Government to start ‘long overdue’ talks with islanders about their future

High speed broadband and tourism key issues to be addressed to make island life sustainable

There are around 30 inhabited islands around Ireland   including Clare Island off Mayo (above).

There are around 30 inhabited islands around Ireland including Clare Island off Mayo (above).

 

Official talks with island communities on how to safeguard their future are “long overdue”, one island representative has said.

The Government launched a three-month public consultation with islanders on Saturday, vowing it would lead to the first national policy on offshore islands for almost a quarter of a century.

Marjorie Uí Cearbhaill, manager of the Tory island co-op/Comharchumann Thoraí in Co Donegal, said it was a long time coming and there was little confidence in it being completed anytime soon.

“It is well overdue,” she said.

“My God, 23 years since the last national policy. People say I wonder will we ever see it. When it comes to the islands, in the past we have been promised a lot of things, and they get very little. But I hope this will be fulfilled.”

The Government has said the voices and views of islanders will be “central” to the consultation with workshops held with island communities over the winter.

Local groups and individuals have been promised “direct input as the policy is developed.”

But Ms Uí Cearbhaill said she “can’t imagine (the policy) will be done anytime soon”.

“Anything you are doing with the Department (of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht), it is very very slow to get anything done.

“Eventually you get there, but there is so much red tape you have to go through. It takes a lot of time, so people get very frustrated with that. From our own experience, everything seems to take a very long time.”

Broadband

Ms Uí Cearbhaill, who has represented Tory islanders in an ongoing bitter dispute over a new ferry service, said high speed broadband access and tourism were key issues the Government needs to address to make island life sustainable in modern Ireland.

“We would get a lot, lot more people moving back to the islands if we could get the broadband up and running,” she said.

“There has been talk about it, but there has been talk of a lot of things over the years. At this stage, that would be one of our main aims.”

A high-speed digital hub which opened on neighbouring Arranmore island earlier this year has raised hopes of breathing new life into its ageing population and attracting back those who have left.

On Tory, internet access often cuts out, said Ms Uí Cearbhaill.

“In years gone by there was a knitting factory on Tory island, but those days are gone - we have to move with the times,” she said.

“There are companies in Letterkenny we could work along with to set up employment schemes where people could work from the islands, if we have the broadband. It would definitely boost the population again.”

While the full-time population fell from 169 in 1996 to 119 in 2016, a recent count puts the number living on Tory at 146. Ms Uí Cearbhaill said there has been a “baby boom” in recent years.

Just under 30 per cent of Tory’s population are in employment, according to the 2016 census.

The island is also working on a feasibility study for its lighthouse to become a tourist attraction. Tourism, said Ms Uí Cearbhaill, would be the other key driver for the future of offshore islands.

‘Unique asset’

There are around 30 inhabited islands around Ireland, mostly off the western counties including Cork, Donegal, Galway and Mayo.

Launching the government public consultation, on Sherkin Island, Co Cork, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said there has been “significant capital investment” on the islands in recent years.

But he added that talks with islanders were needed “to ensure communities are supported in a sustainable way into the future.

“Our islands are a unique asset and there are many different stories of new industry and tourism that have been successfully developed on some islands,” he said.

“We now need to hear from our island communities on what enterprise, education and unique supports they need.”