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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 31 Mar 2011

Vol. 729 No. 1

Priority Questions

Air Services

Charlie McConalogue


1 Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport the position regarding the discussions he has had with companies (details supplied) regarding increasing the number of routes into the country in exchange for the abolition of the €3 airport tax; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6333/11]

I congratulate Deputy Michael Kitt on being appointed Leas-Cheann Comhairle today. I wish him the best of luck in the role and I am sure he will be very fair like the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Barrett.

Direct, convenient and competitive international access by air and by sea is vital for the development of tourism to Ireland, an island destination. It is in that context that the agreed programme for Government undertook to abolish the €3 air travel tax subject to a deal being agreed with carriers to reopen closed routes and bring more tourists into Ireland.

Clearly the air travel tax is among the factors which can potentially affect the competitiveness and viability of air routes to and from Ireland. However, the Government must take a balanced approach to its overall response within the wider context of fiscal sustainability and economic renewal. This is why, if the airlines do not commit unequivocally to increase the numbers of tourists visiting Ireland in return, and hence overall Exchequer receipts, there will be no reduction in the tax.

With specific regard to discussions with the airlines, my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, is currently consulting officials of my Department and his own regarding the approach to be taken in such discussions. The Deputy will be aware that the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, will shortly assume formal responsibility for tourism and sport matters, following the relevant transfer of functions.

More generally, working to restore and enhance international access is a key priority for tourism development in 2011. Tourism Ireland is engaging actively in co-operative marketing campaigns with air and sea carriers to stimulate demand for travel to Ireland from key source markets and to demonstrate ease of access. This year, Tourism Ireland has increased the level of resources available for co-operative marketing with air and sea carriers in major markets — including Ryanair and Aer Lingus — and for case-making with airports and relevant authorities for the restoration of lost air access or the introduction of new routes. Furthermore, I am advised that where it believes an opportunity exists in a market, Tourism Ireland is happy to commit co-operative marketing funds in advance to help secure a new, or reinstated, service.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on his appointment today and wish him well in the role. I also congratulate the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, on his appointment and wish him well in his role. I know from his background that he is very well qualified for it and I have no doubt he will bring that experience to bear in his Department in this period of Government.

The programme for Government commits to reducing the airport tax only in circumstances where the airlines agree to bring in new routes and enhance the number of tourists to the country. I welcome the fact that the Minister will hold them to that. Has he had contact with Ryanair on the matter of the €2 hike in taxes it imposed yesterday, which runs contrary to the argument it put forward in advance of the last budget seeking to reduce the airport tax in place? There is not much point in it being reduced if Ryanair will simply use it as an opportunity to proceed to introduce its own charges on fares. Airlines such as Ryanair and Aer Lingus are key to bringing people into the country. If they invest in putting on routes, it gives people an opportunity to visit this country. They can play a critical role in the development of tourism over the next while. It is critical that the Government holds them to account in ensuring that they do that in return for any reduction in the tax.

Has the Minister met representatives of Aer Lingus and Ryanair on this matter? Has he spoken to representatives of Ryanair to inform them of his displeasure and the view of Members of this House that their action is simply not tolerable and that it would have repercussions in terms of future policy?

I welcome Deputy McConalogue to his position of responsibility as Opposition spokesperson on transport, tourism and sport. I remind him that the line Minister will be Deputy Varadkar; it is simply that the responsibilities he will have not yet been transferred.

The Minister, Deputy Varadkar, in a interview on a news programme today expressed his disappointment that this charge was imposed. He was preparing with his officials to approach the airlines on this matter. I do not believe contact had been made as regards the €3 tax but the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, described the imposition of this tax as a major disappointment. Ryanair will use the argument that it is compensation for losses resulting from the impact of the ash cloud and other reasons but, nevertheless, it is disappointing at a time when the Government was being asked to reduce the travel tax that this hike in taxes has now been imposed. I am sure it will act as a disincentive to people travelling to this country.

Prior to the election I drew up a tourism plan, having consulted widely on it, including with Ryanair. It made a commitment at that time that, if the travel tax was scrapped, over a period it could bring an additional 5 million to 6 million tourists into the country and perhaps create 5,000 to 6,000 jobs. I accepted what it said in good faith at that time but today's news is disappointing and I understand the Minister, Deputy Varadkar, expressed that disappointment earlier in an interview on national radio.

