Time to complete Horan’s vision for Knock

Comment & Opinion

THE GREAT ORCHESTRATOR Monsignor James Horan, who led the development of Knock Airport, hoped it would become a large-scale employment park as well as a successful transit hub.

Knock SDZ a campus for cultivating business and innovation in the west

Monsignor James Horan was a man ahead of his time. While plenty of national politicians and mandarins were unreflectively dismissive of any notion of an airport in Knock, the monsignor had a vision – and the courage of his convictions.
Fine Gael’s Jim Mitchell wrote it off as a pipe dream on a ‘foggy, boggy hill’. But Monsignor Horan had a far better read on what was needed for the region than those elected and paid to represent us and advocate on our behalf. That ‘foggy, boggy hill’ is now home to one of Ireland’s four major international airports.
Despite the crippling impact of Covid on the aviation sector, Ireland West Airport – or Knock Airport is it more commonly called – has bounced back impressively. So much so that as its CEO Joe Gilmore reveals in this week’s Mayo News that the facility is on course for a record number of annual passengers – 850,000 – in 2023.
The success is absolute vindication of James Horan’s vision.
But, here’s the thing: a successful airport was only half vision.
James Horan looked south to Shannon and the incredible progress made by another visionary, Brendan O’Regan.
O’Regan was the man who invented duty free; the concept of establishing a tax-free zone around an airport grew from there. His next step was Shannon Development and the Shannon tax-free zone, which brought huge employment to the midwest region, with companies availing of the benefits of operating within that zone and so close to a transport hub.
Monsignor Horan, fed up of seeing the west’s brightest and best emigrating, did not want to build an airport to make it easier for people to leave. Instead, he saw the airport as having the potential to follow in Shannon’s footsteps and become a hub of employment. The connectivity of the airport could only help the region in this regard.
Joe Gilmore answered very honestly when asked whether James Horan would be proud of what the airport has become.
The monsignor, he said, be happy with the progress of the airport itself and the connectivity it has brought to the region, but he would be less pleased with the lack employment-development infrastructure around the airport.
He explained that while the primary objective of the Horan Airport Trust (which still governs the airport) was to develop international access for the people of the region, but the second was to ‘create employment at a good level in terms of spin offs’. The responsibility of the trustees is to ensure that any profits generated by the airport are reinvested in the airport with a focus on providing support to the surrounding region.
“The vision of this airport was very much [based] on the successful Shannon vision in the 1960s and ’70s with Brendan O’Regan, the original instigator of Shannon Development and the Shannon Free Zone,” Gilmore added. “That was always the hope and the vision, that one could create a 21st-century version of that here. That would still be the hope and expectation, that it could be achieved,” he said.

Plans for a Strategic Development Zone (SDZ) at the airport began in 2017 but Covid delayed developments.
According to Mayo County Council, the SDZ at Knock will cater for a new business and enterprise hub: “This will be in the form of a campus aiming to cultivate and establish new business and innovative industries that harnesses the benefits of living and doing business in the west of Ireland. There will be an emphasis on those requiring a link to the airport. It will facilitate hotel and conference facilities that complement the business climate of the airport location.”
An economic report in 2019 said the Knock SDZ has the potential to help create up to 6,000 jobs.
Covid is no longer an obstacle, and now the SDZ at Knock needs to progress as a matter of urgency. As Joe Gilmore points out in this week’s Mayo News, the airport itself is not a development agency. Government assistance is required to get a masterplan in place and to get these plans from paper to the ground.
The Knock SDZ was identified as a key development in Project Ireland 2040. The Mayo News has been critical in the past of the Government’s failure to focus significantly on the need for balanced regional development. Fully committing to the SDZ at Knock would be a step in the right direction.
James Horan saw that potential over 40 years ago. How much longer will it take for us to catch up with the great man?