Seanad debates

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2017: Second and Subsequent Stages

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

10:30 am

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister on the first occasion he has been in the House since he was appointed and I congratulate him.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I am pleased to come to the Seanad to present the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2017 which will establish the new Department of Rural and Community Development. The Senators may wish to know the Bill was passed by the Dáil last night.

This Bill has just one purpose, namely, to establish the new Department, confer a name on the Department and to provide for a Minister who will be in charge of the Department. It is important to note the Bill does not confer any functions on the Department. The new Department's functions are still being finalised and these will be transferred at the earliest opportunity following the enactment of the Bill.

The establishment of the new Department underscores the Government's commitment to rural and community development. It reflects the priority Government places on both and ensures that efforts across all of Government to support rural Ireland and to develop vibrant rural and urban communities will achieve the maximum impact. This will be a key focus for me as Minister for Rural and Community Development.

To this end, the Department of Rural and Community Development will deliver on the Government's commitment to bring a greater co-ordination to all the work of Government that impacts on rural Ireland and the development of vibrant sustainable communities, both rural and urban. It will guarantee a priority focus on rural and community matters, ensuring that tailored policy approaches are developed that will have a real and lasting impact for rural and urban communities alike.

The new Department will also work closely with other Department's that have a role in supporting the twin objectives of rural and community development, whether the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine, which reaches into rural Ireland through its many policies and programmes that support farming and fishing communities, the Department of Enterprise and Innovation, which is key to facilitating job creation in the regions through its support for enterprises, from start-ups to multinational companies, or the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and others which work closely with disadvantaged communities to improve their social inclusion, education and job prospects. The Action Plan for Rural Development provides a whole-of-Government framework to support rural development through practical actions, with clear timeframes for delivery by named Departments and agencies. The action plan will form the basis of the work of the rural development division of the new Department. As the Minister for Rural and Community Development, I will continue to work tirelessly with other Departments, public bodies and stakeholders to deliver on the actions in the plan.

We have had many debates over the past 12 months in this House and in committees about rural Ireland. While we may have had differing views from time to time about matters of detail in these debates, no Senator or Deputy believes that supporting rural Ireland is a bad thing. I see the talent and potential of rural Ireland every day. I see how the people of rural Ireland have adapted and changed with the times. Rural Ireland in the 21st century is modern, dynamic and creative, and is an important part of our identity and our economy. It is my job to help realise that potential. As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I will work with my ministerial colleagues to bring more job opportunities and better services to the people of rural Ireland.

Rural Ireland is a diverse and varied place. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting rural Ireland. That said, there are many examples of very successful approaches that can be captured and copied across the country. The great western greenway in Mayo is a fine example of this and has led to huge interest in other greenway projects around the country, while the emergence of new enterprise clusters in areas such as agritech in the west also point the way forward for creating high value-added jobs.

I want to change the narrative around rural Ireland. I want to build on the positives. I see and meet many exceptional business people and many exceptional rural communities. The establishment of the new Department of Rural and Community Development provides an unprecedented opportunity to build on the work the Government commenced last year to work in partnership with business leaders and communities to make a real and lasting difference to the lives of the people who live and work in rural Ireland. All of this, of course, will be complemented by the work of the community development division in the new Department. In order to move forward and grow as a country, we need strong and vibrant communities. Strong communities are the glue that hold our society together and enrich our lives.

The Framework Policy for Local and Community Development in Ireland is a critical piece of work in this regard. It sets out national priorities and a framework for a cross-Government approach to improving engagement between national and local government and local communities in the planning, delivery and evaluation of policies and interventions that affect them. It focuses on tackling poverty, disadvantage and social exclusion. It seeks to provide better ways of working with communities to identify local priorities and develop local solutions to address these, with the aim of securing positive impacts on jobs, gender equality, poverty, rural communities and people with disabilities. Delivering on the commitments in the policy will be a key priority of mine and the new Department, working in partnership with other Departments, State agencies and the range of community development, local development and community and voluntary sector stakeholders.

Developing a strong relationship with local government will also be critical, given the significant role local authorities and the newly established local community development committees, LCDCs, will have in translating the policy into local actions and approaches. By working together, locally and nationally, we can identify better ways to provide more effective services for those who need them most. We can plan in a way that involves communities in identifying their own needs and priorities, that co-ordinates what we do and, most importantly, that delivers real outcomes for all involved.

