That Dáil Éireann:
— offshore islands and their communities are a dynamic resource in a developing Ireland, representing an extraordinary repository of language, culture and heritage and constituting a unique element in the fabric of Irish society;
— offshore islands make special economic, social and cultural contributions to the life of the nation;
— the decline in the population of offshore islands by 155 persons from the Census 2011 figure of 2,889 to the Census 2016 figure of 2,734, representing a 5.4 per cent decline, represents a serious challenge to the future of the islands as viable, vibrant communities;
— the inaction of successive Governments in addressing the need for an offshore islands policy has been accompanied by a decline in population and a decline in the number of Irish speakers, putting their unique cultural and linguistic heritage at risk;
— there has been a reduction in daily use of the Irish language of 11 per cent on the three Aran Islands (Inis Meáin, Inis Mór and Inis Oírr) where the percentage of active daily Irish speakers has fallen from 63 per cent of the population (over three years of age) in 2011 to 57 per cent in 2016;
— the 1996 ‘Report of the Interdepartmental Co-ordinating Committee on Island Development: A strategic framework for developing the offshore islands of Ireland’ was the last published strategy on the islands;
— the 1996 Interdepartmental Co-ordinating Committee on Island Development did not include any offshore island representatives on its steering committee and did not deliver on its ambitious range of recommendations;
— the 1996 Report pledged to begin work ‘immediately’ and to agree a programme of work by early 1996, and since then policies have been adopted on an ad hoc basis, which are entirely insufficient to address the growing need for action;
— there is currently no policy for offshore islands; and
— the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht announced his intention to seek Government approval to establish an Interdepartmental Committee for Island Development;
further notes that no date has been set for the work to begin and no timeframe for the work to be completed;
— that islanders have an unparalleled knowledge of both the problems and the solutions required to ensure a sustainable future and must therefore be the prime movers in drawing up and delivering on future plans;
— the challenges faced by offshore island communities;
— the unique cultural and economic assets of island populations;
— the economic potential offered by sustainable offshore island communities for the country as a whole;
— the work of offshore island cooperatives in providing equitable and sustainable social and economic opportunities and supports; and
— the need for an urgent and comprehensive policy along with an action plan to ensure the future viability of offshore island communities; and
calls on the Government to:
— develop a policy for offshore islands, underpinned by the principles of equity and social partnership between island communities and State agencies;
— outline an action plan and a timeframe for the delivery of each policy objective;
— ensure island representation on the Interdepartmental Committee for Island Development; and
— engage in meaningful consultation with islanders in the formulation of an offshore islands policy and action plan, including in the areas of housing, health, energy, waste management, climate change, education, communication, employment and transport.
Fáiltím roimh an deis an rún seo a chur os comhair na Dála. Ní mór dom a rá i dtús, cé nach maith liom a bheith diúltach, go gcuireann sé díomá orm go bhfuil leasuithe curtha síos ag an Rialtas mar tá an rún atá agam chomh bunúsach. Táim ag impí ar an Rialtas polasaí a fhorbairt ó thaobh na n-oileán atá ann agus spriocdháta a chur leis an bpolasaí sin. Níor rith sé liom go mbeidh athruithe nó leasuithe i gceist mar tá an rún chomh bunúsach sin.
I am tabling this motion to implore the Government to develop as soon as possible a policy for the islands. I was hoping to hear that the Government was genuine and in earnest about the urgent need to develop and publish such a policy for offshore islands, and I wanted to start off with a positive plan. When I read the amendment, however, I have to say it really knocked me back. My motion is very straightforward. It sets out the historical background to the lack of a policy, and then it simply goes on to call on the Government to publish the policy within a timeframe and to ensure the inclusion of representatives from the island community. It is as simple as that. I would like to be a lot more radical but I went for what I thought would be a consensus motion, so this is a matter of disappointment to me.
That policy needs to be accompanied by an action plan and a budget, and it must be underpinned by legislation if we are serious about our islands and maintaining a viable island community. Moreover, the forum which allows for such a policy, plan or legislation to emerge must be one which allows for the involvement of islanders from the outset and on an ongoing basis in the formulation and implementation of the policy and action plan.
