Taxpayers’ money is being used to manage and maintain two airstrips that have lain idle for a decade and cost almost €10m to build.
Four years after the Government said it was disposing of airstrips at Cleggan and Inishbofin, it continues to pay private company, Bainistíocht Aerfort Teoranta (BAT), to manage the facilities, along with three aerodromes on the Aran Islands. Since 2013, the company has secured contracts worth more than €3m, including €540,585 for 2012-2013, €613,770 for 2013 to 2015 and €1.86m from October 2015 until September 2019.
The Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht has also spent more than €50,000 on infrastructural works including:
A department spokesperson said: “It is normal for state property to be managed, even while not in active use.”
He said “only a small amount” [unspecified] of the money paid to BAT went towards Cleggan and Inishbofin.
In 2014, Joe McHugh, then minister with responsibility for the islands, told the Dáil the Government had decided in 2013 to dispose of both airstrips, on the island of Inishbofin, and on the mainland, at Cleggan, Co Galway, “in view of the economic downturn”.
This did not happen, and yesterday, current minister of state with responsibility for the islands, Seán Kyne, told the Irish Examiner that while he hopes the airstrips could be licensed for private use, a planning condition attached to the Cleggan airstrip poses a problem.
This condition, Mr Kyne said, imposes a Public Service Obligation (PSO) on flights out of Cleggan, which, under EU regulations, would mean government subsidies.
However, Mr Kyne said: “There is no money to open the airstrips in terms of a PSO.”
He said his department “had discussions before Christmas” with Galway County Council seeking clarity around the PSO planning condition and that talks will resume in February.
However, he could not say how the impasse might be overcome.
Light aircraft owner, Brian Doyle, who is on the committee of Limerick Flying Club, said Cleggan/Inishbofin are losing considerable tourist revenue.
“There are hundreds of guys like me, particularly from Germany, France and the Netherlands, who tour here annually in their light aircraft and while they can land in the Aran Islands, they can’t land in Cleggan/Inishbofin. They all have third-party insurance. All that’s legally required is the landowner’s permission, which in this case is the State. But I’ve been asking for years and I just get the run-around.”
“As a taxpayer who helped fund these airstrips, I should be able to use them,” he said.
The genesis of two airstrips that cost almost €10m to build, and which continue to cost the taxpayer money despite remaining idle and unlicensed, can be traced back to the late 1990s and a concern in government that non-Gaeltacht islands, such as Inishbofin, were not receiving the same attention as Gaeltacht islands.
Joe Hamill, former secretary general of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, said as much to the Public Accounts Committee when questioned in January 2015 about the spend on unused airstrips in Cleggan, near Clifden, Co Galway, and Inishbofin, off the Galway coast.
Mr Hamill said a report was compiled in the mid-1990s to look at island development as a whole “and it became part of Government policy at the time to consider the development of island communities generally both inside and outside the Gaeltacht”.
A subsequent study commissioned from Cranfield University in the early years of the millennium looked at air services for islands (Aer Arann was already operating to the three Aran Islands) that would provide a service to islanders, tourists and business.
Out of that study came the idea of a service between the mainland (Cleggan) and Inishbofin. The end result was “two fully constructed airstrips made of tarmac and built to a standard that would take small commercial aeroplanes”, Mr Hamill said.
The airstrips were completed in 2009, but by then, the recession had hit.
Mr Hamill explained how the Government had “moved from a position of capital provision for islands in 2008 being multiples of tens of millions of euro to the current capital provision of approximately €600,000”.
The Government did not proceed with the final part of the planned project — to finance the construction of two small terminal buildings.
“It was decided in the end not to do that,” Mr Hamill said.
In 2014, Joe McHugh, then minister of state with responsibility for the islands, told the Dáil the Government had decided in 2013 to dispose of both airstrips, “in view of the economic downturn”.
Five years after this decision was taken and 10 years after the airstrips were built, they remain in State ownership, with taxpayers’ money used to pay management and maintenance.
The fee since 2012 for management by private company Bainistíocht Aerfort Teoranta, which includes management of three airstrips on the Aran Islands, is more than €3m. More than €51,000 has been spent on infrastructural works at Cleggan/Inishbofin.
Yesterday, Seán Kyne, Fine Gael minister of state with responsibility for the islands, told the Irish Examiner his wish is for the airstrips to be licensed for private use, but a planning condition attached to Cleggan makes this problematic.
According to the minister, the condition imposes a public service obligation, which, under EU rules, means Government subsidies to maintain a service deemed vital for the economic development of the region.
Mr Kyne said: “There is no money to open the airstrips in terms of a PSO.”
He said his department [Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht} “had discussions before Christmas” with Galway County Council seeking clarity around the PSO planning condition and that talks would resume in February. Mr Kyne was at a loss as to how this impasse could be overcome.
In the meantime, there are plans to build a HSE primary care centre, following a public consultation process, at the Inishbofin site and the development of a coast guard station at the Cleggan site.
As Mr Hamill said, a decade after they were built, “essentially, what we have is an airstrip with security fencing”.