Harbours (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Mr. Collins: At the outset, I want to put on record the fact that members of Foynes Yacht Club made representations to the former Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources. Together with Deputy Finucane, I accompanied a deputation to the former Minister, Deputy Woods, and I understand that Deputy Woods gave a written undertaking that financial assistance would be provided to the yacht club for improvement works which were carried out. I hope the current Minister will honour that commitment.
On 14 June, the Minister said that there would be a serious obligation on the advisory boards to assist in every way in the achievement of the main and subsidiary objectives for which the company is established, including the tendering of any advice sought by the board on matters relating to measures for the management, control, operation and development of the estuary port facilities, the provision of facilities, services, accommodation and lands in its jurisdiction for ships and goods, the promotion of investment in its facilities and the engagement in business activity considered advantageous to the development of the estuary.
The number of members of the implementation board shall not exceed five. Section 1(3) details matters to be provided in respect of the name and capital formation of the new company in its jurisdiction, the transfer of property and liabilities to the transfer company, the continuity of legal proceedings, the transfer of members of staff, the dissolution of any transfer company and the functions of the advisory boards in the supplementary matters necessary to ensure that the transfer of functions is effectively carried out.
Section 1(4) provides for staff transferring from one company to the other and for the continuation of the protections afforded by the Harbours Act, 1996, on scales of pay and conditions of service. It provides, however, that the office holders of chief executive and harbour master of a transferor company are not required to be appointed as chief executive and harbour master of the new or transferee companies. That caused great anxiety in that part of the country. Senan Histon, the Harbour Master at Foynes, has done a magnificent job through the years and is highly respected and regarded. Unfortunately he will lose that position. I ask the Minister, at this late stage, if he will consider allowing Senan Histon to look after this as well as his own section of the port and the harbour master in Limerick could look after his section. I hope the Minister will change his mind on that issue.
The Government is right to ensure the new company is put on a firm financial footing. For many years these companies have experienced a lack of investment support by the State, yet they have survived to operate within a very competitive business environment. The new amalgamated company must be able to operate from a position of strength.
A capital injection is needed at Foynes Harbour so that the company can install new handling equipment. This is very important and I hope the Minister will announce that shortly. It was brought to our attention a few days ago that the financial position in Foynes is not great. I call on the Minister to make that announcement before something serious happens. Foynes Harbour has already invested heavily in the new west jetty extension and between this and dredging development, £12.5 million has been spent. It now has the capacity to load and discharge more and larger ships but without the necessary handling equipment their normal day to day business is being hampered. This will be an issue for the implementation board to look into as matter of urgency. It will need to establish the exact level of equity that will be required to ensure the new amalgamated company can operate effectively.
The Harbours (Amendment) Bill, which has been published, states that the equity injection may be of the order of between £5 million to £8 million depending on the planned capital works by both ports, the restructuring of loans, the treatment of the Shannon estuary ports pension fund deficit, private sector involvement, port reorganisation and the disposal of surplus assets. The Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, has made it clear that the Government will support financially the construction of new cranage and handling facilities at Foynes. We all want to see this new amalgamated port succeed. If this port is to be a success it cannot be crippled with financial difficulties. This new company must be centrally supported by Government to ensure the Foynes port and the Shannon estuary port become more competitive in the near future.
We know of the resulting spin-offs which can arise as an immediate consequence of a profitable and active port structure in the Shannon estuary. We know that there are clear spin-offs for the west Limerick region and that is why the Government must financially support this new company and ensure it is put on a sound financial basis on its first day of commencement.
The Government has also made it clear that certainty was required as to the new headquarters of the single port company. For reasons of certainty, it has decided that the amalgamated port company will have its headquarters at Foynes. I fully support this decision. It is the policy of the Government to decentralise many semi-State, Civil Service or ancillary bodies away from major towns and cities. For this reason, it is right and proper that Foynes is the new headquarters of the single port company. I commend the Minister on that. Deputy Finucane stated that he may table an amendment which he would like to see enshrined in the 1998 Bill. Be that as it may, I recognise that the Minister has given a commit ment that he, or whatever Minister will follow him, will honour. Perhaps the Minister might restate that today. He has stated that out of the combined business of the two companies the facilities where the most business influence can be exerted by the new port company are at Foynes.
Dealing with the legal technical details of an amalgamation was never going to be enough to put the new single port company in the Shannon estuary on a competitive footing. It is an imperative that key access roads into both ports are upgraded. In this regard one of the most important key access routes is the construction of the port access road at Foynes. I pay special tribute to the Minister and to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government who visited Foynes and saw at first hand what was required. I thank them for their enthusiasm. When the Minister announces the additional moneys we should receive for Foynes and the access road we will thank him again.
The importance of the completion of the port access road at Foynes cannot be understated. While I welcome the £1 million allocation which has been spent on the realignment of the N69 route it cannot take away from the importance of the need to construct the port access road at Foynes. The Government's national development plan which identifies key social and economic investment priorities for the period 2000-06 includes financial commitments to upgrade the N69. The upgrading of that route, together with the construction of the Foynes harbour access road and the proposed fourth Shannon river crossing, would play a tangible role in improving the quality of the competitive position of the new single port authority in the Shannon estuary.
I am satisfied the Government also fully recognises the need to protect existing employment with the two port companies which are to be amalgamated. At a very early stage of this review process the Government confirmed in writing to both port companies that all the employment protections as to salary scale and conditions of service which are guaranteed under the Harbours Act, 1996, will remain.
As the new Shannon and Foynes port company comes into being one of the key matters of concern to the employees will be the future of their jobs. Their concerns will be put to rest at the earliest possible stage. This will be a matter for the implementation board. However, no forced redundancies will be part of the amalgamation process and this should be welcomed by the employees who may be directly affected by the formation of the new port company.
The Shannon estuary has long been identified as a deep water asset which is equipped with major unexploited maritime and related potential. The level of progress along the estuary has fallen far short of expectations. This Bill will help redress this imbalance. It will ensure the new Shannon and Foynes port company will become more competitive. There is no doubt but that as a result of the implementation of the Bill the marketing focus of these two ports and of the Shannon estuary in general will be greatly strengthened. As the Minister said recently, the new structure, with a single voice, reduced costs and strengthened management and marketing capabilities will enable the potential of the estuary to be maximised to the benefit of all.

