I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me raise this matter on the Adjournment. The Jeanie Johnston project was initiated in the mid-1990s to commemorate the famine. Subsequently, when it could not meet its deadline in this respect, it became a millennium project. On 24 November 1997, Kerry County Council decided to support and give a guarantee of £750,000 in grant aid, which was received from the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands under the CDIS pro gramme. That was the first time that Kerry County Council got involved in the project.
It was obvious at the end of last year that the project was running into trouble. Therefore, at a special council meeting held on 21 February 2002, Kerry County Council decided to proceed with an initiative to lead a structured winding down of the Jeanie Johnston project that would facilitate its take-over and the operation of a limited visitor attraction for 2002. This involved the council negotiating various issues with stakeholders and injecting a maximum of £1 million in additional funding into the project. The initiative was further considered and approved at the meeting of the council held on 25 March. Since then the council has used its best endeavours to give effect to this initiative. Along with committing considerable staff resources to the issue, it has retained the expert advice of JW O'Donovan, solicitors, Ernst & Young and SWS Corporate Services. To facilitate the takeover of the project a new company called Seaholly was established and preliminary work was undertaken. A proposed detailed legal agreement was drawn up and transmitted to the company. This proposed agreement was subsequently modified following meetings with the Jeanie Johnston Company.
The council's initiative, including the commitment of £1 million, only provided for the takeover of the ship and its operation as a tourist attraction for 2002. It was made clear at the time that one of the major tasks facing the council was to develop an exit strategy before the end of the year. It is clear that substantial additional resources are required to operate the facility on the ongoing basis, either as a public private partnership or some other arrangement. Despite inquiries to various State and other parties and private individuals who expressed an interest, it has not been possible to identify a source of substantial funding to operate the vessel. Consequently, the ship will place a substantial, ongoing burden on the council in the future. The recommendation from the county manager to the council, which will be accepted, is not to get involved in this orderly wind-down.
I am here to ask the Minister to allow his Department to become involved through Coiste an Asgard, of which he is the chairman. I am not asking his Department to bail out the project indefinitely, but to ensure an orderly wind-down and that a proper viability plan is set up. After all, most of this is State money. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources grant-aided the project to the tune of £3 million and the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands gave £750,000. Shannon Development gave £1 million and the County Enterprise Board, the Leader programme and several other State agencies were also involved. The project is really owned by the State: the amount of local and international fundraising only comes to about £2 million.
I understand also that at the moment the Asgard needs a major fit-out and that this ship may take its place as the national training vessel. I ask the Minister to give a commitment that he will involve Coiste an Asgard in the project and that he will take responsibility for the Jeanie Johnston until a medium to long-term viability study has been completed. This may, in the end, result in a public private partnership with the Jeanie Johnston replacing the Asgard due to the condition of the latter. I understand that it is the far superior vessel, having cost €14 million. It is a State asset. At this stage, Kerry County Council has neither the capacity nor the finance to continue with the project.