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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Vol. 258 No. 5

Rural Development: Statements

I thank the Seanad for the invitation to address it on rural development issues. We had a very good discussion on the policies and programmes of the Department of Rural and Community Development last December, and I hope we will have an equally good discussion today. On that occasion, this new Department had been established for less than six months and the Government's Action Plan for Rural Development had been in place for less than a year. Although a relatively short time has passed since I last addressed the House, there has been a great deal of progress over the last six months. We are beginning to see the tangible impact of the Government's investment in rural development.

The second progress report on the Action Plan for Rural Development was published earlier this month. It shows an implementation rate of over 90% regarding the 271 actions which were due for delivery across the Government in 2017. Most importantly, these actions are making a real and tangible difference to the lives of people who live in rural areas.

In 2017, employment increased in almost every region of the country. Employment numbers outside the Dublin region grew by 56,200 last year. This accounted for 84% of all employment created in the country. Some 281 projects were funded by my Department under the town and village renewal scheme in 2017. This brought to over 450 the total number of projects support under the scheme since 2016. In April, I launched a further round of funding under the town and village renewal scheme, with an allocation of €15 million for this year. Over 900 Leader projects have been approved by local action groups and are getting under way, with more than 300 further projects going through the approvals process. The development of the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland's Ancient East initiatives has led to more people than ever visiting and experiencing rural Ireland, thereby boosting employment in local economies. A new brand for the midlands region, Ireland's Hidden Heartlands, has been launched by Fáilte Ireland.

Additional investment is being made in public roads. The reintroduction of the local improvement scheme in 2017 provided funding of €17 million for non-public roads. I have allocated further investment of €10 million under the local improvement scheme in 2018, which will bring the total number of roads supported since September 2017 to over 1,100. Under the CLÁR programme, funding of just under €7 million was approved for 231 projects in 2017, bringing to over 900 the number of projects which have been approved for funding under CLÁR since I relaunched the programme in 2016. The 2018 CLÁR programme was launched in March and my Department is assessing the 400 proposals that have been received.

Some 240 projects with a value of €13.6 million were approved under the 2017 outdoor recreation infrastructure scheme to improve walking trails, greenways and other recreational amenities. Over €20 million has been allocated to 370 projects under this scheme since 2016. Many other Government initiatives equally support rural development. The details of these measures are set out in the progress report on the Action Plan for Rural Development. The action plan demonstrates that rural development is not the responsibility of a single Minister. My role is to ensure a co-ordinated approach is taken to rural development across the Government and to encourage my Cabinet colleagues to work together to achieve the objectives the Government has set for rural Ireland.

I would like to speak about the rural regeneration fund. The launch of Project Ireland 2040 by the Government has been perhaps the most significant development for rural Ireland since I last spoke in this Chamber. The two elements of this initiative are the national planning framework and the national development plan. Project Ireland recognises the value of rural areas to Ireland’s identity and overall national development. The plan is good for rural Ireland. Many of the strategic objectives in the national planning framework will benefit rural areas through investment in sectors like transport, energy and tourism.

My Department will have a key role to play in achieving the planning framework's objective of strengthened rural economies and communities. It will also be responsible for overseeing the new rural regeneration and development fund which forms part of the national development plan. Under this new fund, which is a tremendous boost for rural Ireland, the Government has committed to investing an additional €1 billion in rural development over ten years. This level of investment is a defining moment for rural Ireland because it will help rural communities across the country to realise their full potential. The fund will seek to bring together investment across different Departments and agencies, local authorities and communities to deliver ambitious joined-up projects that will have a significant impact on rural towns, villages and outlying areas. I am finalising the details of the rural regeneration fund with my Government colleagues and hope to make an announcement on it shortly.

The final point I want to make relates to realising the potential of rural areas. We have a tremendous opportunity to make a significant difference for the people who live in rural Ireland. Since I came into this job, I have being saying we have to change the way we talk about rural Ireland. Rural Ireland is not dead. It is full of potential and energetic people who get things done. It can offer a quality of life that attracts people to our country to live and to work. It has many great entrepreneurs who are creating jobs throughout our regions.

We can still make improvements to ensure our towns and villages are sustainable. In particular, we need to support areas that have not yet seen the signs of recovery. As public representatives, we all have a role to play in changing the perception of rural Ireland. We all know stories about initiatives that are making a difference in rural areas. I see these good projects as I travel the country. We need to highlight the positives and try to help areas and communities that need extra support.

I thank the House for the opportunity to set out some of the developments that have taken place since I last addressed the House. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Members to this discussion. I will be happy to answer any questions that Senators may have.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive statement.

I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for his deliberation. Unfortunately, successive Fine Gael-led Governments have allowed a two-tier recovery to develop. Growth is concentrated in a few hands in small parts of the country.

Government decisions are, ultimately, damaging the attractiveness of living and working in rural areas. Seven years of Fine Gael Government has allowed a two-tier recovery to take hold, which has concentrated growth disproportionately. This has been confirmed by a recent EU Commission report that regional imbalances remain across the State in investment, economic growth, competitiveness and innovation.

The new Department of Rural and Community Development is a slimmed down Department with a total budget for 2018 of €212 million following the breaking up of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs by the Taoiseach last June. This compares to a budget of €370 million for the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, under the Fianna Fáil Government in 2010. Once more, token priority is being shown to rural Ireland with key functions falling between two Departments with responsibility for the islands and the Gaeltacht staying in the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. What is worse is that the Department has a capital allocation of €88 million for 2018 but at the end of April this year only €6 million, or less than 7% of the funding, has been spent. Last year the Department failed to spend its allocation of funding and had to return €19 million in capital and current funding to the Exchequer.

We are calling on the Minister to outline in detail, today or in the near future, what plans he has to ensure that all of the €88 million capital that has been allocated to his Department for this year will be spent. Rural Ireland urgently needs this funding and the Minister has a responsibility to ensure that this money is spent.

