Dáil Éireann - Volume 353 - 07 November, 1984

Adjournment Debate. - Offaly Detention Centre Proposal.

Mr. Cowen: I am very glad of the opportunity to raise this matter. In view of the fact that it is proposed by the Government that Castle Bernard in County Offaly is to become a detention centre I wish to ask the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry what proposals he has for the continued training of young foresters and if he will clarify the specific details involved in the proposed arrangement between his Department and the Department of Justice.

I have raised this matter to highlight the unacceptable manner in which the Minister for Justice and his Department have collaborated with the Department of Fisheries and Forestry in closing down an established school for young foresters and the disastrous proposal to use the premises as a detention centre for young offenders. We are casting no aspersions on the magnificent work of people involved in the prison service who work in detention centres. Our major argument is that this is not a suitable location.

Mr. David Stewart, the head of planning in An Foras Forbartha, has spoken about the suitability of Castle Bernard as a location for a national folk museum in the event of its not being used as a training school for foresters. The place has been inspected during the past week and has been short-listed as being suitable for this purpose. The previous Minister for Fisheries and Forestry, Deputy Brendan Daly, opened a log cabin in the vicinity of Castle Bernard and we were hopeful at that time that it would be developed into a major amenity area such as a forest park. Castle Bernard is a national monument and there is a second national monument in the grounds.

The Department of Fisheries and Forestry have built a workshop in Mountrath for the maintenance and repair of machinery and it seems to be a retrograde step to close down at the same time the [1509] educational facility in Kinnitty Castle for the training of young foresters. It is a major irony that the Civil Service, which has run the forestry industry very inefficiently through their tender system and certainly not on a commercial basis, should have the gall to propose the closure of this school and put in its stead a detention centre. They are thereby torpedoing any prospect of an improvement in the forestry industry. Young people who are interested in that industry should be in a position to avail of training so that they can take their places in a rejuvenated industry.

It seemed to a recent deputation that the matter was a fait accompli. The Minister for Justice was saying that he wanted the place and it was to be subject to a final Government decision. The Office of Public Works have now inspected the building.

It is not very honest of the Government to proceed in that manner without taking into account the stiff and growing opposition of the whole area which is running against the long and dedicated service of many people in voluntary organisations there. It is incumbent on the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry to restore Kinnity Castle as an educational facility for the training of young foresters so that they can work in harmony with the development of the surrounding area which is a major amenity and environmental centre. It is one part of the midlands which can be developed properly as a tourist attraction and he should act responsibly to alter this disastrous decision. He should return Castle Bernard to its proper place.

Mr. Connolly: I want to thank you for allowing us to discuss this very important matter. Many years ago, when I was a member of Offaly County Council I put forward proposals to Laois County Council to develop the Slieve Bloom area. A committee was formed and roads were planned by the county council. Money was allocated to the Slieve Bloom area as well as to the midlands region. This is [1510] a disastrous move as far as the area is concerned. It is an amenity and tourist area and it is out of the question to have a detention centre there. It is alleged that the Minister's Department have now agreed to lease this building to the Department of Justice to use as a detention centre. If that happens all the money which was put into it by the county councils of Laois and Offaly and the tourist organisations will all go down the Swanee. There will be a high security involved and naturally people will have reservations about coming to such an area. People of all shades of political belief say it is wrong and now is the time to reverse that decision.

