I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on Second Stage of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Powers and Functions) Bill, 1997, in the Seanad. This debate provides an opportunity to review the development of the functions of my Department, in particular those relating to inland waterways and the newly assigned responsibility for islands. Senators will have the opportunity to express their views on the development of our inland waterways and on our offshore islands and I look forward to hearing them.
Although the Bill is short, made up of eight sections, it is important. When enacted, it will confer on the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands certain ancillary functions in relation to property, clarify and extend the Minister's functions in relation to inland waterways and ferry services to offshore islands and amend the Heritage Act, 1995. There is also a degree of urgency attached to the enactment of the Bill as I have recently received legal advice that my powers under existing waterways legislation to close any part of those waterways apply only to the navigations and not to adjacent waterways property, such as towpaths and embankments. The power to temporarily close such waterways property is necessary to enable me to carry out maintenance and restoration works on the waterways, including works under the operational programme for tourism.
I will now deal briefly with the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 is a standard interpretative provision and contains definitions of various terms used in the Bill. It defines inland waterway as meaning any river or lake, including canalised sections of a river or lake, navigation or canal specified in the Schedule to the Bill. Section 2 provides that I, as Minister, may add an inland waterway to, or delete an inland waterway from, or amend an entry in respect of an inland waterway in the Schedule by order which must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas, and that it is open to either House to pass a resolution annulling the order.
Section 3 sets out my powers and functions as Minister in relation to inland waterways. The inland waterways to which these powers and functions apply are defined in section 1 and specified in the Schedule. Subsection (1) provides for the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands having a broad role in the management and development of inland waterways. At present, my powers and functions as Minister in relation to inland waterways are restricted to the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and the Barrow navigation under the Canals Act, 1986, and to the Shannon navigation and the Shannon Erne waterway under the Shannon Navigation Act, 1990. The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands has no statutory role in relation to any other inland waterway and is precluded from any involvement with any other inland waterway.
Subsection (2) provides that I may exercise any of my powers under the Canals Act, 1986, and under the Shannon Navigation Act, 1990, in relation to any inland waterway in the Schedule, but without prejudice to the rights of others under those Acts. This section would allow me, for example, to exercise my powers to enter on any land to carry out works under the Shannon Navigation Act, 1990, on the Grand Canal or, if the situation should ever arise, on the Ulster Canal within this State or on any other inland waterway which might be added to the Schedule in the future.
Subsection (3) provides that I, as Minister, shall be empowered to carry out works to public roads where the work is in respect of my functions relating to inland waterways. At present I am precluded by statute from carrying out works to a public road within the meaning of the Roads Act, 1993. This, in the context of the extensive programme of development works under the operational programme to which I referred earlier, has given rise to some serious problems. For instance, it has emerged that Moran's Bridge over the Royal Canal at Mullingar is a public road within the meaning of the Roads Act, 1993, and I am consequently precluded from replacing this bridge, work which is necessary for the restoration of the navigation.
In addition the necessary grading required on each side of the new bridge would also involve works to a public road. In order to overcome this problem the Office of Public Works who have the necessary legal powers under the Commissioners of Public Works (Functions and Powers) Act, 1996, are acting as project managers for this project. Similar problems are in prospect in relation to other bridges over the canal. The provision in this subsection will enable me to arrange for the necessary restoration works to proceed on schedule.
Subsection (4) provides that I may, for stated reasons, temporarily close an inland waterway, any part of an inland waterway or any land adjoining an inland waterway including any towpath or embankment. This provision is necessary because, as I indicated earlier, my legal advice is that under the Canals Act, 1986, and the Shannon Navigation Act, 1990, my powers to close any part of those waterways apply only to the navigations and not to the adjacent waterways property such as towpaths and embankments. The power temporarily to close such waterways property is necessary to enable me, for example, to carry out maintenance and restoration work on the waterways.
Subsection (5) is the interpretation provision for this section. It defines the terms "canals", "develop", and "the Shannon navigation".
