Seanad debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Commencement Matters

Constituency Boundaries

10:30 am

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, to the House.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing this Commencement matter to be taken today. I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

The situation for the people of County Roscommon is very grave and serious. A three-person commission, under the chairman, Jack Keyes, to review the boundaries of County Roscommon for the purposes of a possible amalgamation with County Westmeath. The commission is based in the civic offices in Mullingar. It may be an indication of a certain bias that the boundary review secretary is based on Mount Street.

A serious campaign has been established. Last week, 1,600 people attended a meeting in South Roscommon, chaired by Councillor Tony Ward and attended by other councillors, including Paddy Kilduff, John Naughten, John Keogh, Ivan Connaghton and Lawrence Fallon, who are the councillors elected for the south Roscommon area and the municipal area of Athlone, which is in Roscommon.

I compliment the Save Roscommon campaign for its work in opposing the proposals of the boundary commission and the councillors who are very much involved in the campaign, not only in South Roscommon but throughout the county of Roscommon. All 18 councillors are unanimous in their opposition to the proposal being made. It is important that the Government gets a clear message that the people of Roscommon will not permit the annexation of part of County Roscommon. It is important that all public representatives, especially those running in the general election, are unequivocal in their opposition to this land grab. The Fianna Fáil candidate, Councillor Eugene Murphy, has made his support for the Save Roscommon campaign quite clear.

What is the rationale for the boundary commission? Who initiated it? Why was it initiated? At whose request was it initiated? The panel consists of three not particularly wise men from the east; it does not even have the gender balance required for electoral purposes.

Can the Minister of State quantify the loss of income or potential income to Roscommon County Council of this proposal? Has she considered the additional investment required in Roscommon if the proposal goes ahead, such as building new area offices and all of the other requirements? The Connacht side of Athlone was annexed years ago, in the early part of the last century. If any amalgamation is to take place, the more logical step would be that the area of Athlone west of the River Shannon in Connacht, where the diocese of Elphin reaches the edge of the bridge in Athlone, would be a natural boundary with the new area of Monksland and would give it a stronger identity.

Whatever happens, we are where we are. We would be satisfied if we retained what we have. Monksland has been prioritised by Roscommon County Council for investment. In 1975 Don Panoz brought the Élan Corporation, now trading as Alkermes Pharma Ireland limited, to the area. In the 40 years since, a vast tract of land has been transformed and investment has taken place in industrial infrastructure, roads, paths and social housing in the south Roscommon area. There is also a primary care centre. The area has been developed for industry and has attracted Jazz Pharmaceuticals. It has ready access to the M50. County Roscommon is a gateway for jobs.

We are making this case and I know the Minister of State is acting for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, today. I propose that the boundary commission be disbanded and we develop our county as it is. In the 1920s, our country was divided into two areas, one comprising 26 counties and the other six counties. Can the Minister of State, who is from Cork, imagine how I, as somebody born and bred in County Roscommon, feel about the idea that a large portion of our county would be transferred to another county, thereby depriving the people of Roscommon of their identity?

It is a very serious situation. I appeal to the Minister of State and the Government to transfer the matter elsewhere. The decision will not be made until March, which is, of course, very convenient because the general election will be over.Whoever comes in to the Office of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, I am making the appeal in this House. I put it genuinely and seriously that the people of County Roscommon are united 100% in their opposition to the possible proposal to annex an area of County Roscommon into another county. I hope that the Minister of State will convey this message to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Kelly, and the Taoiseach. The message is: "Hands off Roscommon."

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator for raising the issue. As the Senator will probably know, we are going through the same process in Cork, but it is within one county as opposed to two counties. There are views on either side of that question as well. The Senator should know that it is not only Roscommon where this applies.

As he rightly pointed out, I am taking the matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. The Minister is keen for me to update the House on the matter. As Members are aware, the Minister, Deputy Kelly, announced the establishment of statutory committees to review local government boundaries in Athlone, Carlow, Drogheda and Waterford on 19 June last. In the case of Athlone, the committee has been asked to carry out a review of the boundary between County Westmeath and County Roscommon and make recommendations with respect to that boundary which it considers to be necessary in the interests of effective local government.

