The Bill to establish the Department of Rural and Community Development
I congratulate the Minister, Deputy Ring, on his appointment to the Cabinet. We know him as someone who has a great commitment to his community in Mayo, the west coast and all parts of rural Ireland. He is a tremendous worker on the ground and is well respected across party lines for that work and his delivery for constituents in Mayo. He will do a wonderful job in the Cabinet.
I acknowledge the work that the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, has done since May 2016. I worked in that Department alongside the new Minister, Deputy Ring. The Minister, Deputy Humphreys, worked hard on an array of responsibilities and has been the voice for rural Ireland in the Cabinet for the past year in the role that the new Minister will now play.
Some Deputies discussed the abolition of the previous Department. In 2011 and in light of the need to split the Department of Finance into two Departments and two Ministers, given the workload and the economic crisis that the country faced, and the Government’s commitment to establish a new Department of children and youth affairs, the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs was subsumed into other Departments. In 2016, I took part in the negotiations with Independent Deputies on the formation of the Government. Some of them are present now. We had long days in Government Buildings discussing a programme for Government. Clearly, rural affairs and issues were to the fore in those talks and in the subsequent commitments in the programme for Government. If the Minister and I are granted responsibility in the new Department, we will seek to implement that programme and ensure that we have the funding necessary to fulfil the commitments that were made as part of those discussions.
Now that just one Minister is serving at the Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and Finance, it is right that the opportunity be taken to put on a senior level a full Ministry of rural and community development. That is what this is about, namely, ensuring that the Government puts its efforts into developing rural Ireland.
Cuirim fáilte roimh na rudaí deasa a dúirt an Teachta Ó Cuív ar maidin maidir leis an ról a bhí agam mar Aire Stáit na Gaeltachta. Bhí mé an-sásta nuair a bhí mé ag obair sa rannóg sin laistigh den Roinn Ealaíon, Oidhreachta, Gnóthaí Réigiúnacha, Tuaithe agus Gaeltachta. Rinne an Taoiseach cinneadh maidir leis na dualgaisí Gaeltachta. Tá an tAire Stáit, an Teachta McHugh, ag obair sa Roinn sin anois. Tá a fhios agam go ndéanfaidh sé jab maith as seo amach mar Aire Stáit na Gaeltachta.
While I enjoyed my time as Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht, the Taoiseach made a decision to realign the Department and remove responsibility for rural affairs and establish the Department of culture, heritage and the Gaeltacht. I know the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, will do an excellent job in that Department and I will be working closely with him. The Taoiseach also realigned Government committees; he has reduced the numbers and given them a broader reach. That is reflective of the issue of rural Ireland. While we will have commitments to rural Ireland in this Department, rural issues reach across every Department. Every Department plays a role in regional and rural areas and every Department also plays a role in urban areas. The Taoiseach will be chairing those realigned committees and the Minister, Deputy Ring, will be sitting in on issues of rural affairs which will encompass issues of education and health and issues that come under the remit of other Departments.
The Minister pointed out earlier that all the responsibilities of this Department have not been fully finalised. We know the nature of what we will be getting in this Department but more responsibilities may be transferred over time as things are sorted out. It is important to acknowledge that. It is not practical, as some have suggested when talking about rural Garda stations for example, to have a Minister with responsibility for rural education, rural health, rural justice or rural transport. There can be sections, but there has to be an overarching Ministry for justice, education, health and so on. The role the Minister, Deputy Ring, and I will have will be predominantly in the responsibilities we are given but we will also have an overarching role as a voice in Cabinet to disagree with or fight against proposals that may come from other Departments. We will also work with them to push forward the agenda within the Department. I see the Minister, Deputy Ring, as having a key role as a voice in Cabinet and also within the committee structure to address the important issues that arise in rural areas, which we have all come across, in terms of regional balance. It has been commented on and I agree with a lot of what has been said. I have said this before when we have had debates. A Private Members’ Bill introduced by Deputy Kenny a number of months will go to committee and be discussed. There was a lot of commonality that we agreed on in that situation. I am sure the Minister will be participating in the committee discussions on that as they arise.
All Deputies in rural Ireland have the interest of rural Ireland at heart and none more so than the Minister, Deputy Michael Ring. I appreciate that amendments have been tabled and there will be votes and all of that, but I hate to think there would be any delays in establishing this Department before the summer recess. There is no point talking about not having funds for rural Ireland if we are going to stop a Ministry from being established for rural Ireland so we have the Minister there fighting over the summer for the budget to put in place for the plans we have. There is scope in this Dáil and new politics for suggestions to be made about things that can be done. We are interested in hearing them. We are interested in hearing any coherent arguments on what we can do to improve rural Ireland. There is a lot going on in rural Ireland and much that is positive. It has become fashionable for certain people to talk down rural Ireland and say it is in decline. It is under pressure. Many areas of the country are under pressure. It is under pressure from urbanisation because 50% of the population lives in Leinster. That did not happen overnight. It did not happen in the past five years. It has been happening continually. It happens across the world where there is a change and where people move from rural to urban centres. It is a pressure that many cities and countries face. It is about ensuring we put in place the infrastructure.
I agree with everyone who talks about the importance of broadband and how crucial it is. It is great to see in my townland and many others in my parish of Moycullen that eir is rolling out broadband with a commitment to the Government contract; there will be State fines if it does not roll out broadband to 300,000 houses. It is ongoing and extra customers are being connected to fibre broadband in homes in rural Ireland. There are positive things taking place. As Minister of State, the Minister said we should look at schemes such as local improvement schemes. There have been reductions in roads budgets. It came up during the Government formation talks and even though there have been increases in the last two budgets, road infrastructure for rural Ireland is under pressure and it needs more investment. We will continue to fight for it and it will be one of the things we will be looking at.
I am looking forward to the challenges ahead and working with the Minister, Deputy Ring, and Government colleagues to push forward the case for rural Ireland. I hope the Ministers and Secretaries (Amendment) Bill 2017 will be progressed today through the House and through the Seanad tomorrow so we can get the Department established. When we do that, we will see what extra functions, responsibilities and budgets we get to ensure we invest in improving the lives and opportunities of people in rural Ireland.