Tourism Promotion

Sandra McLellan


2 Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport in order to boost tourism in east Cork and to create tourism related jobs, if he will support initiatives including the reopening of the Midleton to Youghal railway line. [6335/11]

As the Deputy will appreciate the reopening of the Midleton to Youghal railway line is not a matter for me but a matter for my colleague, the Minister for Transport who will be the Minister with responsibility for tourism shortly.

Furthermore, under the National Tourism Development Authority Act, Fáilte Ireland has the devolved function to encourage, promote and support the development and marketing of tourist facilities and services within the State. Therefore, the matter of regional tourism development raised by the Deputy is for Fáilte Ireland to consider as part of its day to day activities to support the tourism sector.

As the Deputy may be aware, Fáilte Ireland works with the tourism industry nationally to develop the sector, including the development of quality tourism product, domestic tourism marketing, funding for festivals and events, the development and implementation of tourism standards, enterprise support, capability building and human resource development for the tourism industry.

For the Deputy's information, I am advised that the following initiatives are under way to assist tourism businesses in east Cork, including Youghal and its environs: the Family Fun initiative to help local businesses improve their offering and marketing to the family market; business development supports to develop a broad range of skills, including marketing and sales, culinary skills, customer service, finance and business management and development; overseas sales and marketing supports to assist tourism businesses in accessing overseas markets; an angling initiative to support angling businesses in the area to maximise their potential in targeting tourists; helping activity providers grow their business, particularly water-based activities; discussion with the local authority on potential capital and infrastructural projects, in particular relating to improved beach and coastal facilities in the Youghal area; and the promotion of festivals and events in east Cork through the tourist information office network and the Discover Ireland website and campaign platforms.

I might add that Fáilte Ireland's enterprise development team in Cork is working closely with businesses in east Cork and is happy to meet individuals or groups to deal with queries to maximise the potential of the region.

I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle on his appointment and wish the Minister well in his new position.

It is essential that the Midleton to Youghal railway line is reopened for the sake of boosting tourism in east Cork. Businesses would benefit from more trade, while the local economy in Youghal would benefit from increased tourism. There are many opportunities for tourism promotion in east Cork which includes the Cobh Heritage Centre, Fota Wildlife Park, the Jameson Heritage Centre in Midleton and various sites of historical significance in Youghal. We should focus on bringing visitors to this area. Will the Minister work with the Minister for Transport to establish steam train excursions from Youghal to Midleton, beginning with a feasibility study of reopening the line? The tourism sector in Youghal could form part of a broader strategy to enhance the local economy and increase local employment.

I congratulate the Deputy on her election. The fact that her husband is a keen Kerry football supporter makes me even happier that she is a Deputy.

As someone who was involved in the completion of a railway project, I am aware of the fascination people have with railways. A strong case can be made for the restoration of any railway line anywhere in the country. One of the major attractions of the English market is the number of railway enthusiasts there. Although the Lartigue monorail project in which I am involved is a small heritage railway scheme, it attracts a significant number of visitors from the United Kingdom because it is the only one of its type in the world. The railway project to which the Deputy refers appears to make a lot of sense. The Government is seeking to identify major projects to provide employment, whether directly or indirectly, and this project should be examined carefully in that context. As I am a railway enthusiast, any proposal for a railway project excites me personally.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It is the first question of a local nature I have noticed since I began asking questions from the other side of the House. Usually such questions are disallowed, but it is welcome that they are now being taken. I am sure the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, will be delighted to answer such questions.

Sports Capital Programme

Mick Wallace


3 Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Tourism; Culture and Sport his plans to publish the national sports facilities strategy document. [6348/11]

I welcome the Deputy to the House and acknowledge his particular interest in sport. He has done an enormous amount of work to promote soccer in Wexford. It is great to see the election of sports enthusiasts to the House and I am sure the Deputy will participate in some of our activities in the coming years.