Any Bill dealing with the Shannon is a political barometer and the Dáil has fallen on five or six occasions on which the Shannon estuary Bill has been introduced. When Dr. Woods was Minister for the Marine and we spoke about this Bill I told him to be careful as every time the Bill was introduced we have a general election. Such an event is not an impossibility given the events of recent days, but I would regret it if the Dáil fell without passing this Bill. There should be a single estuarial authority. There should be a particular company in charge of running this valuable asset.

The Shannon estuary has been neglected as a potential area of growth. Parochial interests on both the Clare and Limerick sides of the river have meant major decisions have been postponed because of political infighting. It is not confined to one party but is a general intercounty rivalry and people in the midwest have suffered as a result. A huge industry was to be located at Ballylongford when Shannon Development and the IDA bought a park there where an international company was to locate a car assembly plant. When the estuarial authority company could not get off the ground and things could not move on, the industry was located elsewhere and a potentially huge employment opportunity was lost. The quicker the Minister moves this Bill on the better.

Even if people have reservations they should look at the advantages of the Shannon. There is deep water on both sides of the river and there is an excellent if under utilised pier at Moneypoint which could help employment in west Clare, west Limerick and north Kerry a great deal. Since Moneypoint was built by the ESB it has been very good to west Clare, north Kerry and west Limerick. Wherever this estuarial authority is located, as long as it is able to raise finance and put up an infrastructure we will be well on the road. The Minister should keep the board as tight as possible, as a wide-ranging board or management interference will mean we not get anywhere. The old Dal Cais fights will start again – the Clare, Limerick and Kerry people will be fighting for who will get what. That has presented enormous difficulties over the years.

Many aspects of the Shannon, such as tourism, have not been exploited. There is huge commerce on the Rhine, for instance, in Europe. Barges ply that river every day from one side of Europe to the other, but tourists take cruises side by side with them. The tourists are brought ashore to places of interest such as great castles or the birthplace of Konrad Adenauer and there is a huge tourism industry. There is a myriad of little islands on the Shannon, many of which are of great historical interest. This resource could be exploited. I am glad there is now some sense of development of the River Fergus. Shannon Development, FÁS and the Clare County Enterprise Board are helping people to develop access to these islands and people will visit them once more. However, that is only one part of the Shannon estuary's potential for tourism and I compliment the Minster for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands for designating the area used by the group of dolphins on the Shannon as a special area of conservation. The people of north Kerry and Clare will gain substantially from the tourism generated by this.

Other historical sites along the Shannon should also be exploited, but potential investment in this area is being halted because we do not have a company that can raise the funds to improve infrastructure. Deputy Collins referred to the infrastructure of Foynes and that should be developed. It is the same for Kilrush, Kildysart and other parts of west Clare. Their infrastructural needs must be addressed and some kind of partnership should be established between Clare County Council and the estuarial company to produce the fine roads necessary to service a harbour like this.