In that context, I gave a cautious welcome to the announcement by the Minister of State back in July, but that welcome, I am afraid, has now gone. I gave a cautious welcome because it was the Minister of State's intention to seek Cabinet or Government approval to set up an interdepartmental committee for island development with a view to developing a cross-Government island policy and an associated action plan. As the Minister knows well, however, the path to hell is paved with good intentions and also with reports, including an interdepartmental report from 1996, to which I will return, which was completed without the involvement of the islanders themselves. All of these reports have gathered dust on various departmental shelves. Indeed, the Minister's own statement was notable for its vagueness, its lack of timeframes and its utter failure to recognise that the islanders themselves must be an integral part of any process proposed.
The vagueness of the statement, which involved the setting up of an interdepartmental committee, along with the silence that has prevailed until tonight, has done little to inspire confidence that the Government has listened and learned from past mistakes. The Minister of State will be aware from repeated and urgent representations from the islanders themselves and from Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann that the vacuum created by the absence of a policy on the islands has been detrimental to the viability of the island communities.
The motion itself, which I will not go into because it is there in black and white, sets out the damning statistics, which are still emerging from the Central Statistics Office following the census of 2016. This is in stark contrast to the islands of Scotland, which have seen a reversal in the trend of population decline. The most recent trend has in fact been an increase in population. A report in one newspaper showed that the population of the islands increased by some 4% in the ten years up to 2011, with the biggest rises occurring on the island with the largest population already. That report showed that island leaders and business leaders said new affordable housing and new opportunities were the ways of holding on to islanders and drawing in non-islanders. This reversal in the population's downward trend is premised on a policy for the islands and on legislation, most notably the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, passed in May 2018. We have no policy or legislation. Significantly, that Act sets out key definitions of an island and of an inhabited island. The definition of the former is stated as an island "surrounded on all sides by the sea (ignoring artificial structures such as bridges)". I will come back to that in the context of an island policy and the meaning of island communities. Equally importantly, that Act, in Part 3, provides for the preparation of a national islands plan. It provides for, among many other things, an islands community impact assessment, including having regard - can one imagine? - to a request for a retrospective island community impact assessment. The Act allows for even a retrospective impact assessment. There must be an annual review of the operation of the legislation and a full review of the actual legislation within five years. That is on top of the Highlands and Islands Enterprise, formerly the Highlands and Islands Development Board, which was set up in 1965. There is absolutely no Irish equivalent to this.
Contrast this with what can best be described as the ad hoc approach of this Government and successive Governments to the development of the islands here. In preparing for this debate I read quite a number of documents, including: the report of the interdepartmental committee, published in 1996; the joint Oireachtas report of 2014; the review of islands capital expenditure, 1998-2004; the west Cork islands study, which was a joint study between Cork County Council and FÁS and which was subsequently referred to in the 1996 report as being a very worthwhile study with many good recommendations that should be taken on board, but which were clearly ignored; and the most recent book by the renowned historian, Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, entitled On the Edge: Ireland's Off-shore Islands: A Modern History. I thank the Oireachtas Library as well for its papers. All these documents helped me to get a deeper understanding of the islands on top of my own practical experience. No words came to me when I thought, "We have no policy for our islands." What jumps out from all the documents and the books cited is the resilience of our islanders in the face of repeated and ongoing neglect by successive Governments. All the while, ironically, this neglect and the complete absence of a positive policy for our islands have been accompanied by report after report, some of which I have mentioned, which, one way or another, have sought to recognise "the special economic, social and cultural contributions which the offshore islands make to the life of the nation". Those precise words are taken from the 1996 report, almost 23 years ago, of the last interdepartmental committee, which sat for three years prior to publication. If we look at page 18 of the interdepartmental report, we really could not improve on it. It is worth reading out because some of the words in the Minister of State's amendment to my motion are taken from it. It states that in developing Government policy to address issues affecting island communities, a number of principles should underline any policy. I do not have the time to read them all out. I will pick out some of them.
- Islanders themselves should be prime movers in strategies to maintain their own communities;
- Principles of equality, social partnership and full participation should underpin the State's approach to developing public policy in relation to island communities;
- A partnership approach between island communities and State Agencies should be adopted in the development and implementation of policy affecting the islands.
