Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le chuile dhuine a labhair sa díospóireacht seo. I thank everybody who contributed so positively to a useful and broad-ranging debate. I will respond to some of the issues raised by Deputy Ring. My original plan was to build the cable car link from the mainland to Inishbiggle. However, events intervened. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done it. We should have provided the slips at Doran's Point at Ballycroy. Once the slips are completed, I intend to advertise for a ferry service for which there will be a connecting bus service. As the Deputy eloquently pointed out, while Ballycroy is a fine place, there is no point leaving somebody standing there on a pier. As a short-term measure, this should bring regularity and safety to the people of Inishbiggle, which I hope will be useful for them.
I would like to give an overview of what we are doing for the islands. I also compliment the work done by the former Minister of State, Donal Carey, who operated with a very small budget. He set up the island fund. As Deputies know, once there is a budget heading, it can always be increased. The difficulty is to get the heading in the first place. When all the money was taken into account, the budget was only €2.5 million which has risen to €8.5 million per annum.
Whenever I visited an island the first thing people talked about was access and piers. We have now provided about six or seven in County Cork alone. We have done Cunnamore, Sherkin, Long, Hare and Whiddy. Some work was done on Bere Island. County Cork was ahead of the posse because the people there had their homework done. We are planning major works for the piers on the Aran Islands and will be moving up the coast.
As Deputies are probably aware, we are on the point of finalising a tender process in conjunction with Mayo County Council. We had hoped to start earlier but, as always, there were some minor problems. We hope to carry out the two biggest ever contracts for island piers on Clare Island and Inisturk. We have already commenced construction work on Roonagh Pier which will improve the level of safety of considerably.
We have also addressed a number of small piers. We have approved funding for Inishlyre and done the pier on Clynish. People will ask the reason we have done those islands given that Inishlyre, for example, only has three families on it. There is a certain amount of money provided for islands. Once a year I meet all members of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann which represents Inis Mór, the biggest island, down to the smallest island with one person. They always tell me they want the small islands looked after as well as the big islands. The days are gone when we only looked after the Aran Islands – perhaps only Inis Mór. They see themselves as an inclusive family and want those small islands looked after, even including the tidal islands like Iniscuttle and Inisnakillew.
Moving up the coast, we have done work on the pier on Arranmore. We have done major work at Magheroarty. A large contract on Tory Island commenced by my predecessors, Deputy Michael Higgins and Donal Carey, has been completed.
Other things have been done on the islands, particularly work on roads. When I first went to Inishturk, I was told to forget about everything else and address the issue of roads to people's houses. There were islands without water services. This was the top priority for those living on Dursey Island and a number of other islands, including Clynish. Some of the islands which are inhabited only seasonally for fishing and farming had no electricity service. People moved away because of the problem of schools for children. Inishbofin in County Donegal has a vibrant population from early spring until late summer where all the houses are kept and there is electricity. Other islands are Gola Island, Coney Island, Inse Gort, Inis Ladhair, Inis Treamhar, Inis Fearracháin and so on down the coast. We have done eight or ten islands, the ESB has been marvellously accommodating and the work was done at a very good cost. We have built health centres and social facilities.
The issue of schools was raised and this is central to the question of staying on an island. I have examined what we have done and what needs to be done. There are 13 primary schools on 11 islands. Some have more than one school. These have a viable primary school population and obviously there is no point talking about a secondary school if there is not even a primary school.
Regarding the arrangements for secondary schools, two new secondary schools opened during my term as Minister, on Inis Meáin and Tory Island. Five out of the 11 islands have secondary schools which leaves six that do not. The children on two of these, Sherkin and Bere islands, go to school every day on the mainland and return in the evening. There was no ferry in Sherkin Island and we arranged for one to bring the children out in the morning and back in the evening. This means families have stayed on the island who would have otherwise left for their children to obtain a secondary education.
Children on Bere Island always went to school on the mainland, but I managed this year, along with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to rectify what was a farcical situation. The children were given transport to the pier at Castletownbere on the mainland but were not brought from there to the school. It was good enough to bring them that far and they had to make their own way from there to school. We have arranged transport to the school, which is a modest improvement on the face of it but a major improvement for those involved.