Rural communities are struggling with stripped down services, bank, post office and Garda station closures and the ever present threat of rural crime. Fine Gael’s six year record has been one of decimating rural Ireland’s existence, leaving utter devastation in terms of service provision and supports. Meanwhile, farm incomes have been hit by severe price volatility across all sectors, jeopardising the family farm as the basis of Irish agriculture.

The decision of the Fine Gael led Government to close 139 rural Garda stations has undoubtedly had an adverse impact on crime rates in these communities and some of these stations have to be reopened. This measure has allowed criminals to target the countryside. The Government has constantly denied there is a problem with rural crime and it has said that the statistics are down, but this is not the experience of families living in rural Ireland.

The Government’s Action Plan for Rural Development is another false dawn for rural Ireland and rehashes existing announcements, programmes and employment forecasts. There is very little substance in this document that will immediately improve service provision, infrastructure and employment opportunities in rural parishes. The plan will, ultimately, be judged on what additional new funding will be ring-fenced. It is the fourth rural development plan produced by Fine Gael in 33 months, following the CEDRA report, the rural charter and the programme for Government. Clearly, there has been a systemic rural policy failure by Fine Gael. There is no long-term vision and planning as the depopulation of rural parishes escalates. Shockingly, more than 500,000 rural households and businesses must wait until 2023 for State intervention to receive moderate speed broadband. This is ten years after the national broadband plan was first launched. The ultimate litmus test will be how much additional funding will be ring-fenced for the current plan before it comes to fruition.

Disgracefully, the chickens are coming home to roost for Fine Gael’s maladministration of the vital Leader rural enterprise funding stream. Not only has the budget been cut by €150 million, or 40%, it has proven to be a bureaucratic mess for Leader companies. It is a damning indictment that out of the total €250 million funding allocation, only €1.5 million has been spent on actual Leader project payments outside of administration costs up to 15 April 2018. This is despite being in year five of this rural development programme 2014-2020.

The six-monthly progress reports on the rural action plan are another PR smokescreen to give the impression that all is fine in rural Ireland. Rural parishes will not be led up the garden path in yet another box-ticking exercise by this optics led Government.

Fianna Fáil is committed to building an Ireland for all where the fruits of recovery are felt throughout the State with more regional balance. In the confidence and supply arrangement to facilitate a minority government, Fianna Fáil extracted policy commitments on rural Ireland to be implemented over the Government’s term in office, examples of which are an increase Garda numbers to 15,000 and the development of new community development schemes for rural areas. These commitments resulted in a reversal of the cuts made to the farm assist scheme and increased CLÁR and local improvement scheme funding. Fianna Fáil secured a commitment in budget 2018 for the recruitment of an additional 800 gardaí. This will bring the force’s strength to about 14,000.

I do not want to be damning in everything I say but as someone who lives in the heartland of rural Ireland the only progress that I can see is in press releases. I live in the midst of it. It is an area of the country that is dying on its feet and we cannot keep portraying the image that the area is alive and well. Football clubs, parishes, small communities, rural schools and even the farming community, which was the heart and soul of rural Ireland for many generations, are all dying on their feet. They need immediate and actual intervention, not just talk.

I thank Senator Daly.

Our next speaker is Senator Ian Marshall. As this is my first time in the Chair for one of Senator Marshall's contributions, I welcome him formally to the Chamber. He is very welcome and I hope he enjoys his time here.

I thank the Acting Chair. If we consider that 37.3% of the population resides in what is regarded as aggregated rural areas, with more than 40.8% of people defined as rural, this issue applies to a huge proportion of the population.

Rural development and the strategy connected with rural development must focus and must centre on upskilling and on education. It must focus on the removal of obstacles that are restrictive and problematic for rural communities so they can progress and be successful.

Rural areas have a competitive advantage in many areas such as agrifood, renewable energy, creative industries, marine industries and tourism. There are many areas in which rural communities have an advantage. A local bottom-up approach must be key to the implementation of some of this strategy. Investment in infrastructure and ICT, on services and on connectivity is key. Whether this means connectivity by road networks or by rural broadband, it is imperative that it is addressed if we are serious about supporting rural communities.

Government Departments working together is an important element as the rural component is sometimes overlooked. This element of Departments working together should not be a token gesture; it must be really integrated and linked.

This morning I shared with the House some figures that were released last night in the national farm survey by Teagasc. Average farm income was up 32% with the average farm now declaring an income of more than €31,000. Dairy farm income is up 65%, tillage farm income is up 20%, and the sheep farm income is up 8%. This appears to be impressive and at face value it seems to be good news, but we need to be very careful about these figures because they are average incomes. It was made known to me some months ago, when talking about average incomes, that if one's feet are in the freezer, one's head is in the oven and one's body temperature in the middle is average, one thinks one is okay but one is are actually dying. We need to be very careful in how we treat averages. Subsidies account for 56% of this money and if we remove that component then the income does not look particularly good. Incomes are up significantly but they have come from a very low base. A small family farm in rural Ireland is still punching way below its weight in what income it should receive to be equal with urban and city areas.

In the Teagasc farm survey statistics dairy fortunes are driven very much by markets. On the back of the dairy crisis and an under-supply in the industry we have a huge increase in dairy revenues but if we remove the dairy component from this figure, the average income comes down to about €20,000 per business.

If we strip that down further to look at the beef industry, the average income is between €12,600 and €16,000, which is quite embarrassing. This situation is not sustainable for small family farms and rural businesses. The success of this industry is significantly linked to the success of this country. Investment in research and development, innovation and educational supports is needed. The statistics show that complacency would be very dangerous. We must not ease up on the pressure to invest in and support research and development and education as a means of promoting, marketing and supporting the agrifood industry in every way possible.

