PLOUGHING ON Monsignor James Horan chatting to RTÉ reporter Jim Fahy in 1981 at the excavation site for Knock airport, which had yet to receive planning permission or Government approval.
Do we need another Monsignor Horan to fight for rail and broadband?
Throughout the last century the people of the northwest region have been at a disadvantage going abroad to find work or coming home on holiday, with long journeys even before they got to board the mail boat or the ocean liner.
The rapid growth in air travel from the 1960s onwards did little to change this. Other regions got State-subsidised airports with rail and road connections. People returning to the northwest region, and to Mayo in particular, could fly back to Dublin, but it was difficult and time consuming to travel onwards to the west by train or bus, a big drain on their precious week’s holiday.
Initial fierce opposition of Dublin-based politicians to any State involvement in the development of an airport near Knock suggested that travel logistics and social implications in a region devastated by emigration were not understood, or were dismissed. The development of Connaught Regional Airport (now Ireland West Airport Knock, or IWAK) provides a cautionary tale of how regional decisions are made and how outcomes often confound prior negative expectations.
We all understand that IWAK did not come about in the time-honoured fashion of state infrastructure planning: initial committees of inquiry into infrastructural needs in the northwest; endless rounds of expensive consultancy studies; cost-benefit analyses; promises made and broken; eventual government decisions, state backing and public funding of investment.
Quite the reverse. In the teeth of fierce official opposition, IWAK came about through the vision and dogged perseverance of Monsignor James Horan; his energetic work in mobilising local support; his ability to extract modest State contributions from reluctant governments who would prefer to kill it off or see it die from neglect.
Jumping forward more than 30 years, we can now better appreciate the role played by IWAK as a lynchpin in the renewal and strategic development of the northwest region of Ireland.
It helped to open up new development possibilities for our island other than further intensive and congestive growth in the urban agglomerations of the East and SW coasts. The growth of passenger numbers tells its own story: modest take up in the early years as the fledgling airport was gradually developed to the highest international standards; rapid take-off during the 2000-2006 years of heady national growth; absorbing the consequences of the recession of 2007-2015; and the steady climb in numbers when national recovery belatedly took hold.
The Covid-19 lockdowns and restrictions of 2020 and 2021 had devastating impacts on all Irish airports. IWAK annual passenger numbers fell from 807,000 passengers in 2019 to 143,000 in 2020, rising to 175,000 in 2021. This year, numbers are rapidly recovering and look likely to top 1 million a year.
The success of IWAK can be understood better when viewed in the context of a desirable correction to the spatially distorted development of the island of Ireland. With the exception of the Dublin-Belfast ‘corridor’, the development focus on the five cities (Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, and Galway) threatens to ‘anchor’ development south of a line drawn from Dublin to Galway. In the absence of countervailing policies, this distortion will continue to deepen. Smaller population centres will at best hold their position but are likely to decline further.
However, advances in technology and communications have made it efficient to operate enterprises at a smaller scale and in units that no longer need to be in one location. This opens up development opportunities for the northwest region, with its present dispersed small towns and low population density.
But the essential requirement is that some very basic infrastructure and supportive facilities are available in the region where modern enterprises can operate at lower costs than in congested cities and their workforce can enjoy a higher quality of life.
Road, rail, and broadband links all play their part in connecting the towns of the northwest.
But in a world where Ireland must compete in a global marketplace, ease of access to international markets for travel and freight are essential if the northwest region is to develop a successful strategy based on interacting and co-operating small towns, each specialising in different aspects of modern, small-scale manufacturing and business services that are internationally tradable.
To future proof the role of IWAK, lands adjoining the airport have been designated as a Strategic Development Zone when eventually the need to cater for enterprise growth and easier access to airfreight services arises.
I firmly believe that Monsignor Horan foresaw all of this but kept it to himself and preferred to focus on the social role of his airport because he considered that people were not yet ready to believe that such a future was completely credible. He got his people an airport so that they could come and go with the same ease as citizens in other parts of the country.
Nowadays, fewer people are forced by joblessness to emigrate. Business and tourist traffic have grown phenomenally. We now have the infrastructure in place at Knock airport to ensure that these benefits are enjoyed by the people of the northwest region. All that is required is that Monsignor Horan’s vision be extended to rail and broadband links as well. It’s not a big ask.
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.