Private Members' Business. - Shannon River Statutory Authority: Motion.

Tuesday, 18 April 2000

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 518 No. 3

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Mr. Connaughton: Information on Paul Connaughton  Zoom on Paul Connaughton  I move:

That Dáil Éireann calls on the Government to establish a Shannon River statutory authority.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Naughten, Reynolds and McGrath.

[549] Fine Gael believes the best approach to the strategic management of the River Shannon is for the Government to establish an authority to oversee, co-ordinate and implement plans and policies which will assist each competing interest group to enhance its interest in a manner which will not be prejudicial to other users of this unique natural resource. This proposal has nothing to do with the drainage of the River Shannon but it has everything to do with the management of it. The motivation behind tabling this motion is to ensure that, after years of neglect, plans are put in place to maintain the River Shannon. A River Shannon statutory authority would have the necessary clout and authority to achieve the results which the existing River Shannon Forum does not have.

I will be clear on the principles on which the proposed River Shannon authority would operate. Fine Gael wants to encourage more boating and fishing; to maintain the electricity generating capacity on the river; to control and eliminate possible pollution; to preserve wildlife; to co-operate with Waterways Ireland, the new all-Ireland organisation, to help the navigational potential; and to minimise the risk of flooding and the consequential loss of income for so many farmers and householders on its banks.

Fine Gael believe it is possible to co-ordinate the various interests on the river in a way in which flooding can be controlled to some degree. Let us look at what has happened to the River Shannon over a period of many years. Every day millions of gallons of water cascade into the Shannon Basin bringing millions of tonnes of silt and debris. This vast tonnage has replaced water capacity in the river. Anybody who knows the River Shannon will have seen the many islands which have emerged over the years. These blockages have the effect of creating localised flooding along the River Shannon. I emphasise that this has nothing to do with either widening or deepening the river. It is a maintenance problem which must be addressed which has been allowed to go out of control in recent years.

Farmers and householders living at certain flash points on the River Shannon know that the floods come quicker and cover more extended areas of farmland as each year goes by. The Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Cullen, knows that as well as I do. There are many householders and farmers living on the banks of the river who have cause for huge anxiety as every winter approaches. On the question of limited embankment projects on the River Shannon, years ago some parts of the river had their banks strengthened and raised to prevent local flooding with a reasonable degree of success. Over the years the banks generally have deteriorated. No agency has the authority to remove the debris even on the edge of the River Shannon. Nobody can even take a shovel full out of it. Consequently many such areas of the river are more prone to flooding and they are messy and unsightly.

[550] The question of tributaries of the River Shannon, other rivers which have become blocked and static, must also be addressed. The almost total withdrawal of the county councils from any meaningful maintenance on small rivers is causing anger and anxiety among farmers all over the country.

There appears to be wide-ranging support for the statutory authority. At a well attended and successful joint meeting at the Joint Committee on Enterprise and Small Business and the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine held last January in the wake of the horrendous River Shannon flooding, which, incidentally, blocked major arterial roads, all of the interest groups indicated, under in depth questioning from Members from all sides of the House, that they would work within the context of a statutory authority and, as many of them put it, would do so in a positive manner as they had nothing to hide. However, what is now required is the political will to set up the River Shannon authority.

Last January at a huge flood meeting organised by the IFA in Athlone it was evident that farmers and householders demanded greater action by the Government. Speaker after speaker outlined graphically the trauma which they were going through with their houses and lands flooded and the contents of their houses ruined, and many were finding it difficult to get insurance cover. Probably worst of all were reports that flood waters seem to be spreading out much further in the fields and were much deeper as every year went by.

The Government's stance on this issue is difficult to fathom. The recent carry on of the Fianna Fáil Senators when they voted down the Shannon River Council Bill, 1998, which, in essence, would have seen the establishment of a statutory authority, is terribly hard to understand. Two months ago I even heard one of that party's Senators, Senator Finneran, declare on local radio that it was with pleasure that he was backing this Bill and that he was the first Senator to put his shoulder to the wheel and get a Bill through the Seanad. About a week later, he voted against it. I find that difficult to understand.