A strong relationship with local government and the new local governance structures will be important in terms of programme delivery. Local community development committees have a role in the new Department's Leader programme in many rural areas, as well as responsibility for delivering the Department's Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme, SICAP, at local level. SICAP is the country's primary social inclusion intervention and, as such, I am keen to support its ongoing development, to work closely with those managing its delivery and to ensure that it continues to support those who need it most. The new SICAP, which will be rolled out in 2018, will also be complemented by the new communities facilities scheme and the new RAPID programme which will provide capital funding for projects that seek to enhance communities, address disadvantage and improve social cohesion at a local level.

The contribution of the community and voluntary sector to the well-being of the nation should never be taken for granted. If there is one thing all public representatives have in common, it is their awareness and direct experience of the vital impact voluntary work has at community level. A key focus of the new Department, therefore, will be to raise awareness of the contribution that the community and voluntary sector nationally, while developing and strengthening policy approaches and existing supports that will grow the sector in years to come.

The establishment of the new Department of Rural and Community Development will strengthen delivery on the Government's commitments to rural Ireland and its communities. The primary function of the Department will be to support local communities and to ensure that rural areas, market towns and villages can develop and thrive. The Department's role in leading the Action Plan for Rural Development and the Framework Policy for Local and Community Development in Ireland will bring an added impetus to the local and economic development of rural Ireland and will improve the lives of those living in disadvantaged communities nationwide. I am excited by the potential for this new Department to achieve real progress for rural Ireland and our communities. I look forward to finalising as soon as possible the transfer of functions order, which will set the role of the Department in more detail. I commend this Bill to the House.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister and congratulate him on his new appointment. As a rural man like the Minister, I am aware of the need for immediate action in rural Ireland. It is, to coin a phrase, dying on its feet and has been for some time. Fianna Fáil supports the main principles of the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2017, which establishes the new Department of Rural and Community Development. However, we believe that it makes for better policy coherence to have rural and Gaeltacht development policy centred in one Department. That is why we submitted amendments on Committee Stage in the Dáil last night to include the Gaeltacht in this portfolio. I had to watch the debate last night to find out whether those amendments had been accepted.

For a portfolio and an area of representation that is so important for those outside the M50, the Bill smacks of being rushed through. I appreciate why the Minister wants to establish the Department, which we are doing today. We are setting up a Department and we are not aware of, or we do not know, its real functions. We do not know what budget will be associated with the Department. We do not know what role the Minister will have in the Gaeltacht, regional affairs and the islands. Has the Minister responsibility for broadband, which is a major issue in rural Ireland? Will he have responsibility for the rural social schemes, the Tús scheme, farm assist, etc.? As was said in the Dáil last night, we are buying a pig in a bag here. It is imperative that as soon as the Minister's role is sanctioned and he finds out what his portfolio is definitively and what budgets will be at his disposal, he would come back here at his earliest convenience because, as many representatives here are from rural areas, we need a full and frank debate on the Minister's role in the future.

Fianna Fáil set up a senior Ministry for community, rural and Gaeltacht affairs having responsibility for the Gaeltacht and islands. Unfortunately, the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government in 2011 abolished the Department and only after pressure, assigned a junior Minister to rural affairs.

The new Taoiseach has decided to break up the rural Department set up in 2016 by splitting rural development from the Gaeltacht and the islands and by putting these portfolios into two different Departments. This shows is poor judgment and illustrates the knowledge deficit of the new Taoiseach towards rural Ireland. Once more, it shows that Fine Gael just does not understand the policy challenges facing rural parishes countrywide and continues to favour development in fewer locations.

With the greatest respect to the Minister, the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development is but another false dawn for rural Ireland and rehashes existing announcements, programmes and employment forecasts. There is little substance in this document that will immediately improve service provision, infrastructure and employment opportunities in rural Ireland. The ultimate litmus test will be what additional new funding, if any, will be ring-fenced for this plan.It is the fourth rural development plan in 33 months produced by Fine Gael, following the CEDRA report, the rural charter and the programme for Government. Clearly, there has been a systemic rural policy failure on its part. There is no long-term vision and planning as the depopulation of rural parishes escalates. As a rural person, I hate to say rural Ireland is dying on its feet. Shockingly, over 500,000 rural households and businesses must wait until 2024 for State intervention to have moderate speed broadband. As the plan was first launched in 2012, it spans a period of 12 years. The ultimate test will be how much additional funding will be ring-fenced for the current plan.