This leaves four islands that depend on the remote area grant and whose children must attend school on the mainland. These are Clare Island, Inishturk, Inishbofin and Cape Clear. The problem is that there is an insufficient population to maintain a secondary school. Parents will not accept a second level school if the numbers are unrealistic. In three of these cases we have put bus connections in place which mean that, when the children reach the mainland, they are brought to the school they attend and similarly in the other direction the day the school closes. If the school has a day off, which can happen on a Monday, or holidays, everything is tailored to ensure the bus, which is part of the ferry contract, collects them on the day school finishes.
For example, the Inishbofin children are brought to St. Jarlath's and Kylemore and the children from Clare Island and Inishturk to Louisburgh where the majority of them attend school. These services have changed the situation radically for children. Islanders in the 25 to 30 age bracket would have tended to go away to school, coming home only for the mid-term break and Christmas with the result that the connection was lost with the island.
One of the reasons for this Bill is to ensure that all this is legal. It is desirable and no one can argue with this. I doubt that anyone would challenge it legally, but there appears to be some doubt about the legality of these arrangements and I will not allow any such doubt where there is a moral certainty about what we are doing and it is the right action to take.
The issue of doctors and medical services for the islands is very important and one of our major achievements was to have a full-time doctor on a third island, namely, Inis Oirr, which is the third most populated island. We also introduced the islander's allowance which is a special social welfare allowance of €12.70 per week for those who are permanently incapacitated or are of pensionable age to make up for the greater cost of living on an island. There is a myth that it is cheap to live on an island. It is not. It is incredibly expensive because everything must be brought in. To build a house is much more expensive. We introduced much higher new house grants and they still are in place for Gaeltacht islands.
We also have a special concessionary rate of car tax on the islands. This is important. I have discussed with insurance companies my intention that all island cars will be taxed and insured and that the situation that existed before does not continue. It is not satisfactory and there must be a clampdown. We have a concessionary rate of car tax because an island only has about two to three miles of road and it would be unfair to have to pay the mainland rate of car tax.
Some of the islands have roll-on roll-off ferries. The car tax for the islands is similar to Oisín in Tír na nÓg who, if he put his foot on the land of Ireland, would become 300 years old. If someone on Bere Island, Arranmore or one of the islands with a car ferry brings his or her car over to the mainland and begins to drive, he or she is immediately liable for the mainland car tax rate. No matter where he or she lives, the island rate will not cover him or her on the mainland. It only covers a car that remains on an island permanently.
I wish to address the issue which has been raised repeatedly of ferry services, value for money and the Committee of Public Accounts. I do not wish to rehash the detail because this has been thoroughly thrashed out and discussed in terms of the historical and Accounting Officer side at the Committee of Public Accounts. As Deputy O'Dowd first raised this query and he is his party's spokesperson, I will arrange to have the Blacks of the committee discussion sent to his pigeonhole. However, there are political issues I would like to clarify and place in context.
As far back as I and anyone on the Aran Islands can remember and probably back to the time of the British, there was a passenger and freight service from Galway to the three Aran Islands. When I was a child, the boat was the Dún Aengus which was followed by the Naomh Éanna which was used in the film “Michael Collins”. That boat was run by CIE and the records show that, in the 1970s, the annual cost of the subsidy was £400,000. This was at a time when money was worth much more than it is today and we know the punt is worth approximately €1.20. The issue must be placed in this context.
A competition was held in 1992 by the then Department of Transport for the provision of a new service to the Aran Islands. It is on the record, and all the islanders know, that I favoured the provision of the passenger services from Rossaveel at the time. I was a backbencher then. The decision taken by the Department was to commission a brand new boat to bring passengers and freight in the old fashioned arrangement from Galway to the three islands and back. I favoured Rossaveel because a private operator had begun a service from there to the islands. I had gone on holidays to Inis Meáin in the late 1960s and early 1970s and knew that it took a day to get into the island and another to get out under the old arrangement.
