For those of us who have tracked the decline of the west over the past 50 years, it has been a slow, steady fading of the light. It has been a degeneration of distressing inevitability, as if it were our destiny to sink into oblivion, and that nothing could arrest the decay.
For this writer, the particular moment of truth, when harsh reality became all too manifest, was the closing days of 2006, 14 years ago. We were just coming to the end of the five-year National Development Plan, a multibillion investment programme that, thanks to EU funding from Brussels, was to raise Ireland’s economy to the level of our fellow member states.
But better still, it was the programme that was meant to secure balanced regional development, where the west would experience parity of infrastructure, of employment, of opportunity, of living standards, with the rest of the country. To that end, it was the first time the country was split into two regions, the better to ensure an equitable division of infrastructural funding.
The so called BMW (Border, Midlands, West) region would have its own ring-fenced monies that would help close the gap between it and the SE (South and East).
That, at least, was the plan, but somewhere along the way, the suspicion began to grow that all was not as it should be. Investment in the SE was continuing apace, but in the BMW region, initiatives for which funding had been supposedly allocated were being long-fingered.
Finally, it took sustained Dáil questioning by then independent TD, Beverley Flynn, to find the truth. Her one-time Fianna Fáil colleague, Finance Minister Brian Cowen, revealed that of the €16 billion allocated to the BMW under the plan, just over €12 billion had been invested. In the SE region, the entire budget of €34 billion had been spent.
The disclosure sparked a huge outcry, so much so that the Government acceded to Flynn’s demand for a full-scale Dail debate on the issue. It was, she submitted, a scandal that a sum equivalent to €10 million a day for every day of the year, ring fenced for the west, had been returned unspent to EU coffers. Of that, a total of €300 million for western roads had been unspent – enough to complete the N26, the N5, the Ballinrobe and Ballyhaunis bypasses, along with 25 miles of the badly deficient road to Dublin through county Roscommon.
In a master lesson in warped logic, Cowen responded that the BMW was, in fact, a beneficiary of investment in transport in the south east ‘because better transport linked to the major ports, airports, and to the capital, was to the benefit of the whole country’.
Whatever hope there had been for the west to achieve balanced regional development, it finished with the winding up of that National Development Plan. The two-region approach to infrastructural spending was dropped; from now on, the emphasis would be on national spatial policy – gateways and development hubs and designated growth centres, and all south of the Dublin-Galway line. The two-tier economy was here to stay.
The lesson from that episode was that the centre of decision making was in Dublin, that the neglected west counted for little in the grand plan, and that our elected politicians had little clout when it came to major policies. We learned that government buildings are remote from the west, not just in physical distance, but in the mindset of those who devise government policy and who have little affinity with rural Ireland.