I am CEO of the local development company, Comhar na nOileán. Joining me is Ms Cathy Ní Ghoill, who is our chairperson and also a manager of Comharchumann Forbartha Árann. Comhar na nOileán was founded on the concept of strengthening communities on the islands through working with them, delivering programmes and leveraging support to enhance and sustain them. We deliver a diverse number of programmes such as social inclusion and community activation programmes, LEADER, the rural social scheme and the walks scheme, all of which are so important to the islands and the communities around the coast. We were initially set up as a local action group to deliver programmes to the Irish islands during the cohesion process of 2004 out of what was initially Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann. Then came the alignment process in 2014 brought about by the former Minister, Phil Hogan, and the Putting People First policy. All the local and rural development programmes were aligned with the community development committees set up under the local authorities.
The nature of community on the islands is evolving. Now that we are emerging from Covid-19, there are significant challenges and opportunities facing our communities, including a transition to a zero-carbon economy and climate change mitigation. Believe me, no one is more worried about climate change than islanders as we are all very vulnerable to any changes in the environment around us. Biodiversity is crucial to us and it is the reason most islands are very special. There are high nature value landscapes all over the islands. Youth involvement, social enterprise, community planning and smart villages - we are working towards all these things the whole time. This evolving community make-up brings challenges and opportunities, social, cultural and economic. All our objectives in our organisation and working with others are based on supporting communities to use their own assets, building their capacity in order that they are stronger, resilient, enterprising, integrated and sustainable.
The most important aspect of this is community and local animation and capacity-building to stimulate ideas and enterprise, particularly in disadvantaged, peripheral island communities, with most islands in that category. Every island deserves an equal opportunity to access resources and funding and develop projects that benefit its local area. That is our role. We provide the capacity-building and animation on the ground in order that communities can access programmes.
Comhar na nOileán is the only local development company based in the Gaeltacht and also located on an offshore island, Inis Oírr, Oileáin Árann. Comhar na nOileán and its predecessor, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann, have successfully delivered, for example, the LEADER programme, the rural development programme, on the islands since 2000.
Comhar na nOileán functions because of the funding we receive for the various programmes that we administer. We are very grateful for it. The majority of our funding is through the Departments of Rural and Community Development and Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media and various other Departments.
I would like to thank all present for giving us the opportunity to come here and explain ourselves and to congratulate and thank the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, and the officials in her Department for supporting rural communities in Ireland through the transitional LEADER funds and other rural development funds. This is the first time we have seen an interim programme for LEADER. The interim programme is especially important at this crucial time, after the pandemic and Brexit, to support our rural communities and islands until the next LEADER programming period in 2023. We also welcome the increase in the funding rate for community and private projects, which has been especially important for the islands. This funding has been crucial for communities which have limited borrowing power and cash flow and which incurred additional costs relating to completing projects on the islands.
We welcome the policy document Our Rural Future, which runs to 120 pages and outlines 150 different actions to revive rural Ireland. We especially welcome Chapter 10 - Supporting the Sustainability of our Islands and Coastal Communities. It is heartening to see that we have some of the same ambitions as those outlined in Our Rural Future, which states: "Our ambition is to ensure our offshore islands continue to support sustainable and vibrant communities and that visitors have an opportunity to experience and appreciate the unique culture, heritage and environmental richness the islands have to offer." The reference to visitors is a little worrying. We feel that the islands should not just be sustained for visitors. The islands contribute greatly to the economy and culture. They often stimulating the economies of nearby mainland areas, especially in the context of tourism.
There are 12 policy measures relating to the islands and coastal communities mentioned in the document. The main one for us is the ten-year policy for islands development to 2030. Our Rural Future promises an extensive consultation process with island communities and there is a commitment to address issues such as housing, health, energy, utilities, waste management, climate change, education, connectivity, infrastructure and transport. There is also a commitment regarding three-year action plans for delivery across various Departments.
