Other Questions

Invasive Plant Species

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


135. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in respect of the amount of the €500,000 spent on Rhododendron ponticum since 2009, the amount spent on contractors; the amount spent on voluntary work camps; and the amount spent on clearance between 2004 and 2009. [5519/15]

If I could only find my question.

It relates to the €500,000 spent on Rhododendron ponticum.

The invasive species that is attacking our native woodlands, particularly in our national parks. Is there a more effective way of using that money?

My Department carries out an annual targeted programme of works to manage the spread of the invasive species rhododendron in Killarney National Park. The extent of the problem varies from area to area within the park and the programme and control methods used are regularly reviewed and refined to respond to the dynamic and vigorous nature of the plant in order to mitigate its impact. While a wide range of control methods are considered for this purpose, those chosen are generally selected on the basis of optimum effectiveness, having regard to the most efficient use of available resources. Despite the challenging budgetary constraints of recent years, my Department continues to commit a significant portion of its available funding towards this important programme.

Deputy McLellan previously requested a breakdown of certain expenditure in respect of this work. I appreciate her forbearance while my staff have collated the relevant historical data, much of which predates the formation of my Department in 2011.

I should clarify that the sum of €500,000 referred to in the question relates to the period since 2011 only.

As advised by letter to Deputy McLellan last week, my Department has expended €898,590 in total on the programme since 2009, broken down as follows: €819,633 on external contractors; €55,206 on costs associated with volunteer work camps; and €23,751 on related supplies, equipment etc. used by volunteers and Department staff in the clearance programme.

Between 2005 and 2008, a total of just over €1.9 million was spent on contract work on the programme. While precise figures are not available for this period for costs associated with volunteer work camps or supplies, it is estimated that these costs were of the order of €20,000 per annum and €5,000 per annum, respectively.

The work involved is arduous and resource intensive, and is carried out by outside specialist companies, Department staff and by volunteer groups under staff direction and supervision. In this regard, I would like to recognise the important contribution, both past and continuing, of volunteer groups to this work, and also the innovative work of my own Department's staff in Killarney National Park, who have been instrumental in developing new methods to control this plant.

I thank the Minister. Her reply points to the fact that contractors receive a substantially greater amount of money than those in the voluntary work camps. The latter group has been most successful in clearing much of the Killarney National Park of rhododendron for a period.

Is the Minister aware that Groundwork, the group that carried out many of the voluntary work camps, has revisited the matter? Those work camps have not been on for three years due to a change in the Department away from funding the camps to funding private contractors. Groundwork's representatives have retraced their steps and revisited some of these sites in Killarney National Park. They have found that rhododendron has now spread back into those areas because the work they did was not continued and maintained. That shows that the money being spent at present is not cost-effective and does not prevent rhododendron from recurring, unless the clearance work is undertaken year after year.

It does not just concern Killarney National Park because other areas also require such an approach, rather than depending only on the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

In Killarney National Park the Department continues to avail of the work of volunteer services. Four to eight volunteers are constantly available throughout the year to carry out work under the supervision and direction of regional staff. These are usually volunteers from universities abroad who carry out this work as a component of their university course.

In recent years, there has been a shift towards specialist companies for a number of reasons. In some cases the rhododendron management takes place in remote places and it would not be appropriate for volunteers to go to these locations. In other cases, the use of contractors was considered to be the fastest, most efficient and most cost-effective method to undertake clearance work.

The working relationship between the National Parks and Wildlife Service and Groundwork came to an end - in so far as the on-site work camps are concerned - in 2009 when Groundwork declined to cooperate with the National Parks and Wildlife Service's prescribed Rhododendron management programme. I understand that Groundwork did not agree with the National Parks and Wildlife Service's prescribed methodologies. Groundwork wanted to continue with the use of massive and systematic work-throughs of woodlands with a large number of volunteers, as opposed to Killarney National Parks management methods involving stem treatments, including non-herbicidal methodologies.

The Department needs to consider whether the National Parks and Wildlife Service's use of contractors is having the same systematic effect as the work done by the Groundwork volunteers to whom I refer. In a previous reply, the Minister referred to the adopt a woodland scheme. That scheme might represent the way forward in order that Groundwork or other voluntary organisations might play a role in trying to reinstate the flora and vegetation of the habitats to which I refer. Is the Minister in a position to confirm that she will outline fully in the future how the adopt a woodland scheme will work? Will she also indicate how the volunteers are going to be managed and who will be responsible for ensuring that their work, whether being done in remote locations or otherwise, will continue to have the desired effect?

