Address to Carlow County Council plenary
Cathaoirleach, a mhaoire, comharleoirí, a bhainasteoir stuarithoiri seirbhise, is mór an onór ormasa mar tAire Stáit don Oidreacht Athchóiriú Toghchán a bheith ann inniu.
Cathaoirleach, Mayor, Directors of Services and CEO, it is a great honour as Minister of State for Heritage and Electoral Reform to be with you here today.
International Women’s Day
I’m conscious that this meeting is taking place on International Women’s Day - a time when globally we focus our minds on the role of women in civic and political life, in how women are very often the frontline defenders of our environment, and when it is a majority of women too who are at the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I pay tribute to your CEO, to women councillors here, and to the women in the team here in Carlow County Council. It is my sincere hope that with the establishment of an Electoral Commission later this year that we will be able to task the commission with research and advocacy work in advancing the cause of women’s participation in politics.
Indeed women face significant barriers to running in and getting elected to local and national politics and remain under-represented on councils in particular. Women accounted for only 21% of councillors after the 2014 local elections, a figure that improved only marginally to 24% after the 2019 election. Of the 69 co-options that took place since 2019, 37 seats were filled by women. My vacated seat was one of them and Cllr Maria Dollard has been an exceptional replacement.
There is also a significant urban/rural divide between representation of women, with urban LEAs faring out more balanced. I agree with the contention of the National Women’s Council that we should give consideration to extending gender quotas to local elections.
The Past Year
Members, this past year has been a year like no other. The pandemic has wreaked havoc and broken many hearts but there are tentative signs of hope that we will emerge from this dark time. The rapid development and deployment of vaccines has shown that we have the creativity and capability to work together towards a common cause.
Of course what we emerge to is still somewhat of a mystery. We simply won’t know the true psychological, economic, and social impact until we move out of the crisis phase. I commend Carlow County Council for stepping up when asked through Community Call. It is proof once again of how local government plays such a vital role in the every day lives of people particularly in a time of crisis.
As we look towards the future, we consider how economic life will return to our towns and villages. Carlow County Council has been progressive and forward thinking in developing ‘Project 2040’ and we hope that there will be good news on the URDF funding application shortly. It’s a far-reaching and ambitious project, very much in line with Government’s ‘Town Centres First’ policy approach and it should position Carlow ahead of many other regional towns towards envisioning a sustainable future.
I have followed closely progress on the establishment of the Technological University for the South East. It’s an exciting prospect for the whole South East region and I will continue to work with Oireachtas colleagues and both CIT and WIT towards the start date for the merger in January 2022. Both my wife and I are graduates of Carlow and we, like many thousands of others, benefitted from access to third-level education close to our home. The South East region has for too long underperformed due to lack of strategic investment and the TUSE will play a huge role in turning that story around. I am conscious too that the urban bus service has been very eagerly awaited and I am in contact with the Department of Transport to request that the funding for this service is not further delayed. I will keep you all informed regarding this.
Members I have committed to meeting with Carlow Chamber quarterly, to attending JPCs when I can, and to being actively involved as your Minister for County Carlow.
I would like to address the work in my portfolio in heritage and electoral reform and how this work will impact and benefit your work over coming years.
Appointing a Heritage Officer here in Carlow will make an immense difference to your work in promotion of the county, in fostering awareness, in activism, and in citizen science. In the realm of natural heritage, for example, we have a big collective job of work to do over the next decade - the decade of ecosystem restoration.
Ireland has rightly committed to big targets for nature protection over coming years under the EU Biodiversity Strategy. This will put a responsibility on us to achieve 30% land protection, 30% marine protected areas, and 10% strict land protection. In February, I (virtually) attended the One Planet Summit hosted by President Macron and signed the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People on behalf of the Irish Government.
Later this year we will embark on a new National Biodiversity Action Plan and we have been told by the Biodiversity Forum that it must be ambitious as 85% of our protected habitats are in decline or in poor state. We are addressing this by reviewing the NPWS and through a significant increase in funding for nature in 2021 and additional staffing.
