Tuesday, 22 June 2010
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy John O’Donoghue: The Skellig Rock is one of only three world heritage sites in Ireland and of enormous religious, historical and archaeological importance. Thousands of visitors from around the world have been attracted to it down through the centuries. Few have left it without having their lives enhanced by the experience. The Office of Public Works, OPW, deserves great credit for the manner in which it has lovingly restored and maintained the structures on Skellig rock which are of enormous importance to our heritage.
A limited number of licences have been issued to boatmen who operate passenger boats from the mainland to the Skellig Rock and back. This helps contain the numbers visiting the rock, thereby limiting the possibility of damage through overcrowding or overvisiting. Recently, the OPW decided to dramatically shorten the traditional summer season at Sceilig Mhichíl. Both ends of the season are affected. In fact, the OPW has reduced the season by three months. This year a new OPW visitor guide was issued to all Sceilig Mhichíl ferryboats for distribution to all persons intending to visit the island. It contains a restriction for visits to the site outside the OPW advertised season which begins only from 25 May. Newly erected signs placed on the Skelligs also contain this notice to visitors. The boatmen have been informed similar notices will be sent to all tourism offices, guesthouses, etc, presently.
This reduction in the open season will have a devastating effect, not only on the ferryboats which may go out of business but also on the wider tourism industry of the south west already struggling in these difficult economic times. The traditional season has always been 21 April to 31 October. It is crucial that this be maintained. The OPW claims that Sceilig Mhichíl is inaccessible in April and May and that it cannot place guides and equipment on the island then. This is nonsense. Hundreds of tourists have landed there in these months for more than 45 years.
The boatmen were first informed by letter from the OPW in 2007 that the season would be formally defined and would only run from 18 May to 24 September that year. The OPW also offered that if for this year it was not able to set up residence on the island by 18 May, a guide would be in position at Portmagee to travel out with one of the passenger boats any day it was deemed possible to land on the island. This obvious solution was also reported in the 2008 UNESCO report which stated the OPW was prepared to look at the season and the provision of shore-based guides.
The provision of shore-based guides in April, May and October to travel to and from the island with the ferryboats, as initially suggested by the OPW, is the answer to keeping the traditional operating season open. It is the means of maintaining much needed jobs in the region. Yet, this offer has now been withdrawn and ruled out by the OPW once more.
I request the Minister to facilitate and accept the solution of shore-based guides in April, May and October to facilitate the boatmen, visitors and the tourism industry in south Kerry. In these difficult economic times, it behoves the Government and its agencies to assist people in making a livelihood, particularly in peripheral regions. It is disappointing in this case that the Government agency in question, the OPW, has come to a unilateral decision which dramatically affects the livelihoods of many in the tourism industry in south-west Kerry.
It is hard enough to make a living in peripheral regions in good economic times; even more so in difficult times. It is not the function of a State agency to inhibit people from making a living. The OPW’s decision to unilaterally impose this ban on travelling to the Skellig Rock is an inhibiting factor in enabling people from making a living from tourism in south-west Kerry during the summer season. It is unacceptable. The arguments that the rock is unsafe or that people cannot land there in other months are spurious. It has been proved by data taken from the weather station at Valentia that the months in question have better weather conditions than the OPW claims for the other months.
Minister of State at the Department of Finance (Deputy Martin Mansergh): Skellig Michael is a unique place. It is the best-preserved and most spectacularly situated early Christian monastic site in the world. Visiting it is a uniquely memorable experience; I visited it twice, once with my mother, once with my son. Most of the structures are in excellent condition, giving it an unusually high level of authenticity. Its importance is recognised internationally, having a much coveted UNESCO World Heritage Site status, the retention of which, as shown by the recent case of Dresden, is not unconditional.
The isolation of the site has been instrumental in helping in its preservation. In the 1970s, only four boats regularly brought visitors to the island. This number increased through the 1980s and the early 1990s to such an extent that visitors were causing noticeable wear to the access steps, part of the monument which are of dry-stone construction and consequently vulnerable to damage. Repairs had to be carried out on a weekly basis to maintain them and keep visitors safe. In addition to damage in the monastery, the large numbers visiting the site increased the risk of accident and caused problems of congestion.
