IT WAS TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar who said of Fine Gael’s five-point plan for the general election that swept Fianna Fáil away, it’s only when you’re almost physically sick yourself of saying something, that the voters are finally starting to hear the message.
For those that have spent decades ploughing the lonely furrow of development beyond Dublin, the 10-year, €20 billion capital spending roadmap to be unveiled this week is good news. At last, it appears there is real money for the regions to catch up with the capital.
There’s a lot of catching up to do. In 2015, 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 accounts for 42% of Ireland’s GDP and policy up to now has been to keep on shoehorning, even if that shrinks the regions.
Yet the capital is increasingly strangled by its own success. It can’t house its growing population affordably. It struggles to move people around easily and quickly. Its quality of life is questionable.
Righting a wrong
The new roadmap has to do three things: support the capital, develop the regions, and repair the defective anti-rural, anti-regional gene in public policy and administration.
I experienced this first-hand when an Assistant Secretary in Social Protection tried pressuring me into getting the Minister onside for a bonfire of rural post offices. At that time, there was a move to pay social welfare direct into people’s bank accounts.
In the world of the bean-counters, it didn’t matter if wholesale post office closures frayed a community’s fabric beyond repair. The official view was, not our problem, deal with it.
In recent years, the Department of Transport rubbed a planned 33-mile rail freight link from the west to the ports of Foynes, Cork and Waterford, off maps it was using to get EU funding. That sleight of hand only came to light four years after the fact, when the EU Transport Commissioner said “refinement of the maps” and “alteration of the network” by the Irish government had killed any chance of the project being funded by the EU.
The price of such incompetence and bloody mindedness has been very high. One model, used to measure the impact of EU Cohesion Funds, says the cost to the BMW region is €1 billion in stimulus spending, 17,500 jobs, and €1.6 billion in GDP per year. Another model, developed for the EU Commission, estimates 20,000 jobs and €17 billion of GDP forgone.
Politicians were quick but quite mistaken in blaming Europe. As it happens, Leo Varadkar is one of the few people, and perhaps the only minister from that time, who could shed light on how some projects required a robust business case to be included at all, while others were simply added to the list without attaching a business case of any kind.
Will this new plan right that wrong? Will it also repair the defective gene?
For the western half of Ireland, it’s vital the €1 billion M20 motorway between Cork and Limerick is on the roadmap. If it is, it will provide momentum for the Atlantic Economic Corridor linking the regional cities and put a brake on the unhealthy sprawl of Dublin.
At its heart, this Atlantic Artery is about mobilising Exchequer and EU money for an arc of infrastructure from Waterford to Sligo, via Cork, Limerick and Galway. Some of the roads are already done, like the M18 from Limerick to north Galway. The next stretch, the M17 from north Galway to near south Mayo, opens in 2018.
A €1.7 billion investment will see the Belfast-Derry road upgraded to a dual carriageway, and a €90 million motorway built from Derry, through Tyrone, to Monaghan. IBEC rightly says the new Belfast-Derry road should run on to Donegal and down through Sligo and Mayo, where it would meet the M17 in south Mayo. Atlantic Artery – done!
Independents – not so parish pump
Say what you like about Independent TDs, but if it wasn’t for the tardy and the time-servers in the main parties, many of these “irresponsible oddballs” would never have seen the inside of Leinster House. Ultimately, it was they who put the regions on the political radar and forced the Atlantic Economic Corridor into the programme for government.
It will be the complement to the Irish Sea Corridor linking Belfast, Dublin and Cork, which got €4.5 billion over 15 years to develop high quality road, rail, air, and sea links.
It will be a lifeline linking the regions and regional cities, and a failsafe route to EU markets for all of Ireland, in the event of border controls and customs checks post-Brexit.
Brexit is coming at us like a train. If we’re clear that our future is to remain in Europe, we need to plan and provide for it. Things are happening, but the scale, scope and speed are nowhere near enough for the coming challenges. As the Italian novelist Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa wrote, “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.