The National Parks and Wildlife Service has always acknowledged the significant contribution made by Groundwork volunteers over many years. The Deputy referred to the adopt a woodland project in Killarney National Park, which is designed to assist with the control of rhododendron in the park. The project will harness additional assistance from volunteer groups to augment the resources already being applied in respect of the ongoing control and management programme. The targeted woodland at a number of designated sites has been cleared of the mature rhododendron, and maintenance work has been carried out over a period of years to remove seedlings and saplings. The sites to which I refer will require ongoing, low-level maintenance work for many years to come, and they will remain the target locations for the adopt a woodland project. The project has the joint aims of assisting in the work to control rhododendron in Killarney National Park and involving the local community. It will commence in 2015. Procedures and conditions are being elaborated. It should be noted that this project will represent a supplementary element to the overall control programme and is not in any way intended to displace the ongoing core rhododendron work.

Heritage Centres

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


136. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the discussions she has had with regard to the development of the Bank of Ireland building on College Green, Dublin 2; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5528/15]

In April of last year, the Minister's predecessor informed me that he had agreed that the Bank of Ireland building on College Green would be developed as a cultural and heritage centre. The aim behind Question No. 136 is to explore with the Minister the progress that has been made with regard to the planning for that development in the interim. Last April, her predecessor's plans were quite sketchy but he did indicate that this cultural and heritage centre would be developed in the context of the decade of centenaries.

In February 2014, an announcement was made in respect of a partnership between the State and the Bank of Ireland, which will result in the creation of a new cultural and heritage centre at the bank's College Green building, the former Parliament House. Bank of Ireland has made the space available for this centre to the State for a ten-year period and will cover the agreed refurbishment and operational costs that arise. My Department, in partnership with the bank, will manage, operate and animate the space for this period. When open for use, the cultural and heritage centre will be accessed by the public via the Gandon-designed entrance to the College Green buildings on Westmoreland Street. Since the announcement in February 2014, my Department has been liaising with the bank in identifying the scope of works necessary to convert the space in question to cultural and heritage use. The bank will be applying to Dublin City Council for planning permission for these works. At this stage, it is anticipated that the centre will be ready for use by cultural bodies in 2016, subject to grant of planning permission as applicable.

The ten-year licence for use of the cultural and heritage centre, to be executed between the bank and my Department, will overlap with the decade of centenaries. It is envisaged, therefore, that exhibitions at the centre will include a focus on key events in Irish history up to the centenary of the Civil War which led to the creation of modern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for the update she provided. I would be interested in discovering what is meant by her proposal to "animate the space". Perhaps she might indicate the type of events that are likely to take place at the centre.

One assumes that if planning permission is being prepared for Dublin City Council, planning for the overall use of the space is at a fairly advanced stage. Therefore, could the Minister be a little more specific on what sorts of event will take place there?

Could the Minister tell us what is envisaged for ten years down the line? Will the building simply revert to being a Bank of Ireland building or will it continue to be used for cultural and heritage purposes? I imagine that many people will appreciate the project's development if it is carried out well and would be reluctant to see it put to another use, if that is to be the case.

To answer the last question first, it is currently a ten-year partnership. I am sure this can be re-examined when the ten years are up. We will leave that for now.

We are working to make progress on the project as a priority. Expressions of interest for the use of the facility were invited through public advertisement on my Department's website. Those expressions have been considered by an assessment panel, and I intend to announce the successful applicant in the near future.

The bank is applying to Dublin City Council for planning permission for works to convert the building into a culture and heritage centre. It is anticipated that the building will be ready for use in 2016. The license arrangement had to be agreed, and this took some time as there was no precedent for it. A number of issues had to be addressed at the same time, such as planning permission and the restoration plan. It is an historic building and the project is close to being concluded.

I am still not sure what the Minister means when she says she is going to animate the place. That said, I have two very specific questions. One is on staffing and the other is on resourcing. Deputy Catherine Murphy has alluded to the difficulties that the other national cultural institutions face owing to ongoing funding pressures. We are well aware of these. Although the Department is entering a partnership arrangement with the Bank of Ireland, one assumes none the less that the Department will be incurring significant costs. What are those costs? Is the Minister prepared to publish the staffing and resources plan she has for this development, which plan is being prepared in parallel with the planning application? It will not run on fresh air; somebody will have to pay for it. Where will the money come from? Can the Minister assure us that the money will not be taken from other cash-strapped cultural institutions?

