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 Header Item Forestry Sector (Continued)
 Header Item School Curriculum

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 787 No. 3

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris] Will the mineral rights be protected?

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Shane McEntee): Information on Shane McEntee Zoom on Shane McEntee I thank the Deputies for raising this matter. As Deputy Ferris said, he might not get many more answers from me on this, but I will provide an update on the matter.

Further to the Government decision that a concession for the harvesting rights to Coillte's forests be considered for sale, Coillte's board and management have been actively engaged in recent months with NewERA, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and my Department to examine the financial and other implications of developing the potential of Coillte's forest assets. As the Minister advised last week, it is the sale of the harvesting rights to commercial Coillte forests that is being investigated. Consultants have been engaged to do specific work around valuations and managing the way in which the sales process may proceed, with the aim of maximising the value to the State, if value is to be found, as well as taking account of issues that have been identified during the overall process. Some of the issues so identified include the possible impact to the timber industry, public access to recreational land, environmental and social impacts and consequential implications for the company and levels of employment. These issues and the measures, if necessary, to address them require detailed consideration.

A number of bodies have highlighted their concern that the current proposal to sell the forest assets owned by Coillte presents a threat to the use of these forests by the people of Ireland and by visitors to the country. The Government is highly conscious that Coillte, as part of its management of some 442,000 hectares of the national forest estate, plays a significant role in the provision of forest recreational activities. Coillte's forests provide a range of recreational opportunities for the general public, continuing a long tradition of open access to State owned forests. It was therefore determined that the process would not include the sale of land. The future management of the estate, the maintenance of the existing amenities and environmental issues are all being considered in the current analysis.

The Government intends to protect the State assets, including associated public goods, which encompasses public access. It should be noted that most of the forests to which there is public access are not commercial crops. I reiterate that the decision relates to standing commercial timber. The outcome of the overall analysis will be considered by the Government upon its conclusion, which is expected early in the new year. This is a very complex process but I assure Deputies that the Government will act with caution.

Finally, the Deputies were also inquiring about the recent proposed sale, by public tender, of forestry land in County Donegal. Coillte Teoranta was established as a private commercial company under the Forestry Act 1988 and day-to-day operational matters, such as the sale and acquisition of land which take place regularly, are the responsibility of the company. This transaction is an operational matter at the discretion of the company and is separate from the Government decision that a concession for the harvesting rights to Coillte's forests be put forward for sale. I trust this clarifies the matter for the Deputies.

Deputy Michael McNamara: Information on Michael McNamara Zoom on Michael McNamara I thank the Minister of State for acknowledging the importance of public access. I can give two examples of its importance from my constituency of Clare. The Violet Hill forest, which is located near Limerick, is a very popular amenity. Most notably, Cratloe Wood attracts between 60,000 and 80,000 visitors every year. The East Clare Way follows a 172 km circular route through some of east Clare's most spectacular and varied scenery across Slieve Aughty and Slieve Barna and passes through parts of the Coillte estate. At a national level, we must acknowledge that Avondale House in County Wicklow, the home of Charles Stewart Parnell, is in a forest park that is maintained to a high standard by Coillte.

However, there is a reasonable assumption among people that the sale of the forest tree crop will produce a more aggressive commercial environment. Concerned groups fear that the open access policy will be threatened and that recreational amenities will no longer be maintained as they should be. State forests, even those that comprise commercial plantations which were planted to be harvested in a commercial manner, are on publicly owned land and should be managed and maintained for the benefit of the Irish people, even after the crop is sold.

Deputy Clare Daly: Information on Clare Daly Zoom on Clare Daly There is a problem with the Minister's reply. He says the sale and acquisition of land takes place on a regular basis and is the responsibility of the company. The Irish people believe these forests are our land and our crop, to be managed on our behalf. Coillte is making decisions to sell our land behind closed doors. It is clearly necessary, even more so in view of the Minister's reply, to have a rigorous public inquiry into the actions of this organisation. It is a commercial semi-State company, not a private commercial one. It pays over the odds to its chief executive officer and sells off land belonging to the people. It is not accountable anywhere for that activity. There is outrage in Donegal at the proposal to sell another 1,000 acres. That the Minister would say it has nothing to do with the Government and that it is the company's decision is not acceptable. There must be scrutiny of where our money is going and why these lands have ended up in the ownership of the Irish Forestry Unit Trust, an amalgam with AIB and Bank of Ireland and in which Coillte is also involved. There are many unanswered questions about what is a fundamental State asset. Switzerland, which is half the size of Ireland, employs ten times as many people in its forestry as Ireland employs.

Deputy Martin Ferris: Information on Martin Ferris Zoom on Martin Ferris It is a retrograde step to sell Coillte lands or forestry to private investors. Inevitably, those investors will opt for the more lucrative side of Coillte's operations. The Minister is effectively giving away the goose that lays the golden egg. It is a mistake and the Government should reconsider it. The Government should exploit the resources, be they commercial timber or otherwise, for the benefit of the Irish people. I still cannot get an answer from anybody about what will happen the mineral rights. There are mineral rights, as we were told by the Coillte representatives when they appeared before a committee recently. If somebody takes a lease on the land and holds it for a period of years, what happens after they harvest the crop? Does it revert straight away or does it remain in the ownership of the privateers until the end of the lease?

Deputy Shane McEntee: Information on Shane McEntee Zoom on Shane McEntee I do not know the answer to that until the report is produced and there is a full analysis. I agree with the Deputy about mineral rights. Everybody is worried about what will happen. In response to Deputy Daly, since 2003 Coillte has sold 4,700 hectares. I am aware it is a big issue in Donegal. Perhaps a little more clarity from Coillte is required. However, that is not related to the sale of our forest plantations. Every year Coillte makes its decisions; we cannot hold it by the hand. Perhaps clarity should be forthcoming on a more regular basis. It would be helpful to everybody.

I have taken account of what has been said. I will revert to Deputy Ferris. On the last occasion it took a long time to revert to him, but I will take up the questions with the Minister, Deputy Coveney. I am aware that John Jackson in Donegal is very concerned about the sale of 1,000 hectares. The people of Donegal require more clarity about the matter. Perhaps a letter should be sent to Coillte. It is not obliged to give us the information but nowadays it is crucial that people be as up-front and open as possible. I have no doubt a properly worded letter to Coillte will get those answers.

School Curriculum

Deputy Seán Kyne: Information on Seán Kyne Zoom on Seán Kyne I thank the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating this topical issue debate and welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, Deputy Ciarán Cannon.

As the Minister is aware, recent surveys have found that Irish pupils are doing well generally but are finding certain subjects, such as mathematics and science, more challenging. It is clear we are seeing the early positive results of the national strategy to improve literacy and numeracy among children and young people. We know from numerous international studies that a solid foundation in numeracy and literacy is essential not only for further educational attainment but also for daily life. It is also essential that we focus on the skills required to meet the specific opportunities in the labour market.

With the recent concern about skill levels, mathematics and science, the Minister, Deputy Quinn's, attention has turned to the time allocated to various school subjects, notably Irish and religion. I will focus on the issue of Irish. Is í an Ghaeilge ár dteanga dhúchais agus léiríonn an daonáireamh go bhfuil sé ar chumas 1.7 milliún saoránach an teanga a labhairt. I mo chontae féin, Gaillimh, tá 21% sa chontae agus níos mó sa chathair ábalta an teanga a labhairt. Laistigh dár gcóras oideachais bíonn beagáinín faoi bhun 450,000 daoine óga ag labhairt Gaeilge gach lá.

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