The main rationale for undertaking the review of boundaries in Athlone is that the 2011 census showed a significant Athlone environs population in County Roscommon. The question that arises is the proportional relationship between administrative jurisdictions and the current settlement and development position. I imagine the Senator is well aware of all those arguments. Bringing an entire town or city within a single local authority area can eliminate or prevent anomalies and distortions of divided administration, service provision, regulatory and enforcement responsibility and electoral representation. Potential problems can also include differing policies and practices between authorities in respect of matters such as planning, rating and other changes that can impact negatively on town centres. Possible differences in standards of service delivery can also be avoided. Consolidation of administrative responsibility can also strengthen the economic performance of a town by ensuring a single authority working on its behalf.

Athlone is now an important economic hub for a wide hinterland and it has the potential to act as a major economic growth and employment centre at the heart of the country. That can benefit the people of all the surrounding counties irrespective of what side of an administrative boundary they reside. The Athlone boundary committee has been established under section 28 of the Local Government Act 1991 and, in accordance with section 28(3), it is independent in the performance of its functions. While it would be inappropriate, therefore, for me to comment on the substantive matter under examination, I would like to take the opportunity to address some misconceptions that have been reported recently on this issue.

Firstly, neither the Government - as the wording of the Commencement matter seems to suggest - nor the Minister, Deputy Kelly, is proposing that the boundary be changed. The task of examining and analysing the issue has been entrusted to the independent boundary committee and it is that group which will consider and report on the matter. At that stage, it will be open to the Minster of the day to suggest the alteration of a boundary by order, having regard to the report in question. In this context, it is clear the matter will not be decided finally by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government but by the Oireachtas. In accordance with the 1991 Act, a draft of any order made by the Minister providing for a boundary alteration must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. The order cannot be made until a resolution approving the draft has been passed by each House. This would normally follow a submission to Government and would be unlikely to arise unless the independent statutory committee proposed a boundary alteration. The Members in this House as well as their colleagues in Dáil Éireann, will, therefore, have an opportunity to examine any draft order that might come before them and it will not proceed unless approved by a positive resolution of both Houses. Moreover, any boundary alteration proposal would apply purely to the local government administrative jurisdiction. Contrary to an impression that has been given by a degree of publicity, a boundary alteration, were it to take place, would have no effect whatsoever on sporting affiliations, such as, for example, how GAA clubs are organised. Indeed there are notable examples in the North and South of where GAA club affiliations depart from local government boundaries and where clubs located in one county compete in a neighbouring county.

The establishment of independent statutory committees to review local government boundaries in Westmeath and Roscommon and elsewhere is a natural development, building on the measures announced in the action plan for effective local government in 2012 and subsequently provided for in the Local Government Reform Act 2014. I hope this is of some benefit to the Senator.

Feedback thus far suggests that the revised structures and measures implemented by this Government are generally operating well and I imagine the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government will look forward to studying the various reports, including the report relating to counties Westmeath and Roscommon, to assess whether further adjustment is necessary. No decision has been taken yet.

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister of State for her compressive reply. If Roscommon is deprived of the rates that are generated in the Monksland area, it will put the funding of County Roscommon in serious jeopardy. There is no question about that. If that area is annexed from Roscommon, the rates will be collected and spent in that area. By the way, the Connacht side of Athlone is one of the most deprived areas in the country. Indeed it is no great credit to the county council in Westmeath that the area has been neglected. The people there would be far better off if the area was transferred under the responsibility of Roscommon County Council. It would be more logical; to Connacht for Connacht, not to hell or to Connacht.

I am unsure whether the Minister of State is aware of the deep feeling on the matter - perhaps she is aware of it in Cork. I appeal to all the candidates of all the parties, including Fine Gael, the Labour Party, Renua and Fianna Fáil, to come together, unite and make this one of the issues, along with the hospital and other issues, of the general election campaign. No candidate can go before the people without committing to support the retention of our beloved County Roscommon.

Photo of Kathleen LynchKathleen Lynch (Cork North Central, Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Since the same process is under way in Cork I am conscious that the rates area, the adjustment of valuations and all of those matters are critical points to be considered in the event that the independent commission decides on whether there should be an adjustment. However, no one can be certain that this will happen. I imagine the arguments made by public representatives and the public in general will be taken into consideration. In the event, that is one of the elements that will have to be considered.

As I have said, no decision has been made. There has been no definitive instruction in terms of a "Yes" or "No". It is simply an overview to take a look at what is best in terms of effectiveness in respect of local government and what is best for the county in terms of economic development. As Senator Leyden rightly pointed out there are areas in every county which have an abundance of wealth and other areas which are greatly deprived. This type of adjustment has to be taken into consideration as well.