Thursday, 17 December 1998
Dáil Éireann Debate
6. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Minister for Finance the papers, studies or documents prepared by his Department prior to, or arising from, the Government decision to divide the country in two for purposes of the next round of EU Structural Funds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24581/98]
7. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Minister for Finance the plans, if any, there are for initiatives to deal with disadvantage in the many areas outside of the proposed Objective One area which suffer from high levels of poverty and deprivation in view of the decision to divide the country in two for the purposes of the next round of regional funds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [25561/98]
23. Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Finance if the Government will revert to putting the case for the west, the Border and midlands regions if EUROSTAT rejects the Government's proposal, which includes Kerry and Clare; and if the EU will provide sufficient time for a re-submission. [25850/98]
28. Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Finance if he will seek an early meeting with the Commissioner for Regional Affairs to discuss the Government's plans for a regionalised approach to the next round of Structural Funds; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24616/98]
38. Mr. Finucane asked the Minister for Finance if the Shannon Estuary will be regarded as suitable for Objective One status; and if the parts of the estuary adjacent to Clare and Kerry will be considered exclusively for Objective One status where industrial development is required. [24951/98]
The Government decided on 17 November on an application for the reclassification of Ireland's single NUTS II region status into two NUTS II regions: one comprising the Border, midlands and the west, including counties Kerry and Clare; and the other comprising the rest of the country. This application has now been lodged with EUROSTAT. The proposed inclusion of counties Clare and Kerry in one region means that the total west coast from counties Donegal to Kerry is now encompassed. This provides a plausible, integrated and realistic view of a peripheral area of the Community, in good balance with the overall Community picture. It is also fully consistent with the Commission's declared overall objective of greater concentration in the delivery of regional assistance.
My Department produced a number of papers on this issue for inter-departmental consideration and for consideration by the Ministers and Secretaries-General group on EU policy. It also drafted in the normal way a memorandum for Government along with accompanying aidemémoires on foot of which the decision of 17 November last was taken.
 In regard to poor areas outside of the proposed Objective One region, I would draw the Deputy's attention to the Government's commitment in its press release on the regionalisation proposal that the proposal will not in any sense deflect the Government from its commitment to tackle social exclusion, urban or rural. Furthermore, Ireland, supported by some other member states, is pressing for the retention of the URBAN Community initiative.
Officials from my Department and the Central Statistics Office have met EUROSTAT to discuss the proposal. Contact is continuing and I do not propose to speculate on the outcome of the application or on what course the Government might pursue in the event of a negative response.
I have no specific plans at present to meet Commissioner Wulf-Mathies but I have no doubt that such a meeting, if necessary, could be arranged at short notice. Officials of my Department are in regular contact with officials of DG XVI, for which Commissioner Wulf-Mathies is responsible.
If the proposal to split the country into two NUTS II regions is approved by EUROSTAT, those parts of counties Clare and Kerry adjacent to the Shannon Estuary would be in the region which should qualify for Objective One status and therefore for the most favourable regime with regard to state aid for industrial development.
Mr. Gilmore: First, I protest at the Minister taking all of these questions together because they deal with distinct aspects of this issue. I ask you, a Cheann Comhairle, to allow some latitude in that regard in the pursuing of supplementary questions.
Question No. 6 asks the Minister about the papers, studies and documents on which the Government's decision was based. There is, as the Minister will be aware, a widespread belief that the decision to constitute a new unprecedented region has more to do with the configuration of the Dáil than the configuration of disadvantage around the country. The Government has been defending that on the grounds that the decision was made on its merits. If it was made on its merits, then let us see what were the merits. Will the Minister make available the various papers, in particular, the papers which were produced on 24 April, 11 June, 21 July, 18 September and 25 September last? Will he make those papers available so that Members and the public can objectively assess the basis on which this remarkable decision was made? If the decision was made on its merits, surely there are no grounds for the Minister to withhold the background papers and documents on which the Government made its decision.
Mr. McCreevy: Withholding the documents and reports had nothing to do with Kerry or Clare. The refusal is permitted by the Freedom  of Information Act in the context of ongoing negotiations. When we conclude negotiations on sub-regionalisation with the European Commission, a request for the release of these documents under the Freedom of Information Act will be granted. I assure Deputies they will not be able to find that any political considerations entered into the decision.
I have pointed out that this matter was considered by the Government early this summer on foot of a Department of Finance report on regionalisation. The Department was asked by the Ministers and Secretaries group, which meets regularly to discuss European matters, to prepare proposals on the sub-regionalisation options. The possibility of including Kerry and Clare was contained in that document. It was not until late autumn and winter that representations or speeches mentioned the inclusion of Kerry and Clare. That will be shown when it is possible to release these documents when the negotiations are concluded with the Commission. I give that assurance to Deputy Gilmore as I did to members of my party some weeks ago.
A September edition of one of the business magazines referred to the matters to which I have referred and to the inclusion of Kerry and Clare. That was long before there was any political controversy about their inclusion.
Mr. Gilmore: Instead of the Minister's narrative about what was included or when it was included, it would be preferable if he simply produced the documents. This is a matter of major public policy — whether the country should be divided into two regions and the basis on which the Government arrived at its decision. It is in the public interest that this information is placed in the public domain.
Mr. Gilmore: The Minister appears to be deliberately withholding this information rather than placing it in the public domain. Question No. 7 concerns initiatives to be taken to deal with disadvantage in the areas outside the new Objective One region. The Minister gave a fleeting reply to this question. Can he assure the House that the various projects and schemes in existence under the URBAN and other EU-funded programmes will be continued through the period 2000 to 2006?
