There is a slight change to the matters selected for debate. The matters raised by Deputies Michael Moynihan, Martin Kenny, Timmy Dooley and Eamon Ó Cuív have been selected for discussion.
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Rural Regeneration and Development Fund
I want to discuss the issue of the Kanturk link road. This project has received planning permission and is shovel-ready. Significant progress has been made by the local authority with the purchase of the land and the design process. The lands required having been already fenced off by Cork County Council. Councillor Bernard Moynihan has put a great deal of work into this project at council level. It is a priority project. Kanturk has the unique distinction of being the largest town in the largest barony in the largest county of Ireland.
It is a focal point for Duhallow. It has significant potential. We have secured funding for a number of significant projects, which are moving on. I am talking about the link road and the relief which it will give to the town centre at points during rush hour, for example, when the town is choked and congested with traffic. This link road has been discussed at local authority and other levels over the last 25 years. This project is almost ready. It was submitted under the rural regeneration programme when it was last open at the end of last year. I am extremely disappointed that funding did not come through on that occasion. It is a shovel-ready project. Substantial emphasis has been put on developing the town. Why it did not get funding at that stage is beyond me.
The Department of Rural and Community Development has to accept that this is a worthwhile project. It has been prioritised by Cork County Council. The local authority has done substantial work to advance this and other projects going through the planning and design process which are awaiting funding, such as the school. Planning permission has been secured. The county council has purchased the required lands. It is a shovel-ready project. The Minister might allude in his response to why the funding was not forthcoming to the last round in November. There was another round in February or March. The link road in Kanturk is a project which would contribute to economic development in the region. It is vitally important to ensure that Kanturk town can grow and develop and that we have a centre for the greater Duhallow region, a market town similar to many other towns. I need not advise the Minister of State about the number of shops closed in many of these towns and the decay in these communities, including Kanturk. Will the Minister of State explain why it has not been funded to date? What funding can the Minister of State offer for the link road in Kanturk, County Cork?
I understand that the Deputy’s question refers to an application for funding from Cork County Council to the rural regeneration and development fund which is administered by the Department of Rural and Community Development. The rural regeneration and development fund seeks to support ambitious and strategic projects which have the potential to transform rural economies and communities. It is one of the four funds established under Project Ireland 2040. The Government has committed €1 billion over ten years to the fund and €315 million has been allocated for the period 2019 to 2022. The first call for applications closed in September 2018. There was a large response to the call with 280 applications received. On foot of the first call, 38 successful category 1 projects and 46 category 2 projects were announced with funding of €86 million provided from the fund to support projects worth €117 million throughout the country.
Successful proposals for the fund are determined on a competitive basis and not all projects which meet the requirements may be funded. The Department received a category 1 application from Cork County Council for the Kanturk link road for funding of €747,000. The proposal underwent an assessment by the Department and was considered by the independent project advisory board. However, it was not recommended for funding to the Minister at the time. As it is a competitive process, not all projects that apply to each call can be funded. The assessment process for applications made under the first call comprised different stages of evaluation. The initial assessment was undertaken by the Department of Rural and Community Development, which involved proposed projects being marked against the criteria set out in the information booklet for the first call. The next stage in the process was consideration by the project advisory board, which was established to provide high-level guidance on the suitability of proposals for funding and assisting in making recommendations to the Minister. The project advisory board considered the projects under these criteria: the marks applied in the internal evaluation process; categorisation of the applications by the Department; the observations and advice of the members of the board; and the need to deliver balanced regional development in accordance with the aims of the national planning framework and the objectives of the fund.
Final decisions on the funding of projects were made by the Minister, Deputy Ring, following consideration of the recommendations to him. Under the first call, the Minister, Deputy Ring, announced funding of €4.4 million for eight projects in County Cork. Among these projects was the development of a multi-purpose, floodlit, all-weather facility in the village of Banteer. This facility will be available for use by the community throughout the year. The second project was the relocation, restoration and fit-out of a heritage building in Kinsale town centre as the new library for the town. The third was an international standard mountain bike trail in the Ballyhoura region. The new trail will provide recreational, health and tourism benefits. Another project was the development of regeneration strategies for the towns of Rathcormac and Ballydesmond. Applicants who have been unsuccessful in the first call may reapply for the second call.