I see nothing but good coming out of a unified Shannon estuarial authority. I am one of the few people from my county who would not fight for a greater proportion of Clare people on the board. I live in a port, Clarecastle, which had special legislation passed to give it harbour trustees. That legislation is still operative and I regret the Minister has not included Clarecastle harbour in this Bill. The parameters of the Bill should include the entire Fergus estuary, subsuming Clarecastle, as it has trustees. Small boats of 1,000 and 1,500 tonnes used to come to the piers in Clarecastle. They used the Shannon estuary well up to the 1960s, though use has now fallen away. The only people who now use the river permanently are local drift net fishermen looking for salmon during the short season from May to July. I appeal to the Minister to look at Clarecastle again to see if it can be included in the Bill by way of an amendment.

The authority might also include Clarecastle and there might then be an opportunity for the future development of the area. A great deal of coal came into County Clare via the Clarecastle port. We also exported considerable amounts of timber through the port. As stocks of salmon are declining, local fishermen seek alternative forms of employment. Because the port is tidal it cannot accommodate continual traffic but there is interest in the provision of excursions down river and pleasure boat trips during the summer months to the islands in the estuary and the River Shannon.

The Bill provides many opportunities. I wish it well and I ask the Minister to consider the posi tion of the Clarecastle port and the Fergus estuary and to include them under the new authority.

I commend the Minister and his officials for the work they have done on this important and ground-breaking legislation which will have enormous implications for the mid-west region. As a former member of the old Limerick Harbour Board, I have a close and practical interest in this matter. I pay tribute to the former members of that harbour board, some of whom have gone to their God, who played a major part in the development of the ports of Limerick. I mention Ted Russell who was a Member of this House and of the Seanad many years ago and who is alive, fit and well in his late eighties. He took a great interest in the port of Limerick and its surroundings and it is only fitting that the old Limerick docks are now called the Ted Russell Docks. He played a major part in the political and business life of Limerick city.

The Bill presents a strategic opportunity for the Shannon estuary, the mid-west and the whole western seaboard. What we are doing will benefit much of the mid-west and its hinterland for generations and centuries to come. Not only will the people of Clare, Limerick and north Kerry, along the estuary, benefit, but the people of Tipperary, north Cork, south Galway and Offaly will also benefit from the Bill.

The strategic and development possibilities which will be created by a unified harbour authority for the estuary will provide a counterbalance to the overdevelopment of the east coast where Dublin and its surroundings are sucking in people and industry in a way which does not give the rest of the country a fighting chance. In this connection, I am particularly glad IDA Ireland recently announced that it will, in future, be more proactive in targeting inward jobs to the regions. The pace of development in Dublin is causing huge infrastructural overload, economic inefficiencies and a decline in the quality of life of citizens. A large percentage of the population of Dublin is from rural areas, including Munster and the mid-west, and many of these people would welcome the chance to live and work at home in well paid employment with a superior quality of life.

This Bill lays the foundations for what could be the development of one of the greatest deep sea ports in western Europe and the EU. With improved sea crossing and transport links with Britain and the Continent and the possibility of an Irish Sea tunnel under active consideration, we have the opportunity to create a major port, not only for Ireland, North and South, and for our domestic import and export businesses and economic needs, but also to provide deep sea trans-shipment facilities for Britain and western Europe.

The 1999 throughput for the Shannon estuary ports, which covers everything except Foynes, was 8.72 million tonnes. Throughput for Foynes was 1.3 tonnes. There is a great capacity for development. The entire estuary consists of deep sheltered water and is currently capable of handling ships up to 200,000 tonnes. The Bill will give the management of the estuary authority the opportunity to market the new port with much greater effect. That is to be welcomed. The existing wasteful duplication of resources will be eliminated by amalgamation and for the first time there is local agreement to amalgamation. This is a positive omen for the future. As a member of Limerick County Council for 21 years, I recall many divisive debates about the conflicting needs of Foynes and Limerick and I welcome this amalgamation.

Staff of the existing harbour authorities need have no fear for the security of their employment and career prospects. Apart from the Minister's assurances in relation to continuity and security of employment, the enhanced business opportunities will provide those who have made a professional contribution to the development of marine traffic to do so in a much more effective manner. Those who wish to serve in the new enterprise will find their career opportunities enhanced rather than diminished.

The existing harbour authorities have large numbers of professional staff who are well qualified and experienced. Estuary contingency and emergency planning is the best in the country and well up to worldwide best practice. Nothing but the best will suffice for the estuary.

The latest marine port management technology is already in place. A new radar system is being installed and satellite information monitoring systems are already in use. Oil tracking systems have been well developed for some time, which is most important for the protection of water quality and the environment of our most important waterway.

