Adjournment Matter: Horan International Airport.

Wednesday, 21 January 1987

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 115 No. 14

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Mr. J. Higgins: Information on Jim Higgins  Zoom on Jim Higgins  In bringing this motion before the House, the need for the Minister for Communications to allow special permission to Blue Army Chartered Pilgrim Flights en route from Lisbon to fly direct from Horan International Airport to the United States without the obligation to touch down at Shannon, I do not for any purpose of undermining the wellbeing, the standing and the economic viabiity of Shannon Airport.

The Horan International Airport, as it is now known, has had many and various descriptions. Some people see it as the classic example of the art of the impossible. Other people see it as striking a blow of defiance against total opposition to the project. Other people see in it a type of symbolism against cynicism and [2029] derision. However, I prefer to see in the Horan International Airport the symbolism of lighting a candle and a ray of hope for an area which has been, for far too long, economically depressed with little hope of leadership and little guidance, the area which I represent, County Mayo, on the perimeter of the European Community. The people of the west, collectively and individually, need not apologise to anybody for their collective determination to see this project through to fruition.

As I said in my preamble, all one has to do is look at the geographic location of Mayo in relation to the decision-making centres that affect us, Brussels and Dublin, to see the significance this airport must have on the economic viability of the western region. In Mayo we are on the furthermost perimeter of the most remote and insular country of the 12 member European Community. Furthermore, the classification of Ireland as one region from the point of view of disbursement of EC regional funds has meant that our share of the substantial regional funds has not been as great as we hoped.

We are further debilitated in that we have the highest rainfall, the shortest sunshine hours, the highest wind speeds, low levels of evapotranspiration and extremely low permeability of soil. We also have major access problems in that we have no ferry or air service and consequently our share of national tourist revenue is not as great as one would expect.

In 1984, for example, the Ireland west region which comprises Galway and Mayo, earned £96.5 million from tourism. Of this, £50.8 million came by way of revenue from foreign tourists. However, closer examination shows that Galway county earned £31.2 million whereas County Mayo got a mere £19.6 million. If one were to break this down in per capita terms it breaks down as follows: Galway having 293,000 tourists and Mayo having 139,000. These figures underline the need for easier access and for ease of communication. The days of tourists disembarking at a ferry port and spending up to four hours on substandard [2030] roads driving to their hotel accommodation, bed and breakfast accommodation, caravan park or whatever, are long since gone. The understandable pattern nowadays is for people to disembark and to stay within easy striking distance of the ferry port or the airport, to sample what one might describe as a cross-section of Irish culture, history, folklore and life such as the Lakes of Killarney, Bunratty Castle, Bunratty Folk Park etc. and to make for the port again by way of access or exit back to the continent.

The only practical way that the western region, and Mayo in particular, can get a slice of the action is by airlifting people directly into the heart of the province. In terms of location Knock Airport could hardly be more advantageously or strategically located. The airport is a mere 30 miles from Ballina, 30 miles from Castlebar, 30 miles from Carrick-on-Shannon, 30 miles from Sligo, 45 miles from Galway and 35 miles from Roscommon.

From the point of view of attracting foreign industrialists to this area, easy access is of paramount importance. The potential of the county is enormous. We have there a tourist haven, an area which has an uncontaminated work force in relation to trade union politics. We have there a whole wealth, but it is a case of giving the necessary stimulus to unleash the wealth creating abilities of the people.

In terms of tourist potential Mayo cannot be rivalled. We have two of the finest trout fishing lakes in the world. The Moy is one of the finest rod salmon angling rivers there is. We have an abundance of unpolluted beaches, an abundance of fresh air, an abundance of game fishing, of coarse fishing and of shooting potential. The airport has given an enormous ray of hope to the area, and rightly so, because in a recent study done by Dr. Pearse Ryan of the Agricultural Institute, he predicted that 50,000 farmers in Ireland would fail to meet the econimic criteria of the next decade, and therefore, other areas of economic development, such as tourism and forestry needed to be developed. Last year alone we imported [2031] £600 million worth of coniferous trees. In a report on our forestry industry, it was proved that the marginal lands of Leitrim and Mayo have a higher potential timber yield than those of Scandinavia. We have the potential, we have the necessary chemistry but it is a case of giving us a chance.

I take pride in being a member of a political party that in Government gave £9.2 million to the funding of the airport project; something that has been misconstrued and misrepresented time and time again. As a westerner, there have been times when I felt a natural sense of rankled pride when I heard derogatory remarks attributed to the airport. I had the honour of being on the inaugural Ryanair flight into Connacht Regional Airport — and I want to thank the Minister for providing the licence for that — and I felt a pulsating sense of pride at being part of history in the making.

The question of viability has often been raised. We should not put a very stringent gauge on infrastructure like this. We do not do so with the national primary roads or with DART. It is part of an economic feeder system and we cannot quantify it in terms of pounds, shillings and pence. For years CIE operated in a social role on a social dimension. I know the Minister is now calling the shots in relation to CIE. The Horan International Airport has a vital economic and social role which must be considered. In this regard what I am looking for is a rather tame concession. It is this: the Blue Army which is an international pilgrim organisation have indicated in a letter as follows:

We operate six 707 planes regularly from the U.S. to Lisbon (Fatima) from March until November. We bring about 20,000 each year to Fatima, and it is our desire to stop at Knock on our return trip.

We built a 120-room hotel at Fatima for that purpose and are just adding on 60 additional rooms. We plan on building a large hostel at Knock, so that our tourists can stay over. We will also give them the option of staying a [2032] week in Ireland, rather than just a day or two at Knock.