When I was appointed to the Department, the contract had expired on its first phase, but it was written in such a way that it had a roll-over clause. In investigating the matter, it was found that the 1946 Act required that there be a service from Galway to the islands and I was advised that it had to be from Galway and that the bus from Rossaveel did not make up for the service.
These were constraints but there was a third and larger constraint. I sent a public servant to the islands who met the people on Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oirr. The people on the two smaller islands were insistent that we continue with the contract from Galway for passengers and freight. I thought they were wrong. There were serious legal doubts, given the manner in which the contract had been written, as to what freedom I had in the re-negotiation of the contract. I believed that, if the islanders on the two smaller islands experienced the type of service those on Inis Mór received from Rossaveel, they would quickly accept the Rossaveel service.
It is important to put on record that an increase in the annual payment of IR£75,000 was given over the first five years. This was very important in terms of providing extra and improved services to the people in the two small Aran Islands. As my first step in doing something about ferry services, despite inflation, I negotiated a decrease in the annual price for the next seven years which means that the amount being paid in 2003 and 2004 is exactly the annual payment paid in 1992. One will buy very few things in this country in 2003 for the 1992 price. In order to achieve that saving I agreed a two year extension to 2003 and 2004, but it was all at a flat rate at the level of the 1992 price. If it was good value in 1992 on a pub lic tender, the logic is that it must be brilliant value in 2003 and 2004.
As a political strategy, it served its political purposes. I was constrained in my actions by the law and by the existing contract and its wording. The IR£75,000 was used to subsidise the service from Rossaveel to the two small islands and the rest is history. Within two or three years, exactly the same service was provided to the two small islands as to Inis Mór at a very economic rate although everyone said that could not be done. I managed to bring the passenger services on the two small islands to the same level as to the big island and increase business.
It is amazing how quickly people forget. I am very friendly with the people of Inis Meán and Inis Oirr. I have known many of them for 30 or 40 years and I tease them about the fact that they never take the boat to Galway that they fought so hard to retain in 1997. They all favour the passenger service I implemented. Like everything else, change is always difficult. They did not realise how good the service would be, but when it came there was no contest and they all transferred. In the review in which we are involved, the big argument is that there is a fast service. A person can be on any one of the Aran Islands in the morning, go into Galway to transact business and be back on the island in the evening on 364 days of the year. It closes down for Christmas Day.
When I became Minister, the ferry services were disorganised. The boat to Arranmore was owned by Údarás; the subsidy to Tory was provided by Údarás; the Department owned the boat to Cape Clear and every island seemed to have its own unique service. I thought it was a crazy situation. The craziest aspect was there were no services whatsoever to the non-Gaeltacht islands. There was nothing for Clare Island, Inishturk and Inisbofin – no subsidy and no standards. I had to work with the existing arrangements, but as they came up for renewal I introduced services to 14 islands. In the case of Cape Clear, the Department leased the boat to the operator as a first step towards putting the same system in operation for all the islands. The Department took over the service from Údarás and now a similar service operates to all the islands with the exception of the boat from Galway to the Aran Islands which is mainly a freight boat. However, when that contract ends in 2004, it is intended to put the final piece of the jigsaw in place. In anticipation, the Department has commissioned a study to examine all the freight and passenger requirements on the islands so that by the end of next year there will be a coherent island ferry strategy that stands up to any analysis.
The Department has improved the monitoring of financial control. Since I became Minister, all new contracts go to public tender. Independent verification of the tenders is done by outsiders to ensure everything is open, fair and transparent. I am never personally involved in the tender assessment process. Once the tender is received, I stand back. I pride myself that the Department has a small staff. I do not want to spend all my money in checking the obvious. If any of the Deputies opposite ever sit in this seat, he or she will know within 24 hours if a ferry boat did not sail. Deputy Ring represents island communities and he would be informed fairly quickly if the boat stopped running from Clare Island. I do not have to send somebody down to check – although it is done on a spot-check basis – because the people would be on to Deputy Ring in the morning and he would contact me. I am sure he would get me out of bed to tell me. There must be some balance in this matter. A good monitoring system should operate but there is no point in my sending someone down to Clare Island every day when I know that the island community council and the manager, Dónal O'Shea, would be in touch with me immediately if the boat decided it was not going to sail in line with the contract. Those contracts for ferry services are all written in stone and are always drawn up in consultation with the islanders.
