In that regard, I take issue with a decision in a particular case — the Mullaghmore decision — which is relevant to this amendment. The Mullaghmore decision flies in the face of a few realities. The first is that the issue was before Clare County Council for a planning decision.
It is my understanding that, before this amendment was made, the Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht gave a direction to the Commissioners of Public Works not to supply some basic, fundamental information required by Clare County Council to enable them to process the application. It was certainly widely reported and I do not think the Minister has denied that he, as Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, directed the Commissioners of Public Works, when he did not have the statutory authority to do so, to refrain from supplying some relevant information requested by Clare County Council to enable them to reach a conclusion on the Mullaghmore issue. The Minister might clarify if that is the situation. Did the Minister for Arts. Culture and the Gaeltacht, without the statutory responsibility being given to him under this amendment, direct the Office of Public Works not to supply the information which was requested by the county council to enable them to reach a conclusion on the planning application for Mullaghmore?
I find it extraordinary and inexplicable that a Minister would use the phrase "indecent haste" to describe the start of the Mullaghmore project. The Minister is well aware that the plan for a national park in Mullaghmore was initiated in the early 1970s and included the provision of an interpretative centre, which was not advanced for many years. It was accelerated in the 1980s and planning of the centre continued for nine or ten years before initial moves were made to undertake the project.
The Minister is fully aware that quite intense consultations took place in that period between the Commissioners of Public Works and the planning authority regarding the planning aspects of the development. Discussions took place over three or four years on a technical and administrative level between the Office of Public Works personnel and the engineering and technical advisers from the County Clare planning authority regarding the detail of the design and planning of the interpretative centre near Mullaghmore. For this reason, I am at a loss to understand why the Minister would say that undue haste was used in processing the project and commencing work on the site.
The Minister mentioned the last election on the radio today. However, both he and the Commissioners of Public Works were aware that the date for the commencement of the project had been set. The start of the project was planned well in advance, long before anybody had the remotest idea that there would be a snap election in 1992. The Minister of State at the time. Deputy Noel Treacy, who planned to commence the project was not in a position to do so on that particular date because the election intervened. He requested that I, as a Minister of State and a Deputy for County Clare at that time, carry out the sod turning ceremony.
It is totally misleading to suggest that the sod turning ceremony at Mullaghmore was designed as an election gimmick. This is not in accordance with the facts. Given that the Minister is fair minded and reasonable, I know he will accept this point. I hope he will take the opportunity to correct his statement, which created the impression that the sod turning ceremony was expedited for the sole purpose of the election.
The Minister is aware, given his knowledge of the area, that people would have preferred not to have this as an election issue. It caused some division in the local community because some parts of the Burren objected to the Mullaghmore project. By and large, it was not a decision which one would have wished to have as an election issue. It is misleading and inaccurate to suggest that the matter was expedited for the purpose of electioneering and I hope the Minister will take the opportunity to correct this point.
In relation to the functions of the Commissioners of Public Works and how this will work in practice, the confusion will continue if that body is fragmented. This confusion has brought about a certain amount of the controversy surrounding the Mullaghmore project. As I understand it, it is the Government's intention to let the Office of Public Works disintegrate. However, it would be unwise of the Government to fragment and dismantle the body. It would be a retrograde step and people who have the experience of dealing with the commissioners would be most disappointed. I am not certain whether the Minister has any plans in this regard but I ask him to explain how he can be effective in a situation where the responsibilities for this area are held by another Minister. Is it the intention at a later date to break up the Office of Public Works. to assign sections of it to his own Department and have other sections retained by the Minister for Finance? In my view, this will be resisted and would be an unwise decision.
The Office of Public Works has been established since before the foundation of the State. It has an extraordinary record of outstanding mention, which has been recognised not only nationally but also internationally. The Office of Public Works has won international awards for some of its work. To attempt to fragment the Office of Public Works and to assign various responsibilities to different Ministers would be a backward step and, rather than do that, it would be more advisable to take the opposite course of action and give full responsibility in some of these areas to the Minister with responsibility.
This applies not only to this Department but to many others. We have seen several instances here where Ministers have responsibility but do not have the statutory responsibility which is assigned to other Ministers. I would like clarification from the Minister, in his reply to this debate here, in relation to the whole heritage area, the areas that are covered under this Bill, which has been debated here and in the other House. What will the overall end result be when all the amendments are made? Will we see a more co-ordinated situation in relation to legislation, or will it be more fragmented? Will we see ministerial responsibility coinciding with legislative responsibilities so that we will not have Ministers responsible for legislation in an area which is the responsibility of other Ministers, with the resulting confusion that this kind of situation leads to?
Overall, I support the main thrust of the amendments; but I avail of this opportunity to question the unwise decision relative to this amendment which has been made by the Minister in going to Government to seek the abandonment of a project which has been well thought out, well planned, well discussed and which the vast majority of the local community in the areas that are affected by this development fully support. I outlined here on a previous occasion that the voluntary organisations — farming bodies, representatives of sporting organisations and cultural organisations, such as the Clare Archaeological and Historical Society — in the areas most immediately affected by the Mullaghmore development are totally in support of that development. They not only came out locally in support but came here and campaigned outside the gates of the House and outside the offices of the Office of Public Works to highlight the volume and sincerity of the public demand and support for this project.