As all of our flights will first go to Portugal, it is imperative that we be allowed to stop at Knock after the short flight from Lisbon, without stopping first at Shannon or Dublin.

Many of our tourists are elderly. Many are infirm; hence their desire to visit Fatima and Knock. It will make all the difference to us if we can fly directly to Knock from Lisbon. All our flights are on charter aircraft.

Twenty thousand pilgrims will be lost to this country unless this concession is made. There have been amendments previously in relation to deregulating, or relaxing to an extent, the impositions in relation to charter flights.

I want to draw the Minister's attention to a very generous letter which he wrote to me on 30 May 1986 where he set out in stark perspective his role, the Government's role and the various steps that have been taken in relation to the development of the airport. He sets down many irrefutable arguments in that and he certainly nails the lie once and for all as to who did what in relation to Connacht Regional Airport, but his final paragraph is the one from which I derive maximum hope. The Minister concluded by saying; and so far has lived up to his promise:

Insofar as I am concerned you can be assured that, further State funds apart, I will continue to do everything possible to assist the airport being a success.

This will mean a lot to the airport. It will mean that the gauge will be less rigorous. It will mean that the statistics will be more favourable. It will mean that our cherished dream to see the airport becoming an economic viable entity, will at least have been partially realised.

Minister for Communications (Mr. J. Mitchell): Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  I share in the praise for the Cathaoirleach, the Leader of the Seanad and the Leas-Chathaoirleach for the way the business of the Seanad was discharged during the past four years. I wish the Cathaoirleach, the Leader of the [2033] Seanad and all the other Members who are retiring every happiness in their retirment. They should know that the Government and I am sure all sides on both Houses appreciate very much the sterling service they have given during the past four years.

Perhaps the timing of this motion is a little late. The House may not be aware that some difficulties have arisen outside these shores which have cast doubts on whether any flights will be coming to Europe. A decision does not have to be made now. Our information is that there will be little chance of a decision being required for 1987. This has nothing to do with this country. If Senator Higgins makes inquiries he will find that I am right in this. In a sense the substance of the Adjournment debate has passed. However, I would like to say a few things in general. I share all the wishes and dreams Senator Higgins has for the development of the west. It may not be known but long before Knock Airport became an issue I was an annual visitor to Knock. I have been there every year for many years. I have great admiration for the way the late Monsignor Horan, truly a great man, developed the Marian Shrine and much more than that.

I am also very committed to the development of the west. As Senator Higgins knows, my wife comes from there. It is with particular regret I had to listen to certain caustic and, unfortunately, political advice which had little to do with the promotion of the airport and more to do with political point scoring. I made it clear at every stage to the late Monsignor Horan, whom I would like to talk about later, and to the board, that I would do everything possible to assist the airport in opening and being functional and viable and in contributing to the development of the west.

On one occasion I was critical, and this has been used against me very frequently, because all the technical and professional advice was not against an airport for Knock but was against an airport in that precise location and of that precise scale. If the airport at Knock had been planned in a way that it was located in a place [2034] which would cost less and was of a smaller scale to start off with, but with potential for expansion later on, the project would have got unanimous support from the people to begin with. Let it be said that the decision was made against all the professional and technical advice. Having said that, my view is now that it is there it needs all-party support. It needs the support of people of all parties and of more to ensure its success.

We went to great lengths to ensure, for instance, that all the technical advice and experts we have were made available to the airport. Months before the first flight in October 1984 took off, when it looked like the airport would not be ready, my Department, on my instruction listed all the things that needed to be done. We sent people down and showed them how to meet all the criteria. Therefore, the special flights in October 1984 took place. Similarly, we provided the full technical assistance of the air navigation services office, the meteorological service, air traffic control and the air worthiness section, where necessary, to ensure that the official opening could take place in May last year. I am very happy it took place during the lifetime of Monsignor Horan.

I hope once and for all the politics of Horan International Airport, as it is now rightly called, will be put aside because it needs the wholehearted support of everybody in the region to make it a success. We have gone out of our way to cut corners in licensing airlines. In fact, we have done things we should not have done. We have done things that we would not normally have done in order to help Knock Airport get off the ground and develop. We licensed Celtic Air a long time ago but are still waiting on the final filings for it. They were to provide service to Stansted and to Manchester. We also licensed Euro-Air from the UK for charter flights into Knock and we licensed Ryanair for services from Horan International Airport to Luton.

I will spare no efforts in seeking to encourage further air services in and out of Horan International Airport. The doubts that were expressed before the [2035] project was embarked upon are in the past. We now have to develop and exploit the airport to the maximum in the interests of the immediate hinterland and the greater Knock area. I can assure the House this has been my policy and the policy of the Government, and it will continue to be the policy so long as I am Minister. I express the wish a Leas-Chathaoirligh, which you may or may not share, that I remain a Minister for a considerable time.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:  That is asking too much.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  There could be a grand coalition according to certain reports.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:  I do not approve of that.

Mr. J. Mitchell: Information on Jim Mitchell  Zoom on Jim Mitchell  It is appropriate that I take this opportunity to say something [2036] about the man behind this project, Monsignor James Horan. By any standards, he was an exceptional man. To be truthful, when I first met him there was a certain antagonism but we quickly became very good friends. I came to respect him very much indeed. I often said to friends and to officials of my Department that I would have loved to have had him as chairman of one of my troublesome State companies because he would have been the man to sort them out. I said that with great sincerity. He was truly a great man. Apart from his ability, he also had other magnificent qualities which were rare. Certainly the combination of his qualities were rare and his death is a great loss not only to Knock, to Mayo and Connaught but to Ireland. I am sure he is now resting in Heaven which he much deserves.

The Seanad adjourned sine die.

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