Rural development must take place in conjunction with, and as part of, the development of urban and city areas. It cannot be treated as something separate. In another job in a former life, I was involved in a number of strategies. It is good to develop and document strategies, but implementation is key to all of this. I have watched many strategies gather dust on shelves. This does not mean they failed during the implementation phase. Brexit is the default issue which many of us seem to fall back on during these discussions. It is the elephant in the room. I would like to ask the Minister about Brexit in the specific context of this strategy. What has changed? What will change? What needs to change in this policy to make it Brexit-ready and Brexit-proof?

I welcome the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, to the House. I wish him continued success in his role. He continues to be a flag bearer for rural Ireland at Cabinet level. The importance of his role in supporting rural and regional development cannot be overestimated.

I always want to be constructive, but I have to take issue with a number of the points that were made by Senator Paul Daly. He said that we are decimating rural Ireland and that it is dying. He suggested that the budget for rural Ireland was much larger when Fianna Fáil was in government. I am not sure whether the Senator was involved in politics in 2008, 2009, 2010 or 2011 when our country was in the depths of despair after the Celtic tiger had gone bust and the IMF and the troika were here. I cannot understand the lack of a rational debate on the challenges we face in rural Ireland.

The Senator is confirming all my points by going back eight years to blame-----

I did not interrupt the Senator. As I said at the outset, I want to be constructive. Senator Daly spoke about rural crime. I am sure he understands that the last time his party was in government, it closed the Garda College in Templemore. How was it possible to have new Garda recruits entering the system? It was not possible. I was in Castlerea with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, last week. Five new recruits have been allocated to that district, which is benefiting from enhanced policing resources. I was in Ballinameen last Sunday. The former Department of the Minister, Deputy Ring, has provided support of €50,000 to the community so that the local GAA club can build new dressing rooms. That GAA club has challenges, but it is not dying.

We are looking forward to the forthcoming visit of the Minister, Deputy Ring, to Kilteevan. Money was allocated to that community under the CLÁR programme, which was mentioned by Senator Daly, for a community space and playground area, which is to be opened by the Minister next week. These are real examples. I love living in a rural area even though there are problems. If our attitude is that we cannot try to solve such problems, that is not a good starting point.

I want to make some points about the challenges that are being faced in rural areas. As the Minister will be aware, this goes back to economic circumstance as well. The Ballaghaderreen bypass was approved during the most difficult economic circumstances. The N5 needs to be expanded to ensure villages like Frenchpark, Tulsk and Bellanagare are served by an excellent road infrastructure, thereby facilitating enhanced economic development in such areas. The local improvement schemes, which have been reintroduced by the Minister, are very important in rural areas. Many people and communities have benefited from funding under these schemes.

Access to high-speed broadband in rural areas is a key issue. I am concerned about the national broadband plan. We need to ensure businesses have access to reliable high-speed broadband. I know the Minister is working closely on the development of digital hubs. I am concerned about the delivery of the broadband plan. Given that we are investing more than €1 billion of public money in this plan, we need to ensure it delivers for our rural communities. Students from Kilteevan national school came to Leinster House this morning. It is always good to see young people from rural areas coming here to learn about the workings of the Seanad and the Dáil. As our education sector continues to move into a technology zone, adequate broadband services must be available to ensure students in rural areas are not at a disadvantage.

The Minister was aware because I discussed it with him on many occasions that I was concerned about the lack of emphasis on the west, in particular, in the national planning framework. It is envisaged that the inclusion of the hubs of Sligo and Athlone, which is very positive, will offset much of the pressure that is on Galway city. This is something that is badly needed. In that context, I will give a relevant example which feeds into the infrastructure challenges as well. When the Minister of State, Deputy Breen, came to Ballinasloe recently at my request, he visited the IDA Ireland business park in the town, where two flagship companies, Aptar and SurModics, are based. Both of those companies, which have benefited from the support of the local business park, are doing very well. SurModics expanded last year with the creation of 100 extra jobs. Towns like Ballinasloe have much more potential to offset the pressures from Galway city. The Minister and his officials work with their counterparts in many other Departments. I would like them to place a greater emphasis on employment agencies like IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland, as well as on enhanced supports for local enterprise offices, to make sure they discriminate in favour of rural areas like Roscommon town, Ballinasloe and north Roscommon. It is critical that Government agencies work hard to ensure we develop the economic potential of such areas.

I would like to mention a final example of the positive initiatives that are taking place. I assure Senator Daly that I have many such examples. The Minister, Deputy Ring, was in County Roscommon recently to launch an investment of almost €1 million in the Beara-Breifne Way, which extends from County Cork to County Cavan.

It has significant untapped potential for tourism development in the midlands. This feeds into the Shannon blueway and developing the potential of the new brand Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands. Again, we need to ensure the tourism agencies, Tourism Ireland and Fáilte Ireland, market it to its greatest potential to attract people to the region, not just for a day but to stay overnight.

The Minister works closely with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed. I cannot overemphasise the importance of protecting the CAP budget, particularly in the context of Brexit, to which Senator Ian Marshall alluded.

This is not a quick fix. Nobody is saying there are no challenges in rural Ireland. However, we must be realistic and practical about solutions to enhance and improve the potential of rural areas.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring. Although his Department has been going for nearly a year, this is the first opportunity I have had to wish him well in it. It is an interesting Department. It is a small outfit, but it has a cross-departmental approach. Small might turn out to be beautiful. I have been rereading its statement of strategy. There is an emphasis on the creation of jobs, the infrastructure required to support them, as well as supporting communities to be more sustainable and desirable places in which to live, work and raise families. The Minister referred to the cross-departmental aspects of the Department which is front and centre and really exciting. However, there is no particular mention in the strategy of people with disabilities and their families. There are many references to them in A Programme for a Partnership Government which includes a commitment to ratify the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Thankfully, that has been done. This means that the job has to start. Will the Minister come back to the House to set out, in the context of his Department's work and remit, the steps being taken to move on the issue of the inclusion of people with disabilities? That he has a cross-departmental approach and culture is highly important.

