Thursday, 5 December 2019

Ceisteanna (5)

Catherine Connolly


5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development to outline the policies of his Department on 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. [50938/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (7 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Rural)

This is a specific question relating to the Minister's policies for the islands. I have a particular interest because in Galway West we have four islands, namely, the three Aran Islands and Inishbofin. Thus, I have a particular interest in all of the islands. I want clarity on the Department's current policy on the islands.

The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for the islands, is developing a national islands policy for publication in 2020. Our Department participates on the interdepartmental working group established to provide inputs to the development of the policy.

Island communities face similar challenges to other rural areas. However, they also face additional challenges due to their separation from the mainland. These issues can include transport connections and broadband provision in addition to access to services and a high dependence on traditional industries such as tourism, agriculture and fishing.

The islands are strong showcases for our culture, heritage and natural resources. They can also provide opportunities for testing innovative new products and services, including in the area of renewable energy and emerging technologies.

A number of policies recently developed by the Department are relevant to island communities, including the national social enterprise policy and the five-year strategy to support the community and voluntary sector in Ireland.

The Department is developing the next phase of rural policy for Ireland to follow on from the Action Plan for Rural Development, which reaches the end of its three-year life cycle at the end of 2019. The new policy will reflect a whole-of-Government commitment to rural Ireland and synergies with other key policy initiatives, including the forthcoming islands policy.

An extensive consultation process has taken place to inform the development of the new rural policy, including a stakeholder event on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, in May.

In recognition of the unique challenges and circumstances facing the islands, the new rural policy will include a specific focus on island and coastal communities. It is anticipated the new rural policy, covering the timeframe 2020-25, will be published early in the new year.

I welcome that a new rural policy will focus on the islands. I am a stickler for sticking to the question. What is the current policy of the Department in respect of the islands? A question by Deputy Calleary elicited the information that Ministers were all asked to come back with their current policies. The inaugural meeting of the interdepartmental committee on the policy for the islands took place on 24 September. I ask the Minister of State to confirm that his Department was represented at that meeting. Each Department was asked to come back with its current policy. The reason I am being so specific is that I am fully familiar with the issue. I have the consultation paper before me as Gaeilge agus Béarla. I have all the previous reports as well. The difficulty is that island communities face far more challenges, as the Minister of State knows, than rural areas, which are certainly challenged too. I agree that we need a vibrant rural community. What are the current policies of the Department on the islands and the challenges currently facing them?

Our current policies are guided by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, which has responsibility for the islands. We work closely with those responsible. The cross-Government departmental committee for island development has been established and is chaired by the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Our Department actively participates in this group to identify areas of mutual interest and potential collaboration.

We talked about the response to the digital age. We should look at the story created in Arranmore in County Donegal, which has set up a hub. I met one of the island's residents in Brussels last Tuesday. The model has been shown across Europe to illustrate what can be done.

Broadband connection points are also relevant. The Department has also allocated broadband connection points to islands in recognition of their isolation.

I assure the Deputy that the islands are high on the Government's agenda. Action in this area is led by the Minister of State at the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Kyne. We will continue to work across all Departments to ensure the islands remain on the agenda.

It is Christmas time and I note the positive comments of the Minister of State, but the way to heaven is paved with good intentions and reassurances. We need far more than that. We need a policy and we will get one next year, which is welcome. However, as part of the consultation process, each Department has to say what its current policies are. There certainly seems to be a major gap in the reply from the Minister of State, although that is not his fault. He has not outlined what the current policies of the Department are for the islands to make clear what the policies and challenges are. That is what the Department will have to do in the coming weeks as part of the process.

The Minister of State mentioned broadband and various other matters. We have heard this so often and it is all good but these issues have to be embedded in a policy and vision for the islands that recognises the challenges, including the fact that the population is declining. Islanders have showed us the way forward. They have shown us the sustainable way of living in tune with the environment. What we want is a policy as quickly as possible with input from the Department of Community and Rural Development, which is particularly important.

I compliment the Deputy who never exceeds the time limits. I appreciate that.

I repeat that we are working closely with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and we will have a new rural policy in early 2020.

Deputy Connolly asked about our policy. Current actions include the LEADER programme 2014-20, which supports island programmes. The programme has funded 129 projects and €880,000 has been allocated. The social inclusion and community activation programme provides direct supports through regions that focus directly on the islands. Comhar na nOileán received €29,633. The South West Mayo Development Company received €45,000 from SICAP to develop supports for the Mayo islands.

There is also the rural regeneration and development fund. These are not policies. These are opportunities for people to get funding streams to help develop their islands and they are being put forward by the Department of Rural and Community Development.

Policies are fine but we must make sure we implement them. The proof of the pudding has been in the eating. The Deputy can see what has been delivered to the islands under the funding streams from the Department since the Department was set up. That record stands for itself.