The gloves were off between rival Mayo TDs Minister Michael Ring and Dara Calleary last week with both men accusing each other of not being honest in relation to funding for rural communities.
Deputy Calleary, Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Community and Rural Development, was the first out of the blocks with an attack on his opposite number with claims Minister Ring’s department had ‘shortchanged’ rural Ireland to the tune of €270 million by underspending on rural schemes.
“Latest parliamentary question replies show €270 million is unspent on vitally important rural schemes administered by the Department of Rural and Community Development at the end of August,” Deputy Calleary said at last week’s Ploughing Championships which were taking place in Carlow.
“These include the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure scheme; Town and Village Renewal scheme; CLÁR, the Local Improvement Scheme (LIS), the Rural Regeneration fund and LEADER.
“Taking funds allocated to key schemes over the 2017 to 2019 period, there is an underspend of €111 million alone. In the region of €56 million still remains on departmental funds allocated to the Town and Village Renewal scheme and the Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Scheme going back two years.
“Yet, the numbers get worse. The much-heralded Rural Regeneration fund was launched 14 months ago with €52 million allocated for 2019. To date, just €4.1 million in project funding released by the Department, representing an underspend of 92 percent.”
The Ballina-based TD added: “This massive underspend is a bitter indictment of Fine Gael’s stewardship of the rural department and key schemes to fund capital infrastructural projects in rural communities. This is atrocious oversight.Minister Ring must at once outline how this gigantic sum of unspent monies will be spent and an accompanying timetable.”
The Minister for Rural and Community Development was not slow in throwing a few counter punches on his younger adversary when he accused Fianna Fáíl of ‘misleading people’ in relation to funding for rural communities.
“Let me be clear: there is no underspend in relation to my Department’s funding of rural communities. My Department spent all of its capital budget last year, it will spend it in full this year and will do so again next year,” was the Minister’s defiant response.
“Last year the Department spent €237.5 million of a total budget of €239.2 million (the savings made mainly related to administration costs savings on staff and admin overheads). For the year to date in 2019, the Department’s spend is very much on target.
“This is a deliberate and reckless attempt by Fianna Fáil to mislead people and undermine the work of the Government.”
Minister Ring added that the projects which he has allocated money to under schemes like the Town and Village Renewal Scheme and Outdoor Recreation Infrastructure Schemes has to be completed before the money is handed over.
“These are capital projects which can have long lead in times for design, procurement and delivery. Works usually take 18 to 24 months with main payments made on completion of the projects. Such timelines are necessary to enable local authorities to deliver projects under our capital programmes. For example, if I approve funding for the building of a community centre, the money doesn’t leave my Department until the centre is built.
“This is a fundamental principle in managing public finances. It’s cynical and desperate of Fianna Fáil to try to characterise it as an underspend. Do they think we should hand over the money before the work has even started?
“It is the job of the opposition to hold the Government to account but in doing so it should stick to the facts and not mislead people. Otherwise it is doing rural Ireland a disservice,” Minister Ring retorted.
With the General Election expected to take place in May 2020, expect Ring and Calleary to throw a few more pot shots at each other before a vote is cast.