This decision will have a damaging impact on the Burren as one of our most historic, scenic and attractive areas. The conservation and management of the Burren will be put backwards by at least ten years by the decision the Minister took yesterday. To postpone or abandon the scheme for Mullaghmore will have a permanent adverse impact on one of our most historic areas. It will damage the conservation and management prospects for the area and send the wrong signal to many people who have worked diligently there year after year, especially the local community. who have cared for the Burren region over the centuries. It sends out a message of despair. There is widespread dismay at this recent Government decision among the local community leaders in the area most immediately affected by it, including farming leaders, leaders of community sporting organisations, cultural associations and other societies.
We should use this opportunity to draw the Minister's attention to the ongoing need for the conservation and management of the Burren area. I fully support his proposals for a management plan for the region. The preparation and completion of such a management plan could take up to 20 years. If the Minister looks at our most important national park, the Killarney National Park, its management plan was published 25 years after the park was established. If we are to wait 25 years for a management and conservation policy for the Burren, irreparable damage will have been done and the care and consideration given by the local community for so long would be undermined.
The Minister should express an urgency about resolving this matter and the decision taken yesterday will not do so. A certain amount of work has been done which cannot be dismantled. No one, including the Minister, would like to see the site return to its former state as a disused gravel quarry. If the Government is to spend taxpayers' money digging up carefully developed car parks and other facilities to return a disused gravel quarry which might be used for dumping rubbish, that would be shortsighted on the Government's part.
I do not believe the Minister is shortsighted in this regard: he has the best interests of the region at heart but he has been ill advised by those who have told him there is widespread discontent about this project in County Clare and in the Burren region in particular. There is wholehearted support except in a small region which felt threatened by this development — that was Kilfenora. Nevertheless, the Minister could resolve that by indicating to Kilfenora through the Heritage Council that the necessary funding will he provided for the refurbishment and redevelopment of Kilfenora which could go hand in hand with the Mullaghmore development.
The Minister has gravely undermined Clare County Council. The Minister of State with responsibility for western development, Deputy Carey, was in this House a week ago and he was a member of Clare County Council when it discussed this matter and he said that Clare County Council had given the greatest consideration to this project at technical and official level. Yesterday's decision flies in the face of the county council's decision. Senator Taylor-Quinn is a member of the county council and she knows that the project was widely supported by the council; her party supported it; she and the Minister of State. Deputy Carey, supported it fully.
We attended packed halls in places such as Corofin when hundreds of people turned out from all over the Burren to demonstrate their support for this project. These were people who live in the area, who respect the area and wish to live there in the future. However, many of them see their future threatened by a decision such as this. We have seen the depletion of the population of the Burren area; in one area not far from Mullaghmore where there were up to 200 people on the electoral register when I was first elected in 1973. there are now none. The population of these areas has been devastated and there is now a total lack of hope in any prospect of the population returning.
The Minister and the Government have decided to halt and dismantle a project which was to bring enormous benefit in terms of conservation and development of jobs. At the same time the Minister with responsibility for western development is trying to create employment opportunities. This is a stark and clear conflict. The Minister of State, in the first test of his responsibility, failed to influence the Government so as to ensure that such projects. which would have beneficial impact on a community which has been devastated by unemployment and lack of opportunity, continue. This is one of the most scenic areas in Ireland, but its declining population will not be helped by the decision which was taken yesterday.
I am sure I am wasting my time asking the Minister to reconsider that decision. He said that in the management plan he would look at the area to see what can be done. I urge the Minister to work with speed on this matter. If we must wait for 25 years for a management plan for the Burren National Park area or the Burren area of north Clare, this Minister will have lost an opportunity to make an impact in dealing with problems in this area. We have seen the devastation which people in this area suffered this winter where houses were flooded, where land was under water and where property was been irreparably damaged. The response of the Government has been negative up to now.
While I support these amendments. I would like clarification from the Minister as to the overall effect they will have on the legislation and whether policy areas will be more clearly defined as a result of the amendments, in that one body will be responsible for the heritage area, will set down and implement national policy and will place heritage aspects of the economy in a legislative framework.
I appeal to the Minister to reconsider the Government's decision and consult with his colleagues in Fine Gael on the situation — in fact, he should consult with all of us. I would be willing to sit down with the Minister at a meeting with Members of the Oireachtas from County Clare to discuss where we should go from here in the light of the Government decision.
I ask the Minister to use his influence with his colleague, Deputy Kemmy, the Chairman of the Labour Party, to refrain form the hysterical statement which he has made about Mullaghmore and the effects expenditure has had Members of the Oireachtas from County Clare can deal with our own business in so far as heritage matters are concerned. I wish he would deal with matters in his constituency as capably as we deal with ours. When he was Lord Mayor of Limerick city and a Member of the Oireachtas, he allowed the desecration of King John's Castle, one of the finest historic buildings in the country. As I said in the House before, this medieval castle now has the appearance of ticket office in a roll-on/roll-off car ferry. A glass and steel contraption was constructed during Deputy Kemmy's reign of authority in Limerick Corporation.