come in to speak at the 11th hour. However, given that the debate was so good and that I know so much about the rural transport scheme in my area, I wanted to say a few words. I appeal to the Government and all concerned not to abolish the scheme but to enhance and broaden it.

Photo of Michael FinneranMichael Finneran (Minister of State with special responsibility for Housing and Local Services, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Roscommon-South Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Members for their contributions.

The reality is that, since 1997, successive Governments have done more than any of their predecessors to develop rural transport in general and the rural transport programme. We are delivering high levels of service because of ongoing investment and policy development for more than a decade.

I intend to set the record straight with regard to rural transport and review the legislative innovation that will provide a comprehensive modernised regulatory framework for rural transport. The policy framework for the provision of rural transport shows the Government wants to ensure that services are provided in a joined-up way. When the Department's present statement of strategy was being formulated, the magnitude of the economic challenge facing us was much less obvious than it is now. Paradoxically, the objectives set out then and the strategies to achieve them are even more relevant today in the face of our present economic and environmental challenges. The key objective is to provide public transport for an increasing number of people and to encourage them to use it. Very significant financial resources, capital in the form of Transport 21 investment and current subventions have also delivered significant improvements in public transport services, including rural transport.

The Government's commitment to rural transport is clearly stated in Towards 2016 and in the present national development plan. The development of rural transport is also a key objective in the Government's sustainable travel and transport plan, Smarter Travel - A Sustainable Transport Future, and in the Department's sectoral plan under the Disability Act 2005.

The rural transport programme was launched in February 2007. Its principal objective is to help to address rural social exclusion related to unmet public transport needs. Older people and people with disabilities form the core customer base of the programme. The rural transport programme was not established to provide regular inter-urban transport services. It is a principle of the programme to complement and not to compete with other existing public transport services.

The rural transport programme mainstreamed the former pilot rural transport initiative. The programme benefits from significantly increased funding compared to the former initiative. The bottom-up approach developed for the pilot rural transport initiative demonstrated the effectiveness of community and voluntary participation in the provision of rural transport services. The rural transport programme continues to rely heavily on the work of local communities for its success.

Pobal administers the programme on behalf of the Department. It works with 36 individual groups to provide local public transport. The programme is operational in every county and is working to maximise coverage on a phased basis having regard to the availability of resources.

The provision of services under the programme is for the individual rural transport groups. Local communities know the needs in their areas and how best to address them. The Government's role is that of facilitator through financial and administrative support, but communities themselves have the lead role.

Funding for rural transport has steadily increased over the years. Some €3 million was provided in 2002, 2003 and 2004, rising to €4.5 million in 2005. Some €5.1 million was provided in 2006 and €9 million in 2007. A sum of €11 million is being provided from my Department's Vote for 2009, an increase of €1 million on the provision for 2008. This funding has led to continuing increases in the levels of service provided, rising from 40,000 services in 2003 to 140,000 services in 2008. Services are now extended to every county. The number of customers using the service has risen greatly. There were 151,000 passenger journeys in 2003, rising to 1.2 million passenger journeys in 2008. Further increases will be achieved in 2009.

Pobal works closely with the groups to maximise the impact of the funding in addition to value for money. In addition to benefiting from funding from my Department, rural transport groups benefit each year from funding provided under the free travel scheme. Some groups also benefit from local development funding from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, while many also generate funds from their own resources.

In tandem with the rural transport programme, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs funds a pilot night-time rural transport scheme in seven areas around the country, namely, west Cork, east Cork, Meath-Cavan, Sligo, Roscommon, Donegal and Laois. The scheme has been in operation since 2007 and provides a great opportunity to evaluate the operation of evening and night-time rural transport services. This scheme is also overseen by Pobal, which manages the main rural transport programme.

Earlier this year, my colleague the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, met representatives of the groups involved with the pilot and with Pobal to discuss the future of the evening and night-time rural services beyond the completion of the pilot project at the end of 2009. The groups now have the opportunity to examine options for increasing the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the transport service. They will be able to prioritise routes, increase load capacity, re-tender to operators to seek cheaper quotes where appropriate, and focus more on generating income from passengers. It is intended that, by the end of the year, the seven groups, with support from Pobal, will prioritise routes that can be supported from existing resources, thus sustaining some level of evening services for 2010. The Minister has highlighted in particular the need in the current climate for the groups operating the evening rural transport scheme to do whatever they can to make these income-generating services as self-sufficient as possible.

Everyone with an interest in rural transport will know that the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes recommends the termination of the rural transport programme, with an annual direct saving to the Exchequer of €11 million - the amount provided for the programme for 2009.

