Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Powers and Functions) Bill 2003: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill because it gives me the opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs on the fantastic job he is doing in the Department, a view shared by all Members of the House. The contributions he has made to the Gaeltacht, rural areas and islands in the Mayo County Council area exceed anything we have ever received in the past. On many occasions it has been a pleasure for Mayo County Council to be able to contribute to some of the excellent schemes to provide piers, slipways and airstrips for island communities that he has provided.

I represent County Mayo and there are many offshore islands in the constituency. I will outline the money that the Minister is spending on island communities under the island piers programme of the NDP. The total funding provided for the islands is €55.86 million, a huge amount that recognises those communities as never before. I have had the opportunity to visit many of the islands off the coast of counties Mayo and Galway and their communities are full of praise for the Minister which is richly deserved.

In County Mayo the Minister has provided funding of €75,000 for slipways at Ballycroy and Gob a Droma on Innishbiggle and the work is almost complete. He made funding of €236,000 available for the provision of a new pier at Clynish which he opened a month ago, even though it facilitates only one family. It is fantastic that the Minister is prepared to recognise the importance of island populations, even those considered small. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs believes in the equality of all people, whether one lives on the mainland or an island community. He is prepared to put his money where his mouth is. It was a fantastic occasion on Clynish Island when he came to open the new pier, which has made a difference to the lives of the inhabitants. The Minister has also provided €2.9 million for a cable car on Inisbiggle, which for some time has been a matter for debate in this House among the County Mayo Deputies.

A Deputy referred earlier to people travelling to and from islands in open boats. It is still a feature in many parts off the County Mayo coasts where school-going children travel in open boats from and to the islands. The Minister has recognised that this is dangerous and has provided €2.9 million to sort out this problem. Though it is currently under judicial review, the fact that the commitment exists is complimentary to the Minister.

He has also provided for ferry piers at Clare Island and Inisturk costing €10.9 million; a pier on Inislyre at €320,000 and an allocation at Roonagh Pier of €1.94 million. In County Mayo, we have been major beneficiaries of the commitment of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to the island communities.

This Bill is in many ways a technical one. However, one of the purposes is to provide new powers for the provision of connecting bus passenger services as part of certain ferry and air contracts. This is an issue that came up at the Public Accounts Committee recently and is mentioned in the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General 2001. We must give the necessary powers to the Minister to provide, where it is required, road transport to bring passengers from the landing or departure points on the mainland to the nearest population centres. A good example of this is transporting island children to second level schools. Of the various ferry services subsidised by the Minister's Department, four out of the 14 require such a service. One air service also requires this provision. It is important that the Minister be given these powers to regularise the services.

In recognising the major developments that the Minister has carried out on the islands, it is important to bear in mind, particularly for educational and essential medical needs, that island communities need adequate services, whether ferries or air strips. It is important to ensure that these people have all the services that we on the mainland have readily available to us and take for granted. As a member of the Western Health Board, I have noted that the emergency services have occasion to fly helicopters to the islands off the coast of County Mayo. Every facility should be put in place to ensure that the needs of those island communities are met in this regard.

The second power dealt with in this Bill is with regard to island air strips. This power will form the legislative framework within which the future development of air transport services to the island can be pursued. This is in the programme for Government to which there is full commitment. It is the Government's stated intention that we will provide air strips, where possible, to ensure that the people of the islands have the equality they deserve. Many of the services we take for granted on the mainland, whether it is employment, education or medical care, require commitment at Government level to ensure these services are available to island communities.

Pádraig Ó Céidigh of Aer Arann and its wonderful service is an example of the success of providing an air strip on an island. As a result of his fantastic achievement in facilitating travel to and from the islands, he has broadened his company's horizons. I am fortunate that within County Mayo we have the benefit of an Aer Arann public service obligation route between Knock and Dublin Airports. It is wonderful to see that a commitment started at island level can result in a commercial airline moving up to a national context.

This Bill is all about providing equality, recognising the needs of our island communities and complimenting a Minister who is doing an excel lent job. The Bill will give him the necessary powers to ensure fuller services. I have no difficulty in commending this Bill to the House. It is considered appropriate to provide for the consolidation of existing legislative provisions. Currently, the Minister derives his powers from the Aran Islands Transport Act 1946 and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Powers and Functions) Act 1998. It is intended to repeal these provisions and consolidate them under the new legislation. This will allow the Minister to operate in a more efficient and effective manner. I welcome the inclusion of these new powers for the Minister. I recognise the commitment of the Minister to the island communities which, so long as he is at the helm in his Department, will continue and even be greater in the years to come.

It might come as a surprise that a Deputy, representing an urban area might want to make a contribution to this debate. I was happy to do so, but now that I have listened to the excellent contribution from my County Mayo colleague, Deputy Cooper-Flynn, I am sensitive that I should not be speaking. In a fine speech, she demonstrated her clear love of island communities and what is being achieved for them.

When I first came to the Dáil, like many other Deputies, I had many parochial thoughts about my constituency. I found over the last year that I have established an interest and commitment to many other aspects of parliamentary life. It is good that Members are encouraged to do this. I thank the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gallagher, who has encouraged Deputies such as myself to take an interest in other communities. Deputy McGinley has also talked to me about County Donegal. I am happy to do so as many of his fellow Donegal men are living in the Dublin South-West constituency.

I hope the Deputy is looking after them.

I am indeed trying hard to look after them.

I have listened to this debate since last night and have been impressed by the various contributions. Deputy Boyle will be surprised that I praise him, but he made a fine speech in which he drew on the personal experience of his father coming from an island community. However, I did not agree with him when he spoke on what the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs is doing. In that regard, I strongly support what my County Mayo colleague has said about the Minister.

I had many opportunities over the past year to work with the Minister because of his Department's remit and my work in Tallaght with disadvantaged, drugs awareness and other groups. I have arranged a number of visits by the Minister to the Dublin South-West constituency. He has met groups in Jobstown, Brookfield, Fettercairn and Killinardin. When he is talking with community groups his love and commitment to the islands comes across in a skilful way. That is important for urban communities because they have their problems and perspectives. I live in the third largest population centre in the State and we have our specific problems and needs.

When one listens to the Minister and Deputies from the western counties, we get a real appreciation that we are all doing the same kind of community work. Whether we are representing rural areas, the islands or major population centres, while the actions may be different, the bottom line is always the same – looking after communities. We have an enormous amount to gain and share with each other. Those of us who do not have the privilege of representing counties directly affected by this Bill appreciate this. This legislation also gives an opportunity to praise what the Minister and the Department are doing in this area. There may even be envy at what has been done in that regard. As has just been said, I note that the Department, in consultation with those living on the islands, is working on a five year plan for the development of the islands. This reiterates the point I made about the Minister.

Many projects are planned for the period 2003 to 2008. When we come to celebrate taking up the Presidency of the European Union in 70 days, we will have an opportunity to focus on all of the various issues of concern to us. I note the Minister is stressing what will be done as part of Ireland's Presidency. Ireland will organise a special conference for delegates from existing member states and applicant states in County Galway in May 2004. I am told that the economic and social needs of EU islands, particularly in the context of EU structures and funding after 2006, will be a central theme of this major conference. I welcome this and look forward to hearing many good stories about it. It is important that we support this kind of initiative and let the Minister know it represents good use of our national resources.

The purpose of the Bill is threefold: to provide new powers in the provision of connecting bus passenger services as part of certain ferry and air contracts; to provide for new powers concerning airstrips on the islands; and to consolidate the existing legislative powers of the Minister in the provision of transport to the islands.

Deputies from Dublin, including me, and other urban areas often raise issues about facilities, infrastructure and services. We will always highlight the needs of our own constituencies and communities when doing so, which is acceptable. Those of us living in Tallaght have often complained about the lack of progress in providing facilities. However, thank God, Tallaght is a different place from what it was when The Square opened 13 years ago this month. We now have many of the facilities that would be expected in a major population centre.

While I have occasionally seen it, I can only imagine what it is like in certain communities, particularly island communities where, as Deputy Cooper-Flynn said, the challenges are different. That is not to say those of us living in urban areas do not have challenges – we do. We still have needs and will still be banging on the Minister's door. People should be encouraged to visit the islands more frequently. They are very much part of our communities as the Minister would want us to say. I only have a notion of what it must be like in good and bad weather to be struggling, not only with the normal demands of life but also with the deficiencies in the infrastructure that the Minister is now trying to address.

All Members of the House should support what the Minister is trying to do. While he should not take his eye off the ball as far as the issues that are of concern to me in Tallaght and elsewhere are concerned, I strongly support what he is trying to achieve on the islands. Proper connections for transport, proper use of airstrips and all the matters mentioned are taken very much for granted in urban areas. It is important to understand that there are parts of our country that still need to be modernised in this regard. Those living on the islands may or may not want me to use these terms. It should be clear from the debate in the House that we want to support the Minister.

While there might be surprise that someone from Tallaght would want to contribute to this debate, it is important that we can see Ireland as a bigger place than simply our own communities. There is strong support for what the Minister is trying to achieve in this regard. I hope the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, will mention this to the Minister. I hope the remainder of the debate on the Bill will be in that positive vein, whatever about the little political differences we might have. It is generally recognised that the Minister is doing a superb job and I wish him well. I commend the Bill to the House.

Ba mhaith liomsa fáilte a chur roimh an mBille seo, Bille gairid agus teoranta atá ann ach tá sé riachtanach mar sin féin.

Tá trí phríomh rud ins an mBille seo. An chéad cheann, deontais a chur ar fáil do sheirbhís farantóireachta go dtí na hoileáin, rud atá íontach tábhachtach ar fad. Tá suim ar leith agam ins an dara rud agus beidh mé ag tagairt dó níos maille. Is é sin, seirbhís cheart a cur ar fáil idir an chalafort ar an tír mhór agus na bailte mór-thimpeall. Tá sin ag tarlú i bpairteanna áirithe ins an tír ach, chomh fada agus is eol dom, níl sé ag tarlú ins na hoileáin a bhfuil aithne agam orthu amach ó chósta Dhún na nGall. An tríú rud atá ins an mBille ná aer sheirbhís a chur ar fáil dos na hoileáin. Tá dul chun cinn maith go leor déanta air sin ar chuid des na hoileáin ar chósta thiar na hÉireann ach níl an dul chun cinn sin le feiceáil go fóill ar na hoileáin ó thuaidh a bhfuil aithne agam orthu agus a bhfuil suim agam iontu. Mar sin féin tá rudaí praiticiúla á mholadh ins an mBille seo agus sin an fáth go mbeimid ag tabhairt tacaíochta don mBille, mar a dúirt urlabhraí Fhine Gael aréir.

Cuireann sé áthas agus gliondar orm go bhfuil daoine – ní hamháin an tAire, an tAire Stáit agus daoine cosúl leis an Teachta O'Shea – ach daoine as cathair Bhaile Átha Cliath agus as pairteanna eile den tír sásta labhairt ar an ábhar seo agus tacaíocht a thabhairt don méid atá á dhéanamh ar son na n-oileán.

Tá pairt thábhachtach dár n-oidhreacht le fáil ar na hoileáin. Ní dhéanaimid an freastal ar na hoileáin agus a ba chóir duinn a dhéanamh. Aontaíonn gach duine anois gur chóir go mbeadh an caighdeán maireachtála céanna le fáil ar na hoileáin agus atá le fáil ar an mór-thír agus go bhfuil na seirbhísí céanna dlite agus tuilte ag muintir na n-oileán agus atá ar an tír mhór.

Ní mar sin a bhí i gcónaí. Cé go raibh bunoideachas ar fáil ar na hoileáin níor cuireadh seirbhísí iar-bhun oideachais ar fáil iontu ach go dtí le tamall anuas. Cuirim fáilte roimhe sin. Iarraim ar an Aire agus ar an Rialtas é sin a chur ar fáil dos na hoileáin go léir ar chósta na tíre chomh fada agus is féidir. Níl fada ó bhí daoine óga ag fágáil na n-oileán gach tráthnóna Domhnaigh agus ag teacht abhaile arís tráthnóna Dé hAoine. Bhí sé sin ag baint an chroí, an spioraid agus an anama as na hoileáin. Ar a laghad, tá dul chun cinn áirithe déanta ansin.

Tá na hoileáin i dteidil seirbhísí sláinte chomh maith agus atá ag daoine ar an tír mhór. Beidh sé íontach deacair é sin a dhéanamh agus níl sé á dhéanamh i láthair na huaire. Táimid ag súil go mbeidh daoine sásta a bheith beo ar na hoileáin, socrú agus clann a thógáil ann ach muna gcuirtear na seirbhísí seo ar fáil ní tharlóidh sé sin.

Is mór an t-athrú a tháinig ar dhaonra oileáin na hÉireann, fiú amháin ó tháinig mé féin isteach sa Dáil. Tá an daonra ag dul síos ar oileáin na hÉireann. Chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé le hoileáin Dhún na nGall, ó 1996 go 2002 chuaigh an daonra síos ó 903 go 775. Sin titim de 15% i ndaonra na n-oileán i gcondae amháin. Táim cinnte go bhfuil an rud céanna ag tarlú ar na hoileáin amach ó chósta Mhaigh Eo, na Gaillimhe, Chorcaigh agus Chiarraí. Chomh fada agus atá an daonra ag titim, nílimid ag déanamh an oiread agus ba chóir dúinn ar son na n-oileán. Má leanann sé ar aghaidh, beidh níos mó oileáin bánaithe. Tá go leor bánaithe cheana féin. Tá leath na n-oileán amach ó chosta na tíre bánaithe agus, má tá an daonra ag titim chomh tubaisteach agus mar sin – 15% i gcúig bhliain – caithfear an cheist a chur an bhfuilimid ag tabhairt tacaíochta do na hoileáin agus an bhfuil sé ró-mhall. Is cinnte go bhfuil bearna agus easpa mór in infrastruchtúr na n-oileán agus idir iad agus an tír mór. Sílim go n-aontaíonn gach éinne, is cuma an bhfuil siad sa Rialtas nó sa bhFreasúra, nach raibh an córas rialtais áitiúil a bhí ann go dtí seo in ann an bhearna sin a líonadh agus an tseirbhís a chur ar fáil do na hoileáin a cuireadh ar fáil don tír mór. Caithfear é sin a bheith mar chuspóir againn, seirbhís a chur ar fáil i ngach páirt den tír, is cuma más oileán nó tír mór atá ann.