Applicants who were unsuccessful in the first call may reapply for the second call. When will the second call be? How much money is in the second call? The Minister of State said that when the advisory board evaluated the project, it did not meet the criteria. Has there been an engagement process between the local authority and the Department about this funding of €747,000? It underwent an assessment by the Department. Could we have the independent project advisory board recommendations? Why was it not funded under that? How much money is available under the next project? Will the Minister commit that the vital link road in Kanturk will be considered under that? I cannot overstate the importance of this to the town of Kanturk and to the region. It is important to allow it to grow and prosper. The Minister of State said that there will be a new call which can be applied to. When is the second call happening? When will decisions be made on the second call? Is there any possibility that funding applications that are already in place could be looked at in light of further moneys that may be made available? While it was not successful with previous calls, will the Minister of State commit or is there any possibility that moneys that are still in the Department under that rural regeneration fund could be given to Kanturk as a matter of urgency rather than going through the second phase of this? I think Cork County Council made an exceptional application. The reasons were outlined very clearly. Is there any possibility that any funding coming down the tracks could be provided rather than going through a second call? The Minister of State might outline the process for the second call if that is how it has to proceed.
The second call for applications to the rural regeneration and development fund is now open and the closing date for that is 6 August. The overarching priority for the second call for proposals will be to support projects which exhibit the greatest potential for the achievement of stated national, regional and local strategic development and planning objectives, and the delivery of significant and sustainable regeneration in rural towns and villages and the surrounding areas. The types of project that will be supported under this call include infrastructure that enables improved accessibility with and to towns and villages, especially to support sustainable modes such as walking, cycling and public transport links.
The Deputy asked if this application can be considered now rather than waiting for the next application process. The application process is open so the council should apply now under this application. With regard to feedback about the first application, the Department has given feedback to the local authorities on projects if they were not successful and has set out the areas in which they were weakest, and there is a dialogue. This call is only for category 1 projects. The money committed in the last call is committed so there is no more money.
The first €86 million will be spent from now on. A total of €315 million will be spent over the four years. I expect a similar amount of money will be available for the next funding year. An application must be made by the local authority. Applicants must take cognisance of the fact that the application process might be slightly different due to the nuances that might have been introduced since the previous year. It is not exactly the same. Issues arise due to Brexit and how the project will impact positively in a Brexit situation. It is important that the local authority would examine the application process and the questions and not just think it is the same as the previous application process. If assistance is required, the Department will provide it at any stage. The project described by Deputy Michael Moynihan is the type of one I would consider suitable for a rural regeneration project. It is important that the application is sent in as the closing date is 6 August 2019. Applications are open to projects that have planning permission and where everything is in place so that they are ready to go to the next stage, which is full design and construction.
This is the fifth or sixth time I have raised this issue regarding people with type 1 diabetes in the north west. Some 31 patients would benefit from having an automatic insulin pump fitted. The problem is that they cannot get the pumps fitted although they are on the shelf waiting for them because a diabetic nurse or specialist nursing staff are unavailable to train them in how to use them. The situation has been going on for six months. I have raised the issue on numerous occasions. I have spoken to the manager of the hospital and I have written to the hospital. I have written to the CEO of the hospital group. I raised the matter three times with the senior Minister, Deputy Harris. In fairness to him, he has always been very accommodating and he has told me that he would get back to me. I raised the matter with him again no later than last Tuesday week. I met him afterwards and he said he would get back to me before the end of the day. I know he is depending on people in the HSE to get back to him with answers, but nobody seems to have the answers.
