In 2016, Dublin with 28% of the state’s population, got 48% of net new IDA-backed jobs. The rest of Ireland, with 72% of the population, got the other 52%.

Dublin is powering ahead, not just because it’s the capital , but because public policy has been to grow the capital, even if that shrinks the regions. The imbalance is now so serious that Dublin accounts for 42% of Ireland’s GDP. That’s bad for Ireland.

The best measure of the gap between regions and the capital is Gross Value Added – the value of goods and services each produces. The GVA figures for 2014 are startling:

  • Border: 30% of Dublin
  • Midland: 32% of Dublin
  • West: 44% of Dublin
  • Mid-West: 47% of Dublin
  • South-East: 41% of Dublin
  • South-West: 74% of Dublin

The Solution

The Atlantic Economic Corridor is a new way of thinking about, and a new way of achieving, the development of the western half of Ireland. It takes into account that 70% of the population is rural, which is the reverse of the national pattern.

At its heart, the Atlantic Economic Corridor is about mobilising Exchequer and EU money, to develop the transport, telecoms, energy and education infrastructure we need, in order to unleash the full potential of the resources we have, along a corridor from Waterford to Cork to Sligo – via Limerick and Galway.

As IBEC points out in its submission on the National Planning Framework:

  • “Inter-urban road connectivity between the Atlantic Cities would help support complementary growth between Dublin and cities such as Waterford-Cork-Limerick-Galway. Upgrading the M20 Cork-Limerick motorway and connecting second and third cities is a key enabler to the overall growth of the entire region. Limerick and Cork account for one-third of Ireland’s population outside of Dublin.”
  • “Enhanced connectivity between cities would promote city-to-city collaboration which would boost trade, create growth, job opportunities and deliver meaningful balanced regional development. As economic growth, trade and the concentration of population in cities increases it will intensify demand for inter-urban transport services. Investment in physical and social infrastructure will generate new employment and investment and provide a significant boost to both regional and national economic growth and prosperity.”

The Politics

Even if the UK was never leaving the EU, an Atlantic Economic Corridor is a necessary and proportionate response to the urgent need for balanced national development, to link the regions with each other, and to counter the unsustainable sprawl of Dublin.

The Atlantic Economic Corridor is, however, especially timely in terms of Brexit. The majority of Irish goods exports ship from Dublin, into Britain’s western seaports, along its motorways, and out of its eastern and southern seaports. What happens if the UK leaves the Customs Union as well as the Single Market? What happens if post-Brexit trade barriers disrupt the flow of imports and exports through Dublin? Ireland must have a Plan B. This involves developing the ports of Cork, Foynes and Waterford. But the regions need effective, efficient transport links to these ports, which they don’t have. And all Irish firms need a route, other than through Dublin, to access EU markets.

With the UK leaving the EU, but the North voting to remain, it’s time for the Irish Government to start thinking in all-island terms. In short, to commit to connect all six regional cities by continuing the Atlantic Corridor from Sligo north to Derry and east to Belfast – where it would link with the Irish Sea Corridor running from Belfast to Dublin and Cork. That needs to be written into an All-Island National Development Plan, and funded by the Exchequer, with some EU help.

The Opportunity

While the current Programme for Government (2016) does pledge to develop the Atlantic Corridor and to revisit the EU TEN-T transport infrastructure maps with a view to mobilising priority EU investment in it, little or no progress has been made. There is likely to be a long transition to Brexit. This gives us time to get our act together.

Rome was not built in a day, and neither will this corridor, but a start needs to be made now. There are a number of policy initiatives the next Irish Government could pursue:

  1. Allow Ireland’s public spending to rise to the OECD average – but use the increase solely to fund infrastructure. This releases €25 to €31 billion per year, depending on which measure, GNP or GDP is used. Using GNP – a better benchmark for Ireland – releases at least €200 billion by 2025.
  2. Capitalise on the historically favourable interest rate environment – borrow long and cheap to develop an Atlantic Corridor from Waterford to Belfast via Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo and Derry. This connects the regional cities and largest towns together, and to Dublin. IBEC estimates the motorway would cost c. €15 billion. This is the infrastructure Ireland needs most. And it is affordable.
  3. In addition to building an all-island motorway targeted investment in rail freight links is also essential – for efficiency, redundancy, and climate change reasons. One component is the Limerick-Foynes railway. This is a priority project for the EU TEN-T. It ensures the CORE ports of Dublin, Cork and Foynes are linked by rail. The second component involves reopening the Western Rail Corridor for freight between Claremorris and Galway. For an investment of c. €30 million, the west and north-west regions get rail freight access to Dublin, Cork, Foynes and Waterford. In addition, this ensures an alternative route to EU markets for all regions, in the event of post-Brexit disruption to import and export flows through Dublin.