Chuir mé suim i rud amháin a dúirt an tAire:

pobail na n-oileán a spreagadh chun eagraíochtaí ionadaíocha a bhunú a oibreoidh le Ranna Rialtais, le háisíneachtaí Stáit agus le húdaráis áitiúla chun bonneagar agus tionscail talmhaíochta, iascaireachta, turasóireachta agus araile na n-oileán a fhorbairt.

Aontaím le sin, ach an dtéann sé fada go leor? Cén fáth nach gcuirtear comhairle ar bun do na hoileáin ar nós comhairle chondae nó comhairle bhaile – UDC? Ní mise an chéad duine a dúirt é seo. Tá sé ráite cheana féin. Ba chóir go mbéadh deis ag oileáin na hÉireann teacht le chéile agus comhairle oileán na hÉireann a chur ar bun le hionadaithe tofa ag gach oileán nó ag cúpla oileán nach bhfuil an daonra ard go leor agus go mbéadh cumhachtaí cuimsitheacha acu maidir leis an méad atá ráite ag an Aire. Más fiú an rud a dhéanamh ar chor ar bith, is fearr é a dhéanamh i gceart agus go hiomlán in áit leath jab a dhéanamh agus nach mbéadh sé sásúil.

Tarlaíonn sé in áiteanna eile. Chomh fada agus is eol dom, tá comhairle oileán thiar na hAlbain ann a bhfuil ag éirí go maith leis agus atá tofa go daonlathach agus go bhfuil obair mhaith á dhéanamh aige. Mar shampla, deirtear liom ó cuireadh comhairle ar bun do oileáin na hAlbain, go bhfuil banda leathan curtha ar fáil. Aon oileán go bhfuil sráidbhaile ann, tá banda leathan curtha ar fáil agus tá seo an-tábhachtach d'fhorbairt na tuaithe agus tionsclaíochta. Taispeánann sé sin gur féidir leo a bheith i bhfad níos éifeachtaí nuair atá na cumhachtaí acu chun é sin a dhéanamh. Ba chóir go mbéadh sé mar aidhm againn banda leathan a bheith ar gach oileán a bhfuil bunscoil ann. Thabharfadh sé deis tionsclaíocht agus fostaíocht a chur ar fáil ar na hoileáin nár éirigh linn a chur ar fáil go dtí seo. Tá céibheanna agus báid farantóireachta á gcur ar fáil ach an laigeacht mhór ar na h-oileáin ná nach bhfuil fostaíocht ar fáil. Dúirt an tAire Stáit gur seo an bealach sa spéir. Ní dhéanann sé difríocht cén áit atá duine suite anois, má tá an banda leathan acu is féidir an obair a dhéanamh. Cén áit a bhéadh sé níos oiriúiní é a chur ar fáil ná ar na hoileáin, áit a bhfuil deacrachtaí móra le dul isteach agus teacht amach? Bá chóir go mbéadh sé sin mar spuaicphointe againn sna blianta amach romhainn go gcuirfí an tseirbhís seo or fáil do na hoileáin ar fad.

Rinne an t-Aire tagairt do CLÁR a chuireann deis airgid agus forbartha ar fáil i gceantair áirithe ar fud na tíre. Cuireann sé iontas mór orm nach bhfuil sé sin ag déanamh freastal ar na hoileáin ar fad. Ceann de na h-oileáin is mó amach ón gcósta i nDún na nGall ná Oileán Thoraidh. Chomh fada agus is eol dom ní thagann sé faoi CLÁR. Deirtear liom an fáth ná nach féidir le háit a bheith i CLÁR muna bhfuil titim de 15% sa daonra. B'fhéidir nár tharla sin sa DED ina bhfuil Toraidh suite, ach is cinnte gur tharla sé san oileán féin. Ba cheart go ndéanfar eisceacht den oileán agus de gach oileán. Ba chóir dóibh teacht faoi CLÁR fiú muna bhfuil titim sa daonra.

Nuair a bhíonn daoine ag plé le daonra ar oileáin nó ar an tír mór, is minic go ndéantar botún. B'fhéidir nár tharla titim mór ar an daonra i roinnt oileán, ach caithfear idirdhealú a dhéanamh idir eisimirce agus inimirce. Fágann daoine oileáin. Bíonn orthu iad a fhágáil mar níl aon fostaíocht ann dóibh. Ar an dtaobh eile de, tá daoine ag teacht isteach sna hoileáin. B'fhéidir nach léiríonn an pobal ar na hoileáin an stíl mar atá. D'fhéadfadh níos mó de mhuintir na n-oileán é a fhágáil agus daoine eile a theacht isteach ina n-áit, b'fhéidir i dtithe samhraidh nó mar sin. Is ar an bpointe sin ba chóir a dhíriú isteach agus déanamh cinnte an muintir na n-oileán atá ann nó daoine a tháinig isteach.

Tá meas mór againn uilig ar Chomhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann agus ar an obair atá ar siúl acu le blianta anuas. Bíonn cruinnithe rialta acu agus rinneamar go léir freastal ar a gcuid cruinnithe. Tá siad iontach gníomhach ar fud na n-oileán thuas againn féin agus i ndeisceart na tíre. Bhí oifigigh forbartha i gcónaí ag an gcomhdháil a raibh cúram orthu dul amach agus labhairt le na hoileáin agus dul i dteangmháil leo agus plé cad a bhí ag teastáil uathu agus mar sin de. Deirtear liom nach bhfuil sé ar chumas an chomhdhála oifigigh mar sin a fhostú níos mó. Más mar sin atá an scéal, b'fhéidir go dtabharfadh an tAire freagra air sin nuair a bheidh sé ag tabhairt freagra ar an díospóireacht seo agus go gcuirfeadh sé in iúil dúinn an bhfuil sé sin fíor. Más rud é go bhfuil sé, cén fáth gur tharla sé? Cén fáth nach n-athcheapfar oifigigh eile chun ligint don obair thábhachtach seo dul ar aghaidh?

Tá obair á dhéanamh agus pleananna á gcur i gcrích. Is dóigh gur fearr go mall nó go brách. Is dóigh go bhfuil eolas ag an Aire Stáit agus daoine eile sa Rialtas ar oileán Ghóla. Tá lúcháir orm go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta ann agus go bhfuil áiseanna ar fáil dó le bliain nó dhó anuas. Ba cheann de na hoileáin é a d'fhág daoine le blianta fada. Bhí mé ar an oileán le déanaí. Tá bád farantóireachta ag dul isteach agus amach agus é ag tabhairt cúpla míle duine i mbliana. Cén fáth nach gcuirtear áiseanna ar fáil do na turasóirí a théann isteach go dtí an oileán, fiú áis chomh bunúsach le leithreas poiblí? Nuair a théann 2,000 nó 3,000 duine isteach go dtí an oileán le linn an tsamhraidh, cén fáth nach gcuirtear áiseanna bunúsacha ar fáil ann? B'fhéidir go ndéanfadh an Roinn machnamh ar sin. Tá uisce agus leictreachas curtha ar fáil ach ba chóir dearcadh ar bun-sheirbhísí eile.

Rud eile ba mhaith liom go smaoineofear air ná ionad tacaíochta oileáin a chur ar fáil ag na príomh chalafoirt mar Mhachaire Rabhartaigh, Ailt an Chorainn agus bailte eile san iarthar a dhéanann freastal ar Oileán Árainn. Is é sin go mbeadh oifig bheag ag gach calafort a dhéanfadh freastail ar an oileán agus go mbeadh trealamh fís chomhdhála agus cumarsáide ansin. Is minic a thugann coistí gairmoideachais, boird sláinte nó coistí eile cuairt ar oileáin. Go minic ní bhíonn siad ábalta dul isteach san oileán mar nach bhfuil an fharraige nó an aimsir fóirsteanach. Cén fáth nach bhféadfaí comhdháil a dhéanamh ón oifig ar an chéibh le muintir an oileáin in ionad lá a chur amú? Rud beag é sin a bhfuil samhlaíocht áirithe ag baint leis agus a chuirfeadh go mór le hinfreastruchtúr atá de dhíth ar na hoileáin.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an mBille. Tá súil agam go mbrostóidh an Bille na pleananna le haerstraic a chur ar fáil do Oileán Thoraigh, atá ag fanacht air le tamall maith. Tá córas maith farantóireachta ag an oileán ach sin an chéad chéim eile agus tá súil agam go ndéanfar é sin.

Nuair a thagann na daoine amach as Toraigh nó as Arann Mhór go dtí Ailt an Chorainn nó go dtí Machaire Rabhartaigh bíonn píosa fada le siúl acu go dtí na seirbhísí atá riachtanach agus atá suite ins an Chlochán Liath, i Leitir Ceanainn, i nGaoth Dobhair nó ar an Fhál Carrach. Sílim go bhfuil córas taistil le cur ar fáil ins an iarthar agus go bhfuil deontas á dhíol leis. Cén fáth nach gcuirfí sin ar fáil do mhuintir na n-oileán ó thuaidh?

Tá mé buíoch duit, a Cheann Comhairle, as deis a thabhairt dom cúpla focal a rá agus na smaointe sin a chur ar aghaidh. Tá súil agam nach ndéanfar neamairt nó neamh aird díobh. Is pairt thábhachtach dár gcultúr agus dár n-oidhreacht na hoileáin. Tá siad leath-bhánaithe i láthair na huaire. Má chuidíonn an Bille le daoine agus le beocht a choinneáil ins na hoileáin is fiú tacaíocht a thabhairt dó.

Tá áthas orm deis a fháil labhairt ar Bhille an Aire Gnóthaí Pobail, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta (Cumhachtaí agus Feidhmeanna) 2003.

Is suimiúil an cheist í ceist na n-oileán agus tá saineolas faoi leith ag an Aire ar an gceist. Admhaítear go bhfuil an tAire ag déanamh an-obair do go leor des na hoileáin. Ar ndóigh, tá eisceachtaí ann agus beidh daoine ag gearáin faoi sin. Tá sé deacair gach trá a fhreastal. Is oileánaigh sinn ar fad agus muid inár gcónaí ar oileán na hÉireann. Ní tuigtear é sin go minic agus ní dóigh liom go n-admhaíonn a lán daoine gur oileánaigh iad féin tríd is tríd.

Tá cónaí orm i mBaile Brigín i dtuaisceart Chondae Átha Cliath agus tá oileán in aice le mo bhaile féin. Cuireann sé i gcuimhne dom gur oileanaigh sinn uilig, a bheag nó a mhór. Nuair a thugann duine cuairt ar oileán faigheann sé an-thuiscint ar shaol an oileánaigh. Tá Oileán Reachrainn suite amach ó chósta Ros Eo. Oileán measartha mór é, go mórmór i gcomparáid leis na hoileáin eile in oirthear na hÉireann. Rinne mé turas ann uair amháin. Bhí an t-ádh liom gur bhuail mé leis an Tiarna Revelstoke sular fuair sé bás, mar ba leis an t-oileán. Cé nach bhfuil mórán daoine ina gcónaí ann is cinnte go bhfuil an t-oileán an-luachmhar agus an-shaibhir ó thaobh an dúlra de. Ní beag an rud é sin i gcomhthéacs na hÉireann agus na hEorpa. Tá a fhios ag Teachtaí go bhfuil na Sceirí agus Inis Mac Neasáin amach ó chósta Átha Cliath freisin.

Chuir mé féin aithne níos mó ar fhadhbanna na n-oileán in iarthar na tíre, ar Oileán Cliara ach go háirithe. Áit í sin a bhfuil pobal beomhar a bhfuil Drisceol mar shloinne ar an gcuid is mó acu. Tá fadhbanna dá chuid féin ag Oileán Cliara. Cuireann an aimsir isteach ar an tseirbhís farantóireachta ann ó am go céile ach níl neart ag an Aire air sin. Áit í Oileán Cliara atá tábhachtach ó thaobh na teanga de freisin. Táim ag súil gur féidir linn an traidisiún sin a neartú agus a chur chun cinn. Chaith mé roinnt blianta ag obair i gcoláiste samhraidh na gcampaí oibre. Ní hamháin go raibh cúrsaí teanga á gcur chun cinn ach bhí cúrsaí pobail á neartú freisin. Tá ceist na teanga, ceist an phobail agus ceist na n-oiléan faoi chúram an Aire. Tá mé ag súil gur dtabharfaidh sé pé tacaíocht is féidir don ghluaiseacht sin mar is eisceacht é Oileán Cliara imeasc na n-oileán toisc go bhfuil cursaí teanga agus cúrsaí pobail measctha le chéile chomh mór sin ag cuairteoirí agus ag muintir na háite féin. Is ann a d'fhoghlaim mé sábhaltacht snámha agus eile agus tá an dea-chuimhne agam ar an áit.