A single harbour authority will be much better placed to approach the Government and the European Union for legislative or financial assistance because it will be speaking with a single voice on the development issues of concern to the region. This can only result in a win-win situation for the people of the mid-west. Local interests will be encouraged to move into new enterprises which will function for the greater good of all. The new company under unified management will be in a position to conduct a cohesive and comprehensive marketing campaign which will take some of the pressure off other Irish ports and offer real competition to ports in Britain and mainland Europe. The enabling provisions in the Bill regarding current and capital expenditure will permit the extensive use of a dredging bar which will open the estuary to the largest vessels afloat.

I welcome the Bill. I commend the Minister on the amount of time and energy he has devoted to its preparation. I ask the Minister to ensure that money is provided for a new crane in Limerick and I hope this will happen in the near future. I also hope planning for the new bridge across the Shannon will be done in consultation with local authorities and the port. I welcome the Bill and thank the Minister for the great effort he has made in such a short period in this Ministry and on bringing this Bill forward.

I welcome the Bill because there is much work to be done not only in the harbours mentioned in the Bill but in other harbours. Coming from Wexford, I must comment widely on the piers and harbours in my county. I agree with my colleague on the amalgamation of the Shannon Estuary Ports Company and the Foynes Port Company. I have always believed that these areas have not been developed. I served for a short time in that Ministry and found there was a continual tug-of-war going on between the two authorities. It is wise for the Minister to amalgamate both authorities. From a commercial and operational point of view, there will be far more benefits from the amalgamation than leaving the authorities as they stand at the moment.

I agree with most of what my colleague, Deputy Donal Carey, said in respect of Foynes and the Shannon estuary. I have examined the explanatory memorandum of the Harbours (Amendment) Bill, 2000, which states:

The purposes of this Bill are to:

–provide that if the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources ("the Minister") is of the opinion that the functions of a company or companies could be performed in a more cost effective and efficient manner by another company or companies, he or she can establish a new company resulting in the amalgamation of existing companies;

–enable the Minister to amalgamate the functions of Foynes Port Company and the Shannon Estuary Ports Company; [That is the main purpose of the Bill]

–allow the Minister for Finance, after consultation with the Minister, to make available to a company moneys to finance capital works and to inject equity for other purposes; [This is very important]

–raise the upper limit of the aggregate amount of moneys that may be made available to companies;

That is extremely important as well because we have seen limits placed on the raising of funds on the one hand and the amount one can spend on the other. This has acted as an inhibiting factor in the development of these companies. We are living in a completely different era and the moneys required for any of these works are enormous, and the Bill provides for that.

In regard to the recent suggestion put forward by Waterford Port Company of an amalgamation of the three south-eastern ports of New Ross, Rosslare and Waterford, the board of New Ross Port Company formed a special sub-committee to examine this suggestion and it concluded that such an amalgamation does not offer the best option for the future development of either port. The board is strongly of the view that the current corporate structure is the best vehicle to maximise the potential of the New Ross port and also of the Waterford port.

New Ross is profitable and is in a sound financial condition. Annual throughput is consistent at over one million tonnes. Investment in the order of £7 million in the River Barrow improvement scheme during 1999 and 2000 will ensure that the port will continue to be easily accessible to short sea trading vessels for the foreseeable future. In order to fully realise the benefits of this scheme, further investment is required in facilities and onshore infrastructure. It is my view that this investment would not be a priority in an amalgamated port structure – I do not have the slightest doubt about that.

Unfortunately, the port of New Ross is a small port. If it is amalgamated with a larger port the size of Waterford, we would be on the hind tit much of the time. I saw, particularly during my time as Minister, and other Deputies will have seen a huge amount of money going to large ports and fishery ports, while the smaller ports were neglected. The same would happen in this situation in that five or six larger ports would get all the investment.

Waterford and New Ross ports are already co-operating closely in efforts to improve efficiency in both ports. A change in the corporate structure is unlikely to significantly assist this process. I am pleased to report that 1999 was a highly successful year for New Ross port. Very satisfactory results were achieved in throughput, revenue and profitability. Some 475 vessels entered New Ross port in 1999 and total throughput amounted to 1.11 million tonnes. This compares with 471 vessels and 1.02 million tonnes in 1998. The volume of fertiliser handled in the port increased to almost 341,000 tonnes. Significant increases were also experienced in the export of mineral ores and animal by-products. On the other hand, the volume of petroleum products handled in New Ross decreased slightly. The outlook for the coming year is positive and it is expected that throughput will be maintained at its current levels.

I will give a run-down of the financial results for the year. Total revenue in 1999 was £1.047 million, an increase of 3% on the previous year. Operating profits were £256,649 and profit on the sale of property was approximately £111,409. After taxation of £34,635, the total profit returned for the year amounted to £344,999. That is a fair performance by a small port.

