I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the serious crisis in employment currently facing County Kerry. At the end of 2003, there were more than 7,000 people on the live register in Kerry, the seventh highest in the State. As a proportion of the labour force, this puts Kerry among the two or three worst affected counties.
Since Christmas, a further 248 jobs have been lost at the Sports Sock Company's plants in Tralee and Cahirciveen, Goblin in Tralee and Imperial Schrade in Listowel. These losses bring the number of unemployed in Kerry to an extremely worrying level. The decline in the number of tourists coming to Kerry, and north Kerry in particular, coupled with the adverse effects on the tourist market over the past number of years, through no fault of the local tourist boards, is alarming. There are currently 3,000 people unemployed in Tralee; 1,300 in Killarney and more than 1,100 in Listowel. One of the most worrying aspects is that in 2003 almost no new jobs were created and those created were outweighed by losses.
I raised the lack of IDA success in bringing jobs to Kerry with the Tanáiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, on a number of occasions last year. Not only did she inform me that the IDA had brought no new jobs to the county, but she said there had been only two visits by companies to Kerry during an 18-month period. I am not advocating we become totally dependent on foreign inward investment, although it will have to play a part if current job levels are to be tackled. We also need to encourage and support the establishment of local enterprise and small businesses.
I am also concerned that the Minister has refused to meet with Tralee Town Council to discuss the jobs crisis. The invitation was passed at the council's meeting last November with the support of all parties. The Minister, however, has refused to meet the council. The Progressive Democrats do not have elected councillors in Tralee but I can assure the Minister that members of the other Government party were extremely annoyed at her refusal and have cited it as evidence of a lack of interest in the situation and a lack of will on her part to address the crisis. The Minister has no difficulty flying by helicopter to Leitrim to open a pub and with having a State car to bring her home, yet she will not meet the democratically elected councillors of Tralee Town Council. The Minister's refusal to meet the council is an affront to democracy and an insult to the electorate.
I ask the Minister to reconsider her position and to meet with the council to hear at first hand the views of those attempting to cope with the social and human costs of the high level of unemployment in Kerry and, in particular, Tralee where 3,000 people are unemployed. Unemployment not only brings poverty and deprivation, it has a seriously demoralising impact on the community as a whole. I can attest to the grey mood that has gripped the town in the face of a series of major job losses. The same story can be told of every other large town and rural community in the county. I call on the Minister to address the situation as a matter of urgency and to ensure that her Department devotes more resources to turning it around.
I cannot emphasise enough the demoralising situation which exists in Kerry. People are also conscious that other companies may be experiencing difficulties. Given the loss of 248 jobs since Christmas and the possibility of more job losses by the end of this year, it is imperative the Minister agrees to invest resources and to do everything possible to turn this crisis around.