Tá an Blascaod an-luachmhar i saol na tíre. Tá sé go mór i mbéal an phobail ós rud é gur léimear go léir Peig ar scoil, gan trácht ar Fiche Bliain ag Fás agus An t-Oileánach féin. Caithfimid a bheith an-chúramach an Blascaod a choinneáil i seilbh phobal na hÉireann. Is beag gur áit naofa í i mbéaloideas na tíre. Ba cheart duinn aire a thabhairt di dá réir. Tá baint phearsanta agam leis an mBlascaod de bharr gur Flower sloinne mo mháthar agus go bhfuil an Bláithín i mbéal an phobail mar dhuine a rinne staidéar ar bhéaloideas an oileáin agus na háite. Tá an-chion agam ar an oileán dá bharr sin chomh maith. Ní ga dom rud ar bith a rá leis an Aire mar gheall ar Inis Mór, Inis Meáin agus Inis Oírr, ach amháin gur bhreá liom a bheith iontu lá ar bith. Mar an gcéana do Acaill agus dos na hoileáin eile amach ó chósta Mhuigheo.

Tá cúrsaí gnó agus fostaíochta luaite ag an Teachta Mac Fhionnlaoich. Ta mé féin den tuairim go bhfuil go leor roghanna againn chomh maith le dúshlán mór. Amach ó chósta Mhuigheo tá scoil seoltóireachta. Déantar an-chuid obair mhaith go deonach ag scoil seoltóireachta Glenans. Thosaigh an scoil sa Fhrainc agus tá sé lonnaithe in Éirinn le blianta fada. Meallann an scoil daoine go dtí na hoileáin agus don cheantar. Caitear go leor airgid sa cheantar de bharr an suim atá ag daoine i gcúrsaí seoltóireachta. Cothaíonn sé fostaíocht, cé gur fostaíocht séasúra atá ann. Cuireann sé íonadh orm go dtéann daoine ann um Nollaig agus go luath san earrach. Ba cheart a leithéid a fhorbairt amach anseo.

Tá deiseanna fostaíochta ann anois nach raibh ann na blianta ó shin de bharr go dtugann an saol nua-theicneolaíochta deiseanna do go leor daoine a bheith fostaithe sa bhaile. Tá go leor deiseanna ag daoine a bheith fostaithe ar oileáin agus a bheith ceangailte le lár-ionad oibre atá cupla céad míle uathu. Cuireann sé íonadh orm agus mé ag dul abhaile ar an traein go mbíonn daoine ag labhairt liom mar gheall ar a gcuid oibre agus ag rá liom go mbíonn siad ag déanamh scairteanna comhdála ar an bhfón le daoine san Astráil nó i Meiriceá. Is féidir le daoine a bheith ag obair agus is cuma cá bhfuil siad lonnaithe. Tá aerstráicí agus seirbhísí farantóireachta an-thábhachtach, go háirithe ó thaobh cúrsaí leighis de, ach caithfear díriú chomh maith ar an gcumarsáid nua-theicneolaíochta atá bunaithe ar shreanganna seachas ar aerstráicí agus ar sheirbhísí farantóireachta. An bhfuil acmhainní ann chun córais cumarsáide a chur ar fáil mar is gá, go mórmór maidir le cursaí fostaíochta, idir na hoileáin féin agus idir na hoileáin agus an mórthír? Níl freagra na ceiste sin soiléir dom agus ba mhaith liom go bhfreagródh an tAire í.

Molaim na hiarrachtaí atá á dhéanamh chun daoine a mhealladh amach ó na cathracha go dtí áiteanna faoin dtuaith agus go dtí na hoileáin a bhfuil scoileanna agus seirbhísí i mbaol iontu de bharr imirce. Mholfainn Rural Resettlement Ireland dá bhféadfadh an t-eagras sin daoine a mhealladh go dtí na hoileáin, go mórmór dá mbeadh cúrsaí cumarsáide forbartha i dtreo is go bhféadfadh daoine a bheith fostaithe gan an t-oileán a fhágáil. Bhéadh sé sin go maith dos na hoileáin, do shláinte na ndaoine agus dos na leanaí a dtogfaí ar na hoileáin.

Tugann sé sin muid go dtí ceist na scoileanna. Ceann des na deacrachtaí is mó atá ag na hoileáin is ea cá rachadh na leanaí ar scoil nuair atá an bunscoil fágtha acu. Is é an slat tomhais is tábhachtaí ag oileán an féidir clann a thógáil ann agus páistí a gcur ar scoil gan stró. Go minic is é sin croí lár na ceiste ó thaobh cúrsaí pobail ar na hoileáin.

Tá níos mó i gceist ná muintir na n-oileáin. Caithfear smaoineamh ar an dúlra agus ar an tábhacht a bhaineann leis na hoileáin ó thaobh bithéagsúlachta de. Tar éis cruinniú Rio de Janeiro i 1992 shínigh Éire conradh ag gealladh go gcosnóimís bithéagsúlacht agus go ndéanfaimís éagsúlacht an dúlra a fhorbairt. Tá taithí agam ar an gceist sin, go mórmór i mo dháilcheantar féin. Cé gur Reachrainn an t-aon oileán ins a dáilcheantar a bhfuil daoine ina gcónaí ann tá neart oileán eile ann. Dá bharr nach bhfuil daoine ina gcónaí iontu, b'fhéidir, tá tábhacht agus saibhreas dúlra ag baint leo. Meallann siad cuairteoirí go dtí an cheantar agus tá tábhacht idirnáisiúnta acu mar áiteanna sábhailte do héin. Tá an roseate tern, éan atá gann go domhanda, go tiubh ar oileán Rockabill, mar shampla. Ba cheart éagsúlacht an dúlra a aithint mar chuid de shaibhreas na n-oileán. Is féidir Inis Mac Neasáin a fheiceáil ón mórthír agus is minic nach n-aithnítear í mar áit shaibhir ó thaobh dúlra de. Tá an gainnéad, an fhoracha agus an crosán ag brath ar an oileán sin cuid mhór. Tá an fhoracha, an seaga agus an saidhbhéar le fáil ar Oileán Reachrainn agus tá ag éirí go maith leo, in ainneoin go bhfuil daoine ina gcónaí ar an oileán. Tá an t-oileán chomh fairsing sin agus na haill chomh hard san gur féidir leis na héin maireachtáil ann gan baol. Nuair a thug mé cuairt ar an oileán chonaic mé cé chomh sona sásta agus a bhí na héin ann. Toisc nach raibh taithí acu ar dhaoine a fheiceáil níor aithin siad daoine mar bhagairt agus níor chuir sé isteach nó amach orthu go raibh daoine ag siúl timpeall orthu. Tá Oileán Naomh Phádraig agus Oileán Shennick taobh leis an gcósta sin chomh maith. Tagann an t-ainm Shennick ón bhfocal sionnach. Níl sionnaigh ann a thuilleadh agus sin an fáth go bhfuil na héin chomh sásta sin. Tá géanna, an roilleach agus an pilibín ann chomh maith.

Tuigim cén fáth go bhfuil an tAire ag díriú ar chúrsaí phobail. Mar sin féin, de bharr go bhfuil na héin seo i mbaol agus nach bhfeictear na gnéanna sin ar an mór thír go minic, tá na hoileáin an-thábhachtach mar áiteanna sábhailte dóibh. Cén bhaint atá ag an Aire le hAirí eile atá ag plé leis an gceist seo? Ba cheart go mbeadh comhoibriú mhaith idir an tAire agus an Roinn Comhshaoil, Oidhreachta agus Rialtais Áitiúil.

Ba mhaith liom soiléiriú cén bhaint atá ag an Aire le hAirí eile, mar shampla, sa Roinn Comhshaoil, atá ag plé leis an cheist sin. Ós rud é gurb eisean an tAire atá freagrach as cúrsaí na n-oileán, táim den tuairim go mba cheart go mbeadh cumarsáid agus comhoibriú maith idir an bheirt acu ó thaobh na ndaoine a bhíonn ag obair ar son Dúchas de agus mar sin de. Ní amháin go bhfuil na héin tábhachtach agus go bhfuil conarthaí sínithe againn mar gheall ar éagsúlacht dúlra, ach ó thaobh na n-oileán féin de, tá sé tábhachtach don turasóireacht gur féidir le muintir na n-oileán rá go bhfuil siad ag tabhairt aire do dhúlra na háite agus gur féidir le turasóirí teacht lena gcuid laethanta saoire a chaitheamh ann, go mórmhór má tá suim acu i gcúrsaí dúlra, mar atá ag an-chuid acu.

Tá suim acu, ní amháin i gcúrsaí dúlra, ach i gcúrsaí teangan freisin. Uaireanta, cuireann sé ionadh orm nach dtuigeann muintir na tíre seo cé chomh mór is atá an tsuim ag muintir tíortha eile i dteangain na hÉireann. Tá taithí acu ar an mBéarla, gan amhras. Ní gá dóibh ach aon raidió a chur ar siúl áit ar bith ar fud an domhain, agus beidh Béarla le cloisint air, ach ní bhíonn an Ghaeilge chomh fairsing sin. Nuair a thagann siad go dtí an tír seo, is maith leo ceisteanna a chur ar dhaoine maidir le conas a deirtear rudaí sa teangain, cad is brí leis na logainmneacha atá thart timpeall orthu, agus cá háit ar cheart dóibh dul chun Gaeilge a chloisint. Sin iad na gnáthcheisteanna a bhíonn ar bheola turasóirí – i measc rudaí eile, gan amhras. Ag an am céanna, áfach, tá ról ag na hoileáin, agus tá deis acu an margadh cultúrtha a fhorbairt don turasóireacht. Tá cúrsaí teangan an-tábhachtach sa chomhthéacs sin.

Sin an fáth go mbíonn díomá orm anois is aríst. Ní amháin na hoileánaigh ach ar fud na háite, ní bhíonn daoine chomh cúramach sin mar gheall ar an dátheangachas maidir le cinntiú go mbíonn an Ghaeilge in úsáid chomh maith leis an Bhéarla. Níl mé ag caint faoin Ghaeltacht amháin ach faoi na hoileáin nach mbíonn Gaeilge á labhairt orthu, nó fiú faoi na hoileáin nach bhfuil éinne ina chónaí orthu, ar a dtugann daoine cuairt. Is fiú go mór é bheith cúramach faoi chúrsaí dátheangacha mar sin, mar tá suim faoi leith ag cuairteoirí.

Ag an bpointe seo, ba mhaith liom rá leis an Aire go dtugaim pé tacaíocht ar féidir liom a thabhairt dá chuid oibre ar son na n-oileán, agus guím gach rath ar an mBille.

The purpose of this Bill is to consolidate the existing legislative powers of the Minister on the provision of transport to the islands and to provide for new powers in the provision of airstrips on the islands. It also seeks to make provisions to connect bus services to certain ferry contracts. While I welcome the fact that the legislation will put the public transport structures of the islands on a much sounder footing, I have reservations about the prior conduct of the Government in this regard, to which I will return.

In addressing transportation to and from the islands, the Bill places particular emphasis on airstrips and aerodromes. This reflects the increasing use by islanders of air transport. The Bill provides that the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Transport, acquire by agreement or compulsory purchase order any existing aerodrome or any land for the purpose of the construction, improvement, extension or development of aerodromes and ancillary facilities on the islands or mainland. Power is also provided through the Department of Finance to construct, maintain, restore, repair or improve any such aerodrome and ancillary facilities. These provisions represent a worthwhile and progressive development. It is important to move with the times. Given the rough seas which beset the west coast in the winter months, it is vital to assure islanders of safe transport to the mainland.

Island depopulation is a serious concern, which improved air transport could address by attracting industry and investment to the islands. This must be encouraged and expanded. I remind the Minister that he has an important role to play in securing increased State funding for the transportation structures of the islands in addition to attracting increased investment and enterprise to facilitate job creation. It is important that the islands continue to be vibrant and sustainable communities and islanders must be encouraged to feel a sense of enterprise given the decline in the population of the islands highlighted in the 2002 census. Between 1996 and 2002, the population of the islands declined by 500, which is a considerable number given the low population base of the island communities. The figures point clearly to the need for a coherent effort by the Minister's Department to reverse the trend.

The legislation before us will play an important role in consolidating transport services to the islands. It is crucial if we are to ensure the long-term viability and survival of our inhabited off-shore islands. The islands have a unique culture and heritage, which we should as a nation endeavour to preserve. Sadly, the trend of depopulation among island populations is reflected throughout our rural communities, particularly along the west coast. The 2002 census revealed that 18 counties have suffered significant population decline since 1996. It is obvious that this decline is the result of the Government's failure to deliver on its promises to rural communities.

Community-based enterprise is critical and it is important that the Minister who has been a great advocate and promoter of rural communities gets Government support for developments in this area. There has been a lack of enterprise, investment and infrastructure. The facts speak for themselves. The Border and midlands regions have suffered an under-spend of €644 million in the national development plan and the IDA is failing to attract large scale investment to areas outside the east coast. The recent Indecon report commissioned by the NRA revealed that only 48.7% of the money which should have been spent to date on the roads programme in the BMW region has been provided while 140% of funding has been provided for projects in the east coast region. The Department is failing people in rural communities. This is not a personal attack on a Minister who has promoted rural development and the provision of planning permission, which are issues of great importance to the survival of small communities.