In addition, Suzanne Donnelly, chairperson of the Sligo branch of Diabetes Ireland, wrote to the Minister's private secretary a few weeks ago about the 31 patients in the north west. The reply she received was outrageous. It said that under the 2004 HSE Act the Minister could not intervene on behalf of an individual patient. Her letter was not about an individual patient; her letter was about a service which was denied to people in the north west, and it is being continually denied.
I do not know who in the HSE is so incompetent or what idiot is not doing his or her job, but the only time the Minister, the Department and the HSE will gain any credibility with the public is when such people are sacked and lose their job and they will have to go to the Labour Court to explain why they are so god damn incompetent that they think that their job is to block people from getting a service.
I rarely get angry but it makes me very angry when the genuine people who have come to me, who need to get the service and are waiting for it, are being fobbed off and told the hospital has applied to get a nurse to provide the service. The nurse who was providing the service in the hospital in Sligo was seconded to another part of the hospital. She was not sacked and she did not go on maternity leave. Now the hospital says it has to apply to the HSE to get someone to replace her. The hospital says it is waiting for approval for the post. The post exists and those people are waiting. It is shameful that the situation has continued for so long. I do not blame the Minister directly but I do blame him for not dealing with it. Some individual somewhere is failing the people with type 1 diabetes in the north west who need an insulin pump. He or she will not take responsibility and hides behind bits of paper saying do not write to me about it again.
The Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, is here to respond. She has been given a response to read. To be honest, I do not expect it to be much better than the one Suzanne Donnelly got. It would be great if it is, but we are in trouble until we get to grips with the people in the HSE who think their job is to block progress and prevent people from getting their entitlements. The only way we will deal with them is to kick them out, give them their P45 and let them take a case to the Labour Court or wherever they want, but that is the only way the Minister can be seen to stand up for the patients who need somebody to stand up for them. I know the Minister, Deputy Harris, is genuine about this but along with the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne, and others who are also genuine, they need to stand up to the people who are blocking others in society who deserve to get a service.
I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for raising this matter. I am aware that he has raised it previously with me on a number of occasions. I understand that a reply has issued to the Deputy from the Minister, Deputy Harris.
Just like the rest of the world, Ireland is experiencing sustained increases in the number of people with diabetes. Currently, there are more than 200,000 people with diabetes in Ireland. People with type 1 diabetes make up 10% of all people with diabetes. Appropriate and timely management of diabetes can reduce the risk of deterioration in health and well-being.
The adult diabetes service in Sligo University Hospital is currently led by a consultant endocrinologist-general physician with her team, including one locum consultant. This service covers a catchment area including Sligo and Leitrim, south Donegal, north Roscommon and west Cavan. The adult diabetes service also includes an insulin pump service.
In addition, there is a pregnancy diabetes service, an inpatient ward-based consultation service, as well as an inpatient and outpatient podiatry service. There is a well-established, integrated multidisciplinary team approach between both the hospital and the community. On a hospital basis, the service is supported by specialist diabetic nurses in the hospital, specialist diabetic nurses in the community, an advanced nurse practitioner working between the hospital and the community and a full range of support staff, both across the acute and community services. There is a well-established shared care approach between the acute and community services including the specialist diabetic nurses and GP practices.
The adult service is complemented by a paediatric diabetes specialist service, which provides a regional insulin pump service for children across the north-west region. Both the adult and paediatric pump service have experienced considerable growth in referrals both from new patients commencing treatment as well as the relocation of patients from national centres.
A general paediatric consultant post was advertised in recent months which will provide for oversight of the insulin pump service in the north west. Interviews are due to be held in early July, following the completion of a shortlisting process in May 2019. That will ensure all new paediatric patients will commence their pump therapy at Sligo University Hospital for patients from Sligo and Donegal.
The development of the diabetes day unit at Sligo University Hospital is proceeding to stage 3 with the tender process now under way following the receipt of a letter of approval in April 2019. It is expected that building works will commence in quarter 3 of 2019, subject to funding approval for construction. The funding of all projects is subject to the availability of capital funding and the progress of other priorities.
