Thursday, 16 February 2017
He is a former father of the House and is doing a very good job in Cabinet.
I am tabling this matter following a notice of motion that was unanimously passed by Clare County Council. It requested that Clare County Council have a representative on the board of Shannon Airport and the Shannon Group. This is a reasonable request given there is an indelible link, which I am sure the Minister appreciates, between Shannon Airport and the people of County Clare. For many decades, people from County Clare emigrated to the United States and other countries due to economic circumstances and the last port of call for them to see their loved ones was Shannon Airport. Many of those people returned on holidays to Ireland and passed through Shannon Airport. The people of County Clare have a significant emotional attachment to the airport. Separate from its extremely important role as the economic driver of the region, it also plays a role in terms of connectivity with other parts of the world. It also plays an important role in terms of generating income and jobs and facilitating the many businesses that are located not just in Shannon but in Limerick and the mid-west. It plays a crucial role in terms of tourism but not just for people from the mid-west travelling abroad. Much more importantly, many hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the west of Ireland and they do not all come from Dublin. The Minister is cognisant of the importance of regional diversity. Many of these people come through Shannon Airport. There is a very strong traditional link between America and Shannon. The councillors on Clare County Council, who represent 106,000 citizens of County Clare at local level, believe their voices and opinions and ability to promote and counsel are not being taken on board by the Shannon Group simply because they do not have a position at the table. I have huge regard for this Minister and what he is doing in terms of State appointments, of ensuring there is accountability and credibility and of ensuring people with integrity and ability serve on State boards. He will appreciate, more than anyone, the importance of including a representative from the local authorities. We must bear in mind that it is not just a question of the 26 elected members of the local authority but also the executive, the senior management team and the nearly 1,000 people who work there, as well as the expertise, the local knowledge, the driving of enterprise and the marketing of the region that the local authority does internationally. When representatives of Clare County Council travel abroad, for example, to the Milwaukee Irish Fest and other events, it is always Shannon Airport they are promoting. It is as if the airport and the local authority are joined at the hip. As such, I am of the view that it would be an appropriate step to create a position on the board of directors for a representative from the local authority in Clare.
I thank Senator Conway for raising what is a very important and topical matter and for putting such a strong case for what he believes in. I know he is a very consistent advocate for the people of Clare and for Shannon Airport, and in particular for the links between Shannon Airport and the people. The case he has made here today is one which they will appreciate and one which could be considered when we are setting out criteria for airports, namely, that boards should at least coincide with regional policy, as the Government spells it out.
As the Senator may be aware, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform issued new guidelines in November 2014 on appointments to State boards with a view to introducing a more structured approach to such appointments. In accordance with those guidelines, all appointments to vacancies on State boards must satisfy the following criteria: they must be advertised openly on the State boards website operated by the Public Appointments Service, PAS; they must meet specific and detailed criteria determined by the relevant Minister necessary for the effective performance of the relevant role; and they must be processed by way of a transparent assessment system, designed and implemented by the independent Public Appointments Service to support the relevant Minister in making appointments to State boards under his remit.
It is no longer open to Ministers to populate boards on a purely ad hocbasis. It is my objective in my Department to remove, as far as possible, political influence or political patronage in the appointments to State boards because I believe political patronage has been one of the great curses of Irish political life. In accordance with this new model of appointments, it is open to anyone to register an interest in an appointment to a State board. They simply have to go online on the PAS website and they will receive an alert when vacancies on a particular board are advertised.
Since coming to office as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, I have, however, come to the conclusion that these guidelines do not go far enough. There are too many gaps and there are still huge opportunities under those guidelines for ministerial choice and political patronage. It would be far better for the boards, the individuals and the State if they were reduced or removed. For this reason, I reviewed the guidelines with a view to putting in place an additional internal process that would allow me to make appointments with greater confidence in the ability of the selected person to contribute effectively to a State board. I subsequently approved new internal principles to be implemented by my Department for all appointments. In essence, these new procedures provide a more thorough and professional and less political process. The Government-agreed guidelines for appointments to State boards will continue to be applied but, in my Department, an additional internal selection process will be undertaken following the receipt of a list of candidates from PAS. I have notified PAS and written to the chairs of all the boards under the aegis of my Department setting out details of this additional process.
My preference is for a more broadly-based PAS assessment panel that would include one or more representative from outside the public sector and also for a minimal number of candidates who met the specified criteria to be submitted to me for consideration. Interviews, which were inexplicably missing from the 2014 process, are an essential part of the new process in my Department. As far as possible, I wish to remove my own discretion from the appointments process.
In regard to Shannon Group specifically, I acknowledge the importance of the local authorities in the region - that is, Clare County Council, Limerick County Council, Tipperary County Council, Galway County Council and Galway City Council - working with the company to ensure its success and that of the region. The success of Shannon Group will be enhanced by the support and commitment of all stakeholders in the region working together for their mutual benefit. It is open to representatives of Clare County Council or, indeed, any of the local authorities in the region, to register their interest with PAS. There is currently one vacancy on the board of Shannon Group and I hope this will be advertised on the PAS website shortly.
I thank the Minister. Given that it has not been an easy week, I am sure he is extremely busy so I want to thank him for coming to the House to address this matter. I will advise all members of Clare County Council that they should nominate somebody through that process. I sincerely hope the gap in local representation on the board can be addressed through the public appointments system. Of course, what I would like to see is a more formalised structure whereby a nominee is accommodated on the board, but we will take it one step at a time. I thank the Minister for his contribution and for coming to the House personally to deal with this.
I would like to reciprocate the goodwill expressed by Senator Conway. When I am filling this new board place and considering the criteria to be set out for the applications, which we want to make as narrow as possible so that few candidates emerge due to my discretion, I will certainly bear in mind what the Senator has to say.