Housing, access and public transport are issues for people with disabilities. Job creation is also a significant issue, on which the Minister placed much emphasis. It is not shifting in the right direction for people with disabilities anywhere throughout the country. Will the Minister come back to set out how he is weaving the Government's commitment into the work of his Department, as well as the work it does with other Departments, to improve the position for people with disabilities?

Up to 37% of the population live in rural areas. There are 228,000 people with disabilities living in rural Ireland. About the same number, 227,000 persons, live on farms. That shows how large a number of people with disabilities are involved and that does not even take into account the multiplier effect when one considers their families. Focusing on and improving the inclusion of people with disabilities and their families are also practical ways for the Minister to focus on public service reform, as is well stated in his Department’s statement of strategy. The Department's mission is to promote rural and community development, as well as to support viable, inclusive and sustainable communities throughout Ireland. One of the five areas to which the Minister referred is improving access to services and social networks to ensure a high quality of life for people. That is critical for people with disabilities and their families. Again, I am asking the Government to overtly include it. The strategy of statement states:

We have a cross-government mandate that involves engaging at every level of Irish society, from citizen to central government, and our ambition is to build a culture of co-production with those stakeholders, defined as “Delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours”.

The Minister gave seven examples. Will he come back to show where people with disabilities figure in them? Will the rural regeneration and development fund have a dividend for people with disabilities and their families? It gives a tremendous boost to rural Ireland. However, the aim at this stage is not to struggle strongly with how we include people with disabilities and their families. The fight for the Minister is not only within his Department but with other Departments.

In making rural Ireland sustainable the Minister focused on the economic and employment side. However, there are two sides to that coin. It also has to be a decent place, as other Senators mentioned, to encourage people to live and for them to want to live in rural Ireland. The other pillar is the social side. Of course, I could talk morning, noon and night about people with disabilities. However, focusing on people who have needs which cross different Departments and public services provides a template for all sorts of group which at various times will have inclusion issues and difficulties. I am keen to be of any assistance I can to the Department. I am not bothered that it is not a Department of monstrous size. It might be the way Departments will have to work more. It should be about what they can get done, not particularly what they do themselves. That is so important to build a new Ireland that will work for everyone.

Over two months have passed since the launch of Project Ireland 2040. We should be dealing with legislation to give effect to its provisions instead of making more statements in which we point to the very obvious. People living in rural Ireland are suffering from announcement fatigue. We receive updates every couple of weeks on the roll-out of plans such as the national broadband plan.

The tone of these announcements, however, is completely at odds with the reality on the ground. I have seen little or no change in the Government's attitude towards rural development. Project Ireland 2040 was offered as a panacea, a one-stop-shop to address years of neglect. In my area of Inishowen, situated on the Wild Atlantic Way, the major recreational amenity of Swan Park in Buncrana has been out of action for nine months having been badly damaged during the floods last August. Having such a key amenity along the Wild Atlantic Way out of action for that period shows the disconnect between plans and actions. Why bring people along this wonderfully scenic coastal route to a key facility that should have been repaired but which is out of action due to a lack of action?

The debacle around Leader funding has only worsened. My party colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny, recently raised the case of significant funding for a project being held up by Pobal due to a typing error in the application. One would think, in the face of such diligence, that Leader funding was quickly running out and that detailed checks like this needed to be carried out. During the debate on same, however, it was revealed that only 0.3% of Leader funding had been drawn down by the end of the December last year. The Government tells us that €250 million in Leader funding has been allocated up to the end of 2020, but we must draw a distinction between money that is allocated or set aside and the actual amounts paid out to community groups and projects. The money that is allocated to local action groups is simply not getting through to the projects themselves. Many groups have simply given up on their projects.

At the recent launch of Project Ireland 2040, a lot of references were made to improved transport links. Much of the focus was on national road projects which are at various stages in the planning process. In my county of Donegal, the consultation process for TEN-T projects in Ballybofey, Manorcunningham and Letterkenny has reopened. While progress and consultation on these projects is welcome, the state of minor and local roads is still a major concern. The €7 million reduction in the local improvement scheme budget for 2017 is shocking, especially considering the huge backlog of roads that need attention due to the suspension of the same scheme for years. In a recent article in The Irish Times, it was revealed that the Taoiseach, in his former role as Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, blocked funding for TEN-T projects in the west and north west in 2011. The current programme for Government contains a commitment to review the TEN-T projects within the first three months, but that never happened. Does the Government intend to do this at any stage? The western rail corridor was not mentioned in Project Ireland 2040. Why not? So much of the glaringly obvious has been missed by the Government. Rural transport services and infrastructure have to be in place and completed before much-needed employment, tourism and other opportunities make their way to rural Ireland. The Government needs to stop diving for cover behind the European Commission and the lack of transparency in that institution and explain to the regions what it will do to create regional balance.

In terms of broadband, many areas of the State are still effectively communication no-go areas. It is important to clarify that demand for high-speed broadband connections is not a question of extending a luxury that is available in larger towns to rural areas. The longer areas are without reliable, high-speed broadband connections, there more missed opportunities there are for businesses to be set up and for returning emigrants to explore innovative industries which can make the most of what rural Ireland has to offer. Since Eir pulled out of the bidding process for the delivery of the national broadband plan, has there been any movement on the awarding of the contract? The process has ended up effectively being a one horse race which does not instill confidence that the best deal will be obtained and that the winner of the bid will seek to roll out broadband to all areas, not just those that are easier to reach. Indeed, we are only in this shambles of a situation because Telecom Éireann was privatised in 1999. A State delivered broadband plan could have been completed more cheaply and quickly than the current plan. I would appreciate an update on the delivery to the remaining so-called blue areas across the State.