The Bill which was voted down in the Seanad was, in essence, a Bill drawn up by Deputy Daly, and it was a good Bill. However, the Government gave frivolous reasons when it ordered its Senators to vote down the Bill.

I understand that there is a Government amendment to the motion, that the matter will be referred to one of the Oireachtas committees. That side-step would do justice to one of the rugby internationals because the motion sought a straight answer from the Government. I wanted to find out whether the Government wanted a statutory authority. I live very close to the Shannon and know there are huge and very complex issues involved. Those who live on the banks of the river and those who use the Shannon would like to know the approach of the Government. [551] However, all they have got tonight is another side step of the issue.

In effect this is the end of the idea of a statutory authority for the Shannon. All the Minister had to do was agree with the motion, the only purpose of which was to find out whether the Minister and the Government wanted a statutory authority. By virtue of the Government amendment to the motion, it is clear that it does not want a statutory authority. Otherwise the Government would not have tabled the amendment.

If the Government agreed to the authority we could then get down to the serious business of its form, role etc. However, after all the talk by the Minister's colleagues, including some very senior colleagues who said they were personally in favour of an authority, we find the Government is doing the greatest side step of all time. It was evident from the debate in the Seanad that this is what the Government was going to do and I hope it will be seen for what it is. The Minister has given the thumbs down on the day every Deputy and Senator on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Enterprise and Joint Committee on Agriculture and the Marine, and the ESB, Dúchas and the Office of Public Works said they believe a statutory authority would work. The Minister is now saying he will side step the issue and pass it over to one of the committees. It is outrageous carry on and it will be seen for what it is.

The various committees and flood victims were given to understand in the heat of the moment that a statutory authority would be established, but when it comes down to it the Minister is failing these people.

An exceptionally good Bill prepared by my colleague, Deputy Penrose, was not even allowed on the floor of the House for discussion because of the rules of the House. Given that neither the Fine Gael motion, which simply sought clarity on whether the Government wanted a statutory authority, nor Deputy Penrose's Bill, which was very specific in terms of how such an authority could be established, have been accepted, does it appear to the Minister that it will be several years before anything is done? We will listen to hear whether the Minister is in favour of a statutory authority.

I have no problem whatever believing that the competing demands and interest groups can be accommodated in terms of the Shannon. At the same time the huge and ever-increasing problem of winter flooding along the banks of the Shannon can be alleviated through better management. The Government should make £10 million or £15 million available per year for maintenance along the banks of the Shannon. I am not talking about deepening or widening the Shannon because we have long passed that stage. However, if millions of tonnes of silt are pumped into the basin of the Shannon, water has to be displaced. If we are ever to get back to the stage [552] we were at 15 or 20 years ago we must maintain the river and silt must be removed.

I am extremely disappointed with the Minister whom I thought supported a statutory authority. In fairness to him, when he gets something into his head he delivers on it, but he has either been over-ruled on this matter or does not believe in a statutory authority. I want the Minister to say whether he wants a statutory authority. I take it, given the amendment which has been submitted, that he does not.

Mr. Naughten: Information on Denis Naughten  Zoom on Denis Naughten  I thank Deputy Connaughton for tabling this motion on the establishment of a Shannon authority, the reason for which is that the Government has been twisting and turning on the issue since it was first mooted at a public meeting in Athlone last January following the record flooding in the Shannon basin over the Christmas period.

Draining the river has been an issue of debate for generations among people residing in the Shannon basin and was first given political credence by the late Brian Lenihan when he was a Deputy for County Roscommon. However, people are realistic and realise this proposal will never be implemented, but they rightly feel that some organisation should be responsible for the maintenance and control of the river. Proper management of the water level and maintenance of the channel would dramatically reduce the threat of serious flooding. Such a measure can only succeed through the establishment of a statutory Shannon authority which would supervise and regulate the myriad of bodies that are currently involved in one form or other in regulating or controlling this famous river.

