The great EU funding heist

Notes from the Western Periphery

RHETORIC? David Minton (CEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly) and Cllr David Collins (Chair). Pic: James Connolly

Revitalisation strategy for the North and Western Region needed now

John Bradley

On Monday, November 21, the Northern and Western Regional Assembly announced that the sum of €217 million was to be allocated by the European Commission to the NW region. Welcoming the allocation, NWRA CEO David Minton noted that ‘Ireland had the highest levels of regional inequality amongst EU member states’ and that ‘this investment will address some of our structural weaknesses’.
Full details of the investment programme are not yet available, even though the current EC programming period 2021-27 is already two years in operation. It was nevertheless announced that investments would include support for the new Atlantic Technology University (ATU), support for regional enterprises, a smart hub network, training and innovation, and household energy refits. All good news. All worthy development causes. Some more than others.

Hidden details
So what’s not to like? Everything! The NWRA press release on EC funding is more concealing than revealing. Behind the flowery PR rhetoric the truth is very different.
Bear with me while I take you through some hidden details.
This funding is part of Ireland’s current total national allocation of EC regional development aid for the programming period 2021-27. European regional development activities and funding were massively increased in the years prior to the implementation of the Single European Market in 1992.
Back then there was a fear that the poorer EU states – Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain – would be at a competitive disadvantage relative to larger and more advanced states such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, etc. The first enhanced regional development allocations were made for the period 1989-93, and during the many subsequent programming periods Ireland benefited massively from EC investment aid, with requirements for very minimal national co-finance contributions.
The Irish national economy benefited from this development aid. Indeed, the current health and prosperity of our nation is a direct result of how that aid was used to fund national programmes of investment in infrastructure, telecommunications, universities, training, support for enterprises, etc. However, the manner in which the funds were allocated across Irish regions also produced the distorted and lagging pattern of regional development that Mr Minton described. The current internal regional allocation simply continues that inequitable distribution.

Are we asked to believe that massive funds have been thrown at the NW region over past decades, and, for reasons that defy rational explanation, that pesky region just refuses to develop and slides back into ‘laggedness’? Is the NW an Irish Mezzogiorno? More plausibly, the state of ‘laggedness’ came about through the NW region being starved of the kind of analysis, attention and funding required to engineer a steady path towards development and catch-up with more favoured Irish regions?
Let’s take a look at the latest numbers.
The total allocation to Ireland for the EC programming period 2021-2027 amounts to some €990 million, of which the €217 million announced is destined for the NW region. For the full seven year period, that amounts to €240 per capita for the NW region (current population 900,937), or €34 per capita per year. National co-finance may double that, but national co-finance is seldom genuinely additional to existing purely national investment programmes. Governments are good at smoke and mirrors.
The €217 million for the NW region is about 25 percent of the total €990 million EC funding for 2021-2027, with most of the rest (about 66 percent) going to the more developed South and the East and Midlands. Perhaps the government and the NWRA thought that nobody would notice this? If they are listening, no doubt they will come up with explanations for this disgraceful regional allocation to the more developed rather than to the lagging areas of the country.
But while they mull over those explanations, may I draw attention to the fact that in Greece, Portugal and Spain almost 100 percent of their EC funding is being allocated to their own less-developed regions and very little to their more developed regions.

‘Not fit for purpose’
The  EU Commission downgraded the NW region from ‘transition’ to ‘lagging’ in September. But the NWRA announcement showed unchanged funding allocations. It brings to mind the Bible verse (Matthew 25:29) that we all learned in National School: “For unto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” It is hard to believe that the powers that be in Ireland have been so badly educated that they mistake this verse for policy rather than as a harbinger of doom. Perhaps they take great comfort in Matthew 26:11?
It is a sad day when one is forced to conclude that policy documents and press releases from government and agencies are not designed to clarify and explain. Rather they are designed to obfuscate and conceal. Now we know why, to quote Mr Minton again, “Ireland had the highest levels of regional inequality amongst EU member states”. Either get used to it or do something about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Regular readers will know that I am not saying that all we have to do is throw money at the NW region. We have to do something far more difficult. The Government needs to be persuaded first of all to devise a new and effective strategy for the revitalisation of the NW region and then to implement it vigorously. The current strategy, if you could even call it that, is not fit for purpose.

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.