I wish to speak about the global issues of cost and numbers. I will return to the matter of the freight service to the Aran Islands in a moment. It is an anomaly that hangs over from 1992 and is coming to an end. The remainder of the 14 services carried 264,602 passengers. The cost per passenger is €3.90. Rather than costing each individual boat for the information of the House I will look at the global costing. The cost of carrying a passenger on Iarnród Éireann is higher. The cost of carrying a passenger on the rural transport system is higher. The cost of the cheapest subsidies on the aircraft from the regional airports to Dublin is ten times that amount. I can say with confidence that the Department is getting a hell of a good deal. There are very few public transport services in this country that are giving such good value for money.
People argue that we are subsidising tourists whereas it is the tourists who are subsidising the boats. The fixed costs are there and would still exist even if the absence of tourist revenue. There seems to be an implication that the Department did not know what kind of freight was being carried to the Aran Islands by the Oileán Arainn. In 2000, 7,933 tonnes were carried; in 2001 it dropped to 7,100 tonnes; and in 2002 it dropped to 5,987 tonnes. Thankfully in the nine months of 2003 to date, 7,444 tonnes were carried. These statistics must be factored in when the service is being examined. It is no longer mainly a passenger service, but rather a freight service.
I have fought for many years to stress the importance of the air services in particular to the more isolated islands with a good population base. Bere island and Arranmore have six ser vices a day. There are problems with the topography of Inishturk but air services are potentially very important for Tory Island. I wish to make it clear that there is no question of an either-or situation arising here. The air service is more expensive per passenger, but the second issue is that the aircraft can only carry nine passengers or eight passengers to the full load of cargo. If a group wishes to travel to an island, there is no point in telling it to take the aeroplane because most of its members will be left on the tarmac. The air service provides a different service. To say that one or the other should be the answer is equivalent to making a decision to have either boats or aeroplanes crossing the Irish Sea but not both. The mode of transport is decided by what one is transporting.
It is very obvious in the Aran Islands that 125,000 people are carried on the boats, that aeroplane usage is rising dramatically but boat usage is not dropping. It is the old Aer Lingus-Ryanair syndrome, the improvement in the services is creating the numbers and one is feeding the other, not taking from the other. It means more movement of a greater number of people. My commitment is to provide top quality services to the islands as long as the budgets, with which I have been very lucky to date, hold out.
Tuigim gur thóg an Teachta McGinley ceist maidir le Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann agus an bhfuiltear ag iarraidh oifigeach a fhostú. Tá comhráití ar bun, agus tá iarratas faighte. Tá súil agam breathnú ar an gceist sin go luath. Thiocfainn go hiomlán leis an méid a dúirt an Teachta Ring faoi chúrsaí vótála. Is mór an náire é nach mbíonn an vótáil ar na hoileáin ar an dóigh chéanna leis an chuid eile den tír. Ní chreidim, sa lá atá inniu ann, go bhfuil aon leithscéal dó sin ach amháin i gcásanna fíor-eisceachtúla.
Deputy O'Shea referred to the drop in islands population by 500. He is correct according to the census figures. His figures comprise all of the islands, including those which are connected to the mainland by bridges. Achill is included, as are Lettermore, Lettermullen and Gorumna, islands with over 1,000 people, and Bull Island and Lambay in Dublin. Spike Island is also included and its population is down by 40. There must have been very few prisoners there that weekend. The drop in inhabited offshore islands, with which this Bill is concerned, was about 186 people. That is a serious drop. It is becoming more difficult on census day to get a real fix because it depends how many people were home for that weekend and so on. The last census was taken on a weekend near a bank holiday weekend.