I will conclude by focusing on agriculture, which is at the core of the rural economy. Yesterday we had an announcement of an increase in the average family farm income, but we need to be very careful about how we assess that. Much of it was driven by increases in dairy prices which are very transitional. The Minister knows this and would have seen the impact in his constituency of a drop in dairy prices in recent years. We have a real crisis in farming and everyone representing a rural community knows that. Many sectors are on their knees because of the cheap food policy of the European Union and because we do not give farmers a fair price for their product but make them dance through hoops to get some type of a living from what they do. Let us be honest about EU subsidies. They are subsidies for supermarkets and meat factories. Let us stop making farmers out to be beggars and be honest about this. The cheap food policy of the European Union means that farmers in this State do not get fair price for what they produce. The policy leaves them struggling to fill out forms and deal with inspectors from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to make a living. If we are serious about rural development, we must go to the very core of rural Ireland which is our farming community.

We have an opportunity now with the negotiations on a new Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. First, there can be no cuts to the CAP budget whatsoever. Second, we must make sure that there is a fair distribution of the funding. That means imposing a cap on payments to some of the major farming operations and corporations. There must be a fairer distribution. I am thinking here of small farmers who are working on tough land, on so-called bad land up in the hills. That is the heart of rural Ireland. The Government needs to make sure that the negotiations on CAP is one of its top priorities. Broadband must also be a priority, along with roads and all of the other services that are required in rural Ireland.

I have nothing personal against the Minister. He is a sincere man and he tries his best. He represents a rural constituency with passion, but he must acknowledge that Government policies over many years have let us down badly and that we need to reverse that. If that is the game the Minister is playing then I will work hand in hand with him.

I welcome the Minister to Seanad Éireann and as I said previously, I particularly welcome the fact that there is now a dedicated Minister for Rural and Community Development in Government, in recognition of the need to bridge the gap between the overcrowded eastern seaboard and the regions. If that problem did not exist, we would not need a separate Minister. Deputy Ring is well suited to the job in the sense that he knows the issues in rural Ireland. He has given us a welcome progress report today. The first item he referred to was the emphasis on increasing the distribution of jobs to the regions, and he mentioned a figure of 56,000 in that regard. At the end of the day, it is jobs that will bring people to the regions and keep them there. The Minister's role of rural-proofing Government policies is vital.

The Minister has started his work in a very positive manner but there are still many challenges ahead, as we all know. A recent example of such challenges, in the context of our planning laws, was seen with Apple's decision to pull out of a proposed project in Athenry. The previous Government also saw similar examples, and were it not for objections, the headquarters of the Minister's Department might now be in Charlestown or at Knock airport. The project in Athenry would have created 500 to 600 jobs at the construction stage.

There needs to be a change of policy or legislation to fast-track projects like that which are badly needed. Five hundred jobs in the regions are worth 2,000 jobs in the capital city.

The IDA is doing a good job bringing in foreign direct investment. Enterprise Ireland is giving great support to Irish companies that are exporting. The local enterprise office, LEO, system that was introduced by the previous Government provides many one-stop-shop supports for smaller businesses. There are also certain other agencies such as the Western Development Commission which was set up under the coalition Government led by the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, in the 1990s and is headquartered in the town in which I live, Ballaghaderreen. Extra support is required for small businesses that do not export and are not funded by investment from abroad. While the LEOs are doing a good job the Western Development Commission could do more to back up Government policy to bring more jobs to the regions. It has done a tremendous job over the years in a small way by giving seed capital to companies and by encouraging people to relocate their headquarters to the west. The Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, met the board of the Western Development Commission earlier this week.

Senator Paul Daly spoke about the midlands. I have family living in Mullingar and Athlone and I can hardly get through the area with traffic. We are getting a different read on the situation. His perception is that the area is dying on its feet. I have always viewed Senator Paul Daly as a reasonable man and I stand to be corrected but I think the midlands are not doing as badly as he said.

We live out in the sticks.

Senator Mac Lochlainn referred to TEN-T funding. The impression is given that when the west was not included in that programme, investment stopped in the west. The biggest road project in Europe last year was the Gort to Tuam motorway.

I led a study group to maximise the potential of Ireland West Airport Knock and it grew from 250,000 passengers to 750,000 passengers with the help of the Minister, Deputy Ring, when he was involved in the transport area. I am pleased that the Ireland 2040 plan that was recently published has guaranteed the €36 million that the report suggested was required. There is much investment in the west. There may be opportunities for more investment. TEN-T funding is being reviewed before 2023 due to Brexit and there may be possibilities in that regard. The work has started and it needs to continue and be supported, but I have no doubt that we have the right man in the right job.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ring, to the Seanad. I commend him on the work he has done to date in rural development. I know it is something close to his heart. He was in Limerick recently and he visited a range of projects such as one that had been funded by the Department in Murroe, County Limerick. He saw what it means to rural Ireland. He is welcome in Limerick any time.

I wish to refer to a few issues and to put them in a local context. We hear a lot about the urban-rural divide. My view is that we need both to be done well. In my area of Limerick city there is a large rural hinterland with satellite towns. One can go five or ten minutes from Limerick city and one is in a rural area. I refer to places such as Mungret, Castleconnell, Murroe, Caherconlish, Ballyneety, Drumbannon and Ballybricken that have always been in the constituency and now areas such as Newport, Ballynahinch and Birdhill have been added which are rural in orientation. Birdhill, which won the Tidy Towns competition is no more than ten minutes from Limerick city and yet it is rural. Ireland has evolved. We now have satellite towns that are in rural areas but they still have very much a rural feel. We must find the synergies, get people to live in rural towns and villages and foster enterprise and local industries. We have many employers in rural areas that employ many people but in some cases they are overlooked. If they were in a city setting people would say they are phenomenal employers but they have been there for many years and we should promote them.