As the chairman of a development company for many years, I know there is a role for economic enterprises in communities. A partnership among enterprise, estate agents and communities can make a huge difference. There is an opportunity to tap into the voluntary spirit in communities. While the Minister may be aware of certain projects that have not been successful, where there is a clear management ethos, tight control of accounting and clear structures to involve funding providers, it is amazing what can be achieved. The State can get very good value when it comes to renewal. It is critical that people can get one-off planning for small enterprises, broadband technology and three-phase current. The roll-out of broadband can improve quality of life and contribute hugely to people's ability to establish facilities in their own offices. Broadband access in the home means people do not have to travel 50 miles to do their work. The potential of modern technology means that no place should be isolated or peripheral. Peripheral areas should be as attractive as hubs especially with air services such as the one provided by Aer Arann.

I echo some of the concerns expressed by my colleague, Deputy O'Dowd. There were many ambiguities in the past surrounding the subsidisation of public transport to the islands and the awarding of contracts by the Department. I hope the Minister will be able to explain fully to the House these ambiguities. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report of 2001 highlighted many alarming issues. Under tighter manage ment, it will be difficult for the Minister to account for all of them. Where there is growth in service provision, the cost to the State is quite considerable and it is important to get value for money.

I am a little bit confused about the nature of the Bill. If it is a consolidation Bill, why were the existing contract arrangements not applied in the past? The Department has been negligent in its management of the essential service to the Aran Islands. The Aran Islands Transport Act 1946 provides for the maintenance of an efficient shipping service between the city of Galway and the Aran Islands and authorises the payment of subsidies to persons providing such a service. It is apparent from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report that the passenger usage of this service in 2001 could not satisfy any possible statutory interpretation of the term "efficient".

The original contract for the service covered the period from 1992 to August 1997. As an acknowledgement of the considerable investment in the new service required from the operator, the Department agreed to the insertion of a clause in the contract allowing for an extension of the contract for the main shipping service for a further five years after 31 August 1997, provided agreement could be reached between the parties to the contract. It was asked at the time why further Government or Department of Finance approval was not received for the inclusion of this clause into the contract. Was the clause very favourable to the operator? Why was responsibility for this ferry service transferred to the Department of the Taoiseach from the then Department of Transport, Energy and Communications in March 1996? Why did the Department of the Taoiseach seek to conduct a review of subsidised transport services to the Aran Islands in 1997? The five year contract became a ten year agreement. When renegotiating the contract in 1997, the Office of the Chief State Solicitor advised the Department of its concerns about the implications of possible changes to EU tendering procedures and the automatic renewal of this service contract with the operator. Why was the contract for seven years when the previous contract was for just five? Was this contract index-linked? These are several questions referred to by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

On a point of information, did the Deputy ask the reason responsibility for the ferry service was transferred from the then Department of Transport, Energy and Communications to the Department of the Taoiseach?

The then Minister of State was Donal Carey. The island function was set up for the first time as a separate function in the Department of the Taoiseach.

I am just making the point. Did the Department inform the Department of Finance that it had given the operator an advance payment? There was a huge number of anomalies. Why did the Department overrule the conclusion of the accountants it commissioned to investigate the operator's accounts? How much did the Department spend on commissioning the accountants' services? A huge amount of money was spent in this area. How many civil servants in the Department have special qualifications in the area of marine transport? This was a matter of concern at the time. Does the Department conduct spot-checks of the ferry service and when did it commence a system of regular comparisons between monthly sailing logs and the number of sailings provided for under the terms of the contract? Why did the Department commence this system? Why did it take so long for the Department to introduce this system and has it made any efforts to recoup subsidies paid to the operator where the number of contracted sailings was not provided? There are major concerns to be addressed.

On the Aran Islands air service, why did the subsidy paid to the private operator increase from €279,000 in 2001 to €621,000 during the first year of the public service obligation route? This was a considerable increase. Why will the subsidy increase to €745,000 in year two of the public service obligation route? Who will monitor for the Department the costs of the service? These are all concerns with which the Bill should deal. Why are there no independent statistics for air service usage? Is there any requirement on the operator to forward logs of flights undertaken or details of the number of passengers carried? These are all concerns regarding the Aran Islands air service.

The Rossaveel ferry service also causes concern. Why did the Department not obtain a record of approval from the Department of Finance after it decided to award the contract to the operator? Why does no signed contract exist in respect of the service provided under the 1998 service agreement? Why does no signed contract exist in respect of the service provided under the 1999-2002 service agreement? Why does the Department not monitor the frequency of the service provided by the operator? There are a lot of unanswered questions relating to the previous arrangement with the operators of the Rossaveal ferry service, the Aran Islands air service and the Doolin ferry service.

Doolin is not covered by any contract with my Department. It is purely a matter for the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. There is no connection between Doolin and my Department.

Subsidisation of the bus service is also a big issue. The Doolin ferry service may not be covered by the Minister's Department, but it provides an island service.

It is a private service.

What is of particular concern to me – it was noted in the Comptroller and Auditor General's report – was the Department's practice of extending its contract with O'Brien Shipping in 1997. This contract was originally awarded in 1992 without opening up the tendering to public competition. I hope the Minister will explain to the House the current position on this contract. The 2001 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General indicates that this contract will run until December 2004. The Comptroller and Auditor General cited the fact that the Department has renewed the contract worth €4.22 million from 1997 to 2002 without conducting an evaluation of the performance of O'Brien Shipping or the use of its service. An article in The Irish Times of 12 July 2003 indicated that this contract still existed. The article referred to figures given to the Committee of Public Accounts, which indicated that the number of passengers travelling with O'Brien Shipping has collapsed in the past four years.

I am responsible for that collapse. I purposely set about collapsing the figures, a point which has been missed in the debate. I succeeded in doing so by providing a better alternative service via Rossaveel. I will explain the reason I did this.

If the Minister wishes to go into detail, perhaps it would be better to wait until he is giving his final reply.

Perhaps the Minister will explain the reason it was necessary to have a member of the Garda Síochána present at the ferry service during the summer months.

That is in Doolin—

The Minister will have an opportunity to reply at the conclusion of the debate.

These are issues of best practice and financial mismanagement which suggest the Government may not be getting best value for money in regard to subsidies paid for transport to the islands. I am quoting from the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. It is a hard hitting report which clearly indicates huge anomalies with Galway and the Aran Islands and the amount of heavy goods transported to the islands and the level of subsidisation. In 2001, the Department spent almost £5.5 million on the islands and €603,000, or £500,000, on subsidising the city of Galway passenger and goods service. Some 10% of the total State expenditure on the islands in 2001 went on a service used for 11,000 one-way passenger journeys in a whole year. The Department is unable to provide any statistics for the volume of goods shipped to the Aran Islands by the operators in 2001. Perhaps the Minister has the figures.

One has to provide a cargo service.

Sorry, Minister, the Deputy has just over two minutes remaining.

I am talking about value for taxpayer's money. This would indicate poor management, a loose arrangement and the fact that €5.5 million of taxpayer's money was spent in 2001—

That includes piers and all of those things for which I have been praised in the last couple of days.

The considerable portion of the Department's total budget for the islands in 2001 was spent on the ferry service.

No, it was a small amount.

I invite the Minister to check the figures and the Comptroller and Auditor General's report which will give the facts relating to 2001. It makes shameful reading and it is an embarrassment that any Department could stand over it. I hope the Bill will set the record straight and that any management of the islands will be done on a business-like basis, void of sentiment and that it will provide an essential service.

I call on the Minister to ensure better management of our public transport service to the islands and to work to build upon and expand the infrastructure and transport capabilities to and from the offshore islands. Where there is potential for growth, the investment required should be provided to attract holiday makers to the island. Given the level of depopulation – the census suggests there are 500 fewer people on the islands – I hope the Minister will suggest some incentive, such as a tax break, to encourage more people to live on the islands. It is clear that unless he provides some meaningful benefits that decline will continue.

I would like to think that the growth of the rural communities, of which the Minister is one of the best on that issue, would be tackled but unfortunately the message is not getting through to Cabinet. Despite all the talk there are cutbacks every day for FÁS, job creation and the voluntary input. The voluntary sector has made an heroic contribution, but it has been neglected by the Government in many areas in regard to funding. That is regrettable because that sector has delivered outstanding work in the past. I hope the Minister, through this Bill, will deal with the many deficits relating to the islands. One does not have to go to the islands to find funding deficits. We hear much about the State's spending commitments but there is little action. The crucial test is whether we can encourage people to get involved in their communities. What they want is a partnership and assistance, not a bureaucratic State and layers of paper filling. They want a simple procedure that is meaningful and taps into that shared commitment of those who give of their time voluntarily.

I hope the Minister will deal with some of the queries I raised on the shambolic system in place in the past with regard to providing an equitable and fair service for the islands. That has not been the case. I sincerely hope the Bill will ensure there are no soft arrangements, loose deals or deals arranged by virtue of an entitlement, which was the case with many operators providing this service.

I wish to share time with Deputy Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I will be voting in favour of this Bill which as others have pointed out is not contentious. It makes obvious sense that the Minister with responsibility for the development of the islands ought to have the powers which are being transferred under the legislation. It is also important that the communities concerned are provided with the best possible services and, in particular, with the necessary transport and infrastructure that will lessen whatever disadvantage arises from their remote location.

I note that in his opening remarks, the Minister referred to the 40% of the population of the State who live in rural communities and the tremendous changes that are occurring there due to a variety of social, economic and demographic factors. I also acknowledge his own personal commitment to the development of rural communities and would certainly not wish to take away from any of the achievements to which he refers, be they the establishment of the CLÁR programme or the increase in the number of ferries connecting the islands to the mainland. The connection of these ferries from islands to the mainland is a commendable project and helps those cut off by the elements to have access to the main island.

However, I contend that the Minister's own commitment and the work of his Department is not being helped by the overall tendency of this Government to cut back on the type of public services upon which rural communities are so dependent. While dedicated programmes aimed at particularly disadvantaged areas bring great benefit to the communities concerned, they ought to be complementary to an overall progressive development strategy and not expected to make up for economic decline and social decay hastened by cuts in areas such as education, transport and other public services.

The effects of the erosion during the past 20 to 25 years can be seen in the demise of the small farmer, the small shop keeper, Garda barracks in many areas due to decentralisation of that ser vice, rural post offices and many areas which do not have a transport service. That, I am afraid, is the experience of too many rural communities at present. Apart from the direct effects of the decline of public services, there is also the gradual erosion of the economic basis of communities in which farming and fishing are in decline, and where no alternative enterprises are being established, that decline is all the more startling.

As I am sure the Minister will be aware from his own constituency and others, the level of unemployment in the more isolated rural parts of the State is growing way above the national average. The entire western seaboard from Donegal to Kerry and west Cork has many of the blackspots shown in the recent survey. Certainly in my own county, areas such as Tarbert, Ballyduff, Causeway, Tralee, Listowel, Castleisland – the main centres of population – are running at twice the national average in regard to unemployment. I am sure the Minister will also have noted the re-emergence of particular black spots in his constituency. In County Donegal, which I suppose is the county that probably presents the best example of the types of problems confronting rural parts of the State, unemployment remained well above the national average during the economic upturn that was known as the Celtic tiger, and has reached alarming proportions since that particular beast went into hiding.

I am not reciting these figures to attack the Minister as he is not responsible for the numbers unemployed. I do so merely to reinforce my argument that the good intentions and work being carried out under the auspices of his Department are being undermined by the overall thrust of Government fiscal policy and the economic downturn.

Unemployment affects the more isolated rural areas covered by Teagasc, an advisory board to the farming community. The cutbacks in the community employment and social employment schemes are having a massive effect and are a major contributory factor to the growing problem of unemployment.

I agree that the sort of programmes carried out under the supervision of the Department can play a valuable role in regenerating rural communities, but only if they are carried out in combination with a positive overall approach to the provision of public services and a more aggressive strategy to promote economic growth in rural Ireland, whether in the traditional farming and fishing sectors or in new alternative sources of employment. Many are gaining valuable experience and training through their involvement in programmes like Leader and CLÁR, but they sometimes feel as though their efforts are being undermined by the factors to which I referred.

The Minister referred to planning, which is another major factor affecting rural Ireland. If we want to sustain a viable population in rural areas, the planning issue must be addressed. It is mindboggling that local people are unable to get plan ning permission to build homes in their local area. We also need a policy to provide for people who live in areas where sites are beyond their means. Perhaps the Government could provide interest free loans in order that young people could purchase sites and live in their communities. Otherwise, it should create a policy to provide affordable sites.

The Minister referred in his contribution to the Cranfield University study on the provision of air services to the islands, and stated that its recommendations are under review in the Department. I hope this will lead to an increase in the provision of air services to the islands as this will immensely improve the level and quality of communication between the islands and the rest of the country.

While on the subject of air services, I pass on the concerns forwarded to me by people in County Donegal about the current problems regarding the provision of search and rescue services from Sligo due to a dispute involving winchmen. I trust that the Department of Defence will resolve this as quickly as possible and restore a vital service for the north-west. We do not need to highlight the dangers faced by people involved in the fishing industry on a daily basis. This service is vital to their well-being.

I would like to make some brief points regarding the movement of people from rural to urban areas, and vice versa. The Minister's grandfather has sometimes been criticised for his vision of a rural-based society, but it is one I am sure many would share, at least as an aspiration. It has long been the policy of my party to argue in favour of a radical decentralisation of power and economic activity away from the main urban centres. That means that people should be encouraged to move away from the cities and towns back into rural communities. Far from this being something backward or associated with Maoism, recent developments make such a policy far easier to implement.

Already we are witnessing people moving away from cities like Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway in search of a place to live. However, this is usually done in an unplanned manner with people still commuting back to the cities to work. Would it not make a lot more sense if jobs were relocated? This has been done on a small scale in some Departments but there is greater scope for it. It should be a central part of the IDA's strategy to attract industry.