The monastic enclosure is almost entirely constructed of dry-stone, which is vulnerable and can be easily damaged. By the early 1990s, the most important paving on the site had been considerably damaged by the volume of visitors passing over it. Accordingly, it was necessary to protect it from further damage by putting a new paving on top and, consequently, it can no longer be seen. Similar paving was also at risk.
It was in the context of this damage being caused to the site that the OPW in the mid-1990s made the decision that, if the site was to survive, there would have to be a limit placed on the numbers allowed to visit each year. Despite much discussion on how to limit numbers, it was felt nothing could be achieved without the agreement of the boatmen. A meeting took place in Cahirciveen in December 1994 between OPW representatives and 19 boatmen. The OPW view put forward at that meeting was to limit the number of licences to 15. However, compromise was agreed and 19 licences were issued but on the basis that over time this number would reduce to 15 when boatmen retired.
At that time, responsibility for policy in the heritage area rested with the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. In March 1995, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, having considered the outcome of the meeting held in Cahirciveen the previous December, formally approved the issuing of 19 permits for the 1995 season. Certain conditions attached such that the permit would apply only to the 1995 season; it would not be transferable to another operator; only one trip per day could be made in respect of each permit; boats could arrive at the pier not earlier than 9.30 a.m. and would leave not later than 5 p.m.; boats could not carry more than 12 passengers; boats had to have a valid passenger boat licence issued by the Minister for the Marine; and the permit could be withdrawn at any time, should any of the conditions not be complied with. Since then the number of permits issued has reduced to the optimum number of 15. This has occurred due to retirement of four of the operators, who it was agreed in December 1994, were entitled to a permit to land passengers.
The issue of the length of the season is related to the permits. Since the introduction of the permit system in 1995, the OPW has defined the season as late May to late September. This was always intended to mean the period of the year when the OPW had a guide presence on the island. This is essential for both the protection of the heritage of the island and for the safety of visitors. In 2007, the OPW was more specific stating the season would be from 18 May to 24 September. This brought more certainty when, subject to weather conditions, boat operators can land visitors on the island.
Part of the difficulty in previous years was not being able to set up guide accommodation on the island because of bad weather. Taking on board the broad recommendations of the Skellig Michael safety review, two weeks are required to make the necessary safety checks and undertake any repairs required to ensure the island is made safe for visitors and guides coming out.
The landing of visitors outside of when our guides are present is not acceptable from the OPW’s viewpoint in terms of both the security of the site and the safety of the visitors. For example, some years back one of the crosses from the island disappeared when there was no guide presence. There is also a record of damage being caused to the site out of season, damage not normally associated with the prevailing weather.
The other issue is safety. When OPW guides are present on the island, a daily visual inspection of the steps and other places where visitors traverse is undertaken. This allows any necessary repair work such as removal of fallen stones etc. to take place before visitors arrive on the island. Without the presence of OPW guides, such inspections do not take place. In such circumstances, it is possible that visitors are being landed on the island when damage has been caused to the steps, for example, or there has been a rock fall or landslide and no one is present to advise them of this situation. In such circumstances, there is a risk to the safety of those people visiting the island. In addition, when OPW guides are on site, detailed arrangements are in place with the emergency services on the mainland in the event of an incident. No such arrangements are in place in the absence of OPW guides.
Tragically in 2009, two fatalities took place on Skellig Michael. One of these accidents took place when the site was officially closed and there was no OPW guide presence. The Office of Public Works engaged a consulting engineer with specific expertise in risk management to undertake a safety review of Skellig Michael. The objective of this review was to examine, assess and review the current health and safety regime, operational requirements, arrangements, controls and restrictions and staff structure, as they relate to works, guides and visitors and access, to ensure a safe environment on Skellig Michael insofar as is reasonably practicable.  The report was published in April this year and a number of recommendations were made. In the view of OPW, both for the security of the island and the safety of visitors it is essential that visits only take place during the official opening period. To do otherwise is to leave OPW open to accusations that it is not properly protecting one of the three world heritage sites on the island of Ireland.
At the request of public representatives, I have agreed to meet with the boat operators again shortly with regard to their concerns about the length of the season and other conditions of the permit system and the implications of the acceptance of the safety review. I understand the importance of Skellig Michael from a tourist point of view and the livelihood of the boatmen. However, these must be integrated with other considerations. The safety report advised that OPW would consider extending the season in the context of a satisfactory resolution of other issues with the boatmen. I will study carefully what the Deputy has stated this evening.
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