A draft national sports facilities strategy has been completed by my Department. The aim of the strategy is to provide high level policy direction for future investment, grant assistance at national, regional and local level and a co-ordinated approach across the various agencies and Departments involved in supporting the provision of sports and recreational facilities. The draft strategy identifies the wider economic, health and social argument for continued investment in sports facilities. It aims to prioritise areas for future investment and ensure continued impact in the relevant areas. It will provide an improved policy platform for any future round of the sports capital programme.

Since 1998 grants to the value of €730 million have been allocated under the sports capital programme to some 7,400 projects. In the current economic conditions it is crucial that we continue to recognise the importance of investment in sport for the social and economic development of the country. Given the wide benefits associated with participation in sports activities, continued targeted investment to maximise the benefits in the areas of health and well-being, social and cultural development, education, personal development, tourism and the economy is vital.

Following the completion of the transfer of functions order, the draft strategy will now fall to be considered by my colleague, Deputy Varadkar, in his role as Minister for Transport.

I congratulate the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and the Minister on their appointments.

Since 2009 there has been a freeze on sports capital grants. I am sure the Minister is as aware as I am of the importance of sport to young people. Research indicates that every euro we spend on our children saves the State €7 by the time they become adults. However, the difficulty of measuring the social benefits of sports means people are reluctant to invest money in this area in the current economic climate. Is there any interest on the part of the coalition Government in commencing a new programme of investment in sports infrastructure? Aside from the social benefits for children, expenditure on infrastructure is a worthy investment during difficult economic times. When recession hit China, the first thing its Government did was to invest €450 billion in infrastructure. Is the Government equally keen to invest in developing sports infrastructure in the light of the economic and social benefits that would ensue?

I understand the strategy was prepared last summer, but, for whatever reason, it was not published. It will now be managed by the Minister for Transport and the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Ring, and I am sure they will publish it shortly once they have had an opportunity to study it and perhaps insert some of their own ideas.

An audit of sports facilities is being conducted through the local sports partnerships. I have been calling for such an audit for several years and was under the impression one had been completed several years ago. That did not happen, however. While it is important we carry out a thorough audit which can form the basis of a strategy, funding is even more important. The Minister and the Minister of State are anxious to implement a sports capital programme at the earliest opportunity. From the point of view of the nation's health, it makes perfect sense to put in place a budget for sports facilities.

I am sure Deputies will agree on the importance of providing sports facilities on or near school grounds where possible. I know of facilities located half a mile or one mile away from schools that could have been constructed on school grounds. In many cases, our weather conditions and the cost of transport makes it too difficult to bring young people to sports facilities for physical education classes with the result that most schools do not even possess indoor facilities adequate to meet the needs of the most simple of physical education programmes. I also support the development of facilities which would allow multiple sports to be pursued. Rugby, GAA and soccer clubs could share common facilities, even playing matches on different pitches. Where this has happened, it has saved a lot of money. It makes sense.

This is something that Deputy Wallace will be pursuing because of his commitment to sport. It is great that he will show his interest in the House in the future.

It is important that a new fund become available as soon as possible. For the information of the Deputy, this is a question I asked when I was in the Department in Killarney last week. A large amount of money — something like €77 million — is unspent at the moment and has been so for some time. If there are clubs that can go ahead with their developments, the money should be moved on to them. It should be used and not left for a long period.

There will be a new sports capital programme, although I cannot say when. That will be up to the new Minister. I will be encouraging it for the reasons expressed by the Deputy.

Would the Minister be in favour of the money being distributed based on fairness rather than ministerial influence, as we have seen too much in the past? It should go to areas of need rather than where the influence is.

That is an important question and it is why there is a need for a sports strategy. Previously, the money was either spent under the influence of the Minister or distributed to wealthy clubs that could provide matching funding. Deputy Ring is anxious that the level of matching funding required be lowered in order that clubs throughout the country can avail of this. The wealthier clubs got the money, as well as organisations in the area the Minister with responsibility for sport happened to represent. That was wrong, and that is why we need a national strategy and a proper audit. We must distribute the money fairly throughout the country in order that the whole country can benefit.