I very much welcome the new round of funding for the town and village renewal scheme. As the Minister well knows, Murroe community council previously qualified for €100,000 worth of funding under the scheme. It has done phenomenal work in terms of walking tracks. I have been working with the council for many years on it. An all-weather pitch has been installed. The Minister saw it in its splendour in good weather and what that means for the community.

The Leader programme is hugely important. Another important scheme is the outdoor recreational infrastructure scheme. I hope another round of such funding will come on stream as well. I would very much welcome it. We must find ways to encourage people to live in towns and villages. A total of €1 billion underpins the Ireland 2040 plan. I am not certain what form it will take but in the past tax relief schemes have been highly effective. We must consider whether there is a need to introduce a grant scheme to encourage people to live in towns and villages. There are businesses in many villages but in many cases the older houses are unoccupied. We need to think outside the box. Attracting people to towns and villages would create a critical mass which would keep shops and pubs alive. Ancillary services would be attracted such as GPs, pharmacies, shops and post offices. Unfortunately, many of the banks are gone from rural towns. If we could attract more people to live in rural towns and villages, that would keep primary and secondary schools going. I have no doubt the Minister is looking at finding some mechanism to encourage people to live in towns and villages, not outside them but within the core. How we do that is not straightforward but we must find ways. Some houses in towns and villages are protected structures and we must consider the provision of grants to renovate those houses and encourage people to come and live in rural towns and villages.

Broadband is key. We must continue the roll-out of broadband. We are dealing with Eir in many cases to try to expedite the roll-out. Broadband is to rural areas what electricity was way back when. If one speaks to people in any business, there is no reason someone in a rural area in east Limerick cannot function in the same way as if he or she were based in Dublin, New York or Frankfurt in terms of broadband. Broadband is the gateway and if we ensure its roll-out at a high level in terms of capacity, it will revolutionise rural towns and villages.

It was great to have the Minister, Deputy Ring, visit Limerick recently. He specifically went to Murroe Boher. People must recognise the importance of rural areas such as Castleconnell, Murroe Boher, Caherconlish, Ballyneety, Newport, Birdhill and Ballynahinch. It is fantastic that the Government has a specific Cabinet Minister for rural development, but it must be done in an integrated way.

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Ring, to the Chamber this afternoon to talk about rural affairs and what he has been doing since he came to office. I compliment him on his work to date.

I know the Minister is a man who is passionate about where he comes from. He lives in rural Ireland. I know from speaking to many of his rural constituents that they sing his praises about how passionate and committed he is to developing and promoting rural Ireland.

My colleague, Senator O'Donnell, referred to the fact that the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, visited us in Limerick only one month ago. I was delighted that he took up my invite to Murroe, County Limerick, where he saw first-hand the progress made there with the community council and the work it has done with the walking track, pitches and so on.

It is all about the various areas of the Department that have come together to develop the community and their plans for the future. I welcome the fact that the Minister announced recently the next round of the town and village renewal scheme. The closing date is 25 May. I encourage all groups to avail of the funding because many substantial projects have been delivered through the scheme. Many towns and villages local to me are looking at some applications. The scheme has been helpful in the revitalisation and regeneration of areas. Those in some rural areas were beginning to believe they were being left behind. I believe there has been a positive aspect to what the Department has done to date.

Last year the Government announced Food Wise 2025. It is about creating jobs in the agrifood business in rural Ireland. Does the Minister have any update on that?

I note there were incentives to get people to live in rural Ireland. The initiative was launched some months ago. Does the Minister have any update on that? While Limerick city is thriving in terms of jobs and job creation, many people are now buying houses that were vacant in the towns and villages. This is positive in terms of the future development of Limerick and the region. People are buying houses in villages in Tipperary, including Newport and Birdhill, as well as in Tipperary town. One of the major employers in Limerick has people coming from 13 counties. They are not all coming from within the city area. I believe this is positive in terms of any incentives that can get people to live in rural Ireland while working in the major centres.

Leader and Pobal funding were referred to. These programmes come within the Minister's remit. A Men's Shed project in Limerick is going through an appeals process at the moment for Leader funding. The biggest problem was that the group did not have a permanent site. The council would only give a lease for ten years. This is one of the main reasons the group failed to receive the funding. We have to look projects that are worthwhile not only in terms of what they do for those involved but for the people who hope to sign up to them as well. We need to see how we can incentivise or help these projects to progress. The people who own the site might change their minds in ten years. We have to think outside the box in terms of how we can help some of these worthwhile projects to progress because they are beneficial to the community.

I welcome the Minister and acknowledge his contribution. It was a major step forward when we created this Department and got a senior Ministry dealing with what is a core issue for Irish society and the people, especially the rural people. We have been seeking a Minister at the Cabinet table to promote rural Ireland for so long. It is important to mention that Fianna Fáil got rid of it and this Government stepped in to the breach to ensure we now have a voice at the Cabinet table.

I compliment the Minister on his enthusiasm for these core issues. The Minister has championed many core issues since he took office almost a year ago, including the town and village renewal scheme and the local improvement scheme. The Minister put significant funding into local authorities under the local improvement scheme. We have seen the new announcement in the 2040 plan of €1 billion for the redevelopment of small towns and villages. These are all positive steps. I hope they will see rural Ireland reinvigorated. That is something we need to see.

The agriculture and Food Wise policies have been successful and have brought about major changes in output, especially in the dairy industry. That has been helpful in my part of the world. However, there are challenges and the Minister is aware of them. I believe the greatest challenge in rural Ireland is broadband. I know the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, is working hard on the issue. That is the most pressing issue. If we have a high level of broadband throughout rural Ireland, the ability of people to sustain rural Ireland will increase. I will use an analogy the Minister will be familiar with. We have a major employer in Cork city called Apple. There are almost 5,000 people working there but almost half of them work from home. Such is the ability we have in rural Ireland. Employees do not have to travel all the way to Cork city to work – they have the opportunity to work from home. We need to ensure that the broadband roll-out project brings the speeds required so that people can work from home. I see that as the key driver to ensure rural Ireland is sustainable in future. I know the Minister will play his part to push forward the announcement that will be made towards the end of this year so that rural homes can be connected and can get the speeds required. The knock-on effect will ensure rural Ireland is connected and sustained.