All of this may seem unconnected to the subject of the Bill but I see all attempts to improve the level of services to and communications with more remote rural areas as, potentially, part of a much wider strategy to implement real decentralisation, one in which moving away from the city would not entail any reduction in access to public services, work or other amenities.

In that spirit, I welcome the Bill as a move towards providing the relevant Department with the power to implement projects to improve the lives of the people in the communities concerned.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill and state my support for our rural and island communities. Although some of us represent urban areas, it is essential that as legislators we work for the ending of any rural-urban divide in our society. I commend and thank rural communities for their massive, social, political, cultural and economic contribution to this island. They have also made major international contributions and it is essential we recognise this today.

Independent Deputies and the members of the Technical Group, in particular, have learned to listen and work together on issues important to people. Recently, a group of Independent Deputies, of which I was a member, visited Pollathomas, County Mayo, where we met the residents affected by the recent landslide. We went to offer support and solidarity following their dreadful tragedy. Listening to their stories in the small local church and talking to them afterwards showed me clearly the need for urban Deputies to keep an eye on the ball with regard to how people live on our coasts and islands. These people have a lot to offer. I admire their courage, integrity and spirit of survival. They are a massive resource to any country.

The people concerned also have a long history of emigration to England, the United States, Canada, Australia and many other places around the world. When they landed in foreign places, they settled and made massive economic, social and political contributions to their new states. That is the reason we should have open hearts and minds when dealing with immigration to our country. We should be mindful of our history. Many immigrants are like those people from our islands and coasts who emigrated. Emigration is buried in our psyche and should not be forgotten.

The purpose of the Bill is to consolidate the existing legislative powers of the Minister in the provision of transport to the islands and to provide for new powers in the provision of airstrips on the islands and of connecting bus passenger services as part of certain ferry-air contracts. I welcome section 2 which provides for the powers of the Minister in the provision of transport services for islands. The Minister may, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, pay subsidies for the operation of ferry services, as provided for previously under the Aran Islands Transport Act 1946 and the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Powers and Functions) Act 1998. In addition, without prejudice to the validity of subsidies previously paid in this regard, power is provided, subject to the consent of the Ministers for Finance and Transport, for payment of subsidies relating to island connecting bus passenger services attaching to certain ferry-air contracts, the destinations of which will be set out in regulations.

Section 3 provides for the powers of the Minister in the provision of aerodromes in connection with the delivery of air services between the islands and the mainland. In this context, the Minister may, with the consent of the Ministers for Finance and Transport, acquire, by agreement or compulsorily, any existing aerodromes or any land for the purpose of the construction, improvement, extension or development of aerodromes and ancillary facilities on the islands, or as the case may be the mainland. Power is also provided to finance the construction, maintenance, restoration, repair or improvement of any such aerodromes and ancillary facilities. Procedures to be followed in the event that compulsory purchase is required are set out, including standard provisions for prior notice, display of plans, notification to interested parties, public inquiry, compensation, arbitration, etc.

No direct financial implications arise from the legislation. I welcome the fact that consolidation of previous legislation and regularising of existing contract arrangements will be cost neutral. The provision of new powers in the provision of air access does not carry any financial obligation or direct implication but would form the legislative framework within which the future development of transport services to the islands can be pursued, subject to the consent of the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Transport, as appropriate.

No staffing implications arise from the legislation. On staffing, it is essential that we deal with the issue of population. We must ensure the islands have good schools, jobs and health care. We cannot allow our citizens to live without services and transport. This is a key element. Air and sea transport are essential parts of island life. The issue of water and boat safety is also important. We have a duty to ensure that the safety and quality of life on the islands is protected. We have seen so many tragedies in the past that could have been avoided, particularly drowning and boating tragedies.

Section 7 provides for the Minister's power regarding the management and operation of such aerodromes or, if authorised by order made by the Minister with the consent of the Ministers for Finance and Transport, delegation of this function to a statutory body, such as a local authority or a company financed or assisted by the Exchequer. Here again we see the role of the local authority and I feel we have to be in touch with local communities. I have seen examples of good practice but I have also examples of terrible practice on the part of local authorities who are not listening to people on the ground.

The local council has got to be proactive, to build and develop the relationship between local people, especially people living on the islands. There is massive scope for development and exploiting potential for the future. Good economic strategies can turn around an island community.

Section 4 provides for the repeal of the Aran Islands Transport Act 1946 and section 4 of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Powers and Functions) Act 1998, without prejudice to previous or existing contracts made under that legislation. Section 5 provides that the expenses incurred by the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Minister for Transport in the administration shall, with the consent of the Minister for Finance, be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. The expenses of the Minister for Finance will also be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.

Here again the question of public finances comes to the top of the agenda. Public money should always be spent wisely, especially on the most disadvantaged in our society. I usually talk much about urban disadvantage. We must also face the reality of rural disadvantage, particularly in this Bill. We have a glorious opportunity to do so when dealing with transport services to the islands. Think, for example, of the winter months, the long cold nights and the dangerous seas. We all have a duty to look after our island people. If we are really serious, we will give them a decent transport service and that is the bottom line in this debate.

It is refreshing to see in this debate the number of urban Deputies expressing their support and goodwill for the island communities. Most of that comes from our own experience as visitors or as tourists to these islands. This opens up the whole question of their importance to the tourism industry. If one talks to any of our foreign tourists, research shows the islands and what they have to offer are a major reason for them coming to Ireland. They represent a massive natural and human resource that we often neglect and forget. Our coasts, seas and islands can bring more visitors into the country and this in turn will lead to more jobs and economic investment. As legislators we have to plan for this and infrastructure is part of the solution.

We need proper airports and safe boats for our people. When talking about the islands another resource we must tap into is our fishing industry. The island people play an important role in this industry and deserve our support. We can look at the fishing industry from a number of angles, such as support for local communities, jobs and economic development – and now, the health care issue. The eating of fish and the development of a quality health care policy in this country must be interlinked. This should be part of the broader health strategy. Quality diet with fish as a major component, benefits all our society. Medical experts both in Ireland and abroad, demand we eat more fish. Again, we can use this health argument to develop and assist our islands.

Fish processing at home must be part of our economic strategy. The people on the islands and along our coasts have an expertise on these issues. Any sensible Government or politicians will listen to their views. To develop these strategies and ideas, transport services must be of a high quality and standard for us to benefit from our fishing wealth and the practical experience of the people of the islands.

I welcome this legislation and the opportunity to put on record my support for the development of transport services for our island communities.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words on this important legislation – the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Powers and Functions) Bill 2003. I am always glad to get the opportunity to contribute in this House on rural affairs. Too often in the past we have forgotten about rural affairs and rural people.

I went to check what the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, said in his speech and was handed a script in Irish. My Irish is not that good. I am somewhat disappointed because I think it is unfair on the Minister's part. Perhaps there is something hidden in it. In fairness to people in this House, we should have an opportunity to have the speech given to us in English. I am somewhat disappointed—

We always go on about the importance of the Irish language, our first national language and so on. We are all in favour of it until somebody uses it. Then there is criticism for using it. The reality of the matter is, if the Deputy wanted to know what I was saying, it was provided on translation in the House, simultaneously to my saying it in Irish. It was available in English at the time.

I am just making the point that when I looked for the Minister's speech, this is what I got. I did not come in to highlight my lack of knowledge of the Irish language, but I certainly would like to know what the speech contains.

The Deputy has made a more serious allegation.

I did not interrupt the Minister, now—

The Deputy said there was something hidden in it. To be quite honest, if there was something hidden in it, the Deputy's colleague, Deputy McGinley, would have picked it up very fast. I think the implication is scurrilous.

In fairness to people, we are entitled to a speech in the language that we use.

The Deputy should be aware one may speak Irish or English in this House. If one speaks Irish, there is a simultaneous translation provided for those Members who do not speak Irish. The Deputy is entitled to it and it was provided. I do not think he should expect me or my Department to provide an automatic English translation to everything we provide in Irish. We have agreed in the language Act exactly how this issue will be dealt with, which is that Dáil records will record it in the language spoken by the Deputies. That was done to favour the English speakers, in order that everything they said in English would not have to be translated automatically into Irish.

The Minister does not have to give me a lecture about it. I have a great respect and regard for the Irish language.

Except when someone uses it.

I just made a point and I think I am entitled to make it. The other thing I welcome is the many urban Deputies who spoke on this quite interesting Bill. I have to commend the various viewpoints that came across from these Deputies for their particular interest in rural affairs. Island people have a great heritage, as well as many people living right across rural Ireland. We have something that is very important to us and this is being increasingly recognised by people in the cities and built-up areas.

It is most important that living conditions are made better for those people living on the islands. Everything possible should be done to improve their conditions and to make the islands a better place in which to live. A great quality of life is shared among the people of the islands and the rural parts of the country. However, we have neglected rural areas in the past. We are doing our best to address many of those issues, but when the figures are examined, the truth is that some 18 counties have suffered rural population decline. Some parts of the country are worse than the national average.

I come from what is traditionally recognised as a strong agricultural county. Some areas of my constituency have seen a larger decline in population than the national average which would amaze many. Lack of investment is the cause. For example, there has been no decentralisation to my part of the country. Many areas would benefit greatly from decentralisation by private companies as well as the Government. We have allowed the eastern part of the country to develop greatly but this has resulted in many problems, particularly in Dublin. Those of us who regularly try to travel through the city know the problems resulting from that development while the rest of the country was left without necessary infrastructure. We are paying the price. Every six months we hear about the imminent Government decentralisation programme but nothing is happening. Why not? This was promised by the last Government but alas nothing has happened.

It is time to bite the bullet on this issue. If the Government decentralises, many parts of the private sector would follow. There is no reason farming organisations, other rural bodies, banks, etc., need to have their centres in Dublin and not scattered around the country. With modern communications there is no reason they could not be decentralised. There is now a strong argument for that because road and rail networks are being installed that would enable people to move freely around the country. There are also many good schools and regional colleges around the country which would be an advantage to people who want to move their families, whether they are in Government or private sector jobs. Those institutions would benefit as well.

The Minister has a keen interest in one-off rural housing and allowing people to live in a rural environment, which has been a major issue for some time. I agree with, and welcome, most of his views on one-off housing as expressed in the national media. Only a few weeks ago the Taoiseach said that one-off rural housing was the biggest issue facing rural Ireland and young people living there, and there is no doubt about it. A week later I asked the Taoiseach on the Order of Business if there was any legislation promised but there is none.

There is no need for it.

There is a need for it. Several county councils are going through their county development plans. Although I have been off my council for several weeks I raised this issue, as did many members of the Minister's party, and we were told we could not bring in the changes we wanted.

That is not true.

It is. The directives are there from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It is true and that is the issue, and if the Minister contacts the planning officers on our county council tomorrow he will hear that they have not been able to bring in those changes. Furthermore, some of the Senators in the Minister's party have told their party members that there are changes coming and they expect them to be made, so there is a breakdown of communication which needs to be fixed. The Minister is shaking his head and I am amazed because I was relying on him as one of the people who would bring about that change. I ask the Minister to at least clarify this to allow people to build their houses and live in rural communities.

The Leader programme, county enterprise boards, county development boards and FÁS all have a large part to play in rural development and in enhancing rural life. There needs to be more co-ordination between those groups. While the county development board idea was good it does not work on the ground to the benefit of the communities because it is too unco-ordinated. Albert Reynolds created the county enterprise boards when he was Taoiseach. I served on one in my county and it was the best way I ever saw to get to the core of helping people to set up or develop a business. I encourage the Government to consider an enhanced role for these boards which would benefit many. Leader was good in its way but it did not get to the nub of what people wanted.

People have missed the point about the change in agriculture. The announcement last week on decoupling in agriculture will have a bigger impact on rural communities than was ever envisaged and I am disappointed that we have not had time to get into it here because the announcement last Sunday by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, will bring about great changes. There is a fear, and it will become a reality, that if farmers go a certain way jobs will be lost in our rural communities.

We need a more co-ordinated way to help people, whether they are in rural Ireland or on the islands, and people should not be disadvantaged because they are living in rural areas. I am glad to have had the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. In my earlier remarks about the text of the Bill I did not intend anything personal against the Minister. I wanted only to make the point.

I too welcome the Minister's views on one-off planning which have been consistently strong. I ask that he does all in his power to make sure that his feelings and concerns, which mirror many of ours in rural areas, are expressed and acted upon on the ground. We can all talk about the changes here but we need to see them spreading through the county councils. Already there have been significant improvements and I am happy with the planning in many areas. However, while the Minister's comments are sincere I expected that the Taoiseach would have something important to say to give people hope when he came out of a recent meeting in Sligo. People come to me believing that it is easy to get planning permission because they hear things are changing. I can tell them only that it is still difficult but that things are improving. It is important to send out a clear message on what is happening.

Our planners seem to be trained to keep the number of houses in greenfield sites in rural areas to a minimum. We need to consider what they are learning in college and how they are trained. I urge the Minister to adhere strongly to his position in that regard, which I fully support.

This Bill has been brought before the House for the purpose of consolidating existing legislation dealing with the provision of public transport to the islands, whether by sea or air. Its aim to update and consolidate the powers of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and his Department is to be welcomed. It is vital that the communities of our offshore islands can be assured of a quality and reliable transport system and I hope the Bill will further facilitate this.

Transport to and from schools and colleges is a vital requirement for young people from the islands. In many cases, their present arrangements involve absence from home during the week. A better transport system might enable them to spend more time at home, which would be to their benefit in many ways. I hope this Bill will lead to some improvement in that regard. Transport is also an important aspect of infrastructural improvement, job creation and quality of life. From my contact with many young people from island communities, I believe they would prefer to continue to live in their home place, although they sometimes feel they may be missing out on some advantages enjoyed by those of us who live within an hour of Dublin. We should do everything possible to provide comparable opportunities for them.

