We need to talk

Notes from the Western Periphery

ANSWERS NEEDED The lagging NW region has been shortchanged in the allocation of EU funding

…about The Northern and Western Regional Assembly

John Bradley

I hope you saw the article by Northern and Western Regional Assembly Director David Minton in the December 13 issue of The Mayo News (‘Without the EU, where would we be?’). It was written in response to my December 6 column, ‘The Great EU Funding Heist’).
Mr Minton rejected my characterisation of a NWRA EU funding press release as ‘more concealing than revealing’ because it ignored the relative allocation of funds between the NW and more prosperous regions. He directs us to their website, but the regional allocation methodology is nowhere treated there. Highlighting this omission was the intention of my column.
Mr Minton claims that the North West region received an adequate share of EU funding. He believes that it is enough for the NW to do slightly better per head than other regions. This is wrong. More populous regions do not need the funding so urgently. They are more populous because they are already more developed.
Mr Minton is correct that the European Commission (EC) did not reassign the NW region to ‘lagging’ status. Actually, it was the European Parliament (EP), in an authoritative report issued by its Committee on Regional Development (REGI) in September 2022 (see the REGI Committee report available on ww.europarl.europa.eu). Curiously, this EP report was used by the NWRA in its own pre-Budget submission (available on www.nwra.ie). On page 8 there is a map that designates the NW as one of ‘The EU’s defined lagging regions’.
The EP report sets out a better methodology for describing relative regional performance and makes a convincing case that the existing EC nomenclature, upon which Mr Minton relies to refute the notion that the NW region is ‘lagging’, is imprecise and confusing. I apologise for my attribution slip. But the NWRA made the same slip. Facts confirm that the NW regional economy is systematically lagging. So enough of semantics!
The other points made by Mr Minton might best be treated as differences of opinion or interpretation rather than conflicts over facts. I did note that he agrees with me that all major regional development policy and funding decisions are taken at a higher level by central government and national agencies. Such a situation is disturbing and negates benefits of real policy devolution as implemented in other EU states.

Creating impressions
Turning to more general issues, the three Irish Assemblies all derived from the 2018 national strategy, Project Ireland 2040. They were set up to convey an impression of devolved regional planning activity in order to mask the reality that command and control was retained by Dublin. Assembly members consist of three nominated county councillors from each of the constituent counties.
These members are not assigned any formal or institutional role in interfacing between their county councils and the NWRA executive. Rather, they appear to function as relatively passive ‘observers’. Coming from the least-empowered level of public-elected representation, they carry little weight. Imagine if sitting TDs from the region had been appointed instead? Or county managers?
The NWRA website contains a lot of documentation (40, at last count), as do the websites of the other two Assemblies, and they share remarkable similarities. Much of their modest administrative budgets are spent on beautifully produced, inspiring reports heavy on visions, aspirations and stirring images but light on reality, data, hard-nosed economic analysis and devoid of deep strategic thinking. The eight NWRA county-based Local Economic and Community Plans (LECPs) are desk-based research using a common, rigid methodology that insulates them from the complex business reality of what keeps county economies ticking over. Such documents are not research driven. Nor do they provide good policymaking guides, since they have a mainly public-relations objective.  

Breaking out
What impedes real debate on regional development in the NW is that the type of trumpeted consultation that is carried out is often of a pro-forma variety. People are asked for their views, in an unsystematic way. Minor changes to early drafts can be incorporated, but nothing that might be seriously critical of the national government or challenge the overarching Project Ireland 2040 strategy is likely to be included.
The NWRA is not responsible for this unsatisfactory state of Irish regional development policy. Responsibility lies higher up in the policy chain. But the least that we expect of the NWRA is that it speak truth to centralised power. That it challenges the one-size-fits-all, city-centred, national approach and makes a genuine effort to understand how the performance of peripheral county economies can be improved. That it steps out from behind its visions and desk-based research and interacts properly with individual businesses and local organisations. That it prioritises programmes and carries out cost-benefit evaluations before and after implementation. That it tries to understand the NW enterprise sector at a granular level and builds forward from where we are rather than backwards from where we dream to be.
The NWRA does none of these things.
How can we break out of this cul de sac?
The design and conduct of regional policy in the NW have never been exposed to deep, informed and independent scrutiny. The manner in which policy is implemented (myriad small funding projects with vague and unquantified objectives) makes it almost impossible to evaluate impacts. If, in ten years’ time, the NW ceases to lag behind national performance, the NWRA will claim credit. But the omens are bad.
Current policies are weak, unfocused and under-funded. We urgently need a public debate where hard questions can be posed to the NWRA and solid answers delivered. That debate could start with the question of why the lagging NW region has been shortchanged in the allocation of EU funding. Otherwise, the NW region is surely destined to lag ever further behind.

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.