This is a unique partnership involving the use of an historic space. It takes time to get the legalities and other matters right. Therefore, I am not in a position to give the Deputy any further information on what is taking place, other than to say that the project was advertised, expressions of interest have been considered by the assessment panel, and I intend to announce the successful applicant in the near future.

What were the applicants interested in?

The use of the facility.

For what we are going to use it for in terms of what is going to be put in it. It is for the creation of a culture and heritage centre. I am sorry I cannot give the Deputy any further details. A few issues have yet to be resolved. The project is progressing well. As soon as I have the final details, I will be happy to let the Deputy know.

Arts Funding

Aengus Ó Snodaigh


137. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht the supports in place for aging artists in this State, once they have reached retirement age; and, in view of their valuable contribution to cultural life, if a system of assessment of lifetime earnings within the State will be developed with the aim of supporting those without financial security in old age. [5518/15]

I ask the Minister to consider the supports that are in place or need to be in place for aging artists in the State once they reach retirement age or are in ill health in later years, given their valued contribution to the cultural life of the State.

The nature of employment within the arts sector encompasses a wide range of activities. It can include those engaged in the arts practice within specific artistic genres and can encompass areas that flow from such artistic pursuits. It may also embody the industrial creative sectors, including audiovisual production. Therefore, income and pension arrangements for artists can vary widely across the sector.

The Government appreciates the importance of the arts, culture and the creative industries to society and to the international artistic reputation of this country. Ireland has a reputation for being supportive of artists through the provision of the tax exemption for artists. I was particularly pleased that the Government introduced a 25% increase in the artists' tax exemption for 2015. This important measure recognises the invaluable contribution which arts and culture practitioners make here at home and abroad.

The feedback available to me indicates that artists very much welcome the increase in the exemption limits. The scheme ensures that Ireland continues to be a place where the work of artists is valued and where their place in society is assured.

We all have heard and have been told stories over the years of some of our most famous artists, creative thinkers, painters, actors, etc. dying in abject poverty and destitution. It is not an image of which Ireland should be proud. I seek that the Department would look at ways to ensure that there is some type of safety net to capture such artists when in ill health or infirm because of old age to help them through their ill health in order that they are not left destitute and in poverty. The Department should also look at ways to ensure that there is a mechanism to capture and recognise their lifelong contribution for pension and other purposes to ensure that they are appreciated, not only through their art but also in their lifetime.

In addition to what I mentioned earlier, Aosdána, which was established in 1981, is a unique State initiative which honours artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland. Membership of Aosdána, which is by peer nomination and election, is limited to 250 living artists who have produced a distinguished body of work. Members of Aosdána may avail under certain conditions of the Cnuas, a stipend which is designed to enable them to devote their energies fully to their work. A defined contribution pension scheme, to which the Arts Council also contributes, is in place for all members of Aosdána.

With regard to State pensions, I understand that artists can avail of such pensions subject to the standard eligibility conditions. Where a person does not meet the qualifying conditions for a contributory State pension, I understand that he or she may apply for the means-tested, non-contributory State pension.

There is merit in Deputy Ó Snodaigh's proposal to support artists who are off sick or unable to work due to illness. As the economy improves, that merits consideration.

Departmental Strategies

Catherine Murphy


138. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht further to Question No. 621 of 18 December 2014, if her Department is now in a position to publish the finalised national landscape strategy; the expected timeframe towards implementation of the strategy; if it remains her opinion that no legislative changes will be required; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5506/15]

This relates to the national landscape strategy, a draft of which was produced in July of last year and which was opened to submissions until 18 September. When will the finalised landscape strategy be published?

As I outlined in my reply to the Deputy's Question No. 621 of 18 December 2014, a draft national landscape strategy for Ireland 2015-2025 was approved by Government on 1 July last and subsequently screened for strategic environmental assessment and appropriate assessment. I expect to publish the national landscape strategy early this year. It remains my view that no legislation will be required at this stage to give effect to the objectives and actions of the strategy. Implementation will take place on a phased basis over the ten-year lifetime of the strategy.

Were issues such as for example, wind farms, considered in the context of the landscape strategy?

Will new measures need to be put in place to include communities? That dovetails with the Aarhus Convention, which requires meaningful engagement with communities when something is planned for an area. It is clear that it cannot just be a box-ticking exercise. It must be meaningful. In the first instance, when drawing up a landscape strategy it would be very important to know the right places and the wrong places to put things. I welcome the publication of the strategy early this year.