Like my party colleagues I am concerned that, beyond the main purpose of this Bill – the consolidation of public transport legislation regarding the islands – there are broader issues which in the past have placed a blight over the efficient functioning and management of public transport to the islands. I will return to these issues shortly.

Undoubtedly, the provision of public transport services is crucial if we are to sustain our nation's offshore islands as vibrant and living communities. There are two sides to the coin. First, the islanders must have confidence that they have a reliable, safe and efficient transport infrastructure which can guarantee them access to the mainland. This is the only way people can be expected to remain on our offshore islands. However, more importantly for long-term sustainability, a quality transport service and broader infrastructure networks are essential if the islands are to attract investment, enterprise, tourism and job creation.

It is clear that, for the most part, islanders would choose to stay on our offshore islands provided they have employment opportunities and a quality of life on a par with those who live on the mainland. As well as having a quality transport system, other related services such as education and recreational and social infrastructure are vital to sustaining island communities. To date, however, we have not succeeded in sustaining those communities.

The census figures from 2002 point clearly to the failure of this Government and others to keep our island communities alive and prospering. Census 2002 indicates that between 1996 and 2002, the number of island inhabitants fell by 500. This huge and startling population decline highlights a lack of commitment by the Government to identifying and addressing the pressing needs of island communities, particularly in terms of job creation and investment. I hope the Minister will spearhead a change in that regard. From my conversations with older residents of the islands, I am aware of the efforts they had to make, back in the 1950s and 1960s, to secure basic services such as electricity, transport and harbour facilities. I hope Deputy Ó Cuív's current ministerial brief represents the beginning of a new approach and that it will no longer be necessary for island residents to wait many years for improvements to be made. They should be given all possible hope and encouragement.

Tourism has been very important to our island communities in recent years. It has been of tremendous benefit in providing employment, directly and indirectly. I hope this Bill will bring further improvements to the public transport system for the islands and assist in increasing the number of tourists who visit them. I am particularly familiar with the situation on Clare Island, where access by ferries or other means becomes more difficult from October onwards, due to weather and tidal conditions. All possible support should be given. I will certainly make my own small contribution by continuing to visit there.

This Bill places some emphasis on improving air services to our islands and that is a positive development. Clearly, it reflects a broader trend whereby access and affordability of air transport for the ordinary travelling public have increased dramatically in the last 20 years. However, in the process of improving air services and facilities, we must not overlook the situation of the ferry operators and the employment content of their services. There is some concern that in the event of a roll-back in air services in future years, people would be worse off than ever if the ferries had gone out of business in the meantime. If we take a particular course, it is important to have a long-term commitment.

Offshore islanders should not be treated less favourably than other citizens. Increased air travel is now the norm for islanders. That is not surprising, given the shorter travel times and convenience which it provides in getting to the mainland. In this regard, I urge the Minister to ensure that airstrips and aerodromes which facilitate air transport to the islands are prioritised in terms of upgrading, improvement and development of existing facilities and constructing new airstrips where necessary.

Ferry services also provide an important element of the transport infrastructure to the islands, but they should be used efficiently. Air transport in off-peak months might be more appropriate for use by island communities, particularly when weather conditions are severe. This would mean that the Department would have to revise its current system of State subsidies to public transport providers and I would urge the Minister to evaluate the merits of this suggestion.

While I welcome this Bill mainly because I hope it will lead to improved transport facilities for islanders and those who wish to visit the islands, I hope mistakes made in the past regarding the provision of public transport services to the islands will not be repeated. There is an issue in terms of providing quality and reliable transport services to the islands. It is also a value for money issue and, as the Minister will be aware, concerns have been raised in the past as to whether these services were provided in the best manner. Poor management and bad practice in the provision of subsidised transport services have been identified in the past by the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Committee of Public Accounts. The Comptroller and Auditor General's report for 2001 identified serious concerns regarding the awarding of a contract to provide subsidised ferry services to the islands. The report expressed particular concern about the renewal of a contract with one ferry company, which had held a contract from 1992 to 1997, without this contract being open to public competition. This was identified as mismanagement and representing poor value for money. I hope the Minister will ensure this does not happen again. There have been other stories which may or may not be true. If the correct procedures are in place, doubts will not arise and the rumour mills will not be at work.

They will work anyhow.

That may be so, but it is important to do all we can to ensure that proper procedures are in operation. Beyond the issue to which I have referred, the Comptroller and Auditor General cited the fact that the Department did not monitor the frequency of the service actually provided before making payments to the service provider. He also stated that the Department could not provide either detailed or summary annual statistics regarding passenger use of the ferry services between Rossaveel and the islands as sailing logs are not generally reviewed. The Department was also unable to provide statistics on the amount of cargo carried on the service. This is just a very short summary of some of the problems identified. However, they are substantial deficiencies and I hope they will not be repeated.

Surveys have indicated that some islanders have expressed concerns that the ferry service between Galway city and the islands often does not run as scheduled. There are problems with transportation of cargo, there are often delays with the Rossaveel bus service and there has been dissatisfaction with the standard of the vessels in some cases. The latter problem was clearly evident earlier this year when the operator of one of the State's subsidised ferries was convicted and fined for breaches of EU food and hygiene regulations.

I support the broad thrust of this Bill. I urge the Minister to ensure that transport services to the islands are undertaken in a more co-ordinated fashion to ensure a better delivery of travel services and value for money. I also urge greater scrutiny of information on usage of travel services to the islands. This could facilitate better monitoring of services and inform better decision making, particularly in awarding State contracts. The people of the islands deserve a quality and reliable transport service, which is efficient and provides best value for money. I hope that is our aim in this Bill.

This is an important Bill. Like Deputy Hayes, I was looking for an English translation of the Minister's speech. However, I know he is not trying to hide anything by making the speech in Irish since he is both straightforward and frank.

I have to say—

In County Wexford we do not have the same knowledge of Irish as the Minister since we do not come from a strong Gaeltacht area like he does.

I come from Dublin 4. If I can learn Irish, so can the Deputy.

I did not have an interest in the language.

The Deputy cannot blame me for that.

I know it is an important language. I compliment the Minister on his work in the Department and the way in which he thinks of Galway and so on. I hope he will spend as much money in rural areas in County Wexford, which he visited last week, as he does in the west.

Transport is one of the most important issues on an island. Having visited the Aran Islands and others, it is clear that getting there and back is important. In recent years many Deputies referred to islanders who had been killed on ferries before aircraft were brought into service. Therefore, it is good to see air services in place to carry people between the islands and the mainland.

A documentary about Aer Arann was broadcast on TG4 last Sunday night. The company runs services between Galway, Dublin, the United Kingdom and Waterford – an important benefit to rural areas. People can avoid bad roads and traffic queues by flying to Dublin in 30 minutes or so. I am surprised by the number of commuters who travel from Galway to Dublin to work. Many leave Galway at 7 a.m. and are home by 7 p.m. that evening. It is important that this type of service continues, particularly for islanders.

I visited the Aran Islands two years ago and was amazed by the air service. One could take off from the mainland and land on the island within 15 minutes. One could then spend a few hours walking around. I spent a night camping.

Was the Deputy on his own?

I was. I compliment the islanders and the company which operated the service at the time. When a coach load of tourists come to Ireland, they often visit a remote island which is the highlight of their tour. Whenever I have the opportunity to talk to tourists, I ask them what they think of Ireland and where we can improve our tourism product. Many say they had a great time on the Aran Islands, visiting heritage centres which exhibit island life. I was amazed to see the centres one could visit on the Aran Islands and the amount of money which had been spent on them. Simple things had been done in order to make the visit interesting. The interesting exhibits covered life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including the fishing boats used and so on. I hope the air service will remain in place for many years, despite the problems that have been encountered which I trust the Bill will address.

The Bill also deals with communication, the importance of which we are well aware on the mainland, particularly in regard to issues such as broadband, telephone and mobile telephone services. We are living in an age in which we depend totally on communications. It is great to see the development of communications services on the mainland which can be developed on the islands. It is only right that broadband be rolled out to the islands. It is important for us to communicate and for islanders to be enabled to remain on the islands which many left because of the lack of services and transport links. It is good that such services are now in place to prevent this.

During the summer I read that the Minister had launched a small harbour on one of the islands. The islanders used to have to drag boats onto the rocks. Therefore, it was right that they be provided with such a harbour. The amount of money it cost amazed me because it did not look like a massive job. However, it cost €1 million or €3 million.

The cost was about €300,000.

On the mainland we think nothing of going to the local shop or supermarket or Dublin for the day, whereas islanders may only be able to get to the shop or post office. I have always been a major supporter of rural communities, at the centre of which are the post office, shops, the Garda station, the community centre and so on which play an important role as the hub. Islanders cannot visit such facilities as easily as those who live on the mainland.

The islands depend financially on tourism. If the transport facilities are not in place, they will not be able to get tourists to visit them. Tourists prefer a short comfortable journey by air rather than an uncomfortable one by sea. Therefore, it is important that such a service be retained.

There is a lack of transport facilities in rural communities, particularly for the elderly. The County Wexford Partnership recently launched a rural transport initiative whereby a bus collects older people from rural areas. This is particularly useful for those unable to drive. The Minister for Transport introduced regulations requiring an examination for a full driving licence for those who may only have ever held a provisional licence. This affects older people, in particular, who will have to rely on others to drive them into town each day. The rural transport initiative in south Wexford is, therefore, welcome. On Tuesdays and Fridays older people are able to go to New Ross or Waterford to pick up their pension or do their groceries. It important to them to be able to do so because it gives them a break, an opportunity to get out, something we all need.

The Minister is aware of this initiative which he should examine. More money should be spent on such schemes. When I hold clinics, many people tell me that they can only get to the local post office, that it is not possible to get to Enniscorthy because there is no transport service. If a service was available, they would use it. Many of them have a free travel pass. It is great that they can make use of it, although the Government might do away with it soon enough.

Deputy Hayes mentioned rural housing. If we want to keep rural areas alive, housing must be available. I come up against problems with one off housing and planning permission every day of the week. The Taoiseach mentioned the importance of rural housing at the gathering of the Fianna Fáil Party in Sligo in September. Deputies then asked if a Bill would be introduced to deal with the issue and the Taoiseach backed down. He had brought it up as an issue that suited him at the time but rural housing is important and county councils are changing county development plans to allow for it. Every day people contact me about problems with planning permission.

Decentralisation was designed to move people away from the major cities into rural communities. The last decentralisation experienced in County Wexford took place under the rainbow coalition and there was plenty because there were two Ministers and a Minister of State from the area.

They would not have picked an area because it was in their constituency.

It has been a while since we were as well looked after because the Government has ignored us. People must look after themselves. Former Deputy Yates and Deputy Howlin looked after County Wexford and brought whatever they could to it.

Surely the area was picked under objective criteria.

People wondered when the gravy train would stop but it did not stop between 1994 and 1997 after which it came to a sudden stop. No gravy train has come since. Sections of the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government were opened and they made a great difference by bringing people who had previously lived in Dublin back to their roots. It brought a boom to the county, although it came to a sudden halt. The number who were happy to move was incredible. There must be more decentralisation. When I was younger, it used to take an hour and a half to get from Wexford to Dublin but it now takes three because of traffic. The more who move from the cities through the decentralisation programme the better.

I welcome the Bill which contains some interesting ideas. I read the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and would not like to see what happened in the past occur again. Transport to the islands should be an open pro cess and remain at the top of the Minister's agenda.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. In my constituency there are three islands, Inishbiggle, Clare Island and Inishturk. Off Clew Bay there are 365, one for every day of the week, the people of which were forgotten for many years. They were let down by all previous Governments. Nothing was done for them and they were let go their own way, the reason so many of them left.

No Government took the islands seriously until the rainbow Government, when former Deputy Donal Carey, as Minister of State at the then Department of Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, started the work that has since been continued by the Minister for Community, Gaeltacht and Rural Affairs – I will give credit where it is due. The Minister and Donal Carey are the only two people I have seen do anything for the islands since I entered politics and I compliment both of them. Donal Carey introduced the legislation and the Minister continued that work and did a good job.

During the years islanders wanted a few simple things. The most important part of island life is access, getting in and out. For years piers were unsafe; there were no ferries and we were not prepared to give island communities the same subsidies we gave to Bus Éireann, Irish Rail and other bodies. The Minister and I have talked about Inishbiggle on many occasions. If the facilities were put in place and the island was promoted, there would be thousands visiting every year. It takes four minutes to get there but the sea current on the journey is the most dangerous in the world; it would sweep anyone away in a very short time. That is the reason the island communities were so concerned about access.

We have talked about a cable car to Inishbiggle for many years. The Bill should enable the Minister and the Department to make the final push to get it up and running in order that the people of Inishbiggle can promote the island. The Minister has played his role and the local problems and legal difficulties have been dealt with. Finances are now tight but the Minister and I both know that it is essential infrastructure for the island.

It is not often I praise Mayo County Council but it has been of great assistance to the Minister. Even before he took office, the council was promoting the islands to the best of its ability, yet they never had the same level of funding. In most projects such as water supply, sewerage schemes, roads or piers, the Department supplies 40%, 50% and 70% of the funding, which the county council has to match. Mayo County Council has never been found wanting in this regard.

The Minister will recall the case of an island off County Galway which wanted to transfer to County Mayo because it was felt Galway County Council was not providing for the inhabitants. I presume that has changed since Deputy Ó Cuív was made Minister. However, there was a time this particular island felt that Mayo County Council would make the effort to provide the infrastructure needed.