Charlie McConalogue


4 Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport his plans to restore the sports capital grants. [6334/11]

Under the sports capital programme, SCP, funding is allocated to sporting, voluntary and community organisations at local, regional and national level. A total of €33 million has been provided in the Department's Vote in the 2011 Estimates to meet payments in respect of projects that have been allocated funding under the SCP.

More than 1,000 payments were made last year to projects being developed throughout the country. These projects will allow clubs to drain pitches, erect floodlighting, buy non-personal sports equipment, build changing rooms and sports halls and generally increase opportunities for people to engage in sports at all levels. Since 1998, the Department has allocated almost €740 million in more than 7,400 separate allocations. This funding has transformed the standard of sports facilities throughout the country.

In allocating this funding, special targeting and prioritisation is given to projects in RAPID, CLÁR and local drugs task force areas. These projects are permitted to have a lower minimum level of self-funding — 20% for projects in CLÁR areas and 10% for projects in RAPID and local drugs task force areas compared with the normal 30% — and they may also receive extra marks during the assessment process.

In the most recent rounds of the SCP in 2008, successful projects in RAPID areas also qualified for additional top-up funding of up to 30% of their SCP allocations, payable by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, in addition to their sports capital allocations. Through these measures, the SCP has invested more than €150 million in projects which are either in or serving designated disadvantaged areas. In turn, top-up arrangements from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs in RAPID and CLÁR areas have allowed further allocations of more than €22 million to be made.

Deputies will be aware that on Tuesday, 29 March, the Government made an order for the transfer of functions from the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport with effect from 1 April 2011. The matter of a new round of the SCP will fall for consideration to my colleagues, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and his Minister of State.

As the Minister will know, the SCP, which has been in place since 1998, has been critical in the development of sports clubs, grounds and facilities throughout the country. I started my life in sport a good deal later than the Minister, but at that time, which was not that long ago, our facilities amounted to leaky huts. There has been considerable development since 1998. I know the Minister will not be directly responsible for sport, but can he give a commitment on behalf of the Government that the SCP will be reopened and that moneys will be made available to sports and athletics clubs throughout the country? In these times, the programme could be reoriented to ensure allowances are made for capital materials. As the Minister knows, there is a strong voluntary ethic in clubs and if some type of funding was made available, many clubs could do considerable work from relatively small resources. I am asking for a commitment from the Minister that the Government will reopen the SCP.

I thank the Deputy for his positive approach. I agree that a lot can be achieved with a small amount of money. There are many people who are willing to volunteer their services if given the opportunity. I will suggest that the next scheme be more flexible with regard to the input of local labour, which could be considered as the equivalent of matching funding. In this way, much more could be achieved. From speaking to the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, I am convinced there will be a scheme, but I cannot say when. I will suggest that it be established as soon as possible.

The clause specifying that projects should be completed within 18 months must be adhered to. Clubs cannot expect to hold on to their right to obtain money for a long period while other clubs are ready to receive funding. I am convinced there will be a programme. I cannot say when, but I know it will be sooner rather than later.

What the Deputy has suggested should be noted by the incoming Minister. I suggest that he make his proposal in the committee when it is convened. As the future Minister for public expenditure and reform, Deputy Howlin, said earlier, the Government wishes to avail of the co-operation of the House. Sport transcends all political parties, as I have discovered. Suggestions from the Opposition side about the SCP would be very welcome.

Arts Strategy

Sandra McLellan


5 Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Tourism, Culture and Sport his plans to support the arts at community level. [6337/11]

Our arts, culture and heritage are rooted in the community. That is what makes them so unique and special. A strategy for the arts that does not start from the community is destined to fail. Our arts and cultural activities animate and enliven villages, towns and cities throughout the State, day and night. They draw people out to participate, attend and enjoy. They are the nucleus of a community and often the main economic driver while providing social well-being. Our arts, culture and heritage define us as a society, delineate us as a people and give us our self-worth and value system. It is through their medium that our international reputation will be restored.

The programme for Government commits us to a number of actions in the arts and culture area. We are committed to making strategic policy formulation the primary function of the Department. We will encourage the Arts Council to continue to dedicate resources to touring. Our programme for Government will encourage greater co-operation among local authorities to promote the arts and develop cultural tourism. In this context, since taking office I have begun an engagement with local authority and community arts leaders in Kerry to develop a pilot template integrated strategy for arts, culture and the creative industries at local level. This will lead to co-ordinated delivery of an enhanced and inclusive arts and culture experience for the public at large, and will be used as a template for local authorities throughout the State.