Fianna Fáil is committed to building an Ireland for all where the fruits of recovery will be felt throughout the country, with greater regional balance. In the confidence and supply arrangement to facilitate a minority Government it extracted policy commitments for rural Ireland to be implemented during the Government's term. We have seen successful partial delivery of some of these commitments, including the re-establishment of the CLÁR programme, expansion of the rural social scheme and the reversal of the 20121-13 farm assist scheme cuts, but much more needs to be done. It is appalling that only €6 million of the €250 million allocated to the Leader programme in the period 2014 to 2020 has been spent in the first three and a half years. It is also disappointing that the newly appointed Minister for Rural and Community Affairs, Deputy Michael Ring, has refused to allocate money under the programme for the repair of non-county access roads.

The Minister and I could be here all day rehashing the problems in rural Ireland, of which we are both well aware. I noted with interest that he did not mention Brexit or the challenges it would pose in his new portfolio, in particular for Border regions. There is the decimation of many areas through the closure of post offices and Garda barracks, two cornerstones of communities. I will not go into all of the existing problems, but I will mention Brexit as it is a major problem coming down the line. I am disappointed that the Minister did not refer to it. The agriculture sector is a cornerstone of rural Ireland and will be hit the hardest by Brexit, particularly along the Border that runs all of the way from County Louth to the tip of County Donegal. It has been left in a very precarious position with Brexit looming. Brexit should, therefore, form a major part of the Minister's brief. He has inherited the problems in rural Ireland and will inherit others down the line. I wish him the very best of luck and look forward to working with him. He is a man whose heart and soul are in rural Ireland. I see the need for a Minister dedicated to dealing with rural affairs. I am disappointed, therefore, that we are rubber stamping a title because we have no idea how much funding will be allocated to the Department or of what the Minister's portfolio, duties and role will consist.

Photo of Maura HopkinsMaura Hopkins (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister. There is no better individual to handle the rural and community development portfolio. It is extremely important that the new Cabinet includes a Minister with responsibility for rural and community development. To be honest, it is also important for us. In 2011 the Department of Finance was divided in two and we are now in a position to support rural communities which were falling off a cliff. The newly appointed Minister is a very much man steeped in rural communities. As such and having been a Minister of State, he is very much aware of and well briefed on the issues that have to be dealt with. I look forward to working with him to secure better outcomes for rural communities. The new Department will play an important role in delivering action within the context of the action plan for rural development that was launched recently.

As a young Senator from the west, I know that the main issue with which we are faced is unemployment. We need to see more young people return to the west. In that regard, councils are becoming more proactive to encourage parts of companies to establish in areas across the country. We know, from an IDA Ireland perspective, how difficult it is to encourage companies to set up in rural communities, but it is possible. I strongly encourage the new Minister to ensure companies that could relocate parts of their organisation to different parts of the country will be incentivised to do so. Let me give an example. The CUBE is a new hot desk facility that has been established in the new civic offices in Roscommon town. It offers high speed broadband which will allow people to live and work in rural areas, yet remain connected to a company in another part of the country or elsewhere in the world. It is an important initiative that supports job creation in rural areas. It is extremely positive that the unemployment rate has been reduced to 6.3%, according to the figures released for June. However, the challenges in providing employment in rural areas are great. As the Minister said, he will work closely with the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Job creation will be the key priority because rural communities will find it difficult to survive without employment opportunities to attract and retain people.

The Minister is very aware of other issues such as broadband provision, which I mentioned. It is the single most impostant piece of infrastructure needed in rural areas. The delay in rolling out broadband is extremely disappointing and has left rural areas at a competitive disadvantage, which is not good enough.

The Minister is very familiar with the N5 route between Longford and Ballaghaderreen. The construction of the Ballaghaderreen bypass has been a positive move that has increased access to the west. The N5 upgrade must be part of the capital plan. Roads infrastructure must be provided to allow rural areas to compete fairly with other parts of the country.

The Minister alluded to the need to breathe life back into market town centres. On previous occasions he mentioned the importance of supporting towns and villages. Westport and other towns are doing well. I come from north Roscommon and believe the Minister in new role must focus on supporting towns and villages that need the most help.

I encourage the Minister to consider relocating his Department to the St. Brigid's Hospital site in Ballinasloe, County Galway. It measures 31 acres and the Department would act as a gateway to the west. Relocating it to Ballinasloe would demonstrate the Minister's strong commitment to the development of rural areas. The HSE owns the site following the closure of the psychiatric hospital a few years ago. The site is very accessible and relocating the Department to it would send an important signal to those living in rural areas.