In regard to the River Barrow improvement scheme, construction work on this project began in June 1999 and is now substantially completed. The project includes a major programme of capital dredging, realignment of the channel of the Pink Rock and the construction of a training wall and right groynes. The objective of the works is to significantly improve access to the port for all vessels and especially to open New Ross to vessels of up to 6,000 tonnes. That we could not pro vide accommodation for the larger vessels has been an inhibiting factor down through the years and it has damaged the prospects for the port. With this new investment, we hope we will be able to accommodate vessels over 6,000 tonnes.

At a cost of £7 million this project is essential for the long-term prosperity of New Ross as it will enable the company to continue to meet the needs of port users well into the future. The River Barrow improvement scheme is being partially funded by the European Union Structural Funds. The provision of matching funding at 52% of project cost represents a major long-term financial commitment for the company. The board is confident that the port has the capacity to finance this investment but it will impact on the company's ability to undertake further investment in the short-term.

I refer to the profit and loss account for the New Ross Port Company for the year ended 31 December 1999 in order to demonstrate how well the port is operating. Turnover was about £1.047 million in 1999 and £1.014 million in 1998. Gross profit was £696,442 in 1999 while in 1998, it was £628,860. That is not a huge increase but at the same time the trend is upwards as far as the profit is concerned. The operating profit for 1999 was £256,649 while in 1998, it was £68,498. That indicates a good cash flow situation as far as New Ross port is concerned. The retained profit carried forward was approximately £511,432 in 1999 as against £166,433 in 1998. This clearly demonstrates the situation in respect of New Ross Port.

The balance sheet of 31 December 1999 also makes interesting reading. The tangible assets in 1999 were approximately £6.9 million as opposed to £3 million in 1998 – almost double. Anyone with an understanding of finance knows this is a good situation. The shareholders fund was £4.2 million in 1999 as opposed to £3.8 million in 1998. This is another satisfactory position as all indicators are heading in a positive direction which is important to any business.

In a letter dated 11 April 2000 regarding New Ross Port, Kenneally Ryan and Company, chartered accountants, stated:

In our opinion the financial statements give a true and fair view of the state of the company's affairs as at the 31st December 1999 and of its profits and cash flows for the year then ended and have been properly prepared in accordance with the Companies Acts, 1963 to 1990.

We have obtained all the information and explanations we consider necessary for the purposes of our audit. In our opinion, proper books of account have been kept by the company. The financial statements are in agreement with the books of account.

In our opinion, the information given in the directors' report on page 1 is consistent with the financial statements.

The net assets of the company, as stated in the Balance Sheet on page 5, are more than half of the amount of its called up share capital and, in our opinion, on that basis there did not exist on 31st December 1999 a financial situation which under Section 40(1) of the Companies (Amendment) Act, 1983, may require the convening of an extraordinary meeting of the company.

I have checked with the chairman as regards this issue and that has already been held.

The Minister will understand the concerns in Wexford about any interference with New Ross Port. There are problems in Waterford Port but they will not be resolved by amalgamating it with New Ross or Rosslare ports. New Ross UDC has been very supportive of the port as has Wexford County Council, and we wish it to remain as it is.

Rosslare Europort is one of the finest ports in Ireland and is very profitable. However, rightly or wrongly it is still under the jurisdiction of CIE. Wexford County Council has fought unsuccessfully for a port authority for Rosslare. However, we will continue to push for this development.

I will cite the throughput figures for Rosslare Europort per annum – foot passengers, 1.4 million; passenger cars, 330,000; ro-ro freight, 75,000 tonnes; trade cars, 48,000; coaches, 6,500; and up to 70 sailings per week at peak passenger periods. This port is a very important economic unit in County Wexford and was designated as a tax incentive area. The county council obtained 130 acres but not one development was acquired for that land. This was a great disappointment to the council.

The case made for Limerick is similar to that we are making for Rosslare, but we have not been successful. I do not know why, but I would like to know why a port such as Rosslare, which services almost every port in Europe, cannot obtain development in this time of the Celtic tiger economy. I would be interested in any views the Minister may have on this issue.

I am putting down a marker regarding any interference with New Ross or Rosslare ports as regards amalgamation, particularly with ports which are experiencing problems. New Ross and Rosslare ports have received much support from the county council and urban authorities in Wexford. In 1982 I managed to secure the first investment of £300,000 for Rosslare Port in the Estimates. Up to £20 million may have been invested since. I welcome investment in ports across the country and not just in the Shannon Estuary. However, we must be careful not to interfere with ports which are operating profitably.

I welcome the Bill. If I am not mistaken this is the fourth Bill to come before the House with essentially the same purpose. The last three Bills fell as a result of the dissolution of the respective Dáil for a variety of reasons not confined to the Shannon Estuary. Unlike its three predecessors, I hope this Bill will be enacted and we break the unhappy cycle of Shannon Estuary Bills which met a sad fate.

