That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to establish a Shannon River statutory authority.
I wish to share my time with Deputies Naughten, Reynolds and McGrath.
Fine Gael believes the best approach to the strategic management of the River Shannon is for the Government to establish an authority to oversee, co-ordinate and implement plans and policies which will assist each competing interest group to enhance its interest in a manner which will not be prejudicial to other users of this unique natural resource. This proposal has nothing to do with the drainage of the River Shannon but it has everything to do with the management of it. The motivation behind tabling this motion is to ensure that, after years of neglect, plans are put in place to maintain the River Shannon. A River Shannon statutory authority would have the necessary clout and authority to achieve the results which the existing River Shannon Forum does not have.
I will be clear on the principles on which the proposed River Shannon authority would operate. Fine Gael wants to encourage more boating and fishing; to maintain the electricity generating capacity on the river; to control and eliminate possible pollution; to preserve wildlife; to co-operate with Waterways Ireland, the new all-Ireland organisation, to help the navigational potential; and to minimise the risk of flooding and the consequential loss of income for so many farmers and householders on its banks.
Fine Gael believe it is possible to co-ordinate the various interests on the river in a way in which flooding can be controlled to some degree. Let us look at what has happened to the River Shannon over a period of many years. Every day millions of gallons of water cascade into the Shannon Basin bringing millions of tonnes of silt and debris. This vast tonnage has replaced water capacity in the river. Anybody who knows the River Shannon will have seen the many islands which have emerged over the years. These blockages have the effect of creating localised flooding along the River Shannon. I emphasise that this has nothing to do with either widening or deepening the river. It is a maintenance problem which must be addressed which has been allowed to go out of control in recent years.
Farmers and householders living at certain flash points on the River Shannon know that the floods come quicker and cover more extended areas of farmland as each year goes by. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, knows that as well as I do. There are many householders and farmers living on the banks of the river who have cause for huge anxiety as every winter approaches. On the question of limited embankment projects on the River Shannon, years ago some parts of the river had their banks strengthened and raised to prevent local flooding with a reasonable degree of success. Over the years the banks generally have deteriorated. No agency has the authority to remove the debris even on the edge of the River Shannon. Nobody can even take a shovel full out of it. Consequently many such areas of the river are more prone to flooding and they are messy and unsightly.
The question of tributaries of the River Shannon, other rivers which have become blocked and static, must also be addressed. The almost total withdrawal of the county councils from any meaningful maintenance on small rivers is causing anger and anxiety among farmers all over the country.
There appears to be wide-ranging support for the statutory authority. At a well attended and successful joint meeting at the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine held last January in the wake of the horrendous River Shannon flooding, which, incidentally, blocked major arterial roads, all of the interest groups indicated, under in depth questioning from Members from all sides of the House, that they would work within the context of a statutory authority and, as many of them put it, would do so in a positive manner as they had nothing to hide. However, what is now required is the political will to set up the River Shannon authority.
Last January at a huge flood meeting organised by the IFA in Athlone it was evident that farmers and householders demanded greater action by the Government. Speaker after speaker outlined graphically the trauma which they were going through with their houses and lands flooded and the contents of their houses ruined, and many were finding it difficult to get insurance cover. Probably worst of all were reports that flood waters seem to be spreading out much further in the fields and were much deeper as every year went by.
The Government's stance on this issue is difficult to fathom. The recent carry on of the Fianna Fáil Senators when they voted down the Shannon River Council Bill, 1998, which, in essence, would have seen the establishment of a statutory authority, is terribly hard to understand. Two months ago I even heard one of that party's Senators, Senator Finneran, declare on local radio that it was with pleasure that he was backing this Bill and that he was the first Senator to put his shoulder to the wheel and get a Bill through the Seanad. About a week later, he voted against it. I find that difficult to understand.
The Bill which was voted down in the Seanad was, in essence, a Bill drawn up by Deputy Daly, and it was a good Bill. However, the Government gave frivolous reasons when it ordered its Senators to vote down the Bill.
I understand that there is a Government amendment to the motion, that the matter will be referred to one of the Oireachtas committees. That side-step would do justice to one of the rugby internationals because the motion sought a straight answer from the Government. I wanted to find out whether the Government wanted a statutory authority. I live very close to the Shannon and know there are huge and very complex issues involved. Those who live on the banks of the river and those who use the Shannon would like to know the approach of the Government. However, all they have got tonight is another side step of the issue.
In effect this is the end of the idea of a statutory authority for the Shannon. All the Minister had to do was agree with the motion, the only purpose of which was to find out whether the Minister and the Government wanted a statutory authority. By virtue of the Government amendment to the motion, it is clear that it does not want a statutory authority. Otherwise the Government would not have tabled the amendment.
If the Government agreed to the authority we could then get down to the serious business of its form, role etc. However, after all the talk by the Minister's colleagues, including some very senior colleagues who said they were personally in favour of an authority, we find the Government is doing the greatest side step of all time. It was evident from the debate in the Seanad that this is what the Government was going to do and I hope it will be seen for what it is. The Minister has given the thumbs down on the day every Deputy and Senator on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine, and the ESB, Dúchas and the Office of Public Works said they believe a statutory authority would work. The Minister is now saying he will side step the issue and pass it over to one of the committees. It is outrageous carry on and it will be seen for what it is.
The various committees and flood victims were given to understand in the heat of the moment that a statutory authority would be established, but when it comes down to it the Minister is failing these people.
An exceptionally good Bill prepared by my colleague, Deputy Penrose, was not even allowed on the floor of the House for discussion because of the rules of the House. Given that neither the Fine Gael motion, which simply sought clarity on whether the Government wanted a statutory authority, nor Deputy Penrose's Bill, which was very specific in terms of how such an authority could be established, have been accepted, does it appear to the Minister that it will be several years before anything is done? We will listen to hear whether the Minister is in favour of a statutory authority.
I have no problem whatever believing that the competing demands and interest groups can be accommodated in terms of the Shannon. At the same time the huge and ever-increasing problem of winter flooding along the banks of the Shannon can be alleviated through better management. The Government should make £10 million or £15 million available per year for maintenance along the banks of the Shannon. I am not talking about deepening or widening the Shannon because we have long passed that stage. However, if millions of tonnes of silt are pumped into the basin of the Shannon, water has to be displaced. If we are ever to get back to the stage we were at 15 or 20 years ago we must maintain the river and silt must be removed.
I am extremely disappointed with the Minister whom I thought supported a statutory authority. In fairness to him, when he gets something into his head he delivers on it, but he has either been over-ruled on this matter or does not believe in a statutory authority. I want the Minister to say whether he wants a statutory authority. I take it, given the amendment which has been submitted, that he does not.