Mr. McCreevy: I have already answered the first part of the Deputy's question. The reason for withholding this information relates to the fact that such a measure could undermine our negotiating position. That is the proviso included in the——
Mr. McCreevy: It is not just about including  Kerry and Clare, which only comprise a small part of the Government's consideration. There are other matters relating to overall strategy and how we are to pursue all of these issues in Europe.
As regards the Community initiatives to combat social and urban exclusion, I have already stated that the Government will not be deflected from its commitment to tackle urban and rural social exclusion. Supported by other member states, Ireland is pressing for the retention of the URBAN Community initiative.
The Deputy also asked about the continuation of projects and schemes currently being funded. When the negotiations on Agenda 2000 are concluded and we know what the next tranche of funds will be, the Government will do as it has done in the past. A national plan will be prepared and submitted to Europe. The plan will include a wide range of activities which the Government will pursue over the next tranche of funding. All matters will be reviewed at that time, including all projects and schemes, taking into account Exchequer, EU and private sector contributions. This was the case with the previous plan.
Although we have had substantial European funding for many years, we still have social deprivation. European funds represent only a tiny fraction of total Government spending in this area. The Government is committed to tackling all problems of social exclusion, irrespective of the outcome of the EU funding negotiations.
Mr. Deenihan: Will the Minister clarify whether EUROSTAT has sought clarification on the Government's submission? Will he confirm that some reservations have been expressed, particularly by the Commission, regarding the composition of the proposed region? Will he also confirm once and for all that Deputy Healy-Rae had no influence on the proposal which went to Brussels?
Mr. McCreevy: Since the Government made its proposals, there have been meetings between the Department, the CSO and EUROSTAT to discuss the Irish proposals. These negotiations are ongoing and it would not be appropriate to comment on them. I anticipate that they will continue into the early months of 1999. I have said inside  and outside the House, that the inclusion of Kerry and Clare in the new Objective One region was first raised in the documentation prepared by the Department of Finance on foot of a request by the Ministers and Secretaries-General group. It was discussed by that group in early summer, long before there was any political controversy about including Kerry and Clare.
Mr. McDowell: The Minister may be interested or shocked to hear that the same rules of secrecy do not apply to EUROSTAT as appear to apply in Merrion Street. EUROSTAT is happy to tell anyone of the status of the Irish application.
Have the consultants advising the Department on the national plan been asked to consider the implications of regionalisation? Have they been given terms of reference which invite them to submit different plans for different regions? What is regionalisation all about? Are we talking about different schemes which might apply to different problems in the two regions or are we simply talking about different funding mechanisms?
To take the example of the ESF, is it conceivable that programmes in an institute of technology in the Objective One region will be funded by the ESF and a similar project in an institute of technology in the non-Objective One region not funded?
Mr. McCreevy: The preparation of the national plan has been ongoing for some time. It is, as its name suggests, a national plan. The decision on sub-regionalising the country was made by the Government only a short time ago. I answered many questions from Deputy McDowell and other Deputies in this House on why the Government decided sub-regionalisation was the best option for the country.
Mr. McCreevy: I have no briefing at present regarding the terms of reference of the consultants, but the question of sub-regionalisation was decided by the Government only some weeks ago whereas the preparation of the national plan has been ongoing for some time.
Mr. Daly: In regard to the inclusion of County Clare in this submission, will the Minister ensure that in the negotiations that are to take place account will be taken of the very big fall in the population of west, north and parts of east Clare, in areas like Kilrush, Ennistymon, Scariff and so on where the number of people leaving agriculture has accelerated and the population is ageing at a significantly faster rate than in the rest of Ireland and where, in some district electoral divisions, the percentage of elderly people is 30  per cent to 40 per cent above the national average? Will the Minister ensure also that account will be taken of the Shannon Estuary which links Kerry, Clare and Limerick and which is probably one of the least developed national harbours in the European Union? In making the case for regional funds 20 years ago, the Shannon Estuary was put forward as the ideal location for largescale investment to ensure the creation of employment there. Will the Minister ensure account is taken of the very high unemployment rates in towns like Ennistymon, Scariff and Kilrush in the detailed negotiations on these matters which are of enormous importance to the area and to the survival of the population in an area where the existence of local schools is threatened and post offices are being closed? There is an urgent need for significant Structural Funding to be invested to ensure the population is not wiped out in this unique county.
Mr. McCreevy: It was possible to include counties Clare and Kerry in the proposed new Objective One region because of the matters to which Deputy Daly referred. Not all parts of County Clare are as wealthy as the eastern part of Clare near Limerick. When the totality of the figures was arrived at, the factors mentioned by Deputy Daly kept down the overall wealth of that region. Regarding his question about the area adjacent to the Shannon Estuary, if the proposal to split the country into two regions is approved by EUROSTAT, those parts of counties Clare and Kerry adjacent to the Shannon Estuary would be in the region which would qualify for Objective One status.
Mr. Gilmore: ——where there is very serious disadvantage. Since the Minister could not give me an assurance earlier that the various schemes and projects which are under way in those areas to tackle poverty and disadvantage will be continued, how many of those schemes and projects  will be discontinued as a result of the Government's decision to divide the country and create a spurious poorer half and a richer half? How many disadvantaged areas will find themselves with schemes and projects to tackle poverty discontinued as a result of the Tarbert Ferry scheme of regionalisation?
Mr. McCreevy: We have not even got around to developing the national plan. The Deputy should not assume any scheme will be rejected. Neither should he anticipate what will happen. Perhaps we will think up even better, bigger and brighter schemes which will apply not alone to Ballybrack but also to Balindine.
Mr. Deenihan: In view of the fact that areas in my neighbouring county, places like Athae, Ballyhahill, the Glen area, Ballygoughlin and so on are very disadvantaged and isolated as are areas of north Cork around Kanturk and Rockchapel and south Cork, is there any case for including parts of those counties in the submission? Is it possible to divide counties?
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