The Government is committed to the further development of services for people with diabetes and other chronic conditions. Earlier this year, the Sláintecare Action Plan 2019 was published, which will be a fundamental enabler in the delivery of the Sláintecare vision. Under Sláintecare, integrated care programmes for people living with chronic conditions will also be implemented, as well as plans to expand capacity in GP and community nursing to manage chronic disease.
As part of the action plan, a total of four workshops were held, including one on diabetes. The workshops were attended by a mix of clinical and management stakeholders from the HSE and the Department and will inform future decision-making and service planning.
The Minister, Deputy Harris, is keen to continue to work with Deputy Martin Kenny and he has written to him today. I do not know whether the Deputy has received the letter.
I have taken notes of the other points raised by the Deputy and I will respond on them after his contribution.
I thank the Minister of State. Much as I expected, the statement does not go to the heart of it because it refers to an advertisement for a general paediatric consultant's post. I refer to a service for adults, not children. Some 31 adults are waiting to be provided with the service. The paediatric service is available for children who require an insulin pump and they are getting it. The problem arises when they reach 18 years. One such patient is a young woman from south Leitrim who is going to college in Galway. She needs to get an insulin pump and she has been waiting four or five months for it. She cannot get it because there is no one to train her on how to use it. That is unacceptable in this day and age. It is the same for many others. A total of 31 patients in the north west are affected by the delay.
The statement also referred to the new diabetes care unit in Sligo University Hospital, which is proceeding to stage 3 of the tender process, but that is dependent on funding and we still do not have clarity on funding.
It would be useful to know that the funding is to become available. I do not want to stop focusing on the issue I am raising, however. The specific issue I am raising concerns 31 adults who need to get the insulin pump. It has been purchased for them and it is sitting on the shelf to be given to them but they cannot use it because there is no diabetes support and no specialist nurse to train them in its use. These are generally intelligent people who, with a small amount of training and assistance, would be able to make a great leap forward in the treatment of their type 1 diabetes if they could get the pump fitted. It has been denied to them in their area although it is available in other parts of the country. Therefore, the Minister of State can understand the people's frustration.
If the Minister, Deputy Simon Harris, has written to me today, I have not seen the letter yet. I will read it with interest. Let me return to the central point, which is that somebody somewhere is not doing his or her job. That person needs to be held to account. If the Minister will not do so, then we have to hold the Minister to account and say he is not doing his job. Somewhere along the line, the buck stops. The Minister must be prepared to find the individual, sort him or her out and determine what the hell he or she believes his or her job is. The individual is so incompetent that he or she can think that 31 people, for the sake of a little training, can be left to the wind and that letters can be written saying correspondence should be sent to the complaints department. That is what the HSE told the association in Sligo. It is absolutely ridiculous. It is time somebody's head rolled somewhere in the HSE for this kind of incompetence.
I note the Deputy's frustration and concern. I believe I have dealt with this Topical Issue matter twice before. I do not know what is in the letter sent to the Deputy by the Minister today. I do not know whether he will be pleased with it when it reaches his desk. It is a matter he will have to pursue with the Minister. I understand, although not from the reply I read, that there are 31 adults waiting for the pump to be given to them. I will pass this on to the Minister.
Regarding the frustration and concern of the Deputy and his remarks on HSE staff, I do not have any briefing but I will certainly pass on his remarks to the Minister. I believe I have covered most of the points the Deputy made. I will make sure, when I go back to my office, to inform the Minister about the Deputy's frustration and concerns, as I have done before. I hope that when the Deputy reads the letter today, there will be some good news in it.
I welcome the opportunity to raise this important issue. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, but I am deeply disappointed that the senior Minister, Deputy Shane Ross, is not present to deal with this debate. That is in no way undermining the capacity of the Minister of State to deal with the issue. If there were a photo opportunity that would encourage the Minister to look better or add to his public profile, he would certainly find time to participate. Notwithstanding that, I must put to the House that Shannon Airport is a vital piece of the infrastructural jigsaw that drives the mid-western regional economy.
