Atlantic syndrome

Notes from the Western Periphery

RECENT REBRAND The Galway GMIT campus, bearing the new ATU sign. Pic: Facebook/Atlantic Technological University

When ‘Atlantic’ becomes a meme that hides a regional-policy vacuum

John Bradley

Driving through Castlebar recently, I saw the sign for the new Mayo campus of the Atlantic Technological University (ATU). The creation of the ATU as a merger/collaboration of the three north-western Institutes of Technology in Letterkenny, Sligo, and Galway/Mayo is part of ‘the Atlantic Syndrome’ in which many recent west-coast initiatives have been repackaged and presented using the unifying term ‘Atlantic’.
The first and most spectacularly successful is the Wild Atlantic Way (or WAW), a coastal drive launched by Fáilte Ireland in March 2014. This provides a signposted route along the Atlantic coast from Kinsale in West Cork to Malin Head in Donegal. It creatively frames the beautiful and pristine southwest, west and northwest coasts as a region that should be visited in its entirety, thereby unlocking huge new potential for tourism.
For a remarkably small budget – signposting, literature, web sites – the initiative was quickly launched and generated private investment in enhanced tourism facilities. If ever there was a policy free lunch, the WAW was it!
The second initiative was the Atlantic Economic Corridor (or AEC). Chambers of Commerce and a group of business partners from nine western counties (Donegal in the north to Kerry in the south) signed up to develop the AEC in 2015. The goal was to focus on policy-led development required to generate investment and job creation, bring wealth and population growth to the region, and produce a more balanced national economy.
However, unlike the WAW, the AEC did not actually exist. It was a declaration of intent, an aspiration rather than a reality. The AEC initiative was subsequently embraced by the Department for Rural & Community Development, bureaucratised, and folded into the national development strategy (Project Ireland 2040). However, Project Ireland 2040 gave it a mere cursory mention, effectively killing it stone dead.
The third initiative was the Atlantic Railway Corridor (or ARC). I have to plead guilty to inventing this one, as part of a study of the extension of the Western Rail Corridor from Athenry to Claremorris (www.westontrack.com). The aim was to draw attention to the fact that the 52km extension was an integral part of a wider rail link that would unify north-south travel along the Atlantic coast quickly and at low cost.
Unlike the AEC, the solid and compelling economic case made for the ARC was rejected by the Government, who preferred to go with the earlier negative (but deeply flawed) verdict of the Dublin-based consultants EY.
Finally, we come to the launch of the Atlantic Technological University (or ATU) in April this year. Irish regional Institutes of Technology had been extended in the 1980s, funded in large part by the early EU Structural Fund programmes. Ireland prioritised technical education as a vital input into modernisation of its manufacturing and high-tech services base, ahead of the later upgrading of physical infrastructure (mainly roads).
By 2020 there was an urgent need to consolidate the ITs into more cohesive and cooperating groups that would facilitate upgrading the level of teaching and research in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or STEM subjects). The way was opened up to grant university status to regional groupings of ITs. Letterkenny, Sligo, and Galway/Mayo grabbed the opportunity, and the ATU was born.

Logistical concerns
The ATU consists of eight separate campuses, running over 600 programmes for about 20,000 students: two in Donegal (LYIT and Killybegs); one in Sligo (Sligo IT); one in Mayo (GMIT-Castlebar); and four in Galway (GMIT-Galway, Letterfrack, Mount Bellew and the Centre for Creative Arts and Media (CCAM).
A worrying issue is that the distance from ATU-Letterkenny to ATU-Galway is 250km, about the same as the distance from Dublin to Westport. So, the challenge of building cooperation between all eight ATU campuses will be daunting, and much greater than linking Carlow IT and Waterford IT into the South East Technological University SETU), separated by a mere 79km. However, a simple relabelling (ATU replacing LYIT, Sligo IT and GMIT) could generate some extra benefits, even if the separate campuses continued to function quasi independently.
To move beyond relabelling benefits will require considerable extra resources. While the rhetoric of ATU’s mission is ambitious, there is little said about provision of extra government financial backing to upgrade facilities and teaching staff.
A fear is that a cash-strapped government might see the amalgamation of the three ITs into a unified ATU as an opportunity to make savings in overhead administration costs rather than an opportunity to build a world-class university in the northwest region.
This is where the Atlantic Syndrome becomes misleading and unhelpful.
The unwillingness of government to devote adequate resources to the strategic regeneration and revitalisation of the economy of the northern and western region is well known.
The term ‘Atlantic’ has come to be used as a meme that hides the absence of any genuine regional policy for the northern and western region.
The dynamism of the Atlantic cities of Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Galway hides the lack of dynamism in the smaller Atlantic towns of north Galway and Mayo, Sligo, and Donegal.
Perhaps North West Technological University (NWTU) would have been a more accurate designation than ATU? The Government does not have a good track record when it comes to the Atlantic Syndrome, no pun intended.

John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.