The strategy is the first step to meeting our obligations under the European Landscape Convention adopted in 2000 and ratified by Ireland in 2002. The definition of landscape drawn up by the European Landscape Convention reflects the concept that landscapes evolve through time as a result of being acted upon by natural and human forces. It also underlines the fact that the landscape is composed of various elements that have to be taken together and not in isolation. The core objective of the strategy is to allow for the sustainable management of change and it is not about the freezing of the landscape at a particular point in its continuing evolution.

There are six core objectives derived from the European Landscape Convention: to recognise landscapes in law; to develop a national landscape character assessment; to develop landscape policies; to increase landscape awareness; to identify education and training needs; and to strengthen public participation. The strategy contains 19 related actions, one on implementation, four relating to planning, five dealing with public awareness and the remaining actions are related to education, training and research.

In response to the Deputy's question on the development of energy, transport or other infrastructure, the strategy is a policy framework which will inform and assist in the resolution of challenges arising from competing priorities when dealing with the landscape. A national landscape character assessment will be a critical first step in mapping the character and diversity of Ireland's landscapes, which will ensure a consistency of approach to landscapes at local planning authority and agency levels, in particular for neighbouring planning authorities sharing the same landscape and agencies whose functions affect the character of many landscapes.

Cultural Policy

Seán Ó Fearghaíl


139. Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht her plans to publish a national cultural policy; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5526/15]

The Minister and her predecessor have both committed themselves to the publication of the first ever national cultural policy. That is a positive and innovative move. The question seeks to provide the Minister with an opportunity to tell the House how she has progressed towards the eventual publication of the document. It was described as culture 2025. I assume we will not have to wait until 2025 before it is published.

No, we certainly will not. We will publish it in 2015. I am committed to the delivery of the country's first ever national cultural policy - culture 2025. In this regard, I plan to initiate a wide-scale consultation process to ensure that all stakeholders and members of the public can make their views known. With that in mind, I have initiated some general discussion on issues around the process of developing the policy with a number of stakeholders, including the Council of National Cultural Institutions. A draft discussion paper is currently being finalised within my Department, having regard to those discussions, and I intend to publish it shortly. I look forward to substantive engagement with the arts and culture sector, the general public and other interested parties in the development of the new policy.

As the Deputy indicated, this is the first time a cultural policy is being developed. We are breaking new ground. A draft document will shortly be available for consultation. I want as many people as possible to get involved in the consultation process. In drawing up the document, the Department has been in contact with a number of interested parties and we have taken soundings from the cultural institutions. I am very keen that as many people as possible will buy into it because it is a very important document.

New Orleans has a document on the city as a cultural capital and the importance of culture to both the economy and the promotion of the arts in its communities.

I would probably be very impressed with what the Minister is saying if it was not a direct repeat of what the then Minister, Deputy Deenihan, said to me back in January 2014. He said at the time that there would be widespread national consultation and that a draft discussion paper would be published shortly. However, 13 months later, this has not happened.

I take it that the new Minister has got her teeth into this matter and that she will drive the initiative forward. She has told us it will be done in the current year. The Minister has her work cut out if she is to undertake a comprehensive consultation, obtain the details of the consultation, study them and then present the document. Is the Minister confident that this challenge, which she has set for herself, will be attained in 2015?

This document is definitely one of my priorities. It is a very important document and is the first of its kind. It will focus on the meaning of culture in the 21st century. Within the next few weeks the draft document will be published and made available for consultation. I agree with the Deputy that the timescales are short, but we intend to make it available in order that people can become involved. We want people to buy into it and to give their views. We want to find out what can be done to embed culture at the heart of public sector decision-making and discourse and in corporate sector and private sector decision-making.

I emphasise the importance of culture to this country. Everything that leaves this country is a representation of Ireland's culture which is such an intrinsic part of us. Many different areas will feed into this policy document to define what culture is for 2025.

Does the Minister accept that this document must re-establish quite clearly the arm's length principle to the effect that this Government accepts that a body such as the Arts Council, for example, must be autonomous in its work in disbursing grants? Does she also accept that it is essential that the independence of the national cultural institutions, which have felt threatened by her Government, will be reaffirmed in this document and that it will address their concerns?

