QUESTIONS TO ANSWER Leo Varadkar and Michael Ring – Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and Minister of State for Tourism and Sport in 2011 – outside Michael Ring’s office in Westport last May. Pic: Conor McKeown
Varadkar’s removal of west from EU transport-funding application sparks outrage
Anton McNulty & Edwin McGreal
A MAYO County Councillor has told The Mayo News that he was told by EU officials that the west’s transport-funding problems lies in Dublin and not Brussels.
Sinn Féin councillor Gerry Murray was speaking following the revelation that infrastructural projects in the west and northwest, including the Western Rail Corridor, were removed from access to the European Union’s Trans-European Transport Network (Ten-T) Core funding programme in 2011 – at the behest of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who was Minister for Transport at the time.
Varadkar’s decision was made despite protestations from then Midlands Northwest MEP Jim Higgins, who warned him the move could close off projects in the west and northwest from EU funding ‘for good’.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has now defended his decision by saying the funding would only cover 30 percent of the projects’ cost, and that the country could not afford to fund the rest. This figure of 30 percent has been questioned, however (see Editorial, Page 21).
The ‘Western Arc’, running from Belfast through Derry, Sligo, Galway, Limerick and onto Cork, was initially due to be part of the multi-billion Core funding network before Varadkar removed it in late 2011.
Speaking at yesterday’s (Monday) monthly meeting of Mayo County Council, Cllr Murray, who serves on the EU Committee of the Regions, said there was cross-party consensus among Mayo councillors that the Western Arc should be put back into the EU funding-allocation application.
“I met the head of the Ten-T in Europe and they said they had no difficulty with putting the funding on the table, but the nomination of the [particular transport] projects is up to the member state.
“There’s huge disappointment that where you had such a percentage of funding on the table and Dublin were not prepared to meet them halfway … The question is now whether or not [west and northwest projects] can be put back in.
“In fairness to Fine Gael locally, there is a cross-party consensus that [the western areas] should be put back in. “Whether Leo took [them] out without consultation with Enda (Kenny), we don’t know. Basically Europe are up for funding [the projects] but until [they are] nominated, they cannot fund [them].
“Some of these people in Dublin have nothing but contempt for people west of the Shannon. I met [EU officials] in Brussels in relation to a lot of things and I was told ‘your problems are in Dublin, not in Brussels’,” he said.
Disappointment and anger
One of the major projects affected by the decision was the Western Rail Corridor (WRC). Speaking to The Mayo News, Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, spokesperson for West-on-Track, the lobby group campaigning for the corridor, said he was dismayed at the latest revelations.
“I was very disappointed,” he told The Mayo News. “There was general knowledge in the west of Ireland that there was a problem with Ten-T funding west of the Shannon and that projects had been left out. We had no understanding of why it happened until the latest revelations, and a lot of people are annoyed over it.
“We met with Leo Varadkar around that time when he was Minister for Transport to propose extending the railway line to Tuam, but nothing came of it. We were told it was put on hold due to the economic situation. We appreciate there was a serious economic situation, but with the recovery we expected there to be a continuation of balanced regional development. But that doesn’t seem to be the case,” he said.
Fine Gael councillor Jarlath Munnelly defended Leo Vardakar’s decision in 2011 saying that due to ‘the crippling recession’, the State ‘simply did not have the resources at that stage to commit to that level of investment’.
However, Ó Raghallaigh has challenged this argument, saying that Government was willing to fund projects in the south and east of the country.
He went on to argue that the development of the WRC had a compelling economic rationale, as it is essential for the future development and economic viability of the west.
“If this government doesn’t do it, I believe another government will. It makes sense. If we are realistic about developing the west of Ireland, we need the infrastructure. If we can’t develop the infrastructure we have already, what hope is there of developing infrastructure that doesn’t exist?” he said.
Mayo Fianna Fáil TD, Lisa Chambers said that Varadkar’s decision to remove the West from Ten-T funding proves that the government is ‘anti-rural’.
“I am calling now on the Taoiseach to explain himself and to explain to the people of Mayo and the northwest why in one fell swoop he culled so many major infrastructural projects for this region and chose to disadvantage us for decades to come.”
Chambers has also thrown the gauntlet down to Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring, who was a Minister of State in Varadkar’s department in 2011. “I am also calling on Minister Michael Ring, who has responsibility for rural affairs and sits at cabinet, to outline exactly what he proposes to do to fix this almighty blunder by Fine Gael in government,” she said.
Speaking at yesterday’s Mayo County Council meeting, Peter Hynes, the council’s Chief Executive, said the inclusion of the Western Arc is of ‘utmost importance’ to the west.
“Imagine having a motorway all the way up to Donegal. Maybe one of the upshots of Brexit could be it could create circumstances to allow projects like these return and be of benefit to all of us,” he said.