Page 18 is really worth looking at.
Notwithstanding these wonderful principles, the ad hoc, reactive approach to the constant challenges faced by our island communities continued and continues. The islands are spoken about peripherally and are never at the heart of any Government discussion, policy document or legislation. The national planning framework, known as Project Ireland, published with great fanfare and at great cost, and the National Development Plan 2018-2027 which accompanies it, are a stark example of this continued neglect. Looking through both these documents for instances of the word "island", it is shocking and frightening. They are peripheral, difficult to find and mixed up with a policy for rural areas. I searched and searched to see whether I could find anything that would resemble a policy or a paragraph; I failed. The national development plan refers to the money given to the Irish language, the Gaeltacht and the islands, so we have mention of islands there. Later on it refers to development of improved peer infrastructure on the islands but nothing about a policy. In the national planning framework islands are mentioned in three contexts. "Our islands and coastal areas contain some of our most vibrant and culturally distinctive communities." No absence of words here to tell us how important our islands are, but no action. They are mentioned peripherally in the contexts of broadband and a marine economy.
Moving from those documents to the reality on the ground, I will look at my own constituency, at the risk of being parochial. I know my colleagues will cover Cork, Donegal and other areas. Inishbofin, off the coast of Galway, with which the Minister of State is very familiar, is an island that has distinguished itself by surviving with a vibrant community in the absence of any policy. The islanders have led the way in ecotourism, and the island is the first to get the distinction of Leave No Trace, an outdoor ethics programme based on seven principles for outdoor recreation, leaving minimal impact on the island's environment. It is also leading the way in dark skies, food and many other sustainable industries. However, year after year at the comhdháil, the annual meeting, they point out the absence of certainty of funding and the absence of a policy. The Minister of State knows that this island does not even have a primary care centre that one could call a primary care centre. My colleague, Deputy Ó Cuív, who is virtually not here, and I have asked repeatedly about the promised primary care facility. I accept that work has been done on all the islands. My point is that it has been done in an ad hoc, reactive fashion and not within a policy that shows that not alone do we cherish our islands, but we recognise that the islands are showing us the way to live sustainably. If we had any sense or courage, we would listen to and follow them. Looking at the Aran Islands, despite the policy for the Gaeltacht maidir le cúrsaí oideachais, agus is iontach go bhfuil an tAire i gcomhluadar ansin, in ainneoin go bhfuil aitheantas faighte ag Coláiste Naomh Eoin, Inis Meáin, a bhfuil mar scoil neamhspleách anois, agus Coláiste Ghobnait, Inis Oírr, tá siad ag streachailt agus ní bhfuair siad an dara múinteoir fós.
Ní thuigim é sin mar tá moladh tuillte ag an Rialtas ó thaobh an polasaí do na scoileanna sa Ghaeltacht de, ach cad mar gheall ar an bpolasaí a chur i bhfeidhm? Cén fáth go bhfuil na scoileanna sin ag streachailt de bharr múinteoirí breise?
Tagraím d'fhorbairt na cé ar Inis Oírr. Bainfidh mé úsáid as na focail a d'úsáid muintir Inis Oírr:
Tá forbairt cé Inis Oírr práinneach mar gheall ar an gceist contúirteach a bhaineann le tonnta loinge a sháraíonn an ché ar thaobh amháin agus an gaoth anoir aduaidh ag crochadh borradh agus ag cur farraige thimpeall na cé ar an taobh eile, go minic ag an am céanna. Ní mór déileáil leis an dá fhadhb seo ag an am céanna mar níl aon deis ann maidir le forbairt céimeanna ar an gcé nó plean caiteachais céimnithe. Tá sé tugtha le fios ag an gcomhairle contae nach mbeidh aon rud ag tarlú go dtí go mbeidh an maoiniú breise seo a theastaíonn cinntí agus sonraí sa Státchiste.
Tá an clog ag teannadh liom ach beidh mé ar ais ag deireadh na díospóireachta le samplái eile de cé chomh deacair agus atá sé ar an talamh,