Dáil Éireann - Volume 421 - 25 June, 1992

Adjournment Debate. - Communications and Marine Matters.

Mr. Sheehan: The time is now ripe for the Minister for Tourism, Transport and Communications to inform the House what her views are in regard to the privatisation of Telecom Éireann. It is essential that our citizens be publicly aware of whatever are the Minister's intentions in this respect.

An argument advanced in favour of public enterprise is that a purely commercial approach to the provision of some services would inhibit the initiation or continued provision of certain services of genuine social benefit. A quite separate [1559] case for public ownership may exist in relation to services that are natural monopolies, for example, those that may utilise a distribution network, the duplication of which would be absurdly costly.

Telecom Éireann are a special company, being Ireland's largest employer, the second largest investor in our economy and who, under public ownership, have been transformed into one of the leading telecommunications companies worldwide. The present position of Telecom Éireann would be greatly endangered from the social and jobs aspects if they were privatised, particularly when one realises that their return to the Exchequer last year was of the order of £40 million. Furthermore it is evident that Telecom Éireann services their own debt of a £1 billion loan and do not ask the State to provide any contribution. It is also clear that if privatisation of this company were allowed to proceed there would be grave fears for the continuation of the present rate of service to outlying areas nationwide. It is evident that it would be those outlying areas that would suffer most as a result of the company's privatisation. For example, I could not envisage circumstances in which an individual old age pensioner, living alone in a desolate rural area, would have a telephone installed for £120 if a private company were to operate the services of Telecom Éireann. It is very evident that if Telecom Éireann were privatised it would be the fat cats who would make all the gains, leaving ordinary citizens to endure all the losses and cutbacks.

We have now in this country one of the most modern telecommunications networks worldwide consequent on the huge investment of public funds over the past ten years. Indeed it is not unreasonable to contend that, in order to effect that investment, over that period our people went without other facilities, such as hospitals and schools.

Moreover, it is evident that the concept [1560] of privatisation over the past decade has been almost uncritically asserted by Government and public alike. It is evident also that the staff of Telecom Éireann played a major part in the viability of the company, having made an enormous contribution to the present state of the company. Experience in other countries, particularly in the United Kingdom, has demonstrated that privatisation brings heavy job losses, inferior conditions of employment, higher costs and inferior quality services for the public, especially for those in outlying rural areas.

Telecom Éireann is important to us not merely for the services they provide, the profit they make, the 15,000 people they employ but also for its symbolic importance, in that it has been one of the few enterprises that has really worked here in recent years.

I would appeal to the Minister to be cautious and study the enormous difficulties that would arise for people in rural areas dependent on the diligent, trustworthy staff who at present provide them with a service second to none.

Minister of State at the Department of Tourism, Transport and Communications (Mr. Kenneally): I can assure Deputy Sheehan that always I would act cautiously in these matters. I might tell him that my predecessor informed the House on 5 November, 1991 and on 29 January, 1992 that the Government have given no formal consideration to the privatisation of Telecom Éireann and that no proposals were before Government regarding the company's future. The present Minister repeated that statement in this House on 9 June. The position regarding privatisation of Telecom Éireann has not changed since.

As the privatisation of Telecom Éireann is not at issue the question of the effects of such change does not arise at this point.

Mr. Calleary: I thank you, a Leas-Cheann [1561] Comhairle, for affording me the opportunity of placing on the record of the House the vexed question of salmon netting on the River Moy by the Department of the Marine.

First, I wish to apologise to the North Western Fisheries Board and the other agencies for my non-attendance at their presentation to the Minister for the Marine last evening of a plan for the management of the River Moy and its resources, occasioned by a pairing refusal on the part of my party.

I might point out that the River Moy is the best salmon river in Europe, if not worldwide. In that knowledge the residents of Ballina and surrounding areas are angry and frustrated at this action on the part of the Department of the Marine. Tourists, the tourist industry and anglers in particular are astonished, angry and puzzled at the insensitivity of the action of the Department.

I might first set the scene. Ballina has been host to very many tourists and anglers in recent weeks when catches on the river were very small. Fish were in the river, the water level of which was very low because of the good weather. The House will understand people's frustration when, on Monday night-Tuesday morning, on the first haul by the Department of the Marine personnel, approximately 300 salmon were caught, with a further 400 alleged to have been caught during the day. There is anger, frustration and puzzlement felt by those involved in the tourist and angling industries of the massacre that took place in that river.

Will the Minister say, first, on whose instructions the netting took place; second, what role the Department of Finance played in this matter and, third, whether he will now issue an order to stop the netting? If he does, that unforgiveable action may be forgotten. If not the ability of his Department to manage this tremendous asset will be further undermined.

[1562] Minister for the Marine (Dr. Woods): I attach great importance to the development of tourist angling on the River Moy system. I recently received two reports about the Moy River, one from my Department and, only yesterday, a major development plan from the North Western Regional Fisheries Board, to which Deputy Calleary referred. The Moy development plan envisages the creation of 300 new jobs centred on fisheries/tourism development and follows my request to each of the fisheries boards to submit firm proposals for the development of the river systems within their areas of responsibility. Both reports place emphasis on the management and development of the Moy fishery, on an integrated basis, with a view to maximising its benefits for the local and national economies.

Netting has been carried out on the Moy fishery for a long number of years. The scientific advice available to me is that it has not adversely affected the level of fish stocks. This is kept under review in the light of the level of fish runs, water levels and so on. This year the level of commercial fishing has been substantially curtailed. In fact the commercial catch to the end of the third week in June was down from 5,200 to 2,500, or approximately 50 per cent. As is customary, traps were not operated during the month of February to allow more spring fish up river and netting was suspended for three weeks this month at the height of the season. This week, following a big increase in the salmon run, netting was resumed in the Polnamonagh station. However, the number of hours netting has been reduced from 24 to eight.

I have ordered an urgent review of the planned levels of netting for the remainder of the season to ensure that whatever level is adopted achieves a proper balance between commercial, conservation, tourist and angling needs and the risks to spawning which could arise if the level of escapement up river should be excessive.

Deputy Calleary asked who would take [1563] direct decisions. I should say that the manager would be involved on the advice of the scientific staff, but, as I mentioned, decisions this year have been to reduce the catches and they have been substantially reduced. As a result, the income is down accordingly.

Deputy Calleary asked about the role of the Department of Finance in this. They have no direct role except that the Estimates passed in the House require a certain Appropriation-in-aid, and that will be down considerably now as a result of the easing off of the catches. That [1564] could lead to a deficit of £40,000 to £50,000 by the end of the year.

I am very conscious of the Deputy's concern. I realise the seriousness of the whole question and that is why I asked for an integrated plan for the river so that we can reconsider the Estimates and say that on the basis of allowing more fish up the river there is a greater development in tourism; that will not be reflected in the Estimates here but in the broader creation of jobs, and I accept that.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 26 June 1992.