The entire country is facing an enormous challenge owing to Brexit, as the Minister of State will be well aware. Whether there is a hard or soft Brexit, this country is facing very difficult circumstances that will challenge economic growth and the capacity to retain jobs and attract tourists. It beggars belief that the State has not found it possible to support Shannon Development in its current activity. The airport is currently investing €20 million in safety and security measures. This should have been funded by the central Exchequer as part of a programme of support for regional development, particularly when we are facing a very strong headwind, which will undoubtedly come whether there is a hard or soft Brexit. Shannon Airport has had to take the €20 million from its own resources, resources that would be better deployed supporting the continued development of the airport, continued route development and an increase in traffic. Unfortunately, the money has to be poured into the base infrastructure, leaving no capacity to use the funds to increase capacity at the airport.
In 2019, passenger numbers are already disappointing and are predicted to get worse. The continued grounding of the Norwegian Boeing 737 Max fleet has added further to a poor set of circumstances. Since its disconnection from Dublin Airport, given its independence, Shannon Airport has failed to meet expected growth targets. According to the predictions made in 2012, passenger numbers were expected to be approximately 2.5 million but the airport has scarcely 1.8 million passengers now. This is a long way short of what would be considered to be acceptable and necessary to retain a viable airport. We have seen passenger numbers fall this year by somewhere close to 5%, or maybe higher when extrapolated over the rest of the year. Passenger numbers in Dublin Airport are up by approximately 8.4% and the numbers in Cork, Donegal, Kerry and Knock airports are up 11%, 7%, 5% and 9%, respectively. In the period in question, Shannon Airport has been losing passengers. It needs Government support. It is not just about supporting the airport but also about supporting the principle of balanced regional development, foreign investment and the capacity of IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland to develop new opportunities to protect employment in the region in this very challenging environment.
I appeal to the Minister of State to relay my remarks to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in the hope that he will heed the views of this House, get his act together and support a vital piece of infrastructure for the mid-west, which is the engine that benefits not only the mid-west but also the entire west.
On behalf of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, I thank Deputy Dooley for raising this matter today. I pass on the Minister's apologies.
Shannon Airport, established by statute in September 2014, is a strategic business within Shannon Group. It is a commercial state company whose purpose is to promote and facilitate air transport and aviation services in and around Shannon Airport and to optimise the return on its land and property and on its shareholdings in subsidiary companies. Therefore, as a State-owned enterprise with a fully commercial mandate, operational issues in regard to Shannon Airport, in the first instance, are matters for the airport. All of us here today can agree that the statutory role carried out by Shannon Airport is extremely important. This is acknowledged in the national aviation policy which recognises the strategic importance of Shannon Airport for connectivity for the mid-west region and as a gateway to the Wild Atlantic Way.
Since Shannon Airport's separation from the DAA in 2012, it has seen passenger numbers increase by 34%. That is a significant increase in seven years. As recently reported in the group's annual report for 2018, the airport has been the fastest growing outside Dublin, and it enjoyed its sixth consecutive year of growth. Indeed, 2018 saw an increase of 6.5%, or 113,000 passengers, over 2017, growth attributable to, for example, new services to Barcelona, Bristol and Liverpool, through Ryanair, and growth in transatlantic traffic, which increased by 7% to 427,000 passengers, with Shannon Airport operating its highest number of transatlantic routes in nine years during 2018.
The Deputy is correct in pointing out that the company had been forecasting growth of about 5% in passenger numbers for 2019. That has not transpired. So far, we have seen a loss but there are a number of factors. The volatility of the global aviation market has been felt this year by airports around the world, including Shannon Airport, due a combination of issues, including an increase in geopolitical risks and unstable oil prices, as well as the ongoing grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. This has affected greatly a number of services that were operating or due to resume or commence operations from Shannon Airport in 2019. This has impacted passenger numbers at the airport. While these matters are totally outside the control of the company, I am aware that it is working hard to deal with the fallout and put in place alternative services at the earliest opportunity. The Minister's Department is working with the airport to explore what marketing supports might be available to assist this work.