At a public meeting in Athlone the Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy O'Rourke, committed herself to the establishment of such a body, as did other public representatives present from both sides of the House. However, subsequent to this meeting the Government politicians backed down on this and other commitments to provide assistance to the people who had been directly affected by the flooding.

Following discussions with them, my colleagues in the Seanad moved Second Stage of the Shannon River Council Bill, which Government Senators had already planned to vote down. However, the Government side eventually saw the light and accepted Second Stage, Committee Stage without amendment and Report Stage. However, they did a further U-turn and voted down the Bill on its Final Stage. This was an historic decision as it is the first time in the history of the State that a Government accepted the principle and contents of a Bill and then voted it down on Final Stage. To add insult to injury, it used two of the lamest excuses that I have ever heard, even a three year old would have concocted a better explanation. It claimed that the establishment of the cross-Border implementation group, Waterways Ireland, which will take over the role of Dúchas in relation to the navi[553] gation of the Shannon, and the proposed EU framework directive on water policy, which the Government claims is imminent, would ensure that the authority was not warranted.

It is fundamentally important in the context of this debate to correct both of these misleading statements. First, Waterways Ireland will have control of the River Shannon only in relation to navigation for the purposes of pleasure craft. It takes over this role from Dúchas. Dúchas stated at a recent Dáil committee:

The role of the waterways service, now Waterways Ireland, in regard to the River Shannon is confined to navigation. In times of flood, the waterways service has no control over the water levels. None of the Acts which apply to navigation grant powers or impose duties relating to drainage matters or flood relief. Accordingly, Waterways Ireland will not be in a position to carry out any studies or works in relation to flood relief on the Shannon.

Second, the EU framework directive on water policy is a proposed directive, concentrating solely on water quality, and will take years to implement. Currently, there are a total of 116 EU directives which have yet to be implemented by Government, 46 of which have already passed their implementation date, leaving Ireland in breach of them. In terms of the Department of the Environment and Local Government, which will have responsibility to implement this new directive, implementation of two water directives, which were formally passed by the EU in 1976 and 1980, remains outstanding. Do the people in the Shannon basin have to wait 25 years to have such a proposed directive implemented?

The draft directive states that member states shall comply with the provisions of the directive ten years after its entry into force. Extensions beyond this date are limited to two further periods of six years each for the river basin management plan. As the directive also incorporates the requirement for the reintroduction of water charges, implementation will not be a top priority of the Government.

The Government does not seem to realise that the water level at the Shannon weir in Athlone reached the level similar to that which it reached in 1954 when the people in the Shannon basin experienced the worst floods on record, a disaster similar to that which occurred recently in Mozambique. On that occasion James Dillon, the Minister for Agriculture, visited the flood victims to view the extent of the flooding and told his officials to treat the people with dignity and respect and to err on the side of generosity. Dillon gave clearance to the local authority, with the approval of the Government, to repeal any legislation or regulation which created obstacles or hindered the alleviation of the suffering of the people at that time. The Government's attitude is in stark contrast to that of the 1954 Government. While it was very sympathetic last January, it has [554] since turned its back on the communities along the river from the Shannon pot in County Cavan to Kilconly Point in County Kerry. There is considerable anger among farmers who, through no fault of their own, have incurred extensive losses of fodder and damage to their properties and homes. The Government is in power during the greatest economic boom ever. The coffers are so full that it does not know what to do with the money but it is the first Government in the history of the State not to provide one penny of assistance to the people experiencing financial hardship as a result of flooding.

