Adjournment Debate. - Establishment Of Shannon Basin Inter-agency Group.

Wednesday, 4 June 1986

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 367 No. 5

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An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Deputy Liam Naughten sought permission to raise on the Adjournment of the House the establishment of an inter-agency group who would be fully representative of all interests on the Shannon and who would voice the problems which exist there. He was given permission to raise that. Deputies Mary O'Rourke and Terry Leyden raised similar matters and I understand that Deputy Naughten is sharing some of his time with them.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Liam Anthony Naughten  Zoom on Liam Anthony Naughten  I thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise on the Adjournment this very important issue of an inter-agency group who would be fully representative of all interested groups—, agriculture, tourism, fisheries, navigation, industry, power generation and, of course, Bord na Móna. It is extremely important that all of those groups are brought together under one umbrella to plan the future development of the Rivers Shannon and Suck not alone [1144] for the next decade but for the next century. As you outlined rightly, Deputies O'Rourke and Leyden are interested in speaking to this debate. Deputy Enright is interested also and certainly I will share time with them. I will try to allow time for all of them to have their say.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  You have 20 minutes between you.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I thank the Deputy very much.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Liam Anthony Naughten  Zoom on Liam Anthony Naughten  The group I am concerned about who have suffered most from the Shannon not alone in the last 12 months but for 150 years are the farming community from one end of the Shannon to the other. I am more familiar with the problem from Carrick-on-Shannon to Shannonbridge where many farming communities over the last 12 months, particularly since last August, have lost their incomes and cannot get from their homes to towns and schools without having to use a boat. Others have had to make a detour of ten miles to get to work. This has gone on in the Shannon Valley for far too long.

In 1955 the Rydell report was commissioned and presented to the Government in 1956. The report contained 11 recommendations and apart from one, which was implemented in 1956, the rehousing of families in the area, nothing has been done since in spite of promises before elections. A River Shannon authority should be set up to bring all those bodies together to control and manage the Shannon in the years ahead because this is the only way to come to grips with the problem.

The Shannon, one of the finest waterways in Europe, contributes substantially to the tourist and fishing industries. It also contributes to power generation and in this connection I wish to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, while the ESB have control of certain gates, the Office of Public Works control others. It is felt very strongly by the farming community, who have suffered so much over the years, that very often those two [1145] bodies do not synchronise in regard to opening and closing the gates. Farmers believe, rightly, that at times unparalleled blunders were made which cost many of them their crops and indeed their livelihood.

Bord na Móna are also involved in this matter. Over the last number of years, the Shannon flooded much earlier and subsided much later. Part of this is due to silting, not just of the navigational channel, but also of the sluice gates from peat washed into the Shannon from the Bord na Móna development. The silt traps controlled by Bord na Móna are not properly managed, thereby causing massive pollution of the river. Prior to those bogs being developed by Bord na Móna, they were a huge sponge which soaked up water and released it gradually. The bogs are now drained and the water rushes into the main channel which is not able to take it. All these problems could be dealt with by an inter agency group or a River Shannon authority. We must recognise the practical difficulties in securing a comprehensive drainage scheme for the Shannon catchment area at present. However, I am convinced that significant flood relief can be provided within realistic expenditure limits.

I wish to thank the Minister for meeting three deputations concerning this major problem and also for visiting the area to see the problem at first hand. We can make progress without spending huge sums of money. When this authority is set up it should carry out a complete survey of the Shannon to find out if we need additional lake storage, river diversions and channel improvements. Even without doing that, many small improvement works can be carried out within reasonable expenditure limits. Urgent action on silt clearance and channel maintenance work is required, particularly in the Banagher-Meelick section, with a view to improving the outflow of water in the area. I am glad the Minister is committed to spending money on Meelick weir to carry out improvements there, including additional sluice gates, which are vital. Maximum management of the lake storage capacity and control [1146] of water levels in conjuction with the ESB, with a view to minimising flooding, is essential. The farming community in the area feel that more water could be released earlier on in the year if the ESB utilised Ardnacrusha to its maximum.

