Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

6:20 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, for coming to the House to take this issue. In many instances we do not get a line Minister in here and I appreciate his interest in this area.

I have argued this matter with a previous Minister, former Deputy Noel Dempsey, for many hours in the Seanad. For the past ten or 12 years, the Bantry Harbour board has been a success story and it should be left as it is. It is an unusual model, and apart from the oil storage and facilities on Whiddy Island, there must also be consideration of Garinish Island, which is a tourist interest, of inland fishermen and of the people still living on Whiddy Island. It encompasses approximately two thirds if not three quarters of all the Bantry Bay area, which is the second finest bay in the world. It is approximately eight miles deep and an average of eight miles wide in most areas. It has taken the biggest oil tankers ever built into the harbour and it was successful in retaining the entire British admiralty fleet at the time of the 1796 invasion.

There are a few points worth making. Its current structure is a low operating cost model, with no tax paid on profit. Members, at their own volition, get no payment whatever and all profits are retained and spent locally. The board has local control, with many users' interest in the bay being properly looked after. Its key focus is improving the marine infrastructure deficit in the inner harbour, which is an historic problem going back decades. It has a healthy bank balance somewhere in the region of ¤1.5 million. Its net worth and balance sheet has grown eight-fold in the past ten years, with ¤4.5 million spent in the past seven years on the development of Whiddy slipway, the Abbey Point slipway, commercial pontoons, pier raising at the main pier, land acquisition, derrick purchase and the surveys and planning costs for the inner harbour master development plan, of which I am sure the Minister is aware. The master plan can be rolled out over the next number of years subject to income availability from the oil shipping being protected.

The best way forward is to continue the harbour where it is, spending the money on local infrastructure and capital investment. I am expressing the fear of a vast majority of people in the greater Bantry area, including fishermen, harbour users, yachtsmen and oarsmen, etc. A plan was afoot prior to the Minister's arrival at the Department to have the Port of Cork assume control of Bantry, subject to certain conditions, and we are afraid that the greater interests of the people in the Bantry area will not be properly serviced and funding will be taken from the Whiddy oil process. I have absolutely no doubt if the board had a deficit of ¤1.5 million, the Port of Cork would walk away. At times the authority appears not to be interested in Bantry but I am afraid of conceding any big issue.

After many years, the Bantry Harbour board was established under a former Minister, former Deputy Peter Barry, and it is working very well. It has a low cost and is efficient, and it is making money. When the process is not broken, why should we fix it? I have very deep-rooted views on the matter as my forefathers going back to before the Great Famine were fishermen in Bantry Bay. I know most of the inlets and outlets there for good or bad. I am deeply concerned that if the Port of Cork takes over the running of the area, it will have a negative impact on many other interests. It may be good for the oil terminal and similar development but there are also socioeconomic and tourism interests to consider, as well as the welfare of inshore fishermen. There is also substantial fish farming in Bantry Bay and the fear is that down the road other interests will suffer and the community will be negatively affected if Bantry Harbour board is in any way taken in charge by the Port of Cork.

Perhaps I have gone on a tangent but I wait anxiously on the Minister's response.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Before calling the Minister I welcome a former Member of the Dáil and Minister to the Gallery, Mr. Noel Davern.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Policy relating to regional harbours, published in the Government's ports policy statement in 2005, is that the continued operation of harbours under the outdated provisions of the Harbours Act 1946 is unsustainable on the grounds of good governance. It proposed that harbours would best achieve their potential through their transfer to local authority ownership or, in the case where harbours had significant commercial traffic, consideration would be given to bring them under the control of a port company. My Department has worked with the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government over the last number of years to progress the transfers.

The transfer of harbours is consistent with the following objectives: reduction in the number of State agencies and public bodies; strengthening corporate governance of significant State assets; unlocking amenity value of the assets to the benefit of local communities; and enabling the repeal of the outmoded Harbours Act 1946. Twelve from a total of 13 harbours have now successfully transferred. Fenit Harbour transferred to Kerry County Council on 1 October 2011 while Baltimore, Kinsale and Arklow harbours transferred to local authority control on 1 January 2012.

Bantry is now the only remaining harbour operating under the Harbours Act 1946. The core business of Bantry Harbour is the oil storage and transhipment terminal on Whiddy Island. The Phillips 66 oil facilities on Whiddy Island are privately owned. Aquaculture, fishing and tourism are prevalent in the harbour and a number of cruise liners also visit the harbour each year.