I will meet all the arts officers over the coming weeks.

The arts are important on many levels. Involvement in the arts, particularly at community level, encourages self-esteem; is life and health enhancing, both physically and mentally; provides connections for young and old alike; and allows us to explore and develop. From my own experience, and in observing the activities in this sector, the contributions made by the arts are self-evident in the context of tourism, their economic benefits and the employment they generate. Numerous reports from arts centres, local theatre groups, musical societies, book clubs, cultural festivals, chamber choirs and school orchestras support these observations; the list is endless.

The agencies supported by my Department are aware of the influences of the arts at community level and of their value, socially and economically. The Arts Council is the State agency primarily charged with the promotion and funding of the arts at all levels throughout the country. Under the Arts Act 2003, the general functions of the council include the following: to stimulate public interest in the arts; to promote knowledge, appreciation and practice of the arts; and to assist in improving standards in the arts. The council is a statutorily independent body, funded by my Department and independent in its day-to-day operations, including in regard to its funding decisions. The council has been allocated €65.167 million in current and capital funds for 2011 to support its clients, many of whom operate at community level supporting local initiatives.

It is my intention to support the council in so far as financial and other resources permit to enable it to continue its vital work and to provide ongoing support and encouragement to the arts in its various forms at local and national level. My Department takes a direct role the provision of grant aid for arts and culture infrastructure and it has allocated almost €200 million in funding for the capital development of facilities around the country in recent years. In 2011, almost €8 million will be spent on our cultural capital infrastructure.

Just to put the record straight, my husband might be a Kerry supporter but I am a Cork supporter.

He has a great deal of goodwill towards Kerry.

Spending on arts and culture is about more than funding certain areas of the sector that are perceived as only being for the elite. It is about enhancing the quality of life for all. Community arts, in particular, promote development, social inclusion and community cohesion. There is an intrinsic value to arts and culture as well as significant scope to enhance the economy and to drive local economic regeneration and the tourism sector. The Minister has a particular interest in the arts. Does he agree it is important to encourage and nurture the wealth of imaginative and artistic talent in our community? Does he also agree that not only will the local community benefit, but also the country, making it more attractive as a location for arts tourism and that, therefore, more funding is needed?

I thank the Deputy. I agree with all the sentiments she expressed. As a rural Deputy, I am conscious that Arts Council and Government funding must be distributed throughout the country because social and cultural inclusion will not be achieved unless the spend is disbursed nationwide and the necessary facilities are in place in order that people can see drama, visit painting exhibitions and experience live and visual arts on a regular basis, for example, to have the opportunity to go to the cinema. There are people in parts of the country who are starved and deprived of those experiences. My new portfolio of arts, heritage and the Gaeltacht will be focused and I will be able to give all my time to the arts. While I would like to be involved in sport and tourism, I will devote all my time to the arts and heritage. Deputy McGinley will look after the Gaeltacht, in which I also have an interest.

I agree with the Deputy's comments and I would like my ministry to be as inclusive as possible. I will listen to people such as the Deputy who have a commitment to the arts to examine ways we can ensure people at all levels have an opportunity to enjoy the arts and to ensure their creativity is challenged. Depressed economic times bring out the creativity in people and they are encouraged to think outside the box. The country is challenged and there is a great opportunity now for the creative instincts in people to be encouraged. I am optimistic regarding the possibilities available in writing, painting and so on.

I began the process in Kerry on the Monday following my appointment. The Department has a wonderful building in Killarney, which has been open for three years, and I am the first Minister to spend time there. That is because of geographical reasons, as it is only half an hour from my home. However, I brought in all those involved in the arts in County Kerry and we are developing a strategy, which can be applied to every county.

I will meet all the arts officers over the next few weeks in order that I can work closely with them and I will encourage county managers to provide funding from their budgets. I will match that funding as best I can and the county that gives most to the arts will be rewarded with Exchequer funding.