Seeing the way forward for the west

Comment & Opinion

WORKING TOGETHER Three TDs who are members of a western region group advocating for the extension of the Western Rail Corridor pictured at a regional development conference in Tuam on Saturday. From left: Geraldine Canney, Dara Calleary (Fianna Fáil), Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Rose Conway Walsh (Sinn Féin) TD, and Sean Canney (Independent) TD.

A conference in Tuam on Saturday was most enlightening for examining where the western region can and needs to go in terms of development.
Organised by West on Track, ‘Achieving Regional Balance – A New Approach to Development Policy’ examined the huge potential for development in the west and north west. It also highlighted many of the roadblocks and obstacles that stand in the way, roadblocks that have literally led to the region being classified as a ‘lagging’ region by the European Commission.
Ireland has one of the most centralised governments in the country, with so much power sitting in Dublin and so little devolved power.
There has been much complaints about the abolition of the town councils in 2014. It was, certainly, a retrograde step but it must be recalled that the town councils exerted very little influence as they did not have the budget or the autonomy to do so.
The same can be said of the county councils where power is limited and what power is there rests far more with the council executive than elected county councillors.
So the vast amount of power and influence in Ireland sits in Dublin. It’s not like this everywhere else. Most European countries have highly functional and empowered regional and local assemblies.
Our columnist Dr John Bradley was one of the speakers at the Ard Rí Hotel in Tuam on Saturday and he spoke cogently about the lunacy of ‘trickle down’ economics that the west of Ireland experiences. This is the view that we should benefit from a strong Dublin. Anyone watching UK politics in recent weeks will know well how much of a fallacy that is.
The west and north west is well below European averages in every conceivable metric – GDP ratio, number of high paid jobs, you name it. It is the only region in Ireland so struggling.
Yet when you listen to Mike Devane speak about the hidden potential of the Atlantic Economic Corridor – a grouping seeking to drive economic development from Kerry to Derry – you are left in no doubt about the opportunities that present themselves, if the will is there at central government level.
Political will is a key point.
On Saturday there were many criticisms of the permanent government – ie Department Secretary Generals and other high ranking civil servants – for what many feel is their destain for the development of the west.
Minister of State Dara Calleary cited the example of the objections from the Department of Transport to the construction of Knock Airport under the leadership of Monsignor James Horan in the 1980s.

Long fought battle
He said the long battle fought for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor from Limerick all the way to Sligo is a good example of this. The line has been reopened from Limerick to Athenry and the current campaign is to get it extended from Athenry to Tuam and onto Claremorris. It has proven to be a catalyst for much of the discussions around regional development in this region.
“There’s a lot of work to be done politically to get this over the line. Have no doubt. There is huge political support but we continue to face, as we always have done in this region, institutional resistance and resistance that doesn’t see potential beyond the M50,” said Deputy Calleary.
Mike Devane himself said, when asked, that one of the key problems with regional development in this region is not Europe but Dublin. It is a point that has been made by Mayo county councillor Gerry Murray in the past.
While all these points can be true, there is one unescapable reality that cannot be ignored when rushing to blame the permanent government.
The elected government have the power but often stand back from utilising it. Sometimes it feels like Yes Minister is not just played out in the UK but this side of the Irish Sea too.
There is a need for strong and visionary politicians but they are not always in plentiful supply. There is also a strong need for politicians working together for the betterment of their region, rather than being curtailed by party political priorities.
Cross-party support
However, what was encouraging about Saturday was the broad, cross-party support for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor, something which has been championed by advocacy group West on Track, led by Claremorris man Colmán Ó Raghallaigh.
The presence of western politicians from across the political divide was very notable. Representatives of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, The Green Party, Sinn Féin and several strong independents were all present.
Seán Canney, the Galway East Independent TD, is chairing a cross-party grouping of TDs and Senators from this region to campaign for the extension of the Western Rail Corridor. We recall Dr John Bradley talking on a Mayo News Podcast last year with incredulity when he discovered a number of years ago that no such Oireachtas forum existed.
Canney is the ideal politician to lead such a grouping, with his diplomacy, ability to get on with people across party divides and sincere passion for the development of the west.
Such a group needs to be part of the template for the development of the west and needs to drive the need for a fully functioning Atlantic Economic Corridor too.
Canney said that the grouping will be making a submission in favour of the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor to Claremorris which has the backing of the majority of TDs and Senators, saying this should give the Government the ‘ammunition’ to get the project over the line.
It shows what can be done when politicians work together but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.