I was instrumental in instigating at least two of the reviews carried out for the purpose of bring ing about the proposed amalgamation. The first review was carried out in the early 1970s by Brendan O'Regan who made great efforts. An agreement was reached which, unfortunately, was broken by the then Government which amended the Bill at the last minute in a way unacceptable to one of the parties. That Bill made no further progress.

In the 1980s I asked the Limerick county manager, Richard Haslam, a man of considerable standing and well respected in the region, to conduct negotiations to try to bring about a rationalisation of the foolish situation which existed on the estuary. He tried very hard but did not succeed in obtaining agreement. A Bill was introduced which lapsed after being on the Order Paper for some time. I do not remember which Minister introduced the third Bill but it met a similar fate. Let us hope The Minister, Deputy Fahey, sees this Bill through.

The need for this Bill is so self-evident that one laments it was not introduced 25 or 30 years ago, but that is a monument to local and personal interests taking precedence over the national interest. The Minister quoted from the consultants' report where it said that the establishment of a new and single port company is the only arrangement that makes commercial and operational sense. I fully concur with that, as does anybody who knows anything about the situation there. That was equally true 25 or 30 years ago. It is a great pity it did not come about then because we would have had a very different Shannon estuary.

I would like to say a few words about the Shannon estuary. One can never be dogmatic about these things, but it is arguably the best natural harbour in Europe, and certainly the best of the more accessible ones. The fact that it is so grossly underdeveloped when it has such marvellous natural amenities is deeply regrettable. It has 80 ft of water within less than 50 metres of the shoreline at Ballylongford, and it has four miles of river at that depth at that point for manoeuvrability. There is nowhere in Europe that has anything like that. In particular, the Ballylongford site in County Kerry, which I got the IDA to buy many years ago and which I then, happily, prevented it selling when it was under pressure to sell in the late 1980s when the Government was on a necessary cost-cutting and asset-realising mission, is still in public ownership. That has the greatest potential of any site in Ireland and possibly in western Europe. I am very pleased that is still the case.

I also had something to do with the jetty at Moneypoint, because I was Minister for energy in the late 1970s when construction of the jetty started. I agreed to its extension outward by 30 metres in order to enable it to take ships of 450,000 tonnes. There is no other natural port in western Europe that can take ships of that size. There are some created ports that can, but no natural ones. Every effort should be made to develop those facilities. The site at Ballylongford is particularly suitable for serious heavy industry as opposed to the kind of heavy industry that passes as such here. I would love to see it developed for that purpose.

I would like to say a word also about Limerick docks, which is one of the oldest established ports in the country. In volume terms, compared with the rest of the estuary, Limerick docks does not do a big trade because the maximum size vessel it can take is about 9,000 or 10,000 tonnes and it cannot take those fully laden. However, it is an important port because it is the most inland port in Ireland and enables imports and exports to be brought 60 miles in from the ocean, thus avoiding much traffic on roads. We are shortly to have a further river crossing downstream from Limerick docks, somewhere in the Mungret area. The precise location is not fixed but it will be quite close to Mungret and the cement factory there. If a conventional bridge of the kind that was built about ten years ago in Limerick city were built across the Shannon at that crossing, it would spell the end of the Limerick docks, and that would be most regrettable.

A bridge of the type known as the Shannon Bridge in Limerick should, therefore, be ruled out, even though it would be the least expensive way of crossing the Shannon. There are two alternatives. One is a high-rise bridge, which would be much more expensive, unfortunately, but which would enable shipping to pass under. The other is an opening bridge, which also would be much more expensive and would cause much traffic congestion. It is because of traffic congestion that the opening on the East Link Bridge in Dublin is so little used now. There is a further alternative, which I would favour, and that is to build a tunnel at that crossing. There is no reason it could not be built. The tunnel that was recently opened in Cork has not hindered shipping in any way. The same situation would pertain in Limerick, although it might be somewhat more expensive. However, in all the circumstances, it has a great deal to recommend it. If Limerick were cut off from the sea it would be regrettable and would not be in the overall interests of the region or the country.

A number of amendments to this Bill have already been circulated – I am sure they were all put down with the best of intentions. I would, however, urge the Minister not to accept amendments of a localised kind. It would be better to enact this Bill as it stands rather than introduce many local issues at a later stage.

