by Patrick Burke, Development Officer, Irish Islands Federation

There are 18 inhabited islands situated off the coast of Ireland from Co Antrim to Co Cork (see map). These islands range in size from a few hectares to 130 sq. km with populations varying from less than ten to over 800. Between the period 1961-1991 the offshore islands experienced a population decline from 4,835 to 3,121 inhabitants, a drop of 35%.

A fundamental reason for this decline relates to the islands geographical remoteness with their peripheral location being a major obstacle to economic progress. These adverse effects are exacerbated by poor infrastructural and communicational facilities. The end result is that island economies have to cope with higher transport costs which reduce competitiveness and increase living costs. These in turn restrict the opportunities for viable economic enterprises on the islands as well as making them less attractive places to live. Consequently the islands are characterised by outmigration, ageing populations and falling birth rates.

All the islands experience physical, economic and political isolation to varying degrees. In almost all cases the GDP per person on small islands is lower than on their respective mainlands. Generally their economies are dependent on transfer payments through the social welfare system and on fishing and tourism. There is some subsistence agriculture, but this is hampered due to poor soils and unsuitable gradients. The island way of life is certainly one which is not readily known or understood by those without experience of living on them. Some islands can be cut off for weeks at a time with the only transport being by helicopter.

The question of access is one which presents difficulties, indeed enormous problems to a number of islands. While some islands are relatively well serviced due to the development of tourism, even these islands find themselves subject to the needs and priorities of private ferry operators. Other islands have absolutely no service at all. The existing transport provision covers a wide spectrum of types and standards.

The fact that there is no one government agency dealing with the ferry issues does not help matters. There is no national policy and the whole area has been and is being approached in an uncoordinated and piecemeal fashion. Different agencies such as the Department of the Marine, Roinn ne Gaeltachta, Udaras na Gaeltachta and the Department of Communications are involved in various ways with different island ferry services. Some operations are subsidised, some are not, and as mentioned some islands have no service at all.

The basic infrastructure which is taken for granted on the mainland - water, electricity, sewerage are very often not available or are limited. Secondary education is generally not provided on the islands with eleven/ twelve year olds having to stay on the mainland for periods of up to 3-4 months without getting home. Unemployment rates are very high averaging over 50%. Health care and other social service provision is limited and there are housing and recreation problems on some of the islands.

Irish Islands Federation

The Irish Islands Federation - Comhdhail Oileain na hEireann - is the representative body of the inhabited offshore islands of Ireland. The Comhdhail was set up in 1993 with its main aim being the overall development of the island communities especially their social, economic and cultural development and in doing so, fostering the full development of the individual in the island community. The Federation represents its members at local, national and European levels while promoting interaction and acting as a common forum for island representatives. The Comhdhail was successful in receiving funds under the EU initiative - Global Grant for Local Development - which has enabled the establishment of a secretariat based on Inishere, Aran Islands, Co Galway.

The Comhdhail is registered as a co-operative and is modelled on the structure of the Association of Small Danish Islands. An Executive Committee made up representatives from each of the member islands determine policy for the Comhdhail. Whilst only being in full operation for two years the organisation has developed a sound reputation for supporting island communities particularly through developmental work, information provision and transnational contacts.

A full time Development Officer is employed to develop communications between the islands and to mobilise and organise communities for local development. There are two teleworking centres - one on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim and the other on Oilean Chleire, Co. Cork. The Federation has recently been involved in the installation of Information Technology on five other islands. The short-term objective is to have an ‘Island Network’ between 12 Irish Islands. The medium term plans would be to network with other ‘Island’ telecottages throughout Europe.


For all the highly-urbanised nature of many of its 12 member states, much of the European Union consists of scattered villages and farming communities. Some parts of this European countryside are every bit as prosperous as the wealthiest industrial centres. Other areas face enormous difficulties. And the character of rural communities varies, of course, from place to place. There are all sorts of profound differences between the Irish islands, say, and the Greek islands - differences of climate, history, language, culture and outlook. That is obvious. What is maybe less obvious, but what is beginning to be appreciated more and more, is that many of Europe’s rural communities - despite all those long-standing differences - are often trying hard to cope with problems which, in their essentials, do not vary all that much from one side of the continent to the other.

A loss of jobs, the closure of a village school, the absence, or high cost, of public transport: these things have much the same impact in Crete as they do on Inishere. And though all sorts of public agencies make it their business to promote rural development, often very effectively, it is striking how few of the people living in Europe’s country areas - whether in Ireland or in Greece - feel that they are directly involved in the development process. It was in the hope of overturning such attitudes, by giving rural communities a chance to take charge of their own futures, that the European Commission launched its LEADER ( Links between Actions for the Development of the Rural Economy ) programme in late 1991. LEADER was intended to make it possible for people living in the countryside to change their circumstances for the better by initiating their own development projects. Some £280 million was set aside in Brussels to make LEADER I possible for the EC’s less prosperous rural areas - those categorised as Objective 1 and Objective 5b. Interest in this new programme was intense and 217 different local action groups were eventually given the go-ahead. Many important lessons were obtained from this experimental programme and incorporated into LEADER II which has been created to ensure continuity. It has also offered the Comhdhail an ideal opportunity to submit an application based strongly on the notion of partnership.