This evening I will attend the launch of the Douglas Hyde conference near Frenchpark, County Roscommon, with the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne. The conference is an example of communities working well together. We have good success stories from the Brideswell Pattern Festival to the O'Carolan Harp Festival in Keadue. Such conferences, events and summer schools are rooted in rural Ireland, but they need to be supported properly.

I commend the Minister for the reopening of the CLÁR programme and the rural recreation scheme. Funding for rural areas has been increased, but we need more. The Minister has shown leadership in supporting rural areas and I look forward to working with him in the years ahead.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. Go maire tú do nuacht. Caithfidh mé a rá leis an Bhille seo a bhfuil sé d’aidhm aige soiléiriú a thabhairt maidir leis na Ranna Stáit nua, go bhfuil a mhalairt fíor. Is iomaí polaiteoir anois a Ieagann béim ar an gá chun an saibhreas nua mar dhea, a roinnt go cothrom ar fud an Stáit ach ní fheicim aon bhéim ar na réiglún sa chreatlach nua seo ar chor ar bith.

Last year, the partnership Government of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil was insistent on placing regional development as a high priority. The programme for partnership Government is full of references to how essential it is to revitalise all of Ireland by doing so. This lipservice was clearly a knee-jerk response to the utter failure of Fine Gael's "keep the recovery going" campaign. Fine Gael's inability to appreciate the utter lack of recovery and regional disparity in our State led to voters voicing their frustration at the ballot box. The creation of the new Department was a cosmetic exercise only. None of the responsibilities or budgets was transferred into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

The former Minister of State with responsibility for regional economic development, Deputy Michael Ring, has now gained full ministerial office, but regional development has been axed. The Minister might argue that regional affairs are still within his remit, but officially they are not. The responsibility has disappeared. It is important to highlight the importance of titles as they indicate who is answerable for what. The absence of a title indicates that the Government no longer considers regional development a priority. Within the Department itself utter confusion abounds. It does not know what is happening. We have asked on a number of occasions what the new titles are and when the transition is happening only to be told, sheepishly, "We don’t know". Clearly, this is not a decision that was teased out, planned for or considered. This was a ministerial position fashioned as a reward for loyalty. That is not to say that the Minister is undeserving of the role. This is no criticism of the Minister's personal abilities, rather it is a structural issue. This is a role and ministerial office conceived in haste for which we will repent at leisure.

The constant chopping and changing of Departments to suit political agendas is costly in expenditure and time. Confusion over demarcation is inevitable. Projects which require time, dedication and intimate understanding are not given the opportunity to get off the ground. Over the past 15 years, the coalition of ministerial titles including community, Gaeltacht, culture and so forth has changed five times. From 2002 to 2010 we had the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. We then had the short-lived Department of Community, Equality and Gaeltacht Affairs followed by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which reigned from 2011 to 2016. Last year saw the birth of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. As soon as I could actually remember the full title of the Department, it has changed once more.

What is truly worrying is the absence of leadership, direction, responsibility and proper cohesion. There is no steerage. I have said time and time again that the Government is rudderless regarding regional development and this is nowhere clearer to be seen than in the absence of a national spatial strategy. We have not had one since 2002. We are awaiting a draft national planning framework this summer. Why has it taken so long? Given that this is Fine Gael's second term in government, the delay is incomprehensible and inexcusable. This is nothing new. A White Paper on rural development was published 21 years ago under the Fine Gael rainbow coalition which focused on balanced regional development. The paper prioritised investment incentives to attract FDI to rural areas but this did not happen. We have seen the uneven delivery of jobs by the IDA over the past five years, for example. In 2010, 37% of inward investment was outside the Cork and Dublin areas. In 2011, this was 27% and in 2012 it fell further to 23%. While the figures have improved, investment is still skewed 60% towards Dublin and Cork.

The White Paper stressed the need to provide "broadband or high speed telecommunications facilities, in particular, to facilitate the regional distribution of new services in the rapidly developing e-commerce sector". It further stated: "The provision of services necessitates the development of the requisite infrastructure including fibre optic cable networks and structures for the development of wireless technologies". We are all painfully aware that this has not happened. The same Fine Gael coalition also promised the provision of 22,000 additional local authority houses and support for social housing to encourage developments in villages and small towns which would enable people to live in or as close as possible to their own areas. This did not happen either and there is no political will currently to provide the necessary social housing. What really got me was the commitment by the Government 21 years ago to retain the post office network, and ensure "its use for the delivery of the most comprehensive range possible of State services to all citizens". What we have seen instead is 198 post office closures in Fine Gael's first term of Government and up to 500 closures this year. As such, post office retention most certainly has not happened.