It is important, however, to point out that decisions by airlines on the routes and services they provide are commercial matters in which the Minister has no function. Under Project 2040, Shannon Group, through its subsidiaries, which include Shannon Airport, has plans to invest in excess of €150 million in its capital programme over the period to 2022.
This includes a significant investment in the construction of a wide-body aeroplane hangar. This will be the first such hangar constructed at an Irish airport in over 20 years and represents the kind of expansion that was envisaged in order to grow a globally recognised and internationally competitive aviation industry cluster in and around the airport campus. The reputation of the International Aviation Services Centre was boosted in 2018 when it was appointed as the first Irish member of the European Aerospace Cluster Partnership, an EU-funded association that brings together the principal aerospace industry clusters in Europe.
Shannon Airport provides essential strategic transport infrastructure, as has been pointed out, and services to airport users and the wider community in and around Shannon and to many of those who are transiting through. In a small country such as ours, it is important, if not vital, that Shannon Airport continues to exploit opportunities that benefit all citizens which support both the local economy and that of the State. It is also vital that the stakeholders in the region support the airport in order to optimise opportunities for growing services and to ensure their viability by using them. The Minister supports all endeavours of the group to ensure the prosperity of Shannon Airport is in line with Government policy.
An effort has been made by the Government to suggest that the airport has done really well in the past couple of years. This has been done by means of a comparison involving the use of passenger numbers from 2012, when the economic crisis was at its height and when passenger numbers were down at all airports. Every other airport in the State has experienced a considerably higher level of growth in passenger numbers than Shannon Airport. There has been major growth in the economy and in passenger and tourism numbers in the interim period but, regardless of which metric one uses to measure these things, it is obvious that Shannon Airport has fallen significantly behind. It is time for the Minister and his Department to look at the regime in Shannon Airport. Two chief executives have come and gone during the period to which I refer. There is a need for a significant change in leadership and that is something the Minister and his Department need to address. It is not good enough to just suggest that the airport has been given its independence and is now on its own.
I questioned the capacity of an independent entity to survive against the threat of competition from Dublin Airport when all of this was first proposed. I do not want this to be a case of me saying "I told you so". What I predicted at the time has now come to pass. We cannot give up on Shannon Airport. It is not good enough for any of us to state that I predicted this; it is about what we can do now in the situation we find ourselves. There is a need for significant intervention on the part of the State. If the Minister and the Department are prepared to look at route support, marketing funds or whatever assistance is available, then let us see that. Unfortunately, the €20 million from the airport's resources that has to be invested in safety measures could have been much better used in supporting its continued growth at, hopefully, a better level and to get it to the point of viability.
The Taoiseach is on record as stating that a facility like Shannon Airport would only be viable if throughput there reached 3 million passengers. The target for this year was 2.5 million but we will scarcely reach 1.6 million or 1.7 million. We need the support of the Minister, the Department and the Government. There is a willing and capable workforce at the airport, the members of which are prepared to do whatever is necessary to make it viable, but the support of Government is required. I ask the Minister of State to channel my concerns back to the Minister at the earliest possible opportunity.
I do not doubt that there are committed staff at the airport who are working hard and who, like the Government, want to ensure its viability. As the Deputy indicated, the separation from the DAA in 2012 was not forced but it has brought about significant challenges and, in particular, competition, not just with Dublin Airport but also with the smaller regional airports. Given its size, Shannon Airport does not receive the same funding as the smaller airports but it does receive support and funding in other ways. Tourism Ireland strongly promotes Shannon Airport as an access point, particularly to the Wild Atlantic Way, but for other locations as well. A large amount of funding has been given to Tourism Ireland to ensure that it is part of that overall strategic plan and agenda.