I am not discussing the Comptroller and Auditor General's report on the ferry services, as the Minister and I have disagreed on the issuing of ferry licences. That has now been regulated with a tender process for licences and this saves the public from anything underhanded going on. In the past, we had licences given out that are now finding their way to the courts because of disputes. However, I welcome the Bill's proposals on subsidising island ferry services as they are entitled to it. It is only fair and right that the Department subsidises any person providing such services. Island life is not easy and if we want people to continue living on the islands, they must be able to get on and off the islands 52 weeks of the year.

I take this opportunity to compliment the Air Corps for being good to the islands over the years. I am aware, and so is the Minister, that at times it is called out to the islands on Christmas Day, St. Stephen's Day and New Year's Day. I thank the Air Corps for the support and assistance it has given island communities over the years. Many times the Minister and I have phone calls on Christmas Eve from island communities who have not been able to get on and off the island due to bad sea swells. The only way they could get their Christmas dinner was through the Air Corps bringing people and goods in. In some cases, members of the Air Corps have risked their lives for the job they do for the islands.

I welcome the provision regarding airstrips in the Bill. Every island should have an airstrip on the basis that even if it is only to land small aeroplanes or helicopters, it should be in place and subsidised. The weather during winter does not make it easy for boats to get in and out of an island, making airstrips important. Another good provision in the Bill is for transport at pick-up points where people come off an island. There is not much point coming from Inisbiggle to Ballycroy or Clare Island to Roonagh Pier when no taxi or public transport is provided. I welcome the Minister's proposals as a step in the right direction. It is only right that this service be provided.

The time has come for island people to be able to vote in general and local elections on the same day as the mainland. I remember during one election a garda who would not bring the ballot box in from Inisbiggle because the boat was not licensed. That was the only election in which I did not get a vote from Inisbiggle. I was glad that he never brought in the ballot box again on the boat because I got a few votes from the island. I am not saying anything untold occurred. However, I always remember him carrying the ballot box across the water like Jesus Christ.

There is a problem with the provision of clergy for the islands. In the three islands in my constituency, the priest only goes out at weekends. All the islands at one time had their own full-time priests. It is a sign of the times that they now have to share a priest. It is the reality they must suffer and it shows what is happening in wider rural life.

The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the health boards have worked for the provision of health care facilities for Clare Island and, particularly, Inisturk. They have a right to these services. However, I wish to see the day that we see more children staying on the islands. It is sad to see island children coming into schools in Louisburgh and Galway. They arrive on a Sunday night and stay until Friday night, but, in some cases, they might not be able to return because of adverse weather conditions. The time has come, where possible and with the numbers, that we look to building secondary schools on the islands. There must be nothing worse than a young boy or girl having to leave his or her home on a Sunday evening, travel to a strange town and stay in bed and breakfast or digs until the following Friday.

We speak about poverty proofing with regard to different Bills that come through the House. We should also look at "island-proofing" Bills. Whatever legislation comes through the Dáil, the Minister and his Department should check it to ensure that it suits the islands. It is not right that legislation is introduced when six months later, for example, an island post office is closed because of a lack of numbers. This use of legislation against island communities affects their welfare. It should be a democratic right, regardless of the population of the islands, that legislation should not be used against them.

I always give credit where it is due. The Minister has been a reasonable man on these issues and more of his Cabinet colleagues should look at how he does business. There cannot always be legislation for different locations, particularly in rural areas. One certainly cannot use legislation drafted for the mainland for the islands because there are different circumstances and reasons. The Minister and his Department should ensure that all legislation should be "island-proofed" so it is not used against the islands at a later stage.

Mayo County Council has almost completed a housing project on Clare Island and there is a waiting list. That proves that if the Minister puts the infrastructure, facilities and housing in place, people will remain living on the islands. No matter where one is born, that is where one loves and wants to be. There are many people who would return to the islands if the facilities were there. Those island children who attend school and third level courses off the islands, spend more time off than on them. If the facilities were on the islands, they would never leave. They would grow up, get married and have children on the islands. However, it is not the case because the infrastructure is not there and they have been let down by previous Governments. I am glad that the necessary funding is being put in place for the provision of these facilities. It is important that island communities have the opportunity to live, work and rear families where they want to be.

It is not easy being in an island community. I know the Minister has done his best on social welfare and island payments. However, with the forthcoming budget, there should be special payments for people living on islands. To bring foodstuffs, feedstuffs and cattle on to an island costs more than it does on the mainland. The island communities are entitled to be subsidised in order that the costs of bringing goods on to the islands will have some parity with mainland costs.

The work done by the Minister and before him the former Minister of State, Donal Carey, in setting up the committees within the islands has been successful. The Minister has listened to them, supported them and worked with them. Who knows best? It is not the Minister, the officials in the Department or the county councils but the people who live on the islands 52 weeks a year. They know the problems and difficulties and what they want. I was at Doran's Point in Ballycroy recently and it is great to see a simple job that did not cost €1 million. It cost small money and was supported by the Department and the county council. Although there is a difficulty with the transport service, the work done has given the people concerned the opportunity to access the island. However, the facility is now in place and it is safe. Many more simple things like this could be done.

The Minister looked after another island with only one family. No other Minister would have taken it on board and I am sure the Department resisted him every step of the way. This was appropriate to accommodate a farmer who wanted to live and raise his family on the island. A wonderful pier has been provided.

Electricity has been supplied to many islands during the years. Those living on islands are entitled to the same facilities as everybody else. These are all positive developments in recent years and it is great to see them happening. I do not begrudge one penny the islanders get. It is wonderful that people are prepared and want to live on the islands. The Government should be helping and working with them to try to keep them there.

As the Minister sees in County Galway and as I see in County Mayo, if more facilities were provided, thousands would travel to the islands, particularly with the good summer we had this year. It is a wonderful day out to bring children and show them how the other half lives. There is a special way about islanders. It is a way of life that we are losing and we should not allow it to happen any more. We should protect the few who are there. We should help and encourage them and provide the facilities. It would not cost big money in the context of the overall budget of the economy. The piers and harbours being provided represent money well spent by the taxpayer. I do not see any wastage. Nobody on the mainland would begrudge the islanders these facilities.

In future I hope more money will be spent and more people will go back to the islands. I hope the county councils will build more houses and the health boards will provide as many services as possible on the islands in order that they do not have to come to the mainland for the basic necessities. It is now possible for an X-ray to be taken on an island and viewed in Dublin. These facilities should be provided in order that people living on the islands do not have to get on a boat in the morning and drive all the way to Beaumont Hospital or St. Luke's Hospital. Nobody would begrudge them such facilities.

The Minister should keep up the good work. I come from a rural constituency with three active islands and 365 in total – one for each day of the year. It would be wrong not to provide the funding for the necessary infrastructure to allow the people concerned live where they were born. We have lost enough islanders; those who are left should be helped and rewarded for staying. I like islanders who are decent people. It is a difficult way of life. While it is not easy for them to make a living, they succeed in doing so. As the Minister knows from his visits, there is something about them. He will have my support from this side of the House in giving them whatever support they need. When I get into government to do the job the Minister is doing, I will make sure we do whatever has to be done for them.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le chuile dhuine a labhair sa díospóireacht seo. I thank everybody who contributed so positively to a useful and broad-ranging debate. I will respond to some of the issues raised by Deputy Ring. My original plan was to build the cable car link from the mainland to Inishbiggle. However, events intervened. If I had known then what I know now, I would have done it. We should have provided the slips at Doran's Point at Ballycroy. Once the slips are completed, I intend to advertise for a ferry service for which there will be a connecting bus service. As the Deputy eloquently pointed out, while Ballycroy is a fine place, there is no point leaving somebody standing there on a pier. As a short-term measure, this should bring regularity and safety to the people of Inishbiggle, which I hope will be useful for them.

I would like to give an overview of what we are doing for the islands. I also compliment the work done by the former Minister of State, Donal Carey, who operated with a very small budget. He set up the island fund. As Deputies know, once there is a budget heading, it can always be increased. The difficulty is to get the heading in the first place. When all the money was taken into account, the budget was only €2.5 million which has risen to €8.5 million per annum.

Whenever I visited an island the first thing people talked about was access and piers. We have now provided about six or seven in County Cork alone. We have done Cunnamore, Sherkin, Long, Hare and Whiddy. Some work was done on Bere Island. County Cork was ahead of the posse because the people there had their homework done. We are planning major works for the piers on the Aran Islands and will be moving up the coast.

As Deputies are probably aware, we are on the point of finalising a tender process in conjunction with Mayo County Council. We had hoped to start earlier but, as always, there were some minor problems. We hope to carry out the two biggest ever contracts for island piers on Clare Island and Inisturk. We have already commenced construction work on Roonagh Pier which will improve the level of safety of considerably.

We have also addressed a number of small piers. We have approved funding for Inishlyre and done the pier on Clynish. People will ask the reason we have done those islands given that Inishlyre, for example, only has three families on it. There is a certain amount of money provided for islands. Once a year I meet all members of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann which represents Inis Mór, the biggest island, down to the smallest island with one person. They always tell me they want the small islands looked after as well as the big islands. The days are gone when we only looked after the Aran Islands – perhaps only Inis Mór. They see themselves as an inclusive family and want those small islands looked after, even including the tidal islands like Iniscuttle and Inisnakillew.

Moving up the coast, we have done work on the pier on Arranmore. We have done major work at Magheroarty. A large contract on Tory Island commenced by my predecessors, Deputy Michael Higgins and Donal Carey, has been completed.

Other things have been done on the islands, particularly work on roads. When I first went to Inishturk, I was told to forget about everything else and address the issue of roads to people's houses. There were islands without water services. This was the top priority for those living on Dursey Island and a number of other islands, including Clynish. Some of the islands which are inhabited only seasonally for fishing and farming had no electricity service. People moved away because of the problem of schools for children. Inishbofin in County Donegal has a vibrant population from early spring until late summer where all the houses are kept and there is electricity. Other islands are Gola Island, Coney Island, Inse Gort, Inis Ladhair, Inis Treamhar, Inis Fearracháin and so on down the coast. We have done eight or ten islands, the ESB has been marvellously accommodating and the work was done at a very good cost. We have built health centres and social facilities.

The issue of schools was raised and this is central to the question of staying on an island. I have examined what we have done and what needs to be done. There are 13 primary schools on 11 islands. Some have more than one school. These have a viable primary school population and obviously there is no point talking about a secondary school if there is not even a primary school.

Regarding the arrangements for secondary schools, two new secondary schools opened during my term as Minister, on Inis Meáin and Tory Island. Five out of the 11 islands have secondary schools which leaves six that do not. The children on two of these, Sherkin and Bere islands, go to school every day on the mainland and return in the evening. There was no ferry in Sherkin Island and we arranged for one to bring the children out in the morning and back in the evening. This means families have stayed on the island who would have otherwise left for their children to obtain a secondary education.

Children on Bere Island always went to school on the mainland, but I managed this year, along with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy de Valera, to rectify what was a farcical situation. The children were given transport to the pier at Castletownbere on the mainland but were not brought from there to the school. It was good enough to bring them that far and they had to make their own way from there to school. We have arranged transport to the school, which is a modest improvement on the face of it but a major improvement for those involved.

This leaves four islands that depend on the remote area grant and whose children must attend school on the mainland. These are Clare Island, Inishturk, Inishbofin and Cape Clear. The problem is that there is an insufficient population to maintain a secondary school. Parents will not accept a second level school if the numbers are unrealistic. In three of these cases we have put bus connections in place which mean that, when the children reach the mainland, they are brought to the school they attend and similarly in the other direction the day the school closes. If the school has a day off, which can happen on a Monday, or holidays, everything is tailored to ensure the bus, which is part of the ferry contract, collects them on the day school finishes.

For example, the Inishbofin children are brought to St. Jarlath's and Kylemore and the children from Clare Island and Inishturk to Louisburgh where the majority of them attend school. These services have changed the situation radically for children. Islanders in the 25 to 30 age bracket would have tended to go away to school, coming home only for the mid-term break and Christmas with the result that the connection was lost with the island.

One of the reasons for this Bill is to ensure that all this is legal. It is desirable and no one can argue with this. I doubt that anyone would challenge it legally, but there appears to be some doubt about the legality of these arrangements and I will not allow any such doubt where there is a moral certainty about what we are doing and it is the right action to take.

The issue of doctors and medical services for the islands is very important and one of our major achievements was to have a full-time doctor on a third island, namely, Inis Oirr, which is the third most populated island. We also introduced the islander's allowance which is a special social welfare allowance of €12.70 per week for those who are permanently incapacitated or are of pensionable age to make up for the greater cost of living on an island. There is a myth that it is cheap to live on an island. It is not. It is incredibly expensive because everything must be brought in. To build a house is much more expensive. We introduced much higher new house grants and they still are in place for Gaeltacht islands.

We also have a special concessionary rate of car tax on the islands. This is important. I have discussed with insurance companies my intention that all island cars will be taxed and insured and that the situation that existed before does not continue. It is not satisfactory and there must be a clampdown. We have a concessionary rate of car tax because an island only has about two to three miles of road and it would be unfair to have to pay the mainland rate of car tax.

Some of the islands have roll-on roll-off ferries. The car tax for the islands is similar to Oisín in Tír na nÓg who, if he put his foot on the land of Ireland, would become 300 years old. If someone on Bere Island, Arranmore or one of the islands with a car ferry brings his or her car over to the mainland and begins to drive, he or she is immediately liable for the mainland car tax rate. No matter where he or she lives, the island rate will not cover him or her on the mainland. It only covers a car that remains on an island permanently.