References have been made to the SICAP programme which was an unmitigated disaster in Galway, as I am sure the Minister is well aware. It has to be addressed in the second round. An issue was raised this morning around the deprivation index used to calculate some of the funding provided to different State agencies, which also needs to be reviewed. The role of LCDCs is also questionable in that they have removed power from local communities. Another issue which I know is close to the Minister's heart is the future of our rail network. He might address that. A report is doing the rounds making the case for the closure of our rail networks. Arguing as we are for the establishment and extension of the western rail corridor, we certainly do not agree with that. I would welcome the Minister's commitment to the maintenance, extension and improvement of our rail network nationally. I look forward to further debate with the Minister on these and other issues in the months to come.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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With the permission of the Chair, I want to put the record straight regarding three references in Senator Ó Clochartaigh's contribution. I do not like to interject when someone is speaking. Senator Ó Clochartaigh referred three times to the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael partnership Government. Fianna Fáil is facilitating a minority Government through a confidence and supply arrangement.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Fine Gael)
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That is not relevant now. The Senator has made his point.

Photo of Paul DalyPaul Daly (Fianna Fail)
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If only Sinn Féin would do the same on both ends of the island, it might be a help to the country going forward.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Fine Gael)
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That is not relevant.

Photo of Gabrielle McFaddenGabrielle McFadden (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I welcome the establishment of the new Department of Rural and Community Development. Ireland has one of the highest proportions of rural dwellers of almost any EU country. Approximately 40% of our population lives in rural areas whereas the EU average is 27% and the proportion in the UK is 12%. Far too often in the House and elsewhere we hear, as with the contribution just now, people consigning rural Ireland to the scrap heap while painting a picture of terminal decline. While I acknowledge that our rural areas face huge challenges, as do urban areas, there is a great deal that is positive about life in rural Ireland. We must be positive about the future. I believe in rural Ireland. We must challenge the narrative that rural society faces inevitable decline. We must help those who can only see the downside in everything to see that there are positives in rural Ireland. We must lead them to dream of a bright future for our rural communities.

Earlier this year, I welcomed the launch in Ballymahon, County Longford, of the Action Plan for Rural Development by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Heather Humphreys. It showed a clear commitment by the Government to building a positive future for rural Ireland. Unlike previous plans, the Action Plan set out specific actions which will have measurable benefits for those living in rural areas. The establishment of this new Department is another demonstration of the priority the Government accords to rural Ireland. It demonstrates once again the commitment and determination of the Government to do something positive. Great things can be achieved when we set our minds to them. Over the history of rural Ireland, a litany of organisations have contributed positively, from the GAA and the co-operative movement to the ICA, Muintir na Tíre, Macra na Feirme and Irish Rural Link. The common trend has been the desire to build a better future for rural Ireland.

During the boom, the Fianna Fáil Government ignored rural Ireland with the exception of Charlie McCreevy's decentralisation plan, which was designed at the time to assist the re-election of Fianna Fáil rather than to help rural Ireland. The party also failed to deliver in that regard. When the crash came, therefore, rural Ireland was particularly badly hit. It suffered huge drops in employment and reductions in services. We are now in the process of recovering from the devastation wrought by Fianna Fáil's mismanagement. The recovery, which was first seen in Dublin and surrounding areas, is now starting to spread right across the country. We will have full employment by the end of 2018, which is soon. Employment is not the only priority for rural Ireland however. We must now start to imagine how it could be different and put the means in place to achieve that ourselves.

There is no shortage of potential in rural Ireland.What we need at local level is for communities to take responsibility for shaping their own futures. At national level, we need the imagination and support to help them in this endeavour. This new Department provides the opportunity for such developments and it reflects the commitment of Government to rural Ireland. This is not just about rural Ireland in that community development, which forms part of the Department's title, is equally relevant in Artane, Athlone and Achill. It supports the work of the individuals and organisations that strive to paint a positive future and see community development as a means of addressing poverty, social exclusion and inequality and wish to see social change and to contribute to the creation of a more just, sustainable and equal society.

