Adjournment Debate. - Jeanie Johnston Project.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me raise this matter on the Adjournment. The Jeanie Johnston project was initiated in the mid-1990s to commemorate the famine. Subsequently, when it could not meet its deadline in this respect, it became a millennium project. On 24 November 1997, Kerry County Council decided to support and give a guarantee of £750,000 in grant aid, which was received from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under the CDIS pro gramme. That was the first time that Kerry County Council got involved in the project.

It was obvious at the end of last year that the project was running into trouble. Therefore, at a special council meeting held on 21 February 2002, Kerry County Council decided to proceed with an initiative to lead a structured winding down of the Jeanie Johnston project that would facilitate its take-over and the operation of a limited visitor attraction for 2002. This involved the council negotiating various issues with stakeholders and injecting a maximum of £1 million in additional funding into the project. The initiative was further considered and approved at the meeting of the council held on 25 March. Since then the council has used its best endeavours to give effect to this initiative. Along with committing considerable staff resources to the issue, it has retained the expert advice of JW O'Donovan, solicitors, Ernst & Young and SWS Corporate Services. To facilitate the takeover of the project a new company called Seaholly was established and preliminary work was undertaken. A proposed detailed legal agreement was drawn up and transmitted to the company. This proposed agreement was subsequently modified following meetings with the Jeanie Johnston Company.

The council's initiative, including the commitment of £1 million, only provided for the takeover of the ship and its operation as a tourist attraction for 2002. It was made clear at the time that one of the major tasks facing the council was to develop an exit strategy before the end of the year. It is clear that substantial additional resources are required to operate the facility on the ongoing basis, either as a public private partnership or some other arrangement. Despite inquiries to various State and other parties and private individuals who expressed an interest, it has not been possible to identify a source of substantial funding to operate the vessel. Consequently, the ship will place a substantial, ongoing burden on the council in the future. The recommendation from the county manager to the council, which will be accepted, is not to get involved in this orderly wind-down.

I am here to ask the Minister to allow his Department to become involved through Coiste an Asgard, of which he is the chairman. I am not asking his Department to bail out the project indefinitely, but to ensure an orderly wind-down and that a proper viability plan is set up. After all, most of this is State money. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources grant-aided the project to the tune of £3 million and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands gave £750,000. Shannon Development gave £1 million and the County Enterprise Board, the Leader programme and several other State agencies were also involved. The project is really owned by the State: the amount of local and international fundraising only comes to about £2 million.

I understand also that at the moment the Asgard needs a major fit-out and that this ship may take its place as the national training vessel. I ask the Minister to give a commitment that he will involve Coiste an Asgard in the project and that he will take responsibility for the Jeanie Johnston until a medium to long-term viability study has been completed. This may, in the end, result in a public private partnership with the Jeanie Johnston replacing the Asgard due to the condition of the latter. I understand that it is the far superior vessel, having cost €14 million. It is a State asset. At this stage, Kerry County Council has neither the capacity nor the finance to continue with the project.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta as ucht an rud seo a chur ós ár gcomhair. I understand that the Marine Survey Office of the former Department of Marine and Natural Resources satisfactorily completed its survey of the Jeanie Johnston in Cork on 7 June 2002, as a result of which the vessel is entitled to be granted a load line certificate which covers all of its constructional and safety features. In effect, this is the certificate the vessel needs to proceed to sea and as far as that Department is concerned construction of the vessel has now been completed. The total grant allocated by the former Department of the Marine and Natural Resources to the project is €3,968,750. Of this amount, €3,506,735 has so far been drawn down to cover the costs involved in completing the vessel. This leaves a balance of €462,015 yet to be used from that allocation.

I am informed that since February 2002 Kerry County Council and Tralee UDC have been working on a joint initiative which should see the winding up of the promotional Jeanie Johnston Companies, with all trade creditors being paid and ownership of the vessel being taken over by a company set up by the councils to operate the vessel. However, the manager of Kerry County Council, as the Deputy has outlined, has recently advised the company and the various State stakeholders in the project that he is bringing a report to the elected members of Kerry County Council and Tralee UDC, to be considered at meetings of both councils scheduled for next Monday, 1 July 2002. In this report, the manager recommends to the councils that they should not proceed with their joint initiative to take over the Jeanie Johnston project.

With regard to my Department acquiring the Jeanie Johnston, the sail training vessel Asgard II is operated by Coiste an Asgard, which is a company limited by a guarantee set up under the Companies Acts. The Minister for Defence is ex officio the chairman of the board of directors of an Coiste and may appoint up to 14 other directors. Coiste an Asgard employs seven full-time staff, comprising five crew for the vessel and two office staff. Relief crew are also engaged as required. Asgard II carries up to 20 trainees on each cruise. The normal duration of a cruise is from one to three weeks. A total of about 504 trainees participate in sail training cruises aboard Asgard II each year. An Coiste receives an annual lottery-funded grant-in-aid from the Defence Vote. In the current year the grant is €625,000. The income of an Coiste is supplemented by fees paid by the trainees, which amounts to about a further €200,000 a year. This income provides for the cost of salaries as well as the operating and maintenance expenses of Asgard II.

The resources at present available to Coiste an Asgard are only sufficient to cover the cost of operating Asgard II. I understand that the cost of operating the Jeanie Johnston as a sail training vessel would be well over €1 million a year. In view of the legal and other issues that exist in relation to the Jeanie Johnston I do not consider it appropriate to make any further comment on the matter at this stage.