I accept the arm's length principle by which the Arts Council works and also the cultural institutions. I refer to the legislation to put the National Concert Hall on a statutory footing. The institution will be accountable to the Minister for its corporate governance and how it spends its budget. Monetary controls will be in place. However, the artistic side of the cultural institutions will be left to them as their business. It is up to the Minister to ensure accountability for the taxpayers' money invested in these institutions.

Wildlife Conservation

Catherine Murphy


140. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she will confirm that all outstanding matters brought by the European Commission against Ireland concerning the State’s transposition and implementation of the birds directive, details supplied, relating to the protection of endangered birds have been resolved; the measures that have been put in place to ensure implementation; if fines have accrued against Ireland; if so, the amount; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5507/15]

This question relates to the conservation of species of birds that are dwindling. It refers to the complaint heard at the European Court about Ireland's implementation of the directive.

My Department, in conjunction with a number of other Departments and agencies, has been engaged in a significant programme of work to meet the requirements of this case since the judgment issued in 2007. The majority of issues in the judgment have now been addressed to the satisfaction of the European Commission and no fines have been applied against the State. However, the case is not yet closed, as some unresolved elements remain. These issues, and actions to deal with them, have been agreed with the Commission and are set out in a programmes of measures, which may be viewed on the Department’s website. Progress on implementation is demonstrated by six-monthly updates of the programme, co-ordinated by the Department.

The background to the case was to create a comprehensive scheme of protection for all wild bird species naturally occurring in the European Union, which was adopted by a directive in 1979 in response to increasing concern about the decline in Europe's wild bird population resulting from pollution and loss of habitats as well as unsustainable use. It is recognised that many wild bird species are migratory and require international co-operation for their conservation. The codified version of the directive, which was adopted in 2009, places great emphasis on the protection of habitats for endangered as well as migratory species, particularly through the establishment of a network of special protection areas comprising all the most suitable territories for the species.

We signed up to an obligation but we did not fulfil it. This obligation predates the Government, and the Minister is working towards resolving this issue. Conservation is never easy, and we know a number of species have dwindling populations. Do the European institutions take account of the staff and resources required to fulfil these obligations, particularly at a time when there are huge constraints on the economy? We can see from Question Time today the variety of matters for which the Department is responsible, at a time when it has probably been losing staff and expertise. Is there any give from the European Union in terms of insisting on conservation when, unfortunately, it would be fairly far down the food chain when it comes to other issues at European level?

Under the new rural development programme, GLAS, some assistance is available for farmers. The scheme, which is operated by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, continues to provide payments for farmers under the corncrake grant scheme, which is offered to farmers with calling corncrake on their land in a given year, and for a small number of five-year farm plans. With regard to resources, I am unsure whether funding is available through Europe, but I can check and get back to the Deputy.

Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme

Denis Naughten


141. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if she will provide details on the bogs that are to be closed to turf cutting on foot of the publication of the review of raised bog natural heritage areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [5462/15]

This time last year we were told by the then Minister, Deputy Deenihan, that another round of designations would take place. At the time, he gave a commitment to the House that within a number of months those bogs would be listed and there would be consultation with the people cutting turf on them. We are now 12 months down the road but we still have not received the list of new designations that will take place, and further turf cutters who have established rights on these bogs will have those rights denied because we have not yet published the relevant list.

The report entitled Review of Raised Bog Natural Heritage Area Network, published in January 2014, which is available to download from the Department’s website, provides detail on future arrangements regarding turf cutting on each of the 75 current raised bog natural heritage areas. The review has concluded that Ireland could more effectively achieve conservation of threatened raised bog habitat through focused protection and restoration of a reconfigured network. This will entail the phasing out of turf cutting on certain natural heritage areas by 1 January 2017, and the partial or complete de-designation of certain natural heritage areas. To compensate for the loss of habitat within sites where it is proposed that turf cutting can continue, 25 undesignated raised bogs which are in public ownership or where there is reduced turf cutting pressure will be designated as natural heritage areas. Compensation will be made available to affected turf cutters.

I do not propose to identify these sites until I am in a position to apply the relevant legal protections to them. This will be done following the completion of the necessary preparatory work. However, I am advised that up to 140 active turf cutters may be affected by these new designations. As with all designations, the Department will, in due course, directly contact individual landowners in the relevant areas, and advertisements will be placed in local newspapers. An explanation will be given as to why a site is being proposed for designation and of the process through which individuals may appeal against the designation of their lands, up to having their cases considered formally by the independent designated areas appeals board.