The authority could also examine many other important aspects with a view to improvement. It is vital to carry out a survey, which will be grant aided by the EC, as soon as possible. I also ask the Minister to examine immediately the possibility of setting up a Shannon authority within the next few months. This is very urgent as the livelihood of the farming community close to the Shannon is at stake. It is frightening to see what has happened there over the last ten months and none of us wants to see a repetition of this.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  A Cheann Comhairle, I wish to thank you for granting this debate on the Adjournment and also to thank the Deputies in the area for sharing the allotted time. I am glad the motion which I put down on 6 November last year specifically calling for the setting up of a Shannon authority has now gained cross party recognition. If all concerned Deputies whose constituencies are involved can come together it will make the task easier.

Deputy Naughten referred to the visit of the Minister to the constituency. I regret that cross party co-operation did not extend to making me available to welcome her to part of my constituency. However, I know that she was made welcome——

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  Deputy O'Rourke missed another meeting recently also.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I believe in co-operation to an extent but not too far——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Zoom on Thomas J. Fitzpatrick  Order, please. We have very little time.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  I am sorry but some Deputies will be frivolous. I know the Minister is interested in the problem and I hope it will be solved. Deputy Naughten [1147] listed the various agencies which would be involved in an umbrella organisation which would have responsibility for various aspects of the Shannon. It really does not matter what it is called—a rose by any other name—but I am convinced that, while the setting up of an overall agency would perhaps seem to have minimal effects, they would be cumulative and eventually there would be an advantageous and beneficial spin off for the farmers in the area.

We all want to talk about our own constituency and I wish to refer to the area south of the river Shannon. In one small area alone 15 acres will, in a short while, be completely under water. I believe the Minister has travelled by boat so she has seen that area. The plight of the people in May/early June is as bad as it was last September, months earlier, when the Taoiseach visited the area. The farmers in the constituency I represent are used to winter flooding and land that was no good. But, for the last two years, there has been no use of callow land at all, and much of farmers land in this area is callow land.

The Office of Public Works are responsible for navigation; the ESB have responsibility for maintaining levels for power supply. But nobody has responsibility for the general maintenance of the Shannon from a civil engineering point of view. Meelick weir, the river banks, the watercourse itself need to be constantly maintained under a general planned programme of work. I am talking about housekeeping of a sort, about dredging, the lifting of silt, keeping the eyes of the weir open and maintaining the general area, thus ensuring that any impediment to the flow of water is removed. But the ESB and the Office of Public Works are operating under outdated regulations. It was most amusing to look at some of the regulations under which they still operate and which are still the legislative framework for their operations.

They have no relevance to their work today. There is no liaison between them or between them and the various local [1148] authorities of the counties through which the river flows. Deputy Naughten spoke about Rydell. Rydell visited Athlone and came to our home when we lived in Gentex on the banks of the Shannon all of those years ago and when he went to America and issued his report, draining the Shannon became the siren call for many a general election. Everybody in this generation of politicians knows well that that cannot be done and none of us would make such a call today. I maintain there is much that can be done with quite small budgetary expenditure. I know that in an Adjournment debate one is not meant to talk about extra budgetary expenditure but I am talking about budgetary expenditure which could be contained within the overall Vote for the Department of Finance.

I have among my friends many farmers, men and women who are bitterly facing another year of crisis. I am not being alarmist. This is fact, on the streets of Athlone and outside Athlone and in south Roscommon. Farmers are really at desperation point because of what they face. These are family people with children to bring up and educate and they are talking bitterly of having to get out of farming because there is no future in it and they cannot stay and face it year after year. They were content to face the winter flooding, but not this. The Minister has been there and has seen and has learned from it and I hope she can see it within her brief to set up this overall Shannon authority to start the farmers of this area on the road back.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  From the Athlone area down as far as Meelick weir people in my constituency are involved in this matter. The Minister recently saw the serious situation caused by flooding. I want to highlight the major losses suffered by farmers from Doon down to Shannonbridge to Shannon Harbour and all of that area. This has happened not just this year, not just last year; there has been a continuous loss by farmers over the years. There have been losses of hay, aftergrass, meadows, cattle and so on. All have been affected by this. In that area farmers have [1149] suffered a particularly low standard of living because of the flooding. The Minister saw that at firsthand the other day. I went to clarify one thing and, that is, the deputation the Minister met was representative of both sides of this House. I just want to clarify that in case there is any misunderstanding. It was meant to be an all-party meeting and that is the way it was.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  We were not invited.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  I ask the Minister to try to initiate major discussions between the ESB, Bord na Móna and the IFA. I would like the Minister to discuss with the ESB the problems that arise when water is held back at the weirs. Meelick weir is an example; the water is held back and there is a build up of water resulting in flooding of the lands. The silting up of rivers and lakes is caused by silt coming from the bogs and if Bord na Móna were to provide more silt traps it would help to curtail this flooding, and the IFA have a major input into this.