Other speakers have raised another key issue for rural Ireland, which is the regeneration of villages and towns. I imagine the Minister has spoken about this before. There are vacant houses in every village in Cork, Mayo or Limerick. We need to get life back into these villages. That will be a key driver. Senator Kieran O'Donnell spoke about whether we need to address taxation issues or a more comprehensive scheme to ensure that happens. There is a thriving village outside Cork city on the way to Bandon called Innishannon, where 17 houses in the village centre are unoccupied today. That is the core issue. It is 12 miles from Cork city and 4 miles from Bandon. It is a prime location and yet that level of vacancy exists. Addressing that issue will allow us to regenerate rural Ireland and solve the housing issue as well. These are issues we need to work on. I know the Minister has been working hard to drive forward these issues.

The main point is that we have a man at the Cabinet table. He is literally banging the Cabinet table for rural Ireland. It is great to have him in the Seanad. I acknowledge his efforts and I am looking forward to his summing up.

Minister, this is my first time to address you in the House. You are very welcome and you have the floor.

I am pleased with the positive contributions. However, I am a little disappointed with the Fianna Fáil contribution. Senator Paul Daly should note that if I really got going this evening I would have to vote down the Dáil. Fianna Fáil did not close post offices or rural Garda stations - it closed down the country. I will not take a history lesson from Senator Daly or Deputy Ó Cuív, who has never got over that he is not a Minister - he really needs to get over that now. If Senator Daly is going to listen to Deputy Ó Cuív, then all we will have from the Senator and Fianna Fáil in the coming years is negativity.

I want to put on the record of the House this evening that rural Ireland is alive and well. Many positive things are happening in rural Ireland. I am pleased to be Minister with responsibility for this area. The Taoiseach is the first Taoiseach who ever appointed a Minister for Rural and Community Development. We have had Ministers with other responsibilities but he is the first Taoiseach who has ever appointed a full Minister at the Cabinet table to represent rural Ireland. I am proud and honoured that I was the person selected to do that job.

I have lived in rural Ireland for a long time and I know a great deal about it. I am not going to make any further contribution with regard to what Senator Paul Daly talked about because it has been a positive debate today and I intend to build on the positive aspects of it.

Senator Paul Daly spoke about the national planning framework. The national planning framework was set up to deal with and to improve regional development, involving the capital projects he mentioned, including the Leader programme and the other schemes that I have introduced. The Senator and Deputy Ó Cuív should both note that it takes a bit of time to develop capital projects. I can provide the facts concerning the Leader programme. The Senator made a very negative contribution about it, but I will make a positive contribution. Other speakers also mentioned the programme. Some €165 million was allocated to the Leader programme, and there are 342 applications waiting to be processed at the moment worth €19.26 million. Some 973 projects have been approved to the value of €27.934 million. They have been approved, but it takes time to build the building after approval, and then the money is drawn down. It is not like the old days when people come in with slips of paper with nothing on them. We then found ourselves in difficulty with Europe. The European Union complained about how the Leader programme was run. We have to have rules and regulations.

We made 31 changes to the Leader programme, and I am glad to say that most counties are rolling it out. For example, Kerry has 47 projects waiting to be assessed, worth €7.664 million. Some 123 applications have been dealt with there, to the value of €2.188 million. In Senator Paul Daly's county, €5 million was allocated. There are two projects waiting to be approved to the value of €25,966. There have been 31 approvals worth €473,460. That means that only 8.5% of the available money has been spent. In Limerick 31% has been spent. In Kerry 28% has been spent. In Cork North-East 26.6% has been spent. In Carlow 21.8%. There must be something wrong with Senator Paul Daly's county if it cannot deliver the programme. It faces the same rules and regulations as exist in Kerry, Limerick and everywhere else. I have made the changes to the Leader programme and I monitor it on a daily basis. If I need to make further changes I will make them, but I have to comply with rules and regulations.

The Senator spoke about the size of the Department and the underspend. He should talk to the former Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, who never got over losing the Ministry and still thinks he is the Minister.

The Minister should stop personalising this.

I did not interrupt the Senator.

Deputy Ó Cuív is not here.

When he was the Minister, he underspent two years in a row. One year he sent back €34 million, and sent a substantial amount of money back the year before that, when the country and the economy were supposed to be flying, until the troika came in and had to run the country for us. I want to remind the Senator of that.

The Minister might refrain from naming him.

The Minister is infatuated with the former Minister.

The Acting Chairman was not here for the Senator's contribution. I really had to bite my tongue, and I did so.

That is fine but we should not name people who are not here.

I know where the Senator is getting his details from.

I want to congratulate Senator Marshall on his election and welcome him to the Seanad. I am delighted to see him here in Seanad Éireann. It is a great honour for him and his family. I wish him well and hope he has many happy days in this House.

He spoke particularly about Brexit, which is a big issue and is causing great concern. In the Action Plan for Rural Development there are a number of actions outlined to help small businesses. The Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, recently announced that some €300 million would be made available to support businesses and ensure they can cope with Brexit. The local enterprise offices, the Department of Finance and others Departments and State agencies are working very hard to try to make sure that our companies and businesses are ready for whatever Brexit brings. Enterprise Ireland is also working with companies, and the national development plan is focusing on investment in the north west. We have ongoing programmes, including the Leader programme, to that effect. I wish the Senator well on his appointment to the Seanad.