I know a fair bit about the two harbour authorities which it is now proposed to amalgamate. It is, perhaps, better that I keep some aspects of my knowledge to myself because if we are to have a new start it is better to leave the past alone. It is difficult not to remark, as the Minister has, on the extraordinarily heavy qualification of the auditor's report of the 1999 accounts of one of these companies. It is quite clear that the company concerned is insolvent. A note sent to the Whip's office in the past few days seeking to have this Bill enacted drew attention to that fact and to the fact that it would not be possible to let the situation continue over the summer recess. I was certainly glad to add my voice to the urgings that the Bill be taken before the summer recess. That is why it is important that it be passed now without amendment. Some of the management decisions and other broader and more strategic decisions were not just wrong, they were made for the wrong reasons. I hope we can leave all that behind us.

When it comes to appointing a new and unified board, the Minister would be advised to omit people with a very narrow and often parochial vision of why they are there and to appoint people who are anxious to see the new unified port working successfully and commercially and who know something about shipping and the commercial management of ports. Very localised representation has not been a success in the past and will not be in the future. I believe in appointing people to boards who take a broader view, rather than the narrow sectional view as is frequently the case on traditional harbour boards and authorities.

The Bill is the correct one for the reasons I have given and I certainly hope it becomes part of the Statute Book within the next few days. To market the estuary as a single unit will be far more feasible then what had to be undertaken in the past. It is a place which not only has enormous potential for serious heavy industry but also for a great variety of other activities which have nothing to do with heavy industry but with which heavy industry is not necessarily incompatible, particularly in the 21st century. The ability to utilise the entire estuary should not be lost.

On television this afternoon, as we sat champing at the bit in this warm atmosphere, we had an opportunity to see Ballybunion and the area at the very end of the estuary at its most glorious. I think the golfers were getting the best of it because of the benign climate in Ballybunion today – it may not be like that tomorrow or the following day, as is frequently the case. However, one of the assets of the estuary is that at the mouth of it we have one of the best golf courses in the world. There is also a major airport in the area, two major power generating stations and one of the largest alumina plants in the world, which is proposing a further extension and which is endeavouring to generate its own power, a venture in which I hope it will be successful. Twenty years ago I sought to encourage the plant to take over the Tarbert generating station, but unfortunately the ESB would not hear of it. Of course, it would still not hear of it only for the EU, to whom we owe so many of our benefits, not as is popularly assumed in terms only of financial handouts, but also because it forced on us a rethinking of our social and commercial practices very much to the benefit of the country. Against the will of the ESB the EU forced on us a major element of competition in the generation of power. I hope, therefore, we will see a third power station on the estuary at Aughinish, where the location is ideal.

There have been various proposals, especially for the Ballylongford site, over the years which did not come to fruition. In some ways I am glad because the Ballylongford site, the most valuable in Ireland and one of the most valuable in western Europe, is still available. I hope that development, when it takes place, will be major and be of huge significance to the country, particularly to the west.

I am glad to support the Bill and rejoice that it is within an ace of being enacted. I urge the Minister to seek to have it enacted as it stands.

I thank Deputies for their very positive contributions which were well summarised by Deputy O'Malley. There is no doubt that this has been a long 25 year saga. The common denominator is that a number of changes in the Dáil and changes of Government have resulted in the matter remaining unaddressed. When I was made aware of the fact that a consultancy study on the Shannon Estuary was nearing completion I set as a priority the bringing about of a unified port company. I agree with Deputy O'Malley that had this been done in that 25 year period, Foynes would unquestionably be one of the finest ports in Europe. It is great that the old habits and prejudices of a lifetime in politics have at least been put aside and that we are at one on this development. It is sad that it has taken a long time, but it is great to see it through and I do not think the Government will fall before the Bill is enacted.

A number issues were raised by a number of Deputies. Deputies Deenihan and O'Malley have dealt with Ballylongford. I did not deal with it in my opening speech because time did not permit and I had dealt with it in the Seanad. I agree that Ballylongford is probably one of the most strategically important sites in the country and I compliment Deputy O'Malley for his foresight in having the land acquired by the IDA and ensuring it was not sold. I know that Gerard Collins, a former Minister, was also instrumental in ensuring it was not sold at a time when other lands were being disposed of.

I saw the need to take a decision in respect of the Ballylongford site for once and for all. A number of initiatives have been suggested in the past 20 to 30 years which have come to nothing. Together with the Department of the Taoiseach, we initiated an examination as to whether a container transhipment facility could be located on the Ballylongford site. We have asked the Shannon Development Company, the ports and other relevant stakeholders to carry out an indepth examination in association with the Departments of the Taoiseach and the Marine and Natural Resources to established whether this proposal is a runner. The intention is that we will speak with the major players in container transportation around the world.

