Thursday, 14 October 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister for coming to the House to deal with this issue. He will be aware of the history of sail training in Ireland. For many years, including during my childhood, although I was never a trainee on it, I was often on board the Asgard II,which many people throughout Ireland will fondly recall as a sail training vessel that worked for many years with people from non-sailing backgrounds, that is, people who would never ordinarily have had an opportunity to get on a sailing boat and to experience what it is to be at sea under the power of the wind alone. It brought together people from all kinds of communities and gave them an opportunity to experience the marine in a way very few of us get to do.
As the Minister will be aware, in 2008, the Asgard IIwas sailing to France for maintenance and, unfortunately, seemed to hit something. Ultimately, it took on water and sank in September of that year. It still lies at the bottom of the Bay of Biscay. Although there was a campaign to raise and restore it, I think that, realistically, that moment has passed, even though we know where it is and it was not badly damaged in the sinking. The cost of bringing it back would be exorbitant. Moreover, we recognise that the Asgard II, although a fine vessel and one of which we all have fond memories, was a relatively small vessel in the context of the kinds of ships used for this kind of sail training and tall ship sailing.
While called the Asgard II, the vessel was named after the Asgard, which was used to smuggle guns to rebels in Ireland at the time of the fledgling status of this State and which is available to see at Collins Barracks. It is not actually connected to that ship, however, and I do not think there is a need for sail training vessels to have that historical connection. Their purpose is to provide a vehicle for people who want to get involved in or experience sailing. The importance of that is undisputable.
I pay tribute to the Atlantic Youth Trust, which has been at the forefront of pushing the idea that there would be, once again, a proper Irish sail training vessel that would allow many people from various backgrounds to get involved in sailing and to experience what it is to be in the marine industry. The Atlantic Youth Trust and Enda O'Coineen, to whom I have spoken about this and who lives in my constituency, is a committed philanthropist in this area, as well as being a former chairman of Coiste an Asgard, the governing body that managed the Asgard II, have identified a vessel that is afloat and available in Sweden and that could be purchased to become a new Irish sail training vessel. It is a model of a 1909 Danish schooner but it was only built in the early 1980s and is a solid steel ship of 164 ft. It is a significant vessel, much larger than the Asgard II, but a suitable vessel to replace it as the Irish sail training vessel.
The Minister already has been contacted about this but I raised this issue to encourage him to go down the path of allowing this vessel to be put in place and allowing us to put back on train a proper sail training programme for Ireland and the people on this island. I refer not just to the Republic; this is, I hope, an all-island venture. Ultimately, we are a marine community. We live on an island and are connected to the sea, yet many of our people do not get an opportunity to enjoy that connection to the sea. I hope the Minister will be able to tell us there is support for this project at Government level and we can progress it. I hope we can look forward once again to having a fine square-rigged, tall-ship sail training vessel available to people from throughout this island, from all backgrounds, and particularly young people who have never experienced sailing, that will allow them to get on the water, feel what it is like and, I hope, build a connection with the sea that lies all around this island.
As the Senator noted, the Asgard IIsank in 2008. The Government subsequently decided that the national sail training scheme operated by Coiste an Asgard would be discontinued, as recommended in the report of the special group on public service numbers and expenditure programmes. Significant capital and ongoing costs are associated with investing in a national sail training vessel and a detailed analysis would be required prior to any new Exchequer funding being committed.
The Department of Defence provides funding to Sail Training Ireland, a charity founded by individuals previously involved with Coiste an Asgard. A performance delivery agreement stipulates that €85,000 be used to provide a sail training experience for 50 trainees from disadvantaged backgrounds. Sail Training Ireland has an all-island focus, supporting trainees from both North and South, and charters vessels rather than owning and operating them. I am advised that no sail training took place in 2020 or 2021 due to Covid restrictions. It is anticipated that funding will be provided in 2022, subject to the resumption of a sail-training programme.
Separately, in 2015, as part of the Fresh Start agreement, the Government undertook to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to agree on a funding plan for the Atlantic Youth Trust project. A similar commitment was included in the 2016 programme for Government. The proposal was to build a new tall ship at an estimated cost of €15 million, with an ongoing funding requirement. Officials in my Department held meetings with the promoters and the Department for Communities in Belfast to explore the project. Progress was slow, in part due to political difficulties in the North. There is a commitment in the current programme for Government to work with the Northern Ireland Executive to build on plans to deliver a youth development sail training project to provide opportunities for interaction and engagement for young people both North and South. The Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media is also involved in fulfilling this commitment. On 24 September 2021, a new submission was received from the Atlantic Youth Trust. I believe this is the proposal the Senator is referring to. Officials from my Department and the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media met with representatives of the Atlantic Youth Trust yesterday, 13 October, to discuss the submission and request further information on a number of matters. The trust has committed to revert on a number of the queries raised. Clear guidelines have been issued by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform with regard to evaluating any such proposals.
The Government is currently engaged with two sail training organisations, and we remain supportive of the principles of the sail training programme. We would like to see this run on an all-island basis, where possible. I look forward to progressing in a positive way.
I thank the Minister. I am delighted to hear that there is that level of engagement. I really am grateful to the Minister for his commitment to this. It is obviously important that this goes through the right channels and is done in the right way to ensure a sustainable programme over a period of time but I really do hope that no political difficulties prevent this important scheme from going ahead. I say that as one who comes from the capital of sailing in Ireland, Dún Laoghaire - although the Minister, as someone from Cork, may not accept that contention - but this is something that will benefit the whole of Ireland and towns and cities around the coast from Dún Laoghaire to Waterford, Cork, Galway, Derry and Belfast. This is an asset for the people of Ireland. I welcome the fact that the Minister is engaging, the commitment from Government and the fact that there is obviously will for this to happen at Government level. I hope it will happen soon. This is an asset and it introduces people to a sport, a means of trade and a means of getting work and employment in our marine industry, which is absolutely invaluable. We cannot ignore the importance of sail training for bringing people into that and giving them an opportunity they otherwise might not have. I thank the Minister for coming in today.
I thank the Senator for raising this issue and showing an interest in it. He appreciates the value of sail training and the opportunities it opens up for many young people who may otherwise not have the opportunity to benefit from it. I have spoken to many people, some of whom I know well, who say that their time on the Asgardchanged the direction of their lives as a result of the people they met and the experiences they had. That is effectively what sail training is about. Looking at the models in other countries, I believe the best model is that of New Zealand, which is operated by the Spirit of New Zealand Trust. Through the schools in New Zealand, people are selected to be part of that sail training programme for set periods, which benefits them as individuals in terms of personal growth, confidence, teamwork and all of the other things that sail training can potentially uniquely provide for those who benefit from it. The Government acknowledges the significant benefits that sail training brings to the personal and social development of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities. The Government's support for sail training is evidenced by my Department's funding of Sail Training Ireland and our engagement with the Atlantic Youth Trust on its proposal for an additional sail training project in Ireland.
It is important to note that any funding of new sail training vessel, combined with an ongoing maintenance fund, would require a substantial financial commitment from the Government. Prior to any such commitment, it is essential that the proposal be assessed in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's guidelines and that it provides value for money. In other words, this needs robust assessment. A generous offer has been put to the Government and we are considering it. I hope we will be able to work with both the Atlantic Youth Trust and Sail Training Ireland to provide a project that is exciting and positive but that also provides value for money and is run in a fully transparent way. Most importantly, it must enable us to provide a platform for sail training in Ireland from which many young people can benefit.