In these situations, the role of the Government is often to take a step back and allow communities to decide for themselves and to then support them in realising the priorities they have set themselves. Whether in Ballymore, Brawny or Ballymun, the people of Ireland have the right and the potential to build a better future for themselves. My hope and my belief is that this Department and its enthusiastic Minister will support them in that venture.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I did not intend to start on a negative note but I was disappointed, although not surprised, with the negative contribution of Sinn Féin with regard to rural Ireland. Having listened to Sinn Féin contributors over many years I thought they had a deep interest in rural affairs and they would welcome a specific Department with responsibilities in that regard, headed up by a Minister of the calibre of the Minister, Deputy Ring. I thought they would have welcomed this and that they would have sought to support the Minister in coming up with solutions rather than engage in constant, negative commentary. Perhaps, it is no surprise that Sinn Féin does not have great rural electoral support.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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That is not true.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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It is a fact. Sinn Féin does not have a clue when it comes to rural affairs.

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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We have plenty of support in Waterford.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ring, to the House and I congratulate him on his appointment. I wish him and his officials well in the new Department, the establishment of which signals that Government is treating rural affairs as a top priority. There is no better man that the Minister, Deputy Ring, to lead this Department. He is passionate about, committed to and believes in rural Ireland. As Senators, we should support him in his endeavours.

It is important the funding streams are adequately resourced to support the Minister in his action plan and endeavours. As mentioned by him, the Leader programme and the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, are already supporting many rural communities. They have unlocked funding to enhance and support enterprise, tourism, agri-innovation and various other projects in communities throughout the country. It is important that we continue to exploit the potential of rural Ireland. Networks such as the GAA, Muintir na Tíre, the ICA, the IFA and voluntary community groups are committed to improving rural areas in a positive way and they need to be continuously supported.

The Minister already has a track record in this area in terms of his previous ministries in the sports and tourism areas and his role in regard to the development of the greenways in Westport and Achill. There is also a greenway in Waterford, for which I thank the Minister, Deputy Ring, and previous Ministers. Despite that the greenway has been open for only a few months it is already generating rural enterprise, thousands of tourists who previously never set foot in Waterford are now visiting the area and the many small enterprises located along that 50 km stretch. This is one example of an intervention made by this Government in supporting local authorities to generate rural enterprise. I have no doubt that the Minister will continue that action.

In regard to the action plan which the Minister proposes to develop and spear head, I will support him in that regard. However, there is one particular area that I believe needs attention. I welcome that the Minister will sit at Cabinet with colleagues who have responsibilities in this area, including rural community security. The Minister will be aware that there are a number of community groups throughout the country that operate text alert systems. While these groups have previously received some funding from the Department of Justice and Equality and by way of community grants from local authorities, these funding streams are being reduced because they do not form part of the core business of the Department and so on. Today, I am asking the Minister to consult with the Department of Justice and Equality and other Departments on the introduction of a long term funding mechanism to sustain these community groups. They will do the work, which they are passionate about, but they need support. There are three such schemes in Dunhill, Portlaw, and Ballyduff-Kilmeaden, which are in my area, and they are enormously successful. They work well with the Garda and they have secured the support of their rural communities. We need to support them on an ongoing basis. I ask that the Minister consider my proposal in the context of his action plan so that we can bring confidence back to rural areas in terms of security. We can support rural communities to work with the Garda but action in this area needs to be spear-headed by the Minister.

I wish the Minister well. He has my support, including in terms of the upcoming budget and his efforts to secure adequate funding for his brief. We can make whatever asks we want, if the funding is not made available we cannot move forward.

Photo of James ReillyJames Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and I wish him well in this new and important Department. I was glad to hear other Senators, including Senator McFadden, make the point that community development relates not only to rural communities but all communities across Ireland.

One might wonder why a Senator from Dublin would want to speak about rural communities but there is huge agricultural endeavour and land mass in Fingal, which brings with it lots of opportunities in terms of housing provision and job creation. I would like to focus my contribution on the rural communities in Ballyboughal, Naul, Garristown, Oldtown, Balrothery, Loughshinny and Balscadden, all of which are thriving villages and communities but they need support and special attention. I know that the Minister, in terms of his extensive knowledge and experience of rural life and rural communities, small towns and villages, will give this area the attention that it deserves. Outside of those villages, there are people involved in local businesses who are trying to be innovative and to create employment. One such initiative is the delivery of fresh meat to rural areas by a local man, in respect of which he holds a licence. This is important to elderly people in particular who live in areas not served by the level of transport provided in towns and cities. It is also important in the context of our desire to maintain rural communities. There is nothing new in this. When I was a child living in North County Dublin, people in Lusk, the population of which at that time was about 500, had bread and milk etc. delivered to their homes. When people come up with innovative ideas around delivery services, be that of meat products or groceries generally, they need to be supported and encouraged.

