Thursday, 28 November 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Catherine Connolly


5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment his policies in regard to the islands as requested by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht with regard to the interdepartmental committee for island development; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [49601/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Communications)

Is maith liom an focal “flaithiúlacht” agus tá súil agam go mbeidh flaithiúlacht i gceist maidir le freagra an Aire ó thaobh na n-oileán de. I welcome the Minister's use of the word "flaithiúlacht". I look forward to seeing it in action in his answer to my question on the islands. Can he clarify, following communication from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, his policy and that of his Department on the islands?

I thank Deputy Connolly for raising the issue. The interdepartmental committee on island development is the first cross-Government policy developed for the islands in 23 years and will set a roadmap for the long-term sustainability and development of our offshore communities. Our coastal islands are an integral part of our cultural heritage. Island communities need to continue to be sustainable and to realise their potential, and the voices and views of islanders will be central to the process.

At a special event in November on Sherkin Island, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, in conjunction with the Government Chief Whip and Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, launched a consultation process aimed at formulating a new national policy for the future development of the islands. My Department has supported this initiative by outlining the breadth of policies relevant to the islands, including communications, energy, climate action and fisheries.

One major project is the national broadband plan, which aims to deliver access to high speed broadband to every premises in Ireland, regardless of location, including offshore islands. Provision of advanced communications services and innovation in smart agriculture, e-health, education, tourism and improved supports for emergency services all offer potential island applications. The deployment plan will be finalised shortly and all counties will see premises passed in the first two years.

Approximately 300 broadband connection points in community centres such as schools, library hubs and local sports halls in every county in Ireland, including some on the islands such as, among others, Tory Island, Inishbofin, Inis Oirr, Valentia and Achill, will be connected. There are many opportunities for the islands to become pioneers in initiatives designed to deliver our climate action plan and sustainable development goals.

My Department has active programmes for community participation in areas such as the sustainable energy communities network operated by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, waste reduction and recycling and Sound & Vision Ireland, operated by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI. I am sure the Deputy is aware that the Aran Islands were recently recognised for their outstanding achievements in moving to a low waste and clean power approach to island communities.

I am certainly aware of how magnificent the Aran Islands are in every way, from the point of view of geography and people. A policy on the islands has been drafted and each Department has been specifically asked about its actions. When was the Minister's Department contacted by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht? What actions has it taken in regard to the islands? I ask this in the context of a motion that was passed in September which asked for a policy on the islands because of the vacuum that exists.

Scotland has legislation and a policy in respect of its islands and its island population has increased. We value our islands and there is wonderful language in our national planning framework and other documents. Our islands and coastal areas contain some of our most vibrant and culturally distinctive communities. What are we doing to support sustainable life on the islands?

The Minister listed a range of events. I realise that there are many opportunities. What is the Minister's Department setting out in respect of the islands? In contrast to Scotland, the population on our islands is declining.

I can only respond in respect of my remit. I outlined two significant contributions my Department has made, including rolling out high-speed broadband to every home on the islands. In the interim we are installing broadband connection points which will be hubs located on specific islands.

We are also proposing to increase the number of sustainable energy communities from 300 to 1,500. We will of course make available the resources of the SEAI to work with communities on the islands to develop such programmes. It has the facility to draw down money to put together an energy plan to improve energy efficiency in buildings in those communities. That is a very worthwhile project which can offer employment opportunities in terms of rolling out the programme and, more importantly, make communities sustainable in terms of energy use and more self-sufficient in their approach to power.

I have no difficulty with the tone of the Minister's comments and what he is saying. I ask for a more specific plan, which is what the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht asked for because of the vacuum and challenges facing the islands and the drop the population. This is urgent and all Departments must play a role.

I welcome the broadband plan, but not the price of broadband. I would like more specific timescales for broadband on the islands. Aside from broadband, there are many other issues, as the Minister said, including energy. The island and communities are coming forward to outline the challenges and solutions and to ask for help. The Department is weak in terms of interface from that point of view. When will the Minister's Department have a report ready in response to the request from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as an input into policy?

I will ask my Department to furnish a report to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. I understand there is a consultation process which I am sure will shed light on the expectations from each Department.

The Deputy seems to be belittling the fact that Tory Island, Inishbofin and so on will have broadband connection points before the end of next year. They will be furnished with important hotspots which will give people access to broadband. If a sustainable energy community is formed, a grant of up to €25,000 to help it develop a plan is available. Communities will not be left alone to develop plans.

They need to identify the participants locally, however, before the plan can take shape. We are happy to provide resources and to work with communities to see the emergence of a sustainable energy community. In any other area where we feel we can be of assistance, we are certainly open to doing so.