There are challenges with Brexit, as the Deputy rightly outlined. The Department and the Government are acutely aware of these challenges, including those relating to a no-deal Brexit. Shannon Airport provides a European hub connectivity. Much of this is via London and Heathrow and there would be implications for it in a no-deal scenario. We are working with the European Commission on this. Contingency plans for a no-deal scenario in order to ensure that traffic through the various hubs in the UK will not be brought to a complete standstill. Obviously, this will underpin activities at Shannon Airport as well. As I have outlined, there had been an anticipation that passenger numbers would increase this year. This has not happened for a number of reasons. If one looks at the figures up to this year, however, there has been significant growth, not just in passenger numbers but also in the number of flights. This is not a matter in respect of which the Minister can intervene by increasing the number of flights but his team and his Department officials can work with Shannon Airport to ensure that the airport can avail of whatever opportunities exist and that Tourism Ireland and other national bodies are supporting it and making sure that the airport is part of their overall plan to promote Ireland.
I will see to it that the Minister is made aware of the Deputy's specific concerns.
Irish Coast Guard Issues
I thank the Minister of State for attending. For a number of years now there has been talk of providing a permanent base for the Coast Guard contingent based in west Connemara. As the Minister of State is probably aware, the Coast Guard operates with local crews that operate on a totally voluntary basis and with the helicopter service, which is on contract. The Coast Guard crew in west Connemara has no permanent base whatsoever. The coastline there is very long and indented and the Coast Guard receives frequent call-outs. The reality is that when it is mobilising and after it mobilises and returns from a mission, the crew has nowhere to meet to debrief, there are no toilets available to them, and nowhere to change their clothes or take a shower. They literally have nowhere to go. This is totally unsatisfactory.
There has been talk for the past number of years - I have correspondence dating back to 2017 and earlier - stating that the Coast Guard would be provided with a permanent location. The most obvious place in west Connemara is at the airstrip which was built at Cluain Leacht an Abba, just outside Cleggan in County Galway. It is so suitable because it is very accessible by road to all of the coastline from Killary all of the way down beyond Clifden and into Ballyconneely. The reality is that having the boat at that location is perfectly satisfactory because it is towed behind a trailer and can be launched wherever it is needed. It is not kept it at one pier and launched from there. The boat can be launched from any slip, once one can get it to the relevant location.
The location of a base was agreed. The Coast Guard wrote to what was then the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht a number of years ago and there was vague reference to building a permanent base for the local crew at that location. The other huge advantage is that every time the Coast Guard helicopter comes to Connemara, for training purposes of whatever, and needs to land, this is always and obviously done at the airstrip. It is safe and the Coast Guard crews know its location. It is what it says on the tin: an airstrip, and is very suitable for the Coast Guard.
When will the Minister show concern for these volunteers who give up time and effort to engage in sophisticated training? Following the accident that occurred in County Clare, such training is becoming even more rigorous, as is the training for helicopter crews. The crews do this training together. When will they receive access to the basic human facilities? It is not much to ask that such facilities be provided to people who give so much on a voluntary basis.
What I hope to hear is that the Minister is now moving forward with this project, which would be very low-cost in nature. The site and everything is there, it is just a question of erecting the buildings.
I hope that the reason the Minister could not be here is that he has good news for me and is going to announce that I need not have tabled this issue for debate because the Department is going to do the decent thing and provide this long-promised base.
The Minister of State has four minutes to give the good news.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for raising this matter and for his interest in it. The Minister cannot be present - the Deputy can take that as he will - but I will be as helpful as I can in my response.
I acknowledge the work of the Coast Guard and its teams. The job they do is often difficult and challenging. I appreciate the need for a new permanent Coast Guard base at Cleggan. As the Deputy mentioned, the Coast Guard unit based there is designated as a shoreline search unit and operates out of an historic rocket house with inadequate facilities. All volunteer Coast Guard units are categorised as shoreline search units and other units are assigned additional functions. For example, Westport is designated as a search and boat unit and Doolin is designated as a search, cliff and boat unit.
The Coast Guard is endeavouring to secure a suitable base for the Cleggan unit. Unfortunately, few local opportunities have emerged. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport registered an interest with the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as far back as 2015 in acquiring a site at the local airstrip in Cleggan. There have been ongoing communications since then between the Departments of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and Transport, Tourism and Sport.