I want to make it absolutely clear that, at this time, no decisions have been taken with regard to the future of the rural transport programme or any other of the report's recommendations. Anyone now claiming that the rural transport programme has been discontinued is incorrect.

The Government is considering all the recommendations in the special group's report and decisions will be made by the Government in the context of the budget for 2010 and later years. To assist in that task, the Government has referred the report to the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service for its views prior to the budget.

Bus Éireann is a very important provider of public transport services in rural areas. Since 2000, a total of €283 million in current funding and €125 million in capital funding has been paid to it to assist it in providing non-commercial services. The annual subvention to Bus Éireann has grown from €15.7 million in 2000 to €44.9 million in 2009. This funding has supported the development of a countrywide integrated network of services. Bus Éireann operates a public service obligation fleet of 477 buses and it also operates a fleet of 223 buses on its commercial Expressway routes. Taken together these services enable Bus Éireann to provide a comprehensive national network of services carrying approximately 48.2 million passengers per annum. The integrated network enables Bus Éireann to provide linking routes, discounted through fares and ease of transfer, all of which ultimately encourage access to and use of public transport.

The economic downturn is having a severe impact on Bus Éireann's fare revenues despite sustained high levels of Exchequer support and a 10% fare increase earlier this year. Bus Éireann has therefore had to identify cost reductions through efficiencies and service adjustments to restore its financial position. Discussions on the necessary measures are under way under the auspices of the Labour Court. Meanwhile, Bus Éireann has deferred implementation of its cost recovery plan pending the outcome of those discussions. The objective is to ensure the financial viability of Bus Éireann while maintaining services at the highest possible level within the resources available.

A number of private transport operators are also providing public transport services in rural Ireland. Many of these provide commercial services in their own right, a number provided contracted services to Bus Éireann and, as RTP contractors many of them also make an important contribution to the success of the rural transport programme, providing services under contract.

A number of initiatives are under way around the country to look at possible innovations to extend the reach of the rural transport programme. They include the Louth County Council Age Friendly initiative, pilot projects in the north west and north east and the cross-Border community transport research pilot that is being overseen by the North-South Ministerial Council.

Bus Éireann, Pobal - in respect of the rural transport programme - the Health Service Executive and the Irish Wheelchair Association are now working together on two initiatives in the north east and north west with a view to devising a co-operative model for a more cost-effective rural transport service which could apply nationally. The outcomes of these pilots, together with the outcomes of the County Louth Age Friendly initiative, should provide the paradigm for rural transport in the future. The cross-Border pilot project is intended to examine the needs for cross-Border community transport and how these could be best met. The feedback from this project will also feed into considerations about the further development of rural transport.

The provision of public transport generally outside of the greater Dublin area will also be supported by a new legislative framework that is being promoted through the Public Transport Regulation Bill, which is the second phase in the Government's public transport legislative reform programme that commenced with the enactment of the Dublin Transport Authority Bill last year. The Bill builds on the enactment of that legislation and, together with that Act, presents a comprehensive framework for the future regulation and control of public passenger transport.

The Bill is on Committee Stage in this House and I acknowledge the constructive contribution from Members on all sides and the excellent progress which is being made. The Bill contains proposals for a modern regime for the licensing of commercial public bus transport services and facilitates a national statutory framework for the procurement of public transport services by way of public transport services contracts. Among other elements, the Bill promotes integrated, well-functioning and cost-efficient public passenger transport services which will include the integration of rural services.

The Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009, among other issues, aims to ensure a closer alignment between the national spatial strategy, regional planning guidelines, development plans and local area plans. A key element in the Bill, which was presented to this House on 29 May last, is the introduction of a requirement for an evidence based "core strategy" in development plans which will provide relevant information as to how the development plan and the housing strategy are consistent with regional planning guidelines and the national spatial strategy. The Bill requires that development plans contain mandatory objectives for the promotion of sustainable settlement and transportation strategies. Local authorities must therefore take account of transport issues when drafting development plans and local area plans.

This Government and its immediate predecessors have given more attention to institutional and regulatory reform of public transport than any Governments over the previous 50 years or so. We have to look back to the circumstances which led to the establishment of CIE for a period of comparable policy development and legislative activity. Not only that but we have put in place coherent investment strategies through the national development plans.

We are also planning for the longer term. High levels of current and capital expenditure have been made available by this Government to provide public transport infrastructure and to support public transport services. As recently as 1977 the Exchequer was investing little or nothing in public transport infrastructure compared with over €600 million today. Public transport subvention was less than half of what it is today.