In another area in between Lusk and Ballyboughal, there is a farmer who wants to develop an abattoir and a new business which specialises in Dexter beef. There is a lot of interest in this initiative but he needs support to get up and running. If he is successful more jobs will be created and more people will be able to remain in that community. The Minister more than anyone else will understand the value of families and communities being able to stay together. Nowadays it is a luxury for parents to have their adult children living within a commutable distance from them so that they can help and support them in rearing their children and they, in turn, can support them as they grow older. There are also huge opportunities in Fingal in terms of tourism with the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre in the Naul. Rural Fingal is a hidden gem, close to Dublin city.

I previously raised on the Order of Business the issue of the deprivation index and I made the point that in terms of the manner in which it is put, it together does not reflect reality nowadays. We need to support our communities as they develop, particularly towns such Rush, Lusk, Skerries and Balbriggan, which have exploded in terms of population. These areas need more support from Youthreach, Foróige and other groups. I know that the Minister, of necessity, will be operating not only in this Department but across a number of Departments. I wish him well. Senator Coffey spoke about greenways. There is an opportunity for a coastal greenway stretching from Sutton-Portmarnock to Malahide and on to Balbriggan, with the added advantage of train stations all along that route such that if a person was cycling the greenway and felt too tired to cycle home he or she could hop on a train. This could be a wonderful amenity not only for rural Fingal but for all the people in Dublin city and the 27 million people who pass through Dublin Airport. There is so much more I could say on this issue.I want to emphasise that the Minister's role will extend to, and have a very important impact upon, the towns and villages of Fingal. I wish both him and his Department well in their endeavours.

Photo of John O'MahonyJohn O'Mahony (Fine Gael)
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As nobody else has indicated to speak I will now call on the Minister to make his concluding remarks.

Photo of Michael RingMichael Ring (Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I will talk about some of the issues raised here, starting with Senator Paul Daly's comments on the amendments debated last night. The Taoiseach decided when forming the Government that the Department of the Gaeltacht would be included in Deputy Humphreys's Department, now the Department of culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht. Deputy Joe McHugh has been appointed as Minister of State in that Department and has his delegation order.

Deputy Ó Cuív made the argument last night that the Department of the Gaeltacht has its own budget and Department. I have no doubt but that it will in the future have, not one, but two Ministers at Cabinet. I am very pleased with that. As Senator Reilly has said, I will be working with all of the Ministers across the Departments. The Department of the Gaeltacht includes Údarás na Gaeltachta, and it has its own brief for bringing jobs and industry into Gaeltacht regions. I will work with the údarás, just as I will with Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

This is a very short Bill. All we are seeking to do with this Bill is to set up the Department. I have to go away and work with my officials on getting my order from Government and establishing what responsibilities I have. We have 90% of the job done. I have no problem coming either into this House or into committees to discuss the issues that will come under my responsibility.

Senator Daly mentioned the important issue of Brexit. We already have cross-Border co-operation between Strabane, Donegal County Council and our own Department officials, who meet on a regular basis. The Government is taking Brexit very seriously. Nobody knows what effect it will have on rural Ireland. My job is to work with Government to make sure that it does not have a major negative effect.

Reference was made to roles in local improvement schemes, LIS, an issue which has also been raised by my parliamentary party colleagues for weeks now. I have already sent my officials into discussions on this matter with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I will be looking to set up such a scheme and I hope that the Department of transport will come up with some funding for it. I will also be looking for funding from Government. The Taoiseach is committed to having such a scheme. I want a scheme that will work and that will target people in rural Ireland, particularly when there is a home in question, or even two or three homes or whatever the case may be. This issue was raised last night in the parliamentary party. Fine Gael has been putting a lot of pressure on me for a long time about local improvement schemes. I hope to do something about this in the near future. It is something I am currently looking at and working on.

Senator Ó Clochartaigh discussed regional development. My brief includes responsibility for the regions. We did not want to specifically include this in the title of the Department because it would give the impression that I had responsibility for the regions and nothing else. I have responsibility for rural Ireland, including the regions along with every other section of the country. I will be working with the Western Development Commission, with Leader programmes and with all the relevant State agencies so as to ensure balanced regional development.