I will outline some of that engagement. In 2015, the latter Department requested that the Office of Public Works, OPW, conduct a feasibility study of the potential use of space on the airstrip for a Coast Guard facility. That study, with an appropriate assessment screening, was completed in March 2016 and submitted by the OPW to the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for consideration and, if appropriate, the approval of that Department. Subject to that approval, the OPW proposed to submit a planning application for provision of a Coast Guard station on part of the airstrip on the basis of the feasibility study. A written consent of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as the site owner, is required to accompany any such planning application.
It was initially proposed to accommodate the Coast Guard from an earlier date by way of a temporary structure arrangement, to be followed by an application for a permanent new building within the lifetime of the temporary permission for the temporary structure, which would have been two to five years if granted. The then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht gave its consent to such a planning application in April 2016. However, I understand that the OPW is yet to pursue the drafting of the application, as the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has stated that the method by which the formal transfer of the relevant portion of the site will be achieved has not yet been finalised by that Department.
It has been brought to my attention that this matter has been raised with the Department a number of times, including as recently as this May. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will await a response from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The process is moving, however, and there has been considerable engagement back and forth, but it appears that the latter Department needs to sign off on certain matters.
I am sure the Minister of State shares my concern and frustration when Departments start pushing paper around from one to the other as if they are not all part of the same public service or the functioning of the Government, which is a collective of 15 people who are meant to ensure that all Departments work in tandem rather than against one another as rival companies. At what stage does the Government interfere and tell Departments that an answer is needed? Of course, there is always one quick way of getting an answer from a Department that is swinging the lead, so I do not accept the excuses from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. If it was not getting an answer from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in its various manifestations - it is now the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht - all it had to do was bring an aide-mémoire to the Cabinet. I assure the Minister of State that there would have been an answer from that Department and its Minister before the aide-mémoire ever got onto the Cabinet agenda. The Ministers all sit around the table together. It is their job collectively to run the country. I find this extraordinary.
I have with me a letter from 2017. It is part of the tennis match, where the ball is played into the other court, returns, gets played back again and so on without anything happening. This is a very simple issue. A lease or some other arrangement must be reached to permit the Coast Guard to erect its temporary and permanent structures. Actually, we can forget about the temporary structure at this stage and just go for the permanent one. Planning permission has to be acquired, but it has never been sought, and the structure must be built.
Would it be possible for the Minister of State to revert to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport on foot of my raising this issue and ask for a timeline for the project and a list of the steps that need to be taken to bring it to a conclusion? It is time that the people of Connemara who are involved in the Coast Guard have set out for them the steps to be taken, the bodies responsible and the timeline to be adhered to. Obfuscating and moving the issue from one body to another is not acceptable, as the collective Government should ensure that bodies answer one another.
Not knowing enough about this specific case, I can appreciate from the Deputy's response that it has been ongoing for some time. Clearly, there is a need for a structure, which the Government acknowledges. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, as part of the Coast Guard's multi-annual building programme, which is funded through that Department, has included a provision for a permanent Coast Guard base at Cleggan. It remains a priority for the Department. Obviously, there has been some toing and froing between the two Departments. I am informed that the OPW and the Department requested updates numerous times on the transfer of lands from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, most recently in May. They are awaiting a response.
I will relay the Deputy's frustration around the fact that this process is taking so long, but there have been further developments. The Cleggan unit has been prioritised by the Coast Guard for the new unmanned aerial vehicle, UAV, drones function and training. It is one of three units prioritised for this function and has undertaken training on the airstrip site. However, the burning issue is the need to have a permanent structure in place so that the Coast Guard and its crews have the facilities required to perform all of the functions that the Deputy has outlined they cannot currently perform at Cleggan. It is a priority and has been included in the multi-annual building programme. I will ask the Minister to revert to the Deputy with some form of a timeline. I will also raise the matter with the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.