There are about 26 round trips each year between the US and Europe, going into ports such as Rotterdam and Amsterdam. With a transhipment facility at Ballylongford, that could be increased to 32 or 33 shipments per year. It is vitally important to remember that we are on the busiest shipping lane in the world, that is, that between Europe and the US. With the change in logistics and improvements in shipping and technology I am hopeful there may be an opportunity which did not exist in the past. The study will examine whether this is a runner. I assure the House that in the event of there being potential to move forward in this direction I will put proposals to the Government that we bring forward an attractive development package and put in place a development worthy of the significance of the location. I agree with what Deputies O'Malley and Deenihan had to say in that respect.

The position of Foynes Yacht Club has been raised by Deputies Finucane and Collins. I am aware of the background as I have received numerous representations about the development from both Deputies. There has been goodwill on everybody's part. There were lingering concerns about uniting the two ports. I compliment both Deputies for adopting such a positive approach and being so constructive in assisting me to allay fears and resolve difficulties. As they are so keenly involved, as a gesture of goodwill I am prepared to make available the required funding. I have received a letter from the yacht club indicating that a further £11,500 is required to complete phase one of the project. I am prepared to commit us to providing this sum. We can then look at the amount outstanding but given that it has taken 25 years to bring the project to fruition we can provide for the completion of the development.

There are difficulties with both port companies. While the report was very negative in respect of Foynes which is close to insolvency, the port company had the courage to proceed with a very significant development on the west jetty. It would cost many millions of pounds to put such a facility in place today. This explains its current difficulties and to some extent it can be let off the hook on the grounds that it has done a fine job. Although cost effective, it got itself into financial trouble as a result.

Without an immediate injection of funds for new cranage and hoppers the port will not be in a position to operate as efficiently as it should. Large vessels have had to wait for a day or two to be unloaded. The report indicated that between £5 million and £8 million would be necessary to allow the new port company to start with a positive balance sheet when handed over by the implementation board. I am satisfied that the Government will respond positively to the case which I will make by providing the funding required to ensure the company will not be hamstrung from the outset.

I am delighted to announce that, following consultations with the Minister for Finance, I am prepared to make up to £3 million available immediately for cranage and hopper facilities in Foynes and the purchase of a crane in Limerick, which is also considered an urgent priority. I will be informing the existing port companies that they can proceed immediately with the necessary planning. The benefits of co-operation will be seen immediately, therefore, as two cranes can be purchased at a much lower cost. I am pleased to be in a position to respond to the demand, particularly in Foynes, that we show our support and goodwill. Other issues will be addressed by the implementation board in terms of the further capital required.

I am anxious that the implementation board completes its work as quickly as possible. It has difficult decisions to take. While we have given assurances that there will be no forced redundancies, there are a number of manpower issues which will have to be addressed. There are six harbour masters employed along the Shannon Estuary, all of whom are not needed. As I explained to staff and management, everybody will be treated fairly. A redundancy package will be made available. It will then be a question of staff volunteering. We have received indications that some may be interested in a voluntary redundancy scheme.

As Deputy O'Malley said there are a number of other major infrastructural developments along the estuary. I have a particular interest in the facility in Moneypoint. Given the changes in technology, particularly in power generation, especially in Great Britain – the KPMG report adverted to this – there are possibilities for a coal transshipment facility in moneypoint. I would welcome such a development. There are other initiatives which could be taken in other locations.

The Shannon Estuary is probably our finest natural resource and, as has been said, one of the finest in Europe and on which we will see significant industrial development. I want Foynes to force down costs in other ports, Dublin in particular. The cost of imports and exports through our ports is too high and must be reduced. I am confident that the estuary can become a major industrial location for some of the significant industries seeking relocation from elsewhere in Europe. We have received some inquiries in that respect.

With the construction of bypasses around Limerick, Clarecastle, Newmarket and from Crusheen to north of Gort the west coast will be opened up to shipping traffic, diverting it from Dublin. Each of these bypasses should have dual carriageway status. It is intended that the roads running from Dublin to Belfast, Galway, Limerick and Waterford will have motorway and dual carriageway status. The route running from Sligo to the south west and on to the south east should have a similar status. I intend to raise this matter with the National Roads Authority.

I hope the implementation board will conclude its work quickly. Although it has up to two years within which to complete it, I have indicated to the chairman that it should make itself redundant as quickly as possible to enable us to put in place the new port authority, of which I propose to appoint the current chairman of the existing Foynes Port Company, Mr. Kieran MacSweeney, as chairman. He has a very good reputation and lives in Limerick. I have been impressed in my discussions with him. He takes a solid, business-like approach to the operation. It is my intention to appoint him as chairman as soon as the new port company is put in place.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. When I introduced the Bill to the Seanad I said I would not introduce more important legislation during my term as Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources. I have pleasure in commending the Bill to the House and I hope we will take Committee Stage without too much delay later this evening.

Question put and agreed to.