I thank Senator Dolan for his contribution. I certainly will come back to the Seanad again. My Department runs a number of schemes which deal with people with disabilities, including the CSB scheme and the dormant accounts scheme. The social inclusion and community activation, SICAP, programme also has a section which covers people with disabilities. I will come back at some stage again. It was not in my speech today because we were talking about rural development. The community programme deals with the issues the Senator raised. He made a very valid point and I will return to the Seanad at some stage to talk about community schemes, SICAP, the community activation programme, the revitalising areas by planning, investment and development, RAPID, programme and others. Some of those programmes were designed to deal specifically with disabilities. The Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Finian McGrath, has overall responsibility for people with disabilities, and he is doing a very good job and is fighting for the cause at the Cabinet table at every opportunity.

Donegal, Senator Mac Lochlainn's county, got €9.685 million under the Leader scheme. There are 14 projects waiting for approval in that county to the value of €856,000. Some 73 projects have been approved to the value of €2.596 million, representing 26% of available funding. It is one of the better counties in that respect, so I am very pleased. I am aware that an Independent Deputy, along with the Senator, recently spoke about funding for Donegal. It is important that we are fair and honest about what is going on.

An issue was raised about flooding in County Donegal. I do not have overall responsibility for that area, but the Members wrote to me about it, which is fair enough because they have a valid point. Some €1.475 million has been paid by the Leader programme in the last year. The town and village scheme has provided €1.159 million. I will be in Donegal in the near future, and I hope the Donegal Democrat, which is a very good, fair newspaper, will cover the facts. The CLÁR programme has provided €245,000. The outdoor recreational infrastructure scheme has provided €104,000. Donegal got one of the biggest allocations from the local improvement scheme last year, some €3.384 million, and I was asked to allow more time for that money to be spent, even though a commitment was given that it would be spent by the end of the year. The Tidy Towns scheme awarded €61,000. The national walks scheme awarded €140,000. A broadband officer was provided at a cost of €35,000. Volunteering schemes got €129,000. The local community development committee, LCDC, got €64,000. The library development unit got €126,000, and last week I allocated €1 million for a new library in Donegal town, in a joint scheme between my Department and the local authority. The SICAP programme got €1.974 million. The RAPID programme provided €64,500. The communities facilities programme provided €64,000. That is a total of €10.038 million, including the €1 million for the library. That is not a bad contribution from one little Department in one year. If every Department matched that contribution, Donegal would not be able to spend all the money provided to it.

The Minister is a good man, but that is a drop in the ocean.

Senator O'Mahony and other speakers discussed the role of Knock airport. There were critics who said that this Government was doing nothing for Knock airport. This Government has put more money into Knock airport and regional development than any other Government since the foundation of this State. I am glad to say that it will continue to do that.

In terms of the Western Development Commission the Senator is quite correct; it has major funds there. The Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Kyne, and myself are looking at what we can do to help the commission get to more companies. It is creating jobs and providing soft loans, and it is important that we support and help it in whatever way we can to create more jobs.

Senator Hopkins spoke about what is happening on the ground, and she is quite correct. I ask Deputies and Senators to stop talking down rural Ireland. In every corner of this country we have multinational companies and local, indigenous companies. I was in Skibbereen recently, and up in Drumshanbo. These are small, rural areas that are employing many people in very good jobs.

These schemes are creating employment. We gave some funding for a digital hub in Skibbereen, County Cork, which employed many people. Now, people are coming out of the hub, setting up their own companies and employing people themselves. Waterways Ireland and my Department allocated €700,000 to the walkway in Drumshanbo, County Leitrim. We also gave €1 million to further develop the greenway from Drumshanbo to Leitrim village to Carrick-on-Shannon. This keeps hotels and others in business. Funding was also provided for the Food Hub there. From that, eight new companies emerged which created new jobs.

The greatest scheme of them all was brought in by this Government, the Wild Atlantic Way. I remember the cynics claiming it was another gimmick. Well, it must have been the greatest gimmick I have ever seen because it has created many jobs in every place along it.


Ireland's Hidden Heartlands has been launched for the midlands because it has a good tourism product. The people in the midlands need to sell it like the Wild Atlantic Way.

Senators Kieran O'Donnell and Byrne spoke about what is happening with the funding for local development. One sees pride in these local communities. They are not saying their areas are dying. They are saying their areas are alive and well and what they are looking for is more investment and a little more support - not 100% support - from the State. This will allow them to work with their communities to create the jobs they need to keep people living and working in rural Ireland.

Senator Byrne raised Food Wise 2025, which falls under the remit of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The Minister, Deputy Creed, will give the Senator any information she needs on that.

We may be a small Department but we cover the community employment scheme, the rural recreation scheme, the Dormant Account Fund, libraries and other positive schemes. I will be launching the library strategy soon. There will be good news about that. The Dormant Account Fund targets disadvantaged areas, as does SICAP, the social inclusion and community activation plan.

I gave them much grief over the past year, but I must say the officials in my Department worked well under tremendous difficulty. It was a new Department with no offices. We set up offices and it is functioning now. We have set up a lot of schemes and paid out a lot of money. I want to mention on the record of the House the good work my Department’s officials did in difficult circumstances. It is a good Department with a new Secretary General, several new assistant secretaries and new staff. They are bright and intelligent people who are committed to the Department, to rural Ireland and to rural life. I am committed to rural Ireland, making sure we get the balance right, getting the broadband up and running and getting the jobs. My job in the Government is not about giving out funding but to make every other Minister accountable to rural Ireland. That is why the action plan is in place. It has all the commitments from the Departments, State agencies and local authorities to work together. I believe we have a bright future. We have bright people and a good rural Ireland. We need to build on the successes we have. Like every other place, it has gone through a difficult time but rural Ireland has a bright future. I am proud to be the Minister for Rural and Community Development. I will not be found wanting nor will my officials. I know with the Senators’ support and help that they will encourage more of our people to work and live in, as well as support, rural Ireland.

I thank the Minister for his positive summation. The next item, marine protection, is not due to start until 6 p.m.

I move that the House suspend until 6 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 5.55 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.