What we are speaking about here tonight is a Shannon authority. It is a major issue. This is a wonderful opportunity for the Office of Public Works because here we are speaking of the major waterway not in Ireland, not in Britain, but in Europe. If this Shannon authority were set up and linked with the Erne system and the Ballyconnell canal there would be an opportunity to develop a waterway that would equal the Danube or the Rhine. If all of this were done it could become a cross-Border project. A Shannon authority would have the strength to carry out this work. We are talking about a most wonderful cross-Border project. Sizeable money would be involved and it would come from Europe. The Shannon authority is something about which the IFA and people on both sides of this House feel very strongly. With a proper approach it could be of enormous benefit not just to the people living in the area but to all of us in this country, North and South.

Mr. Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  I want to thank you, a [1150] Cheann Comhairle, for giving us the opportunity to discuss this matter this evening and to thank Deputy Naughten for sharing his time in this very short but important debate.

I appeal to the Minister now responsible for the Office of Public Works to use her good offices, after viewing the plight of the farmers in the south Roscommon area—which is my constituency and of greatest concern to me as a Deputy for that area for the past nine years—to initiate immediate work to alleviate the serious situation which is occurring at the moment. The flooding in the south Roscommon area now is equal to winter flooding in a normal year. All the callow has been destroyed. There is a serious crisis for farmers. I regret that, when the Minister was in my constituency, she did not feel it worth her while to contact Deputies of all parties. I must say when I travelled as a Minister of State, I travelled as a Minister on behalf of the State and not as a Fianna Fáil Minister at that time.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Leyden: Information on Terry Leyden  Zoom on Terry Leyden  I would like to remind Ministers that they should bear in mind that they are representing the State and, while travelling on behalf of the State and being paid by the State, they should invite all sides and not turn issues into party political issues.

I would also like to ask the Minister to explain why £600,000 which was included in the 1982 Estimate under Fianna Fáil to carry out a feasibility study of the River Shannon was removed by the Coalition Government in 1983. This money was supported by a £400,000 grant from the EC to carry out a major survey of the river. Without an EC supported survey we have little hope or likelihood of receiving grant aid from the EC to carry out major works on the River Shannon. I support the setting up of a Shannon authority regulatory body to oversee the development of the river Shannon. But that will be in the long term. We must be realistic here tonight and acknowledge that the short-term problems are now [1151] causing a grave crisis. I appeal to the Minister to carry out immediate works at the Meelick weir to reduce the flooding.

I call on the Minister for Agriculture to provide additional assistance this year to the hard-pressed farmers of south Roscommon and also of the area of the River Suck which flows into the River Shannon, where farmers are suffering enormous problems. The flooding happening at this time of the year is the most serious in the history of the State. It has never reached such proportions as in this month of June 1986. I appeal to the Minister and her colleagues in Government to give emergency assistance to those farmers who are in crisis. Many family farmers will be annihilated this year unless something is done by the Government to assist them.

I call on the Minister to pursue the idea of establishing a Shannon authority to regulate the whole Shannon river, but in the meantime to get a viability study carried out and supply the £600,000 which Fianna Fáil had earmarked and which was stolen by the Coalition Government in 1983.

Mr. Enright: Information on Tom Enright  Zoom on Tom Enright  The money was there for a long time under Fianna Fáil management.