Section 4 provides that I may finance the building, acquisition, overhaul or repair of vessels suitable for the operation of ferry services to inhabited offshore islands in the State and may subsidise such services. At present, under the Aran Islands Transport Act, 1946, I may contract for "a shipping service available to the public for the transport of passengers and goods for reward, between the city of Galway and the Aran Islands". Beyond this narrow power I have no specific power to subsidise ferry services to islands in general. This section clarifies the situation and will facilitate the implementation of the five year access plan for the islands.
Section 5 sets out the functions and powers of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in relation to land and other property ancillary to the Minister's other functions, including power to acquire an inland waterway, to acquire intellectual property, to deal with buildings or other property either alone or jointly or through an agent and to provide financial assistance in respect of matters related to the Minister's functions.
Section 6 provides for the amendment of section 10 of the Heritage Act, 1995, to state that this section shall apply to a building owned by a public authority which has been designated as a heritage building by order made by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under the existing provisions of the section, and that the provisions of the amendment shall be deemed to have applied and have effect on and from 10 April 1995, which is the date of commencement of the Heritage Act, 1995.
The Heritage Act, 1995, provided for the establishment of the Heritage Council as a statutory autonomous body and set out its powers and functions. The main functions of the council, under the Act, are to propose policies and priorities for the identification, protection, preservation and enhancement of the national physical heritage. Section 10 of that Act conferred an important function on the council in relation to heritage buildings owned by public authorities, namely, the State, State agencies or local authorities. The intention of section 10 of that Act was to provide that a public authority will not proceed with a proposal to demolish, alter significantly or dispose of a building owned by it which has been designated as a heritage building by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under that section on the advice of the Heritage Council or any land or other building adjoining such a building contrary to the advice of the council unless the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands agrees to the proposal or to a modified form of the proposal or the Government agrees to the proposal.
The interpretation of section 10 has been the subject of conflicting legal advice. While I am satisfied, on the basis of legal advice available to me from the Attorney General, that the provisions of section 10 apply only to buildings designated as heritage buildings by order made by the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under that section, the purpose of section 6 of the current Bill is to remove any possibility of uncertainty over the interpretation of section 10 by amending that section to state explicitly that its provisions apply only to buildings designated as heritage buildings by the Minister.
The Schedule to the Bill specifies the inland waterways to which its provisions apply and includes the Ulster Canal, in respect of which — as I previously stated — a joint North-South feasibility study on its possible reopening has been commissioned. The term "inland waterway" is defined in section 1 as meaning any river, lake navigation or canal specified in the Schedule. As already stated, this debate provides an opportunity to review the development of the functions of my Department, particularly those relating to inland waterways and the newly assigned responsibility for islands.
The Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, now the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, was established by the Government in 1993, with the former Roinn na Gaeltachta constituting the core of the new Department, and with functions and staff from a number of Departments transferring to form the new Department. The Heritage Service and the Waterways Service were also subsequently transferred from the Office of Public Works to the new Department. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the excellent stewardship by the Office of Public Works of the national heritage and inland waterways over the years prior to the transfer of these functions to my Department. Following the formation of the current Government, specific responsibility for the offshore islands was assigned to my Department.
With regard to inland waterways, completion and maintenance of the connected waterway network and the promotion of leisure activities and tourism on the inland waterways are my priorities. Our inland waterways are a living part of our industrial heritage, with their own unique ecology, all of which must be protected, while at the same time the leisure, amenity and tourism potential of the waterways should be developed. A major programme of investment in our waterways, amounting to £20 million, is well advanced under the Operational Programme for Tourism, 1994-99.
The Grand Canal main line stretches 131 kilometres across the country from Dublin to the Shannon. An offshoot, the Barrow line, is 45 kilometres long and connects the main line with the River Barrow at Athy, County Kildare. Improvements planned for the Grand Canal under the operational programme have been largely carried out. These involved the repair of several kilometres of embanked sections where the canal goes through bogs, the installation of several hundred mooring posts, provision of new jetties, quays and slipways, improvements to landing facilities at locks, repairs to a dry dock and improvements to culverts.