Senator Hopkins raised the important issue of jobs. Jobs is the key to all of this and the key to keeping young people and businesses in rural Ireland. Jobs, jobs, jobs. Senator Coffey raised the very valid point that we have to stop the negativity. There are people in this Department looking back 20 or 30 years. Now, however, we have a more modern rural Ireland. We have very good industries, high-tech jobs and highly-qualified people in rural Ireland. Of course we need broadband, as the Senator has raised, along with every other Senator and Teachta Dála in these Houses. I am working with the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment as well as with the local authorities to make sure that on a day-to-day and minute-to-minute basis more and more homes will get high-speed broadband. We will not hear from the homes who get this broadband, of course, we will hear from those who do not. These are the homes that we have to deal with. It is all very fine for eir and the other commercial companies. They will target the high-population centres, of course, the big towns and villages. What they do not want to do, however, is go into rural Ireland. That is why we are putting a contract in place to make sure that every house, village and town in rural Ireland will have broadband. Since coming into this Ministry I have chaired two meetings on broadband. A lot of progress is being made. We have to be very careful with this and get it right. We do not want the situation around licences that we had before, which dragged through the courts for 15 years. This has to be done properly and legally. When the licence is finally awarded, we will make sure that the company in question is ready to roll it out. I have worked with and provided funding to the local authorities to ensure this.

I will be meeting some suppliers from the telecommunications industry to discuss the areas with very poor quality mobile coverage. We will meet to see if the rural communities themselves can come up with sites. Every Senator and Deputy knows that, while everybody wants a mobile phone service, nobody wants a mast beside their home. I am asking communities to assist us with this. The mobile companies are telling us that they will work with us on this if they can get the sites.

The action plan is a very important issue, perhaps the most important. My job is to go in and work with Government to get the necessary funding for rural Ireland. My second task is to make sure that every piece of legislation raised by every Department is rural-proofed. This goes back to my point about jobs. The IDA has done tremendous work on this and unemployment is down from approximately 15.5% to 6%. This can be very clearly seen in Galway and in certain towns around the country, but there are still many small towns that need a lift. We need initiatives to get the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to bring jobs into the regions.

Let us talk about my own town of Westport. We recently opened a new industrial unit, high-tech and complete with broadband. We thought that we might not get enough people to fill the centre but we actually ended up with twice that number. We have a huge amount of talent, a huge amount of young people, and jobs will be created over the next few years. We want to start building these kinds of facilities in every rural town that we can, places where we can bring young people in, provide them with a telephone line and broadband and give them a chance to get started. When these people start progressing and building up their own companies they will eventually move out of the units and we will be able to move somebody else in. It is working very well.

Let us consider the town and village renewal scheme, the rural recreation scheme and the Clár programme, which I recently reinstated. I will give the House some examples from my previous role in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. I remember one evening when the budget was announced - it was the Government in which Senator Reilly was a Minister - and we first heard about the Wild Atlantic Way. I heard a commentator on a certain radio programme making a joke that this was something that was thought up to give to Deputy Ring. It was in fact, because I had looked for something for rural Ireland. No Deputy, Senator or councillor can tell me now that there has ever been as simple an initiative that has done as much for tourism in rural Ireland.

Let us think of towns like Newport and Belmullet and of areas like Erris and Blacksod Bay. These places had seen very few visitors for years. The solution was very simple: a bit of funding; a bit of signage; and most importantly, overseas marketing. Sometimes people did not like it, but when I went abroad I mentioned the Wild Atlantic Way at every opportunity I got. The west of Ireland is now the second most popular destination for tourists coming to this country. I honestly believe this is because of the Wild Atlantic Way. Rural Ireland needs more initiatives like this one, simple ideas that will not cost big money.

It is not all about money, however. My Department is currently putting together a policy on social inclusion and social schemes. We have met a lot of groups who are working with communities and raising some funding themselves from their own industries. All they are looking for is some support from Government and that is what they are getting. The town and village renewal scheme, the rural recreation scheme and the Clár programme are all targeted schemes to help and support rural Ireland.These all are targeted schemes to help and support rural Ireland and I make no apology to anybody about funding for these schemes. I intend to go back to Government and try and get further funding. These are simple targeted schemes that are working well and we must get Government to come up with a few initiatives. That is my job and my role.

I thank the Senators, first of all, for their good wishes. I thank them for their contributions. We might disagree on issues but the one thing we do not disagree on is we need a strong, vibrant rural Ireland where we have people working, where we have families, where we can keep schools open and we can keep communities living.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill reported without amendment, received for final consideration and passed.

Sitting suspended at 1.42 p.m and resumed at 2 p.m.