Mrs. O'Rourke: Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  Where did the Minister of State's Government hide it? They stole it.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Liam Anthony Naughten  Zoom on Liam Anthony Naughten  The Fianna Fáil Government did not get far in their last nine years of office.

Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Mrs. A. Doyle): Information on Avril Doyle  Zoom on Avril Doyle  I regret, a Cheann Comhairle, that such an important debate should be spoiled by rancour. I thank my colleagues for sharing the debate across the House and shall take it now in the spirit in which initially it was conducted.

As Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, my interest in the Shannon is two-fold. First, under the Shannon Navigation Acts, the [1152] Commissioners of Public Works are obliged to maintain the river as a public navigable waterway. Second, under the Arterial Drainage Act, 1945, the commissioners are the authority responsible for arterial drainage. I fully recognise that many other interests are also involved, such as the Electricity Supply Board, the Department of Agriculture, Tourism, Fisheries and Forestry, Bord na Móna, Environment and Finance, An Foras Forbartha, An Foras Talúntais and other bodies representing local and special interests.

The problems associated with the Shannon Basin are of long standing with a history of reports and investigations over very many years. These reports all highlight the complexity of the problem in technical, administrative and financial terms. Indeed, these very real difficulties may explain the apparent reluctance to date to tackle the problem in a comprehensive manner.

The August of 1956 Rydell report on flooding problems at the Shannon, commissioned by the then Government after an unusually large flood in December of 1954, proposed, inter alia, that consideration be given to the establishment of a Shannon Basin Inter-agency Committee, or Commission. Indeed, as I experienced at firsthand for myself, last week, when at the specific invitation of Deputies Naughten and Enright I visited the Shannon and saw the appalling plight of the local farmers of that area, this issue has again arisen. Indeed, it has arisen with my personal support. The committee proposed by Rydell would be patterned after similar bodies which functioned successfully in the United States. The committee, which would include representatives of a wide range of national and local Government authorities and other interests, would act as a medium for correlating various points of view, advising on procedures relating to an overall investigational programme and co-ordinating its effective execution. It should be stressed that the Rydell proposal envisaged that the committe would exercise advisory rather than executive powers. Actual execution of engineering, [1153] economic, agricultural and other studies would be retained as a function of each of the regularly constituted Departments or agencies.

There is already a large degree of co-operation between those bodies with statutory functions in relation to the Shannon, such as the Electricity Supply Board and the Office of Public Works. While at present no proposals for setting up a statutory authority exist, I do recognise personally the value of setting up an effective medium for giving expression to the views of all the different interests concerned. I have publicly expressed my support for such a body. My own view is that it is in everybody's interest, not least that of the Office of Public Works, to deal with one representative body that would be the forum for all discussions and the resolution, it is hoped, of problems as they arise, many of which have been mentioned here today such as silt rafts, flooding and all the other matters, including levels of the river at different points.

There is however, another factor which must come into the reckoning. Clearly the question of drainage would form a considerable, perhaps the largest element of any deliberations on the Shannon Basin. As the House is aware, all planning of arterial drainage has been halted by Government decision pending the outcome of a comprehensive review of arterial drainage policy. The Office of Public Works are not empowered to do piecemeal drainage except for navigation purposes. I should like to make that point because a plea has been made to me from [1154] both sides that we should be involved in drainage and the removal of silt at different points. That is not part of our terms of reference. We are purely empowered to do such drainage and silt removal as is necessitated to keep the navigation channels open.

A further Government decision was that the multipurpose feasibility study of the Shannon should be deferred. This was referred to, including EC funding. The review is under consideration by the Minister for Finance at the moment, who I know appreciates the importance and indeed the urgency attaching to it. However, unless and until the relevant decisions are made it will not be possible to draw up detailed proposals for drainage of the Shannon, nor to conduct a feasibility study, pending the outcome of that review. The House will recognise that this would have a direct influence on the question of agreeing proposals among the wide range of interests involved but it is nevertheless the reality of the matter. It is certainly a factor which must be taken into consideration in determining how best we should proceed.

In conclusion, my support for an inter-agency committee fully representative of all interests must not be allowed to raise expectations pending the outcome of the Cabinet consideration of the arterial drainage review.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 5 June 1986.


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