The Barrow Navigation is a river navigation with lateral canals by-passing shoal stretches. It is 69 kilometres long, 17 kilometres is in lateral canals and it extends from Athy, County Kildare, to St. Mullins, County Carlow, below which the river is tidal before entering Waterford harbour. The programme of works is well advanced and includes dredging the navigation channel and the lateral canals, the provision of new landing facilities, moorings, quays and slipways and the restoration of a dry dock in County Kilkenny. Some of the finest scenery of any Irish waterway is found along the Barrow Navigation. This waterway has yet to be discovered by a large number of the boating fraternity and indeed by business interests dedicated to tourism. A consultancy on a marketing strategy for the Grand Canal — including the Barrow Navigation — has been commissioned by my Department and a report is expected shortly from the consultants.
The Royal Canal stretches from Spencer Dock on the River Liffey, through the north side of Dublin to the northern reaches of the Shannon. It is 145 kilometres long. There is, in addition, a small branch line to Longford town of eight kilometres. Under the operational programme, £7 million is available for the restoration of the Royal Canal. At present, approximately 80 kilometres of the canal are navigable from Dublin to Mullingar in County Westmeath. In Dublin, removal of the low level railway crossing at Newcomen Junction, North Strand Road, has commenced and the installation of a new lifting bridge in its place will remove the last remaining obstacle to navigation to and from the River Liffey. This project will be completed in mid-1999.
Dredging of the main line of the Royal Canal is now completed. There are three sections where the canal goes through bogs. Last year a start was made in repairing the embankments in these areas. In addition the removal of nine culverted road crossings in County Longford and one in County Westmeath which impede navigation must be undertaken. Consultants have submitted preliminary reports which set out various options in terms of designs and costs for six of the bridges in County Longford, which the Department is currently examining. A contract was placed last year for the removal of the culverted road crossing and the raising of the road bridge on the Dublin road in Mullingar, County Westmeath, and works are now under way. When works are completed next summer a further 30 kilometres of navigable waterway to Abbeyshrule, County Longford, will be available.
Last year my Department commissioned a firm of consultants to examine the existing water supplies to the Royal Canal, which are on the low side for navigation purposes for the restored canal, and to ascertain where new supplies can be obtained. A final draft report has been received from the consultants and is currently being examined by my Department. A programme of lock gate replacement is also under way which should be finished this year.
The Shannon navigation offers 258 kilometres of cruising waterway right through the centre of Ireland. The Shannon navigation is a great success story with about 550 boats for hire, catering for about 50,000 tourists per annum. A number of significant improvements are under way or planned for this waterway. These include the extension of the navigation from Lough Key along a new canal, which is about 1 kilometre long, to a point closer to Boyle, County Roscommon, where a new harbour is to be constructed. The new canal will have ancillary facilities, such as mooring, car parking and a shower-toilet block. This project is now under way.
In Limerick city the dredging of the Abbey River, the reconstruction of Sarsfield Lock, the construction of a new weir and the provision of floating moorings is planned and work is expected to get under way soon. This project will greatly improve navigation between the fresh-water and tidal reaches.
The extension of the Shannon navigation into the River Suck will allow navigation from the Shannon to Ballinasloe, County Galway. This requires the construction of a new lock at Poolboy, which is well advanced, and the provision of mooring facilities in Ballinasloe. Additional moorings will be provided at Shannonbridge, County Offaly, and Ballyleague, County Roscommon.
The rivers agency in Northern Ireland, in co-operation with my Department, has commissioned a feasibility study into the possible reopening of the Ulster Canal which would provide a link between Lough Erne and Lough Neagh. This detailed study will include a full topographical survey, a condition survey of the canal and associated structures, environmental considerations, a water supply and demand study, a navigation study and a preliminary appraisal of the economics of the options.