I am also working with my colleague Minister O’Gorman to bring together a youth biodiversity assembly through your networks of Comhairlí na nÓg leading to a wider assembly. In a few weeks I will be launching the second All Ireland Pollinator Plan. This is one of the most successful biodiversity initiatives ever in this country. We will again see a key role for local authorities. Now that you will soon have a Heritage Officer, I will be asking councils to appoint biodiversity officers if you don’t already have one.
Next week I will be writing to all councils with my colleagues Ministers O’Brien and Burke to ask you not to mow roadside verges and parks until after the first flourish of dandelions have done their work in providing early nutritious food to our early emerging pollinators.
We have a big job of work to do with water quality also and a new river basin management plan will be published by our department soon.
In built heritage, we have some exciting plans too. Our hugely successful Built Heritage Investment Scheme and Historic Structures Fund will close shortly and we are expecting a record number of applications. I see these and other schemes as long term strategic schemes to help regenerate our historic urban centres, to bring whole streets back into active use, and to provide thousands of work hours in traditional conservation skills. In that regard, I am actively pursuing the establishment of a National Centre for Traditional Building Skills with accredited craft skills apprenticeships. Partnering in with TUSE on these will be important.
Carlow is steeped in built heritage and monuments. Last week I opened the funding stream of €2m for the Community Monuments Fund. If there are projects in your area please let people know about this grant programme. Later in the year we will be advancing a new consolidated National Monuments Act to replace over 100 years of fragmented legislation.
I have liaised closely with your CEO and the OPW on advancing the restoration of the courthouse railings in Carlow town and I’m happy to report that tenders for works to the railings are due back to the OPW on March 26th.
Our built and vernacular built heritage are in my view key to unlocking the potential in and leading the regeneration of our towns and villages. Carlow is fortunate to have so much intact built heritage and it needs to be conserved, restored and repurposed. Local Authorities should have a full heritage team with conservation and repurposing officers and a county architect. We have a wealth of local knowledge and of support with the Heritage Council and other organisations. Their Collaborative Town Centre Health Check programme is an excellent starting point for towns to get started on their own town regeneration plans and in bringing together ‘town teams’ to animate works.
Electoral Reform My work in Electoral Reform is progressing well. We are currently moving the most ambitious piece of reform legislation in decades through committee stage. The Electoral Reform Bill will see the establishment of an electoral commission to oversee all electoral events and act as an advocate for reform, participation, and inclusion in our democratic system.
The Bill will modernise the electoral register - creating a single rolling online register, using PPSNs to register voters, pre-registering 16 and 17 year olds, and working with local authorities to create a single database of information.
Within the Bill, we will legislate for the holding of electoral events during COVID-19 emergencies - a necessary inclusion as we simply don’t know how long this pandemic will be with us for.
Finally the Bill will be the first in Europe to legislate for the regulation of online political advertising - again, much needed in a time of disinformation. This part of the legislation will not moderate online political advertising but require those placing political ads online to register and make public all of their details.
The Electoral Commission will over time be given significant powers and an enhanced role in research, in targeting hard to reach groups, advocacy, and in promoting participation in our electoral system. It will be independent of government and report to the Houses of the Oireachtas.
Once this legislation is passed, we move towards a number of referenda scheduled in the Programme for Government - extending the voting franchise to overseas citizens in presidential elections, a referendum on housing rights, and one on water.
Members I am deeply impressed with the way that Carlow County Council continues to support communities through the pandemic. I wish to note the Green for Micro programme to help SMEs lead the sustainability agenda via the Local Enterprise Office. I also note Carlow Museum’s continued progress in the Museum Standards Accreditation Programme. I believe it to be one of the finest municipal museums in the country. Finally I was present at the launch of the County Carlow Integration Strategy and I am so very impressed with the work that is ongoing in integration, in the arts, and in social enterprise.
I wish to continue to work closely with you all over the lifetime of this government to help deliver all of these big ambitious plans and projects for this wonderful county and its people.