Dáil Éireann - Volume 506 - 16 June, 1999
Adjournment Debate. - Ferry Services.
Mr. Sheehan Mr. Sheehan
Mr. Sheehan: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to raise this important matter concerning the future position of the State owned ferry service to Oileán Chléire. This lifeline must not be sacrificed. The people of Cape Clear Island, off the south-west Cork coast, have sent out an SOS to save their ferry service from privatisation.
The 140 people living on the island currently depend on a State owned vessel and I understand the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is considering leasing the existing ferry to private enterprise or seeking tenders for a new service. Effectively, as far as islanders are concerned, this means the Government plans to abandon a remote sea bound population whose only access to the mainland is on board An Naomh Ciarán. The greatest fear of the people on the island is that in winter, when the flow of Irish language students and tourists to the island ends, a private operator could suspend the ferry service on financial grounds. While a value for money policy may be prudent, it would be extremely shortsighted on the part of the Department if the islanders' vital lifeline was sacrificed on the altar of commercialism. It would be a penny spared but pound foolish.
Cape Clear is situated nine miles off the west Cork harbour village of Baltimore. It, Tory Island, Clare Island and the Aran Islands are regarded as Ireland's Atlantic islands. The remaining islands are regarded as inshore islands. I appeal to the Minister to abide by the unanimous decision of the entire island population to maintain the service as it stands and thereby alleviate any anxiety which has arisen from the threat of privatisation of the current ferry service.
 I am sure the Minister of State received a postcard from a disgruntled islander which states:
Help save our public ferry service. It is going to be privatised. Threat to four jobs. Threat to the economy and ecology. Islanders to be dependent on someone not committed to the island. No control on cost to islanders. People will have no other alternative but to leave Cape Clear as life will no longer be possible.
The card, which shows a picture of the State run island ferry service, An Naomh Ciarán, entering the north harbour in Cape Clear, is signed by the islander concerned.
I appeal to the Minister to listen to the results of a public meeting which was held on the island last week. This was attended by 55 concerned islanders and a petition contains their names and signatures. Their livelihood is at stake and the people are completely disgusted with the idea of privatisation. The time is right for the Minister to uphold the wishes of the people of the island. I appeal to him not to throw the islanders to the mercy of the wind and privatisation. He should dispel the fear on Cape Clear and Oileán Chléire, allow the present State-run service to continue, and improve it if possible. Will he consider providing a helicopter or light aircraft service as well as the ferry? The island's population is 144, which rises to 1,000 in the summer. There is an air service between County Galway and the Aran Islands and the people off the south-west coast deserve similar treatment to those in the Minister's constituency. I appeal to him to listen to my plea and dispel the suggestion of privatisation, because those people dread it.
Éamon Ó Cuív Éamon Ó Cuív
Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Éamon Ó Cuív): Ba mhaith liom fíorbhuíochas a glacadh leis an Teachta Ó Síodcháin as ucht teacht isteach anocht. D'éist mé go han-cúramach leis cad a raibh le rá aige. I was disappointed that he did not have a few more minutes because I admire his rhetoric.
As he is aware, soon after my appointment as Minister of State I visited all the inhabited islands and discussed their problems directly with the island communities. One issue raised time and again, both by islanders and by their representatives, was that of safe access to and from the mainland. This involves two elements, the infrastructure and the ferry services, and in line with my commitment before the election, I decided to address these issues.
With this in mind we carried out a detailed analysis of the access requirements of the inhabited offshore islands with the intention of providing a minimum level of secure service between the islands and the mainland. The question of infrastructure is being addressed not only by my Department but in conjunction with the local authorities and the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. I pay tribute to Cork  County Council, which has been an exemplar, and to my predecessor, who encouraged that local authority. The county council has drawn up a comprehensive pier programme which I have been delighted to fund. As the Deputy knows, I have committed in the region of £1.7 million to it. This is proceeding apace and I hope it will be completed this year on the islands. We are looking at further piers on the mainland. In this way we are dealing with the infrastructural problem. The Deputy will have to accept that never before has such money been spent in providing that necessary part of the infrastructural requirement.
As to access transport, I looked at those Atlantic islands, Inishturk, Inishbofin and Clare Island, which had no State-guaranteed winter service. I was delighted that within two years of entering office I was able to put in place a subsidised and guaranteed winter ferry service to those three islands, the last such Atlantic islands with a significant population to be without such services. All the major populated islands now have a service.
As the Deputy knows, Oileán Chléire has been served since 1975 by a State-owned ferry, An Naomh Ciarán. The service appears to me to be satisfactory, generally speaking. I was surprised to receive persistent requests over the past two years from the islanders and their representatives to review this service. The Deputy might also be surprised if he saw the correspondence. My Department is, therefore, currently examining the service as part of the analysis of the access requirements of inhabited islands in this region. This examination is being carried out in consultation with the island co-operative and community. As part of this analysis, officials of my Department met the island community on Oileán Chléire on 27 May 1999.
Until all the necessary consultations have taken place a decision will not be made regarding the future subsidisation of the ferry service between Oileán Chléire and the mainland. I can guarantee that the level of service will not be reduced while I am Minister. I have dramatically increased the  level of service to the islands on which I have already made decisions. To confirm this, the Deputy can ask the people of Inishmaan, Inishmore, Inisheer, Inishturk and Inishbofin what we have done. We are now starting on the Cork islands.
At the AGM of Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann I made a commitment that a decision in principle on the ferry services to the Cork islands – not just to this island – would be made before the end of June. Work is progressing on this matter, my officials visited all the Cork islands recently and within the next three weeks I will make an announcement on what I intend to do in principal for these islands.
The Deputy mentioned air services. That is not a problem for the in-shore islands, which can be reached in five minutes in almost all weathers. I have accepted the principle that there is a case to be made for services to islands far offshore. This, however, depends on mainland terminals. In that connection I am working with Údarás na Gaeltachta. I have set up a programme of priorities based on a number of factors.
Mr. Sheehan Mr. Sheehan
Mr. Sheehan: Aer Aran is willing to provide the service.
Éamon Ó Cuív Éamon Ó Cuív
Éamon Ó Cuív: When such services are being provided, they will have to go to public tender, because that is the process. I have no doubt that many people will be willing to provide such services, depending on the subsidy available. I would see this going in that direction.
As long as I am the Minister with responsibility for the islands, there will be a continued investment in the improvement both of infrastructure and of the level of service to the island, and there will not be a diminution of those services. The review currently being carried out on Oileán Chléire was at the request of the islanders.
Mr. Sheehan Mr. Sheehan
Mr. Sheehan: There should not be privatisation.
The Dáil adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 17 June 1999.
Dáil Éireann 506 Adjournment Debate. Ferry Services.