Over Christmas many communities were isolated as roads were impassable due to the floods. One elderly man had to go to Portiuncula Hospital but the ambulance could not reach his house. He had to be taken out in a transport box on the back of a tractor. Is this the type of health service the Government wants to stand over? On another occasion a woman had to be transported in and out of the flood to her father's funeral on the back of a county council lorry. Prior to January's Cabinet meeting at Ballaghaderreen both the N4 and the N5 were impassable due to the Shannon flood. How can we develop the west and bring economic balance to the region if we cannot get goods in and out of the area?

While everybody was out celebrating the millennium, and the Taoiseach was lighting his millennium candle in Merrion Square, hundreds of people were stranded in their homes. They had no choice because if they tried to go out, they were liable to be drowned. That is not acceptable in the 21st century. How can anybody stand over this given that the ESB, the Office of Public Works, Dúchas, Waterways Ireland, Bord na Móna, Leitrim, Roscommon, Longford, Westmeath, Galway, Offaly, Tipperary North Riding, Clare, Limerick and Kerry County Councils, Shannon Regional Fisheries and Coillte Teoranta all have an element of involvement in the control of water on the River Shannon? Yet the Government claims that there is no need for a Shannon authority.

The Office of Public Works has reneged on its responsibility to maintain the channel of the river. While it has carried out arterial drainage in the past, for which it is must be given credit, it has allowed water to flow into the Shannon catchment from its tributaries without carrying out any maintenance on the river itself. People who live along the river see land today that did not exist 20 or 30 years ago. The river is continuing to silt up, but no one is prepared to do anything. Along a four mile stretch of the river from Banagher to Meelick, silt and dirt have built up over the years, but have never been cleaned up. No one will take responsibility for water levels or maintaining gates on the Shannon, yet the Government says there is no need for an authority.

There is a need for immediate funding for maintenance not just of the navigation channel but also of the river itself, to ensure that at least the channels are cleared. People accept that the [555] Shannon will continue to flood and understand that it has a natural flood plain, but they are not willing to witness their homes being flooded or isolated because the river is used as a dumping ground, silting up year after year. Why can maintenance work not be carried out on the stretch between Banagher and Meelick? Why can there not be one authority which can control all the gates along the river? Why can one body not be answerable to these communities? The answer is lack of political will. Is it too much to ask?

The bodies trusted with controlling the gates, namely, Dúchas and the ESB, are incapable of co-ordinating with each other and do not meet their statutory responsibilities. During one bank holiday weekend the ESB opened the gates at Athlone on a Friday, but the Office of Public Works failed to open the gates at Meelick until the following Tuesday. During the intervening period hundreds of acres of land were flooded south of Athlone. Last September, the ESB left gates open at Athlone which, according to its own directives, should have been closed, thus facilitating flooding. The Office of Public Works claims not to have the powers to carry out work on the Shannon but when questioned on this issue before an Oireachtas committee, Office of Public Works officials admitted that they had the powers but had failed to seek funding. All these bodies have the powers to help regulate the river but do not have the will to do so. While this may be the main reason for the current push to establish an authority, it is by no means the only reason.

Last summer the worst pollution ever was seen at Lough Ree. Along the banks of the river signs were posted warning people not to swim in the lake. A concerted and co-ordinated approach is required to ensure the environmental protection of the river. This is not happening at present. County councils which had to implement environmental by-laws have failed to do so. Some still allow raw sewage to flow from towns and villages into the river or its tributaries. There are only a handful of pump-out stations along the river, thus forcing boats to empty their sewage into the river. Again, a range of bodies is responsible including, Dúchas, Waterways Ireland, the Departments of the Environment and Local Government and the Marine and Natural Resources, 13 local authorities and industrial and farming organisations.

The Shannon has huge tourism potential as it is one of our greatest natural resources. However, to date, very little has been done to maximise this potential. Comparing the Shannon waterway to that of its counterpart, the Erne, we have failed to capitalise on this asset and have neglected it. Few services have been provided along the waterway except at the major towns en route. Many of the islands on Lough Ree, which have significant historic settlements similar to Clonmacnoise, have remained in disrepair. The responsibility for this lies again with 13 local authorities, the five regional tourism boards, the Office of Public Works and an array of local tourism bodies.