In recent years we have seen the publication of a number of policies and health reports in this regard. We should think about revisiting some of those reports, of which the Primary Care Island Services Review April 2017 is one. I know that it experienced setbacks due to Covid-19 but that report should be revisited. There was a great deal of work, involving consultation with the islands, done on that.
Fibre, in the context of broadband, is completely crucial to all of us. We want to see it coming to the islands
The past five years have been quite challenging in the context of delivering various programmes on the islands. Most of the programmes are being delivered, administered and managed through the local community development committee, LCDC, structures on a county-wide basis. As a result of this, islanders have to compete for limited resources with populations and interests that are much more advanced. Island-specific strategies need to be delivered by a body or organisation with an understanding and experience of the particular challenges of developing community enterprises and projects on the offshore islands. This was happening before 2015 and it has been shown to work effectively.
In order to allay concerns that specific calls for island strategies may conflict with the alignment policy introduced in the previous programme and ensure that work under the programmes is aligned with the work of the relevant LCDCs, we recommend that the strategies under the programmes be agreed and approved by the LCDCs in the island counties. Once they are agreed as policy, there should then be separate island strategies and mechanisms that can be devised in order to ensure that anything that happens is in line with national policy.
We in Comhar na nOileán believe that our organisation and Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann are key agencies in delivering on the actions and policy measures outlined in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future in conjunction with other groups such as Údarás na Gaeltachta, local authorities, the HSE and Departments. We also believe that agencies already in existence on the islands be used during the promised consultation process. Our Rural Future sits perfectly with Comhar na nOileán's strategic plan for the period 2021 to 2028. Our objectives are: sustaining the organisation and maintaining excellent governance; strengthening communities; stimulating enterprise; addressing poverty and social inclusion; education and training; culture and language; the natural environment; and harnessing our natural resources, which, of course, is very important. All this can be achieved by cohesion between the various funding streams such as LEADER, the social inclusion and community activation programme, SICAP, the walks scheme, the rural social scheme, the rural regeneration programme and the outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme.
We recommend the following to be taken into account: LEADER funds for the period 2021 to 2027 to be allocated nationally and ring-fenced for the islands and that Comhar na nOileán or a similar body be the delivery body for the next LEADER programme and other programmes; that the islands of Ireland be treated as one geographic area and not dispersed across four LCDCs in order that there would be no need to deal with up to six or seven evaluation committees during that process; and that the request for grant aid for private individual projects be increased from 50% to 75% and from 75% to 85% for community projects on the islands. The current LEADER programme is not suitable for the islands because islanders have limited borrowing power and cash flow and have additional costs involved in completing projects on the islands. As an example, a few years ago the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, increased the grant amount available to the islands by 50% because it recognised that there were additional cargo and VAT costs involved with bringing materials on to the offshore islands and in completing projects there.
We are of the view that the islands should be treated as one area and one lot under SICAP and not be viewed as part of the wider electoral divisions within the four relevant counties. The funding allocation under SICAP should not be based on population figures. The islands will never win the contest in that regard because their populations are so small. The population of the islands should be treated as a specific target group under SICAP. The current target groups are the unemployed, Travellers, and the Roma community, etc. We we would like islanders to be seen as a specific target group as well. We have requested this on a number of occasions and have been told that we need to prove that point and carry out a socioeconomic studies in respect of each of the islands. However, there is already acceptance, in chapter 10 of Our Rural Future, that, for instance, employment is less than the national average and that the proportion of the island population with no formal or primary education is higher than the national average. Do we really need to prove this? We can do so.
We have the skills in our organisations to do that, and we will come back and revisit the matter. It would be extremely useful if, under programmes such as SICAP, islanders were recognised as a specific target group.
My main point is that we should have island-specific programmes. We can deliver on many of the actions mentioned in Our Rural Future. We welcome the latter. We thank the committee for giving us a chance to comment on the proposed action plan. We look forward to assisting with it and participating in it.