23rd October

Living on an offshore island: the challenges

Ireland's offshore inhabited islandsIreland's offshore inhabited islands

Registered in 1994, Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann (COE) is the representative body of the inhabited offshore islands of Ireland and currently has 33 members in counties Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Limerick, Kerry, Cork as well as Rathlin Island in Northern Ireland.

“The principle aim of the federation is to develop island communities, especially with regard to social, economic and cultural aspects of island living, and to foster full island identity,” Mairéad O’Reilly, manager of Comhdhail Oileáin na hÉireann (COE) told Inshore Ireland.


COE represents island communities at local, national and European levels and acts as coordinator between member islands and between other small European Island groups. It also coordinates funding programmes, such as the Leader Programme.

COE also provides a forum for elected representatives. Islanders are represented on a proportional basis: one for each island with a population of over 50; one for any group of islands with a collective population of 50; one representative for small islands and one women’s representative.

“European programmes remain a crucial element in the development process. Geographic isolation means that islanders are disadvantaged economically, socially and educationally. Creating and sustaining contacts with other European islands, especially those of similar size and structure, is a key target for the future,” Máire Uí Mhaoláin, manager of the ESIN Inter-Island Exchange Project explained.  

Inter-island co-operation

In 2001, the European Small Islands' Network (ESIN) was set up to raise awareness of the development challenges experienced by Europe's smallest inhabited offshore islands and to promote inter-island co-operation on sustainable island development. Approximately 100,000 people live permanently on small islands and are represented by ESIN. The ESIN Inter-island Exchange Project (IIEP) is funded by the Interreg 111c Programme.

“Many of these small remote communities, with populations in their tens and hundreds, are threatened with extinction and are struggling to build a future for the next generation of island children,” Uí Mhaoláin added.

ESIN comprises island-based organisations in six member states: Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann (lead partner); the Scottish Islands Network; Pro Abolands Utskar (Finland); the National Association for the Swedish Archipelagos; the Association of Danish Small Islands, and the Association of the Islands of Ponant (France).

“We share a vision of integrated and sustainable economic, social, environmental and cultural development based on maintaining permanent, resident island communities,” she added.

Share experiences

The objectives of ESIN are to promote greater co-operation between small islands; to share the benefits of islands' experience in sustainable development and to influence national and EU regional development policies in favour of small island communities.

A further concept is that E-SIN should be recognised as the primary source of information regarding small islands, as well as creating a professional corporate identity.

Each organisation is undertaking three different case studies as part of the Inter-island Exchange Project. These will be based on the following themes of major importance to the long-term viability of small islands:

  • island identity, culture and language; islanders' sense of place and community
  • devising an ecologically sustainable model for island development, and
  • provision of essential public services and facilities on small islands

In 2006, ESIN will host a major conference on the sustainable development of small islands. It will involve senior policy makers from the EU institutions, national, regional and local governments as well as island organisations.

The objectives are for:

  • stronger contacts among decision-makers and island organizations in all six island regions
  • improved access to information on alternative approaches & solutions to the most pressing problems facing small islands
  • greater co-operation between the six island regions
  • identification at national and EU level of specific policy measures to support sustainable development on Europe's small islands
  • better understanding at European level of the development challenges facing small islands with very low population densities and no administrative authority.

Comhdháil Oileáin na hÉireann is at the coalface of developing policies and frameworks for strong sustainable communities on the small islands of Ireland. COE is also taking the lead role at European level by forming networks of small islanders that can inform policy from the grassroots up.

This level of co-operation and networking is crucial as the small islands do not have the critical mass to have any influence on their own. Nevertheless, as the seanfhocal says, ‘Níl neart go cur le chéile’, applies here, and the vision is for a strong united informed voice for small islands in the future.

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