Mr. Enright: I am grateful to the other Members for allowing me to speak on this important matter. The village of Kinnity is probably one of the most picturesque in the country. It is situated on the edge of the Slieve Bloom mountain range which is the major tourist attraction in the midlands. A tremendous amount of development has taken place over the years by Offaly County Council, Laois County Council, Lakeland Tourism and the midlands regional development organisation. Because of the Slieve Bloom mountain range, there is a tremendous bond between the people of Counties Laois and Offaly. As major development has taken place in tourism over the past 15 to 20 years, it is important not to allow Castle Bernard to be turned into a detention centre. It is one of the key areas — Kinnity is another — in this mountain range. It would be a mistake to convert this beautiful castle on the grounds of which are situated two listed national monuments which date back to the 9th and 12th centuries. It could be developed as a national folk centre for tourism and I hope the Minister will retain control over this very important centre which was used formerly for training young foresters. Kinnity is a small community and the provision of a detention centre in an area with a population of about 300 people would have a detrimental effect on a wonderful, [1511] closeknit community who have developed many skills and attractions. I ask the Minister to ensure that this will not occur. When the Minister visited Portlaoise recently he gave a commitment to examine the provision of a forest park. If he is sincere in this commitment, I ask him to proceed with that and to ensure further development of the Slieve Bloom area as a tourist attraction and amenity for the people of the midlands.

Minister for Fisheries and Forestry (Mr. O'Toole): I am glad to have this opportunity of correcting some misapprehensions and misrepresentations that have been made in the House. Deputy Cowen said that the Minister for Justice and I had collaborated in closing Kinnity Castle as a training centre. I assure him that that allegation is false and unfounded. There was no collaboration between the Minister for Justice and myself at any time in relation to this decision.

Mr. Cowen: Why was it secret?

Mr. O'Toole: There was nothing secret about it. This facility was acquired by my Department in 1951. In 1951 the training of foresters commenced there. In the meantime the training of foresters proceeded and the final batch reached the end of their three year training period in March this year. I must deal with facts, not with assumptions or with what people might think. At present in the Department we have, at taxpayers' expense, 25 foresters who have not been offered jobs as foresters for which they have been trained because there is no room for them within the system.

Mr. Cowen: Why not develop the system.

Mr. O'Toole: That means we will not need a training facility this side of 1991. This is a very fine facility which has not been used since last March and my information is that it will not be used for the next seven years for the purpose for which it was purchased, the training of [1512] foresters. In the normal way I said I did not need this facility for the purpose of training foresters and it was offered to other Departments as a vacant building to seek their advice on how they might use this facility if it was needed by them. This was done in July, and in August I received a communication from the Department of Justice pointing out that they were seeking this facility or at least they would like to examine it to see if it would suit their purposes for an open detention centre.

Deputy Connolly said this matter had been completed and that it was a fait accompli. No decision has yet been made and if the Office of Public Works are down there it is to establish its suitability on behalf of the Department of Justice.

Mr. Connolly: I think I said it was alleged that they were down there.

Mr. O'Toole: I accept that but the allegation is untrue.

Mr. Cowen: Has it been taken over yet?

Mr. O'Toole: No, but a decision is imminent. I have looked at other options in relation to it, including the option for the Department of Justice and that is normal procedure. The next step is that if other Departments do not need that facility it will be offered to someone else outside the public area. There is nothing secretive or underhand about it and there was no collaboration at any time in relation to this facility.

Mr. Connolly: Will the Minister give an assurance that it will not be handed over to the Department of Justice?

Mr. O'Toole: No. It is my duty to ensure that it is not left vacant, open to becoming derelict or vandalised as many vacant buildings are. I also have an obligation to apply the normal procedure which is to offer it to other Departments. At present, the possibility of its being taken over by the Department of Justice is being looked at — it is as simple as [1513] that. I cannot give any assurance here because I do not know what the building will be used for although I hope to make an announcement during the next week——

Mr. Connolly: The Minister should think very carefully.

Mr. O'Toole: I always do.

Mr. Cowen: Are there any other options being considered?

Mr. O'Toole: Other options have been considered. However, I am not in the dock. I have been asked to reply and I am telling you that no decision has been made.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Minister's time is up.

[1514] Mr. Enright: Will the Minister consider using it as a national folk museum which would ensure the good will of people in the area?

Mr. O'Toole: The Ceann Comhairle who was a former Minister for Fisheries and Forestry, has told me that my time is up.

An Ceann Comhairle: Do not drag the Ceann Comhairle into this discussion except in his capacity as Ceann Comhairle.

The Dáil adjourned at 9 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 8 November 1984.