[556] There is little co-ordination between the 29 statutory bodies I have mentioned. I am sure there are others, and I hope they will not be too disappointed that I have not referred to them, including voluntary bodies involved in the development of the river. However, with such a large range of statutory bodies and corresponding Departments, is it any wonder that the true potential of the river has never been realised? The problem is that there are too many chiefs and not enough indians, each playing the blame game for failing to tackle these issues.

There can only be a co-ordinated approach to the preservation, maintenance and development of the Shannon with the establishment of a statutory authority, which is answerable to this House and can ensure that these bodies fulfil their statutory responsibilities. These bodies have the power to implement the changes required but do not have the will to do so. They are similar to the Government, which has paid lip service to the people of the Shannon basin and talked around the issue without lifting a finger – for generations the Fianna Fáil Party has done the same. If the Government feels that if it talks long enough the people will soon forget, it is in for a rude awakening because the people will not be treated like fools. They are not willing to listen to lame excuses or tolerate Government inaction any longer while waiting for the floods to take their homes and isolate their villages. The Government has a golden opportunity to establish this authority and reassure the people that the controls will be put in place. I urge the Minister of State to withdraw his amendment and support our motion.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  I compliment my colleague, Deputy Connaughton, for tabling this motion to establish a statutory Shannon authority. Twice in my short political career I have witnessed the flooding south of Athlone. Roads were impassable, fodder was destroyed and houses and animals were isolated. The entire area was under water. It was only a disaster in terms of damage to feedstuffs but people were rendered immobile because the roads were impassable and dangerous. It is unfair that people must live in such conditions in this day and age, particularly in the era of the Celtic tiger. Money is regularly allocated to various groups and individuals but nothing has been provided to those who were marooned during the flooding of the Shannon.

At that time a public meeting was called in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel in Athlone which was attended by almost 1,000 people. They represented all the interest groups along the Shannon, including farmers, statutory bodies and the tourism industry. Various statements were made about the flooding but all speakers made the point that the Shannon has been untouched for many years. There has been no maintenance and it has been neglected. Silt and debris have been building up along the river for some time to the extent that there are artificial islands in parts of [557] it. Nothing has been done to clear it. Downstream of Athlone there is a build up of material in the Shannon stopping the flow of water which would clear much of the area.

The overwhelming desire of those at the gathering in Athlone was that there should be a statutory authority for the Shannon which would bring together the various interest groups and find some way to move the situation forward and help the people living along the Shannon. They face this problem on a small scale every year and on a major scale every seven or eight years.

Various politicians made commitments at the meeting and it is interesting to recall what they said. The Minister for Public Enterprise, Deputy Mary O'Rourke, said she would back the Shannon authority, although she was careful to divorce herself from the Government. There is a simple motion before the House tonight to establish a statutory authority for the Shannon. If the Minister is to stand by what she said in Athlone, she will cross the floor of the House tomorrow night and vote for this motion. Many people who vote for Deputy O'Rourke who were at the meeting are in the public gallery tonight. They will see if she lives up to the promises she made in the Shamrock Lodge Hotel. If she is to be believed, and if she is to bring credibility to politics, she will have to live up to what she said.

This is the third opportunity that Members of the Oireachtas have had to decide the fate of a Shannon authority. They had the opportunity when Deputy Brendan Daly introduced a Bill in the Seanad when he was a Member of that House. What happened? Fianna Fáil Senators—

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Séamus Pattison  Zoom on Séamus Pattison  It is not in order to refer to the proceedings of the other House in this House.

Mr. McGrath: Information on Paul McGrath  Zoom on Paul McGrath  Suffice to say that a Bill brought forward in the Seanad was voted down with the help of Fianna Fáil Senators, some of whom had given commitments in Athlone that they would support it.