I wish to address the issue which has been raised repeatedly of ferry services, value for money and the Committee of Public Accounts. I do not wish to rehash the detail because this has been thoroughly thrashed out and discussed in terms of the historical and Accounting Officer side at the Committee of Public Accounts. As Deputy O'Dowd first raised this query and he is his party's spokesperson, I will arrange to have the Blacks of the committee discussion sent to his pigeonhole. However, there are political issues I would like to clarify and place in context.

As far back as I and anyone on the Aran Islands can remember and probably back to the time of the British, there was a passenger and freight service from Galway to the three Aran Islands. When I was a child, the boat was the Dún Aengus which was followed by the Naomh Éanna which was used in the film “Michael Collins”. That boat was run by CIE and the records show that, in the 1970s, the annual cost of the subsidy was £400,000. This was at a time when money was worth much more than it is today and we know the punt is worth approximately €1.20. The issue must be placed in this context.

A competition was held in 1992 by the then Department of Transport for the provision of a new service to the Aran Islands. It is on the record, and all the islanders know, that I favoured the provision of the passenger services from Rossaveel at the time. I was a backbencher then. The decision taken by the Department was to commission a brand new boat to bring passengers and freight in the old fashioned arrangement from Galway to the three islands and back. I favoured Rossaveel because a private operator had begun a service from there to the islands. I had gone on holidays to Inis Meáin in the late 1960s and early 1970s and knew that it took a day to get into the island and another to get out under the old arrangement.

When I was appointed to the Department, the contract had expired on its first phase, but it was written in such a way that it had a roll-over clause. In investigating the matter, it was found that the 1946 Act required that there be a service from Galway to the islands and I was advised that it had to be from Galway and that the bus from Rossaveel did not make up for the service.

These were constraints but there was a third and larger constraint. I sent a public servant to the islands who met the people on Inis Mór, Inis Meáin and Inis Oirr. The people on the two smaller islands were insistent that we continue with the contract from Galway for passengers and freight. I thought they were wrong. There were serious legal doubts, given the manner in which the contract had been written, as to what freedom I had in the re-negotiation of the contract. I believed that, if the islanders on the two smaller islands experienced the type of service those on Inis Mór received from Rossaveel, they would quickly accept the Rossaveel service.

It is important to put on record that an increase in the annual payment of IR£75,000 was given over the first five years. This was very important in terms of providing extra and improved services to the people in the two small Aran Islands. As my first step in doing something about ferry services, despite inflation, I negotiated a decrease in the annual price for the next seven years which means that the amount being paid in 2003 and 2004 is exactly the annual payment paid in 1992. One will buy very few things in this country in 2003 for the 1992 price. In order to achieve that saving I agreed a two year extension to 2003 and 2004, but it was all at a flat rate at the level of the 1992 price. If it was good value in 1992 on a pub lic tender, the logic is that it must be brilliant value in 2003 and 2004.

As a political strategy, it served its political purposes. I was constrained in my actions by the law and by the existing contract and its wording. The IR£75,000 was used to subsidise the service from Rossaveel to the two small islands and the rest is history. Within two or three years, exactly the same service was provided to the two small islands as to Inis Mór at a very economic rate although everyone said that could not be done. I managed to bring the passenger services on the two small islands to the same level as to the big island and increase business.

It is amazing how quickly people forget. I am very friendly with the people of Inis Meán and Inis Oirr. I have known many of them for 30 or 40 years and I tease them about the fact that they never take the boat to Galway that they fought so hard to retain in 1997. They all favour the passenger service I implemented. Like everything else, change is always difficult. They did not realise how good the service would be, but when it came there was no contest and they all transferred. In the review in which we are involved, the big argument is that there is a fast service. A person can be on any one of the Aran Islands in the morning, go into Galway to transact business and be back on the island in the evening on 364 days of the year. It closes down for Christmas Day.

When I became Minister, the ferry services were disorganised. The boat to Arranmore was owned by Údarás; the subsidy to Tory was provided by Údarás; the Department owned the boat to Cape Clear and every island seemed to have its own unique service. I thought it was a crazy situation. The craziest aspect was there were no services whatsoever to the non-Gaeltacht islands. There was nothing for Clare Island, Inishturk and Inisbofin – no subsidy and no standards. I had to work with the existing arrangements, but as they came up for renewal I introduced services to 14 islands. In the case of Cape Clear, the Department leased the boat to the operator as a first step towards putting the same system in operation for all the islands. The Department took over the service from Údarás and now a similar service operates to all the islands with the exception of the boat from Galway to the Aran Islands which is mainly a freight boat. However, when that contract ends in 2004, it is intended to put the final piece of the jigsaw in place. In anticipation, the Department has commissioned a study to examine all the freight and passenger requirements on the islands so that by the end of next year there will be a coherent island ferry strategy that stands up to any analysis.

The Department has improved the monitoring of financial control. Since I became Minister, all new contracts go to public tender. Independent verification of the tenders is done by outsiders to ensure everything is open, fair and transparent. I am never personally involved in the tender assessment process. Once the tender is received, I stand back. I pride myself that the Department has a small staff. I do not want to spend all my money in checking the obvious. If any of the Deputies opposite ever sit in this seat, he or she will know within 24 hours if a ferry boat did not sail. Deputy Ring represents island communities and he would be informed fairly quickly if the boat stopped running from Clare Island. I do not have to send somebody down to check – although it is done on a spot-check basis – because the people would be on to Deputy Ring in the morning and he would contact me. I am sure he would get me out of bed to tell me. There must be some balance in this matter. A good monitoring system should operate but there is no point in my sending someone down to Clare Island every day when I know that the island community council and the manager, Dónal O'Shea, would be in touch with me immediately if the boat decided it was not going to sail in line with the contract. Those contracts for ferry services are all written in stone and are always drawn up in consultation with the islanders.

I wish to speak about the global issues of cost and numbers. I will return to the matter of the freight service to the Aran Islands in a moment. It is an anomaly that hangs over from 1992 and is coming to an end. The remainder of the 14 services carried 264,602 passengers. The cost per passenger is €3.90. Rather than costing each individual boat for the information of the House I will look at the global costing. The cost of carrying a passenger on Iarnród Éireann is higher. The cost of carrying a passenger on the rural transport system is higher. The cost of the cheapest subsidies on the aircraft from the regional airports to Dublin is ten times that amount. I can say with confidence that the Department is getting a hell of a good deal. There are very few public transport services in this country that are giving such good value for money.

People argue that we are subsidising tourists whereas it is the tourists who are subsidising the boats. The fixed costs are there and would still exist even if the absence of tourist revenue. There seems to be an implication that the Department did not know what kind of freight was being carried to the Aran Islands by the Oileán Arainn. In 2000, 7,933 tonnes were carried; in 2001 it dropped to 7,100 tonnes; and in 2002 it dropped to 5,987 tonnes. Thankfully in the nine months of 2003 to date, 7,444 tonnes were carried. These statistics must be factored in when the service is being examined. It is no longer mainly a passenger service, but rather a freight service.

I have fought for many years to stress the importance of the air services in particular to the more isolated islands with a good population base. Bere island and Arranmore have six ser vices a day. There are problems with the topography of Inishturk but air services are potentially very important for Tory Island. I wish to make it clear that there is no question of an either-or situation arising here. The air service is more expensive per passenger, but the second issue is that the aircraft can only carry nine passengers or eight passengers to the full load of cargo. If a group wishes to travel to an island, there is no point in telling it to take the aeroplane because most of its members will be left on the tarmac. The air service provides a different service. To say that one or the other should be the answer is equivalent to making a decision to have either boats or aeroplanes crossing the Irish Sea but not both. The mode of transport is decided by what one is transporting.

It is very obvious in the Aran Islands that 125,000 people are carried on the boats, that aeroplane usage is rising dramatically but boat usage is not dropping. It is the old Aer Lingus-Ryanair syndrome, the improvement in the services is creating the numbers and one is feeding the other, not taking from the other. It means more movement of a greater number of people. My commitment is to provide top quality services to the islands as long as the budgets, with which I have been very lucky to date, hold out.

Tuigim gur thóg an Teachta McGinley ceist maidir le Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann agus an bhfuiltear ag iarraidh oifigeach a fhostú. Tá comhráití ar bun, agus tá iarratas faighte. Tá súil agam breathnú ar an gceist sin go luath. Thiocfainn go hiomlán leis an méid a dúirt an Teachta Ring faoi chúrsaí vótála. Is mór an náire é nach mbíonn an vótáil ar na hoileáin ar an dóigh chéanna leis an chuid eile den tír. Ní chreidim, sa lá atá inniu ann, go bhfuil aon leithscéal dó sin ach amháin i gcásanna fíor-eisceachtúla.

Deputy O'Shea referred to the drop in islands population by 500. He is correct according to the census figures. His figures comprise all of the islands, including those which are connected to the mainland by bridges. Achill is included, as are Lettermore, Lettermullen and Gorumna, islands with over 1,000 people, and Bull Island and Lambay in Dublin. Spike Island is also included and its population is down by 40. There must have been very few prisoners there that weekend. The drop in inhabited offshore islands, with which this Bill is concerned, was about 186 people. That is a serious drop. It is becoming more difficult on census day to get a real fix because it depends how many people were home for that weekend and so on. The last census was taken on a weekend near a bank holiday weekend.

It can work both ways.

Yes, it can. Sunday night is a bad one for a rural census because anybody working away is gone even if he or she comes home faithfully every weekend. However there are other factors at play. We all know the rural population challenge is great, in part because we are still dealing with the hangover of the 1950s and 1960s when the high emigration of women left many bachelor farmers in rural Ireland. That is still working its way out of our statistics. I am concerned, as I do not like to see any drop but I do not see it as a doomsday scenario. Thankfully some island populations have increased. There has been a stabilisation and it is interesting to note that, for example, islands such as the Aran Islands, which are a DED in their own right, are not in the CLÁR programme because they have not suffered as much depopulation as equivalent mainland areas.

I will deal briefly with the many points raised on broader issues of rural development. Legislation is not required for planning because there is no legislative bar to county councils allowing rural houses. If anybody can show to me, or to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, that there is such a bar, we will look at it. I said that publicly when speaking on this subject recently. Directions exist, particularly arising from the sustainable development guidelines published in April 1997 by the then Minister, Deputy Howlin, that seemed to be directed against what was termed urban generated housing. Those have been superseded by the national spatial strategy.

In law, local authorities must have regard for Government policy. I advise Deputies or anybody involved in the county plan to read the relevant sections of the spatial strategy because it is a clear statement of the Government's position on rural housing. People who live permanently in real rural areas should be accommodated in the BMW region but in areas of urban pressure there have to be controls, which are attachment to the place either by virtue of growing up there or of working there. It is a balanced and fair strategy which is in line with what I propounded as early as 1997 long before I was Minister with responsibility for rural development.

That is not in operation. It is not applied. They have to have regard to it they do not have to implement it.

As a member of a local authority in 1997, long before I became a Minister, we wrote the plan in County Galway because we were the only ones with the legal authority to write it. The council official can advise but the councillors write the plan. I advise councillors who cry about this to go and write their plans. There is nothing to stop them. The only sanction a council official can bring against them is if he or she can prove that they broke the law and refer the matter to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Galway County Council members, from all parties, dealt with the problem effectively by drafting the wording from the spatial strategy into the county plan. The logic was that if council officials said that the county plan was not in accordance with Government policy that would mean the spatial strategy was not Government policy, which is a patent nonsense. We need to have more debate on this issue because there seems to be a great deal of misunderstanding about it. I do not blame people. I am aware of the amount of paperwork with which we all have to contend. I accept that people get confused. We should not run away and believe the rumour.

I am concerned with retaining and building rural communities not about people making handy money by selling off sites. It is not about that and I do not think anybody in this House is concerned about anything other than this primary concern, namely the importance of retaining our rural communities as viable entities. When the rural house planning guidelines are published by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, it is my intention that we will engage in a detailed debate on this issue to try to deal with legitimate issues that have been raised in regard to the environment and visual impact.

Mr. Ryan

Will we have that debate in this House?

The Deputy can ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

Mr. Ryan

Will the Minister give that commitment?

It could best be debated in one of the committees of the House where matters could be teased out in detail. In terms of rural development generally, we have set up the CLÁR programme which I think is doing good work. It is not the solution to all our problems but it is making a significant difference. I am working on the issue of decentralisation and Westrail and I have asked the Western Development Commission to do some work on the ground with the local authorities in that regard.

I am also seriously examining the possibility of a European rural development policy, separate from the agriculture portfolio, which will come very much to the fore. All the indications lie in that direction with the enlargement of the Union. I have instituted a rural enterprise review which will report by Christmas. There are complexities in this regard which I do not have time to go into today, but there are issues that need to be examined and then we need action.

I wish to point out to Deputy Connaughton that we funded a rural tourism officer from the special fund for rural development in his East Galway constituency.

Much of the debate centred on the shortfall in expenditure under the national development plan, particularly under the national roads heading in the BMW region. I fully agree that the NRA appears to have disregarded the national development plan in the past three years. The Government set down its targets in the NDP and what Deputies are measuring that failure against is Government policy as laid down. The NRA is an independent agency. I assure Deputies that I am not happy as Minister with responsibility for rural development that the NRA has failed to achieve the targets set out. I expect those targets to be achieved fully by the end of 2006.

Question put and agreed to.

Does the Minister wish to move the motion of referral to select committee?

No, I wish to take Committee and Report Stages on the floor of the House.

Acting Chairman

Does the Minister wish to set a date?

The Whips will probably agree the date. I will say next week.

Acting Chairman

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Committee Stage ordered for Wednesday, 29 October 2003.