Our bus fleet has been modernised and our railway system, including the rolling stock, has been utterly transformed in a very short time span. Bus and rail services have been improved and expanded. It can be clearly seen from the various initiatives that the Government is very conscious of the need for public transport services, in particular in rural areas, and continues to be proactive in that regard. I commend to the House the actions of this Government and its immediate predecessors on the development and implementation of rural public transport policy. This Government has done more than any other to reduce the effects of social exclusion in rural Ireland arising from previously unmet public transport needs.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Those proposing the motion can divide the six minutes remaining in half. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the Minister's response to the Fine Gael motion and add my voice to the many from all sides of the Chamber which argued for the retention of the rural transport scheme. There is great concern about proposed cuts in the bord snip report, especially in the rural communities we represent. Every Senator in the House as I look around it has a large rural hinterland in his or her constituency served by rural transport links.

I acknowledge that the Government and its predecessors have built up this infrastructure in rural Ireland over the past number of years. It would be a great shame at this stage of the development of this infrastructure to diminish it in any way. Bus Éireann, due to budgetary constraints, has already had to cut services from rural areas; Lismore in west Waterford, where I come from, is being affected in that way.

I am also concerned that some of the Government policies and soundings we have heard of late are anti-rural. The Minister of State mentioned the planning and development Bill earlier and there are proposals in it for integration in transport, although it does not specifically mention rural areas. It is really about new developments in our towns, cities and villages, whereas what we are talking about with regard to rural transport is the isolated rural areas in many of counties. They are the real connections to communities, villages and services for many elderly and isolated people. They are also a benefit to the small shops or post offices in those villages.

I add my voice to those who have argued for the retention of the service. We cannot afford to abandon rural Ireland or our rural people. I appeal to Senators, Deputies and anybody else with great or small influence to act on this. All of us should protect what little infrastructure rural dwellers have; it should be developed rather than cut.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I thank my colleague, Senator Coffey, for his generosity in almost evenly splitting the six-minute slot. I am glad to say a few words in support of this motion and I am disappointed the Minister of State's party colleagues have proposed an amendment. We have tried to frame this in a very inclusive fashion. Unusually for an Opposition motion it does not bash the Government, condemn or complain but requests that we, as a House, support the concept of rural transport and call on the Government and appropriate agencies to keep the system running.

It is ironic in a sense that we are discussing rural transport in the rarefied confines of Dublin 2 and Dublin 4. It is within a few miles of this privileged House that a decision is made on whether a person in the middle of rural Ireland will have a bus link service. Of all the lobby groups which have presented their case over the past number of months, those representing rural transport have made the most solid case. From an economic perspective, we have seen the outstanding value given for a minimal injection of Exchequer funds. If every other scheme could turn an €11 million investment into social capital similar to that realised by the rural transport scheme, this country would not be facing its current difficulties.

I have acknowledged on many occasions that we are in a state of extremely grave economic peril and that there is a need for economic restraint and a measure of common sense. Cutbacks will have to be made and there is no point in stating otherwise. However, we must examine in detail the proposed cutbacks across a broad range of Departments. The fact the McCarthy report contains a recommendation in respect of a particular scheme does not mean it is wrong to invest money in that scheme. The arguments relating to social value of the rural transport scheme must be brought to the fore.

Earlier today, the House debated the Planning and Development (Amendment) Bill 2009. When we discuss planning and development, "sustainability" is the buzz word to which everyone refers. If we want to retain rural Ireland as a sustainable economic and social unit, we must ensure there is a transport system for those who, in the absence of such a system, would not see certain of their friends, neighbours or relatives from one end of the week to the next. That is a measure of the importance of this scheme.

For a minimal investment on the part of the taxpayer, an outstanding return has been forthcoming from those who operate this system and for those who use it. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, was obliged to read his long script - which addressed many matters but not really that which is the subject of the motion - into the record. It is unfortunate that there will be a vote on this matter. Regardless of that fact, it is important that the Minister of State should impress on his colleagues in government that this scheme, which provides outstanding value for money, must be maintained. If every other allocation of Government resources produced the same results, the country would be much better off.

The Members of this House, which is located in a privileged part of this city, must try to ensure that those who live far from here in remote rural regions are not ignored. These people have their rights and we have a responsibility towards them.

Photo of Pat MoylanPat Moylan (Fianna Fail)
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Is the amendment being pressed?

Photo of Diarmuid WilsonDiarmuid Wilson (Fianna Fail)
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Yes.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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The amendment should be withdrawn.

Amendment put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 27 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Peter Callanan, Ivor Callely, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Marc MacSharry, Lisa McDonald, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 22 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Jerry Buttimer, Ciarán Cannon, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Pearse Doherty, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Liam Twomey, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Camillus Glynn and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Jerry Buttimer and Paudie Coffey.

Amendment declared carried.

Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.

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

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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Ag 10.30 maidin amárach.