I take it that the purpose of moving this motion was to enable the House to express its views on the situation which has been created by the proposal of the Six-County Government to close three branch lines which are regarded as cross-Border services or services common to both Administrations. When the Minister for Commerce in Belfast approached me, with a view to securing my assent to the closing of these three lines, I told him that, I was opposed to the closing of the lines and that I felt instead that the G.N.R. Board should be given an opportunity of trying out light diesel cars on these lines, in the belief that in that way the lines could be made economic and that in any case the contributive value of these lines to the main railway line would be enhanced. I put to Lord Glentoran at that time the consideration that the closing of the lines would cause considerable dislocation in the areas concerned, that it would deny the G.N.R Company the benefit of the income which came from these lines to the company proper and that when one considered the alternatives of providing road services, with the capital cost involved, the cost of maintaining roads to take the traffic which would be diverted from the railways, the consequent increased expenditure on the roads, the situation which would thus arise, was in my view, likely to be one in which very little real saving would be effected by closing the lines.
I emphasised, too, that the closing of the lines might mean very considerable redundancy for workers employed not only on the lines concerned but for people who were maintained as employees of the railway company because these lines operated. In other words, the cutting-off of some of these cross-Border services may well have repercussions of a serious character far removed from the area of operation of these branch lines. For example, the workers at Dundalk might seriously be affected in consequence of the closing of a branch line 40, 50 or 80 miles from Dundalk. I urged these considerations but the view of the Six-County Government was that they had made up their minds to close these branch lines. I said I could not consent to that proposal. I suggested that the machinery of the 1953 Act should be availed of to have the matter referred to the joint chairmen of the Transport Boards in the Six Counties and here. The chairmen ment. They examined the whole matter. They invited evidence. Having considered the matter at considerable length, the chairman of the Six-County Tribunal reported in favour of closing the lines. The chairman of the Twenty-Six County Tribunal reported against closing the lines.
The situation has now been reached in which the Minister for Commerce in Belfast has said that his Government proposes to go ahead with closing these three branch lines. That is a very vital matter so far as the people employed on the railway lines are concerned. It is a very vital matter from the point of view of those who transport their goods over the three lines. It may well be for the local ratepayers a matter of considerable importance if they have to pay the cost of making the roads adequate to take the traffic which must now be diverted to the roads if the railway lines are closed.
I am sure the House will appreciate that the issues involved in the decision of the Six-County Government are very important so far as the Government here is concerned. If the Six-County Government say they will close these three branch lines, that means that they are not going to pay their share of the cost of operating these three lines. In other words, although the lines serve their people and serve the rate-paying and taxpaying community in the Six-County area concerned, the Six-County Government proposes it will pay no subsidy whatever for the continuance of these railways. If the railways are continued, therefore, they can be continued only if the Twenty-Six County Government decides it will pay the entire subsidy necessary to keep the branch lines going.
The position put to the Government here is that if the Six-County Government will not pay its share of keeping these three cross-Border lines going we here must pay the entire cost of doing so. That would mean not merely subsidising the transport there in so far as it is used by our own citizens but subsidising as well the transport in the Six-County area on behalf of citizens from whom we get no rates and no taxes. That is bad enough in respect of these three lines but there have been statements that the Six-County Government will close one of the lines to Derry. Whether or not it is the coast line that goes from Belfast to Derry or the line from Portadown, via Omagh and Strabane to Derry is something of which I know nothing officially; it may be either of these two lines. One of the lines going to Derry via the coast is travelling entirely in Six-County territory but the other line is used very largely by our own people for getting to Donegal.
If the Six-County Government take a decision, for example, to close that line then the question is whether we should provide the subsidy necessary to operate a railway line from Portadown to Derry. It is a common service between Omagh and Derry but only because a small portion of that line runs into our territory in County Donegal. But, whatever you do now, presumably you may have to do the same if you are faced with the problem of financing the continuance of that line.
There again, you are being asked to finance a section of a transport undertaking in the Six Counties although many of those who travel on the line there will be residents of the Six Counties and will not be rate-paying or tax-paying citizens so far as we are concerned. What is involved in that I could not say because, so far, we have got no notice of intention to close the line though there have been what seemed to me to be ominous rumblings. That is a matter that might have to be considered by the chairman of the Transport, Tribunal in both territories. It may well be that it will be some time before we are faced with that problem.
Therefore, when you have to consider the situation created by the decision of the Six-County Government to close these three branch lines you cannot consider that in a vacuum. You must consider it in the light of possible future developments. I am sure it is only necessary to mention these considerations to the Seanad in order that members will realise the importance of the issues involved. The Government is giving the matter its most careful consideration, especially in the light not merely of what they are being asked to commit themselves to now but of what they may be asked to commit themselves to in future if they take a decision in a particular way now. The most I can say to the House is that I will undertake to ensure that the views expressed by Senators on this motion will be brought to the attention of the Government when this matter comes before it for a final decision. When that will be, it is not possible to say.
Since these reports were made by the two Chairmen of the Tribunals, there has been a change in the world situation. Events at Suez have had their repercussions here in the form of a curtailment of the importation of petroleum products. How severe that will be or how long the restrictions will continue it is not possible to gauge precisely at the present time but, in my view, there has been a change in the general background and in the climate in which the closing of these three lines was considered by the chairmen of the Transport Tribunals. I believe that that change is sufficient justification to raise now the wisdom of closing these three lines —going, as we are, into a future which it is not possible accurately to chart.
Therefore, within the past few days, I have addressed a letter to Lord Glentoran, the Minister for Commerce in Belfast, saying that no doubt he shares my concern at the deterioration in the petroleum products supply position and the serious effects which these shortages have on our respective economies and on our transport services, in particular. I suggested to Lord Glentoran that, in the light of the critical position that had been reached and in the general uncertainty as to future supplies, I felt that, without prejudice to our respective positions, he might now agree to leave in abeyance, say, until the end of 1957, the proposals—that is, his own proposals—for the closing of the three cross-Border lines. I suggested that, at the end of next year, when we hoped the Suez crisis would have passed and conditions of Irish transport would have resumed their normal complexion, we could look at the whole matter again, and no doubt in the interval we could consider the question as to whether, having regard to the experience over Suez and the possibility that there might be a Suez from time to time in the foreseeable future, we could look at the problem against a background such as that.
I hope Lord Glentoran and the Six-County Government will see their way to accept that proposal which I have made, namely, to leave in abeyance until the end of next year the question of closing these three cross-border railways. If he and his Government can see their way to accept that proposal the immediate difficulties will have been abated for at least 12 months, and in the meantime a new approach to the problem of resuscitating the railways might enable those branch lines to be continued indefinitely in the future. I have not yet had a reply from Lord Glentoran, but I hope—and permit myself to believe—that the suggestion which is being made to him will be very carefully, and I hope, sympathetically, considered by Lord Glentoran and by the Six-County Government.
Whatever the result, however, of that approach which is being made now to the Six-County Government, I should like to assure the Seanad that the views which have been expressed by Senators on this motion will be brought to the notice of the Government when a final decision as to our line of policy is being taken.