Deputy Penrose introduced a very worthwhile Shannon authority Bill. Unfortunately, because of Government manoeuvring, it did not even see the light of day. Having been printed, it did not even reach Second Stage because the Government opposed it. That shows the Government's lack of concern for those living in the area.

Tonight's motion is simple, either people are for the establishment of a Shannon authority or against it. If the Government tables an amendment, it is against it. I would regret that and I hope the Minister will do something about it. The writing may be on the wall, however, now that many of those who spoke in Athlone are not going to stand by the promises they gave there. Will the Minister use his good offices to introduce at least some assistance for the people in Clanown, south of Athlone? The roads there are impassable not just when there is extraordinary [558] flooding, but even with the normal flooding. Could the necessary funding be provided so that the roads will be passable?

Mr. G. Reynolds: Information on Gerry Reynolds  Zoom on Gerry Reynolds  I am delighted to support this motion. I remember in 1969, during the General Election in which my father was a candidate, seeing the late Brian Lenihan standing on a soap box outside Annaduff Church and saying that when Fianna Fáil was returned to Government it would drain the Shannon. Promises have been made to drain the Shannon on numerous occasions and the flow has increased since then. Adoption of this motion would alleviate some of the seasonal difficulties faced by those living along the Shannon. No political party wants to drain the Shannon; we want to introduce controls which will help the people living along the Shannon and its tributaries who suffer flooding on a regular basis and to establish an authority to which they could refer their difficulties.

On Christmas eve in Carrick-on-Shannon, the busiest shopping day of the year, between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. the local fire brigade had to attend three shops on the main street which were flooded due to the flooding of the Shannon. It is appalling this still happens at the start of the 21st century. People trying to do business had to call the fire brigade on the busiest shopping day of the year because of flooding from the Shannon overflow. In the Athlone area people are stranded for days at a time. We cannot stand idly by.

The late Deputy Coveney, when he was Minister, introduced legislation to finance funding for some areas prone to flooding. Some excellent work has been done in my constituency by the Office of Public Works under that scheme. That was thoughtful legislation and it is in line with what the motion calls on the Government to do – to put thoughtful legislation and funding in place to alleviate these problems.

This winter the large elderly population in St. Patrick's Park, Carrick-on-Shannon, was marooned for a week. The only way to get out was to walk three miles across fields or to get on a boat. That situation should not have been allowed to develop. In Leitrim village three families had to leave their homes because of flooding. Those people expressed frustration that they did not know where to go or whom to approach. They contacted the county council, which stated that it was not its problem, that the problem was caused by the ESB. The ESB said, when contacted, that the problem was caused by Bord na Móna depositing silt into the Shannon.

A multiplicity of organisations is involved in the maintenance of the Shannon system. If a statutory body was established, public representatives in the areas affected by flooding would have a place to which to address questions about what is being done and the funding being provided to [559] resolve the problem. At present we are being fobbed off by one organisation after another. This is an opportunity for the Government to show its commitment to the establishment of a system which would help to alleviate such difficulties.

I attended the meeting in Athlone organised by the IFA. The major proposal was that one body with responsibility for the Shannon should be established. I also vividly remember the Minister for Public Enterprise, Mrs. O'Rourke, stating that she would support that proposal. I would like to know if she has put that proposal to Cabinet. If she is willing to support that, I have no doubt a number of her Cabinet colleagues would support her because she knows the difficulties her constituents have had to endure over time.

I am disappointed the Government has tabled an amendment to this motion. We are not trying to score any political points but are trying to have a proper debate on a problem which has pertained for too long and to establish a statutory River Shannon Authority which would alleviate the problems for people whose homes and lands are flooded on a seasonal basis. I hope the Government, in its wisdom, will support the proposals we have put forward.

Debate adjourned.


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