Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Interpretative Centres.

Enda Kenny

Question:

1 Mr. Kenny asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands if she will make a statement on the provision of an interpretative centre for Mullaghmore, The Burren, County Clare; and the proposals, if any, she has in this regard in view of the recent decision of Clare County Council. [19871/98]

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

2 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands her intentions in relation to the application from her Department for a centre at Mullaghmore, County Clare, which has recently been rejected by Clare County Council. [19874/98]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

In October 1996, on behalf of the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, the Commissioners of Public Works applied to Clare County Council for planning permission for an entry point, consisting of limited visitor facilities at Mullaghmore, County Clare, comprising a covered waiting area, toilets, ranger accommodation, ancillary parking, storage area and signage.

In July 1997 Clare County Council informed my Department that the application for planning permission constituted a material contravention of the county development plan. In these circumstances a 75 per cent majority vote of councillors at a formal meeting of Clare County Council was required for planning permission to be granted. Deputies will be aware that at a meeting of Clare County Council on 15 September last such a majority was not achieved and, accordingly, planning permission was refused. On 13 October 1998 the Commissioners of Public Works, on my behalf, appealed that decision to An Bord Pleanála, which will make its decision in due course.

What has happened to the original plan for a major interpretative centre at this location, with which she did not disagree and which was endorsed by the current Taoiseach? When in Opposition he clearly said that if returned to power his party would proceed to build what was originally conceived. In the context of the appeal lodged by the Commissioners for Public Works, is it the Minister's intention to provide on the site at Mullaghmore the limited facilities involved in this plan?

The Deputy is perfectly right in saying that the original plan differed quite substantially from the present one which has now been appealed to An Bord Pleanála. He will be aware that there was an intervening Administration between the original plan and the present position. The Administration that was then in place, and in which the Deputy was a Minister, proposed a plan which was in the name of the then Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht. As the Deputy is aware, that plan was put to Clare County Council and was refused because they did not get the 75 per cent majority. Because of that refusal I have now put forward my appeal to An Bord Pleanála in the usual way. I await the planning process to proceed in its independent manner.

I understand from the Minister's reply that her appeal is on the basis of Clare County Council's refusal to grant a material contravention. When Clare County Council suggested a material contravention was necessary, did the Minister take legal advice? Is her appeal now within the context of planning or is it against Clare County Council's exercise of a right to seek a material contravention? Did the Minister take advice on the merit of abandoning the current application to Clare County Council and proceeding with the suggested plans for the three centres at Corofin, Kilfenora and Ballyvaughan? Must these three centres now wait until the planning appeal process is over or will funding, as promised, be made available for them? Did the Minister have meetings with any of the parties involved, before or after the appeal?

With regard to the material contravention, as I am sure the Deputy will appreciate, I never accepted that the plan contravened the 1998 county development plan. This has always been my view, particularly because a previous planning application for a larger development was not considered to be in contravention of the plan. Therefore, I logically believed that this plan could not be considered as a material convention. However, that was my own personal view I put forward to the county council. On numerous occasions I have expressed that view when the matter has arisen in parliamentary questions, and I still hold that view.

Given the basis on which Clare County Council turned down the application, it is incumbent upon me to appeal to An Bord Pleanála, which I have already done. I can assure the House that I have sought legal advice all along the way. Deputy Higgins knows, more than most, the legal difficulties that have arisen with regard to this case over a period of seven to eight years. There have been a number of court cases with regard to this matter. I do not have a legal training, as the Deputy is well aware. It would be presumptuous of me to believe that I understood the law in this respect, so I have sought legal advice on the matter whenever necessary.

Proposals have been put forward with regard to funding the proposed centres in Kilfenora and Corofin They are being considered and there is an ongoing discussion between my Department and both places in this regard. In his report on Mullaghmore, the proposed entry sites and what could be done for the Burren, the county council planning officer wished all three projects to move together. In light of that, we must move forward with regard to Kilfenora and Corofin, which are further back than the entry point proposal for Mullaghmore. Designs for planning permission have to be drawn up. I wish to bring all this on stream so that we can move forward, depending on how things go with regard to the planning appeal. I will not try to second guess An Bord Pleanála's decision. I have to deal with the situation as it is. I am complying with the planning officer's report to the county council which says that all three centres should move together.

Will the preparation of plans for Kilfenora and Corofin include a contingency provision in the event of the Minister's appeal not being successful? In other words, is the planning and preparation in Corofin and Kilfenora going ahead in such a way that it could be expanded or developed in the event of the Minister's appeal not being successful?

I do not wish to look at the negative side of this matter. We will be putting forward a very strong case for our appeal. It will obviously be up to An Bord Pleanála to decide in its usual independent way on that case. I hope the decision I would like to see will come from An Bord Pleanála. Based on that, I feel it is incumbent upon me, as Minister, to continue to work on the other centres at Corofin and Kilfenora because no work had been done on either of these sites. They had to start from the beginning. Those proposals were put forward by me, they have been considered and have been worked upon. We are trying to see what we can do to facilitate everyone within the north Clare area, not only in enhancing and preserving the national heritage but also in exploiting, in the most sensitive meaning of that term, north Clare for general tourism.

The Minister appears to be presiding over an unholy mess.

Not of my making.

Not all of the Minister's making.

The Minister has given her view on what she would like to see emerge from the decision of the planning appeals board. I am sure she is anxious to build up the confidence and trust of the people of north Clare. Despite the fact that she has had frequent contact with the communities of Kilfenora, Corofin and Ballyvaughan, why has she not been able to arrive at an agreement with them? Why is it taking so long to arrive at a positive decision regarding these communities which would not adversely impact on the Mullaghmore site? Does she not consider it would be a major confidence boosting measure to be able to say to those communities in north Clare that she is willing to reach an agreement with them as a basis from which to start and that the legal implications arising from the planning appeals board will take their course following the oral hearing?

My intention has been to try to build trust and confidence within the north Clare area. There has been a great deal of concern and anxiety on both sides. This situation has developed over the past seven to eight years and I have been in office for only a year and some months. In taking over that obligation as Minister, I have done and will continue to do everything to resolve the matter.

The Deputy is correct in saying I have had frequent contact with all groups on all sides regarding the issue. It is not a question of me not being able to reach agreement or that there is disagreement with regard to Corofin or Kilfenora. Proposals were put to both communities. It is not a question of me dictating what any community should have; I do not believe in that kind of approach. I have made offers and proposals and it is up to the communities to decide whether they wish to proceed with that or continue consultation with my Department.