It is expected that the results of this study will be available in the middle of this year. Restoration of the Ulster Canal would complete the last major link in the connected waterways network on this island and would allow boats to navigate from the Waterford estuary in the south-east of Ireland to Coleraine on the River Bann in Northern Ireland. However, any question of the future reopening of the Ulster Canal will have to be carefully considered in the context of the results of the feasibility study and, in particular, the major costs which would inevitably arise.
Government policy on our offshore islands is now for the first time under the ambit of one Department, with the islands getting individual mention in the title of my Department. The section of my Department dealing with the islands is in Na Forbacha, County Galway. It is my intention, in co-operation with the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, who has specific responsibility for the islands, to carry out a comprehensive analysis of the access requirements of the inhabited islands. Because of their geographic isolation island communities are hindered in their development by inadequate and irregular transport services and at the same time have to bear higher transport costs. It is the priority of all islands to have a socially desirable, all year round minimum level of secure transport.
The Minister of State has already visited most of the islands and is in the process of analysing the priorities outlined to him during these visits. Access was one of the main issues brought to his attention on each island visited. In consultation with local authorities and with other interested parties it is my intention to draw up a comprehensive five year plan to ensure that populated islands, both Irish speaking and English speaking, have suitable access. Due to the fact that a number of different organisations are involved in the provision of access services to islands the strategy in the past has been somewhat fragmented. However, with overall policy for the islands now firmly established in my own Department and with the other Departments and organisations involved with island requirements fulfilling their own role, I am confident that the problem of access and the associated problem of landing facilities will be satisfactorily addressed during the lifetime of this Government.
Our offshore islands have contributed in no small way to Irish life, particularly in terms of culture, history and language. We all have a duty to preserve and promote this unique inheritance. In implementing an action plan for the islands it is my intention to address the many other issues raised with Minister of State, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív by islanders during his visits, together with those priorities identified by the local authorities. Fundamental services such as roads, electricity, water and refuse are essential so that islanders can participate fully in the economic and social life of the nation. Declining population is a major problem for most of our offshore islands. The report of the interdepartmental committee on Island Development highlighted a 35 per cent fall in the overall population of our offshore islands between 1961 and 1991. This, coupled with the fact that the average age of the populations on the islands is increasing, has major significance for the economic and social life of our island communities. It also affects the demand for public services such as health and education. It is heartening to note, however, that the 1996 census figures show an increase in the population of some of our offshore islands.
In co-operation with the Department of Health and the health boards, it is my intention to ensure access for islanders to all health services at equal cost to mainland communities. Special attention will be given to women's health, including pre and post natal care.
With regard to education, the Minister for Education and Science on 19 September 1997 announced that the means test associated with the remote area boarding grant for secondary school students was abolished from the commencement of the 1997-8 academic year. My Department has now agreed to provide subsidies on a pilot basis for the ferry services from the islands of Inishturk, Inishbofin and Clare island. These subsidies will ensure that schoolchildren from the islands who are attending school on the mainland will be able to return home at weekends. One return sailing per week is also included in order to facilitate islanders wishing to make a shopping trip to the mainland. In co-operation with the education authorities every effort will be made to provide education on islands where the provision of such service is sustainable. I regard the displacement of young children so that they can avail of schooling on the mainland as having a very negative effect on island communities. It is our intention that the interdepartmental committee on Island Development will co-ordinate activities pertinent to those Departments represented on it.
To return to the Bill before the House, the primary purpose of this Bill is to address deficiencies in the powers and functions of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands which have come to our attention over a period of time. My Department is still a relatively new Department and it is really no surprise, given this fact and the varied nature of my Department's functions, that certain issues require to be addressed in legislation.
In conclusion, I must refer again to the degree of urgency attaching to the Bill before this House. I am anxious that, as provided for in section 6 of the Bill, the gap in my existing powers be closed at the earliest possible date in order to enable me to temporarily close property adjacent to waterways, such as towpaths and embankments, for the purposes of carrying out maintenance and restoration works. I am, therefore, requesting the support of Seanad Éireann to pass all Stages of the Bill today.
I recommend this Bill to the House.