Project Activities

The general measures envisaged within the Comhdhail LEADER plan are:

Technical support for rural development

A substantial part of the work plan will involve having three development workers who will assist local groups in drawing up strategic development plans in accordance with the priorities of each island linking into an overall development plan for all the islands. These development officers will also be responsible for local community development work, animation and capacity building.

Vocational training and recruitment assistance

Helping improve access to education and training opportunities; ensuring islanders are in a position to benefit from the development of island resources, providing skills training for early school leavers, long term unemployed, underemployed and other disadvantaged groups. The possibility of using distance learning mechanisms for delivery will be investigated, and there will be an emphasis on transnational links in developing and delivering training interventions. It is intended to ensure that training measures are developed which will provide people with better knowledge, and with personal skills to develop resources and also build on traditional aspects of the island economies that can be developed with regard to local crafts and knitwear.

Island tourism

It is recognised that there is significant potential for properly planned niche tourism. The opportunities for joint marketing will be identified and addressed, creating and promoting an island “brand”. Transnational co-operation with the Danish Islands will be developed with regard to this aspect. Creating local awareness of tourist needs, training for tourist businesses and infrastructure development will also be included. Research and project development in special interest holidays including archaeology, birdwatching, diving, sailing, sea angling, traditional music/song festivals and walking tours will be carried out. It is recognised that the offshore islands must promote “sustainable” tourism, built on local resources and avoid falling unto the trap of “resort” type tourism emphasising quantity instead of quality.

Local exploitation of agriculture and fishery products

At present there is a low level of agricultural activity. The proposed project will improve skills of island farmers by providing access to appropriate training and education; provide information with regard to alternative agriculture enterprises; increase awareness of emerging opportunities in agri-tourism and assist in setting up projects; provide a range of courses for farmers wives to enable them to explore possibilities of fuller participation in the community and of supplementary income opportunities; encourage islanders to become more self sufficient in food production, especially with regard to providing fresh vegetables during the tourist season.

It is intended to provide information and training to create awareness, carry out feasibility studies and undertake project development on various species e.g. oysters, mussels, turbot, abalone, lobsters and edible seaweeds. Development of inshore fishing resources will be undertaken and assessment of the position with regard to essential physical infrastructure (ice-plants etc.) will be carried out. Organisation and co-ordination of joint marketing and branding of island produce (e.g. “Wild Island Salmon” ) will be undertaken. Feasibility of the development of ancillary activities e.g. net mending and currach (boat) building will be examined.

Preservation and improvement of the environment

It is realised that the unique environment enjoyed by the islands is a valuable resource and it is intended to undertake activities to ensure that this environment is maintained and enhanced. Areas to be covered will include village renewal, the restoration and upgrading of buildings, wells and monuments. The issue of recycling will be tackled through a programme to ensure a standardised waste collection and disposal system. Given the general topography and landscape the physical intrusion of the overhead power-systems needs to be addressed. Other measures would include provision for maintaining the indigenous physical features like dry stone walls; protecting scarce natural habitats and conserving rare flora and birds like the corncrake. The planting of marram grass and a general coastal erosion programme will also be investigated as a matter of urgency on some islands.

Transnational Co-operation

There are opportunities for co-operation between various islands at present in terms of good practise e.g.. turbot farming on Cape Clear could be replicated on other islands. The firm transnational link with Rathlin Island (situated in Northern Ireland) which is an innovative aspect of this project will be further developed particularly in terms of joint tourism marketing initiatives. Additionally, the Association of Small Danish Islands has done some excellent work on diversification of agricultural activities, on an “island in bloom” scheme, seafood ready meals, marketing of island products, environmental management and wind power generation, all sectors which will be of interest to the Irish Islands.

Brighter Future

The islanders have amazing tenacity and a powerful desire to remain in their own environs. The very strong community effort reflected in e.g. local co-operatives providing essential services and helping local development can bring the islands forward. Some islands could be said to be more developed in terms of community participation and overall progression in self help terms than their mainland counterparts. This is something Comhdhail would wish to see extended to all islands.

A number of islands already have professional development plans which see a healthy future whilst others, which have similar potential, need support in establishing and implementing their future plans. The LEADER II programme offers the offshore islands an excellent opportunity to undertake a focused and co-ordinated approach to tackling their fundamental needs and exploiting local opportunities over the next five years.