That Dáil Éireann is of opinion that moneys should be provided out of public funds towards the acquisition of Fota Island so that its amenities can be preserved for the public.
This motion was introduced on the Order Paper several weeks ago, some time before Christmas, and it was before the date when tenders were to be submitted for the purchase of Fota Island, otherwise known as the Smith-Barry estate, and as it is for legal purposes. The final date for receiving tenders has long since passed, but fortunately it is not yet too late to save this very valuable amenity for the public. I understand that the trustees of the Smith-Barry estate, who were very well disposed to its being acquired for public purposes, are still open and willing to receive tenders or amended tenders.
Apart from its high amenity value, Fota Island is of great historical interest as well. The name Barry was associated with Fota for several centuries, probably even going back to Norman times when the first Barry was de Barry, and he fought many battles with the McCarthys, Princes of Munster. There is on the island an old Barry Castle from which it might be assumed that many of these battles were started. Therefore, the estate goes back to Norman times and the subsequent Earl of Barrymore was obviously descended from the original Norman Barry. The Earl of Barrymore was created an earl in 1627, and the first earl gave Fota to his youngest son. That was at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and it was the youngest son who, it is presumed, built Fota House and developed the estate, particularly the wonderful arboretum on the estate.
We can assume that the original house, which has been extended since and now, I believe, is one of the best known regency-type houses in the country, dates back to the early 1700s, and I think the same can be said of the garden in which the arboretum is to be found. My source for this is mainly the book published by the Georgian Society, edited by Desmond Guinness and William Ryan, entitled Ireland's Houses and Castles, and I want to quote an extract from the account of Fota in that book:
The other great pride of Fota is the garden where, on account of the mild climate engendered by the surrounding salt water, the most astonishing collection of semitropical trees and rare shrubs is able to flourish. The specimens have grown to such exceptional height that dendrologists the world over are familiar with the botanical achievements of Fota.
I do not think I need say any more about the need to preserve such a desirable amenity, such an historical piece of property as Fota, as well as it can be preserved, for the public. The whole estate, I understand, runs to about 780 acres, of which about 400 acres would be suitable and, I understand, are available for agricultural land. There is, in fact, a group of farmers in the area who are looking for that land, who need that land for better development of their own farming enterprises and who, I believe, could be accommodated by whoever would ultimately purchase the estate.
A rather sad coincidence is that the last owner, the Honourable Dorothy Bell died only last week, having been predeceased by her husband by some two years or so. Mrs. Bell and her husband were most generous and public-spirited in making the grounds of Fota available for many public purposes, including charity fetes, scouting activities and so on. There are, however, some beneficial owners, some of them who are minors, and therefore the trustees of the Smith-Barry estate are naturally anxious, in fact are bound by their trust, to procure the best possible price for the young beneficial owners, the minors, in this case. However, I know that the trustees and, indeed, the beneficial owners are more than anxious to continue the policy of Major Bell and his wife, the Honourable Mrs. Bell, in making the land available as much as possible for the public, and are desirous that the land should be acquired under public ownership and as a public amenity.
The sale was to take place some months ago, and there was a terminal date for the submission of tenders. The tenders were, in fact, submitted, but before that the Cork County Council and the Cork Corporation jointly made efforts to engage the State in the acquisition of Fota. They felt at the time they would not have the resources themselves, either separately or jointly, to purchase the estate. The Minister for Finance received a joint deputation at which it was urged upon him that this property should be purchased by the State and preserved as a public amenity. Unfortunately, the Minister did not see his way to contribute in any way to the purchase of the estate, and so the two local authorities, the Cork County Council and the Cork Corporation, made a joint bid for the property. That bid was considered with, I understand, at least two, if not more, private bids from other sources. I am not in a position to say what the bids were. I have been given an indication of what the local authorities bid was, but there were at least two other bids which may or may not have exceeded the bid made by the local authorities; in fact it is likely that they did exceed it.
However, as I said, the trustees of the beneficial owners are anxious that the property, if at all possible, should be acquired for public purposes. As far as I know, they are still in contact with the local authorities to see whether a suitable arrangement can be arrived at. I believe the difference between the offer made by the joint local authorities and the sum likely to be accepted by the trustees is not a big difference and I believe only a little more money would ensure that this most desirable property would be preserved for the public.
The title is freehold and the property has been designated by Cork County Council as a high amenity area. Quite recently the county council passed a resolution requesting the county manager to draw up an amenity order and a tree preservation order. It is most unlikely—indeed, it is reasonably certain—that no matter who buys the property it will never be developed for industrial or commercial purposes. That is poor consolation to the residents in the area and to people generally who would like to see this property preserved, not only as an amenity area but as an amenity area to which the public would have access.
The Minister might now reconsider his attitude. I am sure he has access to the details of the kind of money required to effect the purchase. As I have indicated, as far as I know it would not be a great sum, but it would be a tremendous investment by the State. Even though I have no mandate or brief from the local authority I go so far as to say that the property should be purchased on a three-way basis. Obviously the corporation and the county council have worked out their joint liability in respect of the bid they have made and I believe it would be possible for them to come to an agreement with the Minister and the Government in their making the extra contribution that would secure the purchase of this valuable property and ensure its subsequent availability to the public. If there were such a three-way contribution I suggest that, without any great burden on the State, there could be a three-way control, management and maintenance. The house is an excellent example of Regency architecture and the region itself is known world wide.
On the last occasion I raised this matter I mentioned that there was a precedent for the Government to intervene in an undertaking such as this. I raised this when the Estimates were being passed en bloc on the last day of the sitting of the Dáil before the Christmas recess. It was relevant to the Estimate of the Minister for Lands, who was in the House at the time, because he had put a stop order on the sale of the property pending investigation by the Land Commission as to whether it could be acquired for the relief of congestion. The Minister for Lands did not give me a very clear indication then as to what his attitude was. I did not get from him any disposition towards meeting the case put to him by the local authorities and by Deputies.
I said there were precedents and I readily acknowledge now that they are not directly in point. The most recent is the purchase by the State of St. Enda's Admittedly it had more immediate and direct historical associations with the evolution of the Irish State, as we now know it, but nevertheless there was a danger at one time that that property might pass into private hands. Deputy Haughey is in the House; he was Minister for Finance at the time and he received the approval of the Government to advancing the moneys necessary to purchase St. Enda's. It is now being developed by the Office of Public Works, solely by the Office of Public Works and solely by the Exchequer, without any contribution from either Dublin Corporation or Dublin County Council. That monetary obligation would not exist in this case. Another precedent was the contribution made to the purchase initially of the site of the old burnt-out Cork Opera House. It, too, was in danger of passing into private hands. There was need to preserve it as an amenity and the State made a grant to meet the loan available, which matched to some extent voluntary contributions made. When I say "voluntary contributions", there were ordinary and debenture shares taken up by people anxious to see the Opera House preserved. I cannot remember exactly whether it was a grant or a loan Cork Corporation made available.
There are other precedents. I do not want to introduce any acrimony into this debate and I say, somewhat diffidently, that if this property were available in its present form in the vicinity of Dublin the State would not neglect the opportunity of acquiring it for the public purposes.