The KPMG review of regional ports and harbours, published in 1999, recommended that the harbour authority merge with the Port of Cork. It was of the opinion that amalgamation with Cork Port would provide access to port expertise, marketing, strategic development planning and the skills required for the regulation of navigation, ship and port security requirements, pilotage, safety, emergency response, pollution, etc. Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners are currently the responsible authority under the Harbours Act 1946 for the control, operation and development of Bantry Harbour. Their main role relates to jurisdiction over the waters, such as pilotage, responsibility for safety and navigation and so on. The operation of large oil tankers, bulk carriers and cruise liners in and out of the bay requires specific expertise. The Port of Cork currently provides a harbour master's service on a contractual basis to assist in this regard.

Work commenced in 2012 to examine the requirements necessary to transfer the harbour. The harbour commissioners established a sub-committee to examine this issue and officials from my Department have been working with both the Port of Cork and the harbour commissioners on the transfer. During these discussions, the Port of Cork has clearly indicated that it is positive about the transfer and willing to work with the Department and the harbour towards this objective. Cork Port already has a very good professional relationship with Phillips 66 through the oil refinery in Cork harbour. It also has a contractual arrangement with Bantry to provide professional expertise and a harbour master to bring in large oil tankers and cruise liners into the bay. This is an absolute requirement by the company to operate the business in Whiddy to help mitigate the risks of maritime accidents, environmental damage, etc.

I met representatives of the harbour commissioners in July 2012 and more recently this month in Dublin.

It is my intention that the transfer should take place with the co-operation of the stakeholders concerned. A positive discussion took place and a number of issues were clarified.

As the Senator is aware, provision was included in the Harbours (Amendment) Act 2009 to allow the transfer of Bantry Harbour to the Port of Cork to take place. That Act provides that a public consultation must be completed before any transfer and, in section 18(2)(d), it outlines how that consultation should take place. I intend to hold a public consultation over the next month or so on the proposed transfer of Bantry to the Port of Cork, as required by the legislation.

In relation to the future and the independence of the Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners, the board was appointed in 2009 for a five-year period which will end in October 2014. Similar to the legal position that pertained in relation to the transfer of other regional harbours, should the harbour transfer before that date the board will stand dissolved on the date of transfer.

6:30 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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It seems that what I feared is likely to happen. In 1999, when the KPMG report was produced, the harbour board and the facilities were in a totally different place. Huge progress has been made since then, so the KPMG report is 14 years out of date. I argued that at length with the former Minister for Transport, Mr. Noel Dempsey, as the Cathaoirleach will know.

The amendment to the 2009 Act was made following four and a half hours of haggling in the Seanad when I persuaded the former Minister of State, Mr. Noel Ahern, to agree to a public consultation with the people of Bantry. I am not happy with the way things are progressing. If matters proceed as they are going, with no autonomy for the existing harbour board or proper controls in Bantry, more harm will be caused. Somewhere down the line, a successor to the Minister will be reminded that a huge mistake was made in giving control to Cork port, which has a different agenda. It has no interest in tourism, small fishermen, aquaculture, traditional diving, marine related sports or Garinish Island. There is tunnel vision in this regard.

This development was steered before the Minister's time. I resented it and fought it.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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Senator O'Donovan, you hold the record for the length of time speaking in the House on a single issue.

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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I was a lone voice. I intend, if necessary, to stand alone on this issue. Whatever about my political future or the future of Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners, this is a retrograde step.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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All that is intended to happen at this stage is the public consultation. That is happening because of the work Senator O'Donovan did in the previous Seanad. I do not wish to prejudice the outcome of that process at this stage.

When I met the Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners they were keen that a local board should be retained and that Bantry should have some autonomy. They were keen that fees and profits should remain locally and be invested in the area. They also had an interest in having improvements done to the inner harbour and the area around it. I am open to suggestions in that regard. That is what the public consultation will be about.

It is certainly not my intention to do harm. I appreciate the work done by Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners for the harbour and for the area. I had the pleasure of visiting Bantry and I hope to do so again, and to be welcome there. It is not my intention to do any harm. I am just trying to regularise the situation.

It is not fair to say Port of Cork has no interest in tourism. The company has done a pretty good job in attracting cruise ships to Cork city in recent years and is taking an active interest in the Cork Harbour project, particularly for tourism. I take the point the Senator is making, nevertheless. Bantry is quite a distance from Cork city and it makes sense to have some sort of identity or autonomy there.