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Laying out some home truths

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HIGH REGARD Long term campaigner for GMIT Castlebar Paddy McGuinness receives a standing ovation after a speech at a public meeting in Castlebar in 2017 on the future of the college. Later that year he highlighted a number of problems halting the development of the western region.  Pic: Michael McLaughlin

Former Chairperson of the Western Development Commission Paddy McGuinness has laid out plenty of the problems he encountered in trying to forge a better future for the region

Edwin McGreal

Looking back on it three years on, Paddy McGuinness’s decision to speak out should have been huge news.
Here was the retiring Chairperson of the Western Development Commission (WDC) revealing major institutional problems and logjams stymying balanced regional development.
Here was a close friend of former Taoiseach Enda Kenny saying things which would have been very unpalatable for Kenny, for Fine Gael and various government departments and agencies.
Here was a man known in his adopted county of Mayo as a man of action and a man of integrity speaking out in a bid to highlight the extent of the challenges facing any plans for meaningful action on balanced regional development.
Yet, as Éamon Ó Cuív noted at a Joint Oireachtas Committee on Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs on the issue in June 2017, ‘it did not raise any issue in the national media’.
“If it had been any other agency or an agency based in Dublin, days would have been spent talking about the crisis, but there was no such effect,” said Ó Cuív.
“I made shocking serious allegations and my friend was Taoiseach at the time. We climbed Kilimanjaro together and here was I saying the simplest things we couldn’t get done and nobody took any notice,” Paddy McGuinness told The Mayo News yesterday (Monday).  
But McGuinness’s resignation and his frank assessments of the problems are worth revisiting as we explore the opportunities and challenges for the west.
In 2017 McGuinness made it public that he had asked Minister Michael Ring not to consider him for reappointment as Chairperson of the WDC, a position he held since 2012.  
“I did it deliberately because I wanted to draw attention to my perception of the situation, which is and was that the problems of rural Ireland and balanced regional development do not rate highly at all, at any level,” Mr McGuinness told the Joint Oireachtas Committee.  

Resistance
In a wide-ranging discussion with TDs from all parties, Paddy McGuinness laid bare many of the concerns voiced by those who feel rural Ireland and, specifically, the western region, have been neglected through an indifferent attitude from the State.
He felt any meaningful efforts at giving greater authority and responsibility to the regions, a ‘bottom-up’ approach, have been resisted by central government, put succinctly in a question from Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív.
“Does Mr McGuinness agree that one of the major problems faced by the commission was the silo effect, with all of the agencies and Departments acting in their own interests and holding onto power and not being willing to release it to a major agency that would have major funding and a major role to play in business and industrial development in the west?”
“The Deputy has put it much better and summarised my feelings much better than I could,” replied Mr McGuinness.
“There is an obsession at administrative level to retain absolute control over agencies such as the WDC. As a result, the ‘bottom-up’ approach, which has been heralded for decades as the way forward, has never been fairly tested,” McGuinness stated.
He went on to say ‘rural Ireland could well do with a new TK Whitaker’ in the civil service, ‘someone with a bit of vision, ambition and courage to bring his or her plans to the highest level of Government and see them enacted’.
He lamented the fact that close access the Taoiseach appeared to count for little and urged the need for a thorough investigation of the issues.
“In spite of all of us, including me, having all the answers, the matter of rural decline is very complex and it probably needs really serious worthwhile study. I would be worried that the Minister, Deputy Ring, would not want to hear about another study. An issue as complex as rural decline is worth studying seriously,” he said.
He was critical of the moving of rural affairs from one department to the next in various governments, saying the attitude appeared to be ‘where will we shove it’. He expressed hope in 2017 with the fact there was a new Department of Rural and Community Development, under Michael Ring but notes that now that has been downgraded and attached to the Department of Social Protection.
“That just proves the point. The real power is in permanent government. A minister from Wexford could do huge things for regional development – they don’t have to be from Mayo – but there is no commitment at senior civil service level to develop a worthwhile programme of balanced regional development.”

Did You Know?
Paddy McGuinness is credited with being the driving force for the opening of the GMIT Campus in Castlebar. He stood in the 1994 By Election in Mayo West to fill the seat vacated by Padraig Flynn’s appointment as EU Commissioner. McGuinness’s performance is credited with paving the way for Michael Ring to take the seat ahead of Beverley Flynn.