Fine Gael TD for Galway West & Mayo South

Opening Address to the Wheel 2017 Conference

Photo 28-06-2017, 9 31 44 a.m.Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. I am very pleased to be here today on my first public engagement as Minister of State for Community Development. I do not think I could have found a more fitting audience to kick off my official duties with.

It gives me a great pleasure to open this year’s Conference  – I am delighted to have been asked to do so by Deirdre and her team.

I am conscious that you have a lot to get through today……so I will  endeavour not to take up too much of your time.

As you know, both Minister Michael Ring and I have been appointed to the newly created Department of Rural and Community Development.   The work of the new Department will be underpinned by the Action Plan on Rural Development and the Framework Policy for Local and Community Development in Ireland, both of which have been published in the last 18 months.

The Programme for Partnership Government also contains a number of key objectives that are relevant to our new Department and that we will be working to achieve.

There are also strong synergies between the Rural and Community policy areas of the new Department including in particular an emphasis on both economic and social development as holding the key to improving the lives of disadvantaged communities.

As you know Leo Varadkar was elected Taoiseach a few weeks ago and the election of a new Taoiseach always brings a new focus or a fresh approach to policies and objectives. I think the Taoiseach’s decision to appoint a senior Cabinet Minister to this portfolio sends out a clear message of the Government’s intent and commitment to developing and enhancing the Community sector.

It would be fair to say that if there is anything all public representatives the length and breadth of the country have in common, it is their awareness and direct experience of the vital impact voluntary work has at the community level.

Your contribution to the wellbeing of our fellow citizens and indeed that of our nation is not forgotten nor taken for granted by Government. As a recently appointed Minister of State with responsibility for this portfolio, I am determined to raise awareness of your contribution to an even greater level.

I am determined to build on the progress that my predecessors have achieved. In the past year for example we have seen –

  • A new multi-annual Scheme to Support National Organisations
  • A new Communities Facilities Scheme to help community groups with capital projects
  • The design of a new RAPID Programme which will be launched shortly and will provide small-scale seed financing and infrastructure projects. Indeed, of the €5 million for 2017 €2.5 million has been ring-fenced for this very area which will support a number of important developments including educational, training and employment opportunities and the creation of a new integrated system of social services.

Support for communities is not, however, confined to my own section. There are a considerable number of schemes and programmes that are helping both rural and urban communities. Some of these are under the remit of my colleague Michael Ring including the CLAR Programme, the Town and Village Renewal Scheme and the Dormant Accounts Fund – all of which are helping to support and revitalise communities across the country. And many of the schemes and initiatives are delivered by community and voluntary organisations.

We are fortunate  that, some 10 years after a profound economic collapse, Ireland continues to have the benefit of a vibrant community and voluntary sector. Your resilience and determination over recent years is to be applauded. With an estimated 19,000 organisations spread throughout the country employing over 60,000 people, these figures alone bring home the significance of the sector.

When one considers both the range of activities and the services provided, it is hard to imagine that anyone in Ireland could say that they have not been involved or had their lives or their families touched by the activities of the voluntary and community sector.

This is a truly phenomenal reach and something we should all take pride in.

Having mentioned the Programme for Government I would like to briefly touch upon three important developments that I believe will have a lasting impact on the sector :

  • The Social Inclusion & Community Activation Programme – SICAP to me and you. This is a programme aimed at combating disadvantage and in particular reaching out to those who are traditionally harder to reach, namely those affected by social exclusion and long term unemployment. This year some €37 m will be made available to this targeted group through the SICAP programme,
  • We will continue to directly support the development of a vibrant community and voluntary sector through the Scheme to Support National organisations. Last year, as part of the 3 year rolling programme, we committed some €16m to support over 70 national organisations throughout the country.
  • I would also like to briefly mention the Public Participation Networks – known as PPNs – which are designed to act as the main link though which local authorities will interact with the community & voluntary, social inclusion and environmental sector. I understand that all local authority areas now have established and functioning PPNs and I would strongly encourage you to support and develop this structure. Without your support, the opportunity for local authorities to develop holistic plans and fully informed services at their level greatly diminishes.

Finally, I am aware that this afternoon you will have a workshop centred on the Programme for Government targets and I understand that one of the Department’s senior officials will be participating in those deliberations. Please contribute as freely as you can to those discussions as I am looking forward to receiving your feedback.

I want to state clearly that I, along with Minister Michael Ring, am whole-heartedly committed to securing as much funding as possible for the new Department – the Department of Rural and Community Development.

Just as I fought hard for funding for Gaeltacht communities in my last role as Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs I will be fighting hard to secure the maximum amount possible for the funding initiatives of my Department and in turn for communities – urban and rural – across the country.

Photo 28-06-2017, 9 06 31 a.m.I’m also determined to ensure that the impact of every euro is maximised and benefits and supports communities.

Before I conclude, I would like to formally thank Deirdre Garvey and her team for inviting me here today and for the warm welcome – it is very much appreciated.

Thank you for your time and attention. I wish you well with your conference and I trust you will have a fruitful and productive round of discussions today.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh.