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‘Covid-19 is a game changer for balanced regional development’

Features

Newly elected Sinn Féin TD Rose Conway-Walsh discusses the strengths of and threats to the west region

Edwin McGreal

EMG: What do you see as the main opportunities and challenges facing this region?
RCW: Covid-19 is a game changer for balanced regional development and rural Ireland. The reason it’s a game changer is that there is a national discussion on the need for balanced regional development, that we can no longer just have policies that drives everybody into the big cities. It suddenly becomes a problem for all of us. It’s not just a problem for people living in rural Ireland.
For people living in rural Ireland, it has presented an opportunity to shine a real bright light on the neglect of rural Ireland.
The lack of investment in the infrastructure that is needed to sustain a population to live in the regions.
We look at broadband being the first one. The necessity of it. It’s not just a luxury or that can be an add on. It is integral to the development of rural Ireland, its integrity to education, its integrity to job opportunities. It has always been integral to agriculture.
There is no more hiding in relation to broadband. It has to be delivered and quickly.
There is no point in saying in the long term, everybody in rural Ireland will have 30 megabytes per second. That’s useless. We need an urgency for the delivery of broadband across the country.

EMG: The timeframe for the National Broadband Plan is five to seven years. Do you feel that is too long?
RCW: Too long. What’s often done is the investment is made where there is already a level of service. There are too many areas without any level of service and they should be prioritised. I always believe with broadband they should work from the outside in, but they keep working from the inside out.
In the same way with mobile phone coverage, the regulator has to take a grip of that, the government has to take a grip of it.
It is nonsense that you can believe in inside the 50 kilometre zone in Castlebar and you have to go out to the car to make a phone call because you don’t have coverage in your house. That is one of the problems that Covid has shone a light on.
There are big opportunities for the Western Rail Corridor, that has to be delivered.
If the Greens are to bring anything in government, they need to get fully behind that project to deliver a rail network that would facilitate the connectivity around the island.
Above all, for any of these projects, there has been enough strategies and enough plans. There is no more need for written documents. It is about action followed by investment.

EMG: There would be some who would argue about the population to justify such investment. Do you feel such investment has to be front-loaded?
RCW: I continuously make the point that doing a cost benefit analysis that is population driven will always give you the result of something is not feasible in rural Ireland. It cannot be population driven, it’s narrow sighted, it’s wrong and it’s scandalous
The civil servants are being allowed to make decisions based on population without any foresight into what do we need in order to be able to attract a population, in order to serve the population. The population criteria has fed into the neglect.

EMG: Why do you feel this model has not changed?
RCW: My take on it is we have been so held back by civil war politics, by people making voting decisions based on civil war, that there has never been a need for governments to address an area where people have been so predictable. That’s why the shock of the result in the February election has absolutely sent shivers down the spine of the establishment, has shaken the establishment. Because people are no longer prepared to do what they’re told.
That is what will underpin real opportunities here. It’s not just about party politics. It’s about people preparing to change their own behaviour in order to bring about the change that they see is desperately needed.
The rural population are ahead of government. They’re far ahead of government.
There’s an excitement around that for me. Personally, I’m glad that I’ve lived long enough to see people stand up and say, ‘well, actually, no, I’m not going to do what I’ve always done, I’m not going to do what my father and my grandparents did’.
And that has been difficult, and it has been difficult for people in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael but they were able in this election to say, well, the Fianna Fáil l that I will be voting for now is not the Fianna Fáil that my grandparents voted for.
And likewise with Fine Gael. It’s not the same thing again, it’s not the Fine Gael that Michael Collins envisaged. That has allowed people to change. The fact that government know that people are willing to change, I would like to think will attract far more investment into the rural areas.
But the important thing is that investment needs to be targeted. It’s not just a question of spending money and being able to say we spent X amount of money in Mayo. It’s the projects that are targeted.
And what I would [like to] see is to target a small number of big projects like the Western Rail Corridor, like Knock Airport, the N5, and broadband obviously. Take the bigger projects and make them really work rather than a scattergun approach with bits here and bits there.
It would concern me when I saw a plan for rural Ireland, where there were something like 187 objectives, I would rather see five big, achievable objectives and delivering them and really examining what the knock on potential might be, rather than just saying we’ll spend X amount of money.
I think there’s a lot of money wasted in this State. If people were listened to you might look at a number of smaller projects and they’re all very important in their own right … but when you look at say, investment that is needed in Mayo University Hospital, we waited nine years for just for the modular unit for the Emergency Department
And other things, investment that is needed in Belmullet Hospital. If you went to people in Erris and ask them would they sacrifice small bits of money in favour of having a really good, state-of-the-art, fit for purpose hospital where all of their health needs would be delivered close to home with a satellite Primary Care Centre in Bangor … If you present that to people as that and get them to make the choice, I will be certain that 99 percent of people would go for having a fully functioning Belmullet Hospital where they could have stepped down respite, elder care and all of the health services delivered there and a primary care centre in Bangor, rather than bits and pieces that should be done anyway.

EMG: What are your thoughts on regional structures in Ireland. Do you feel they have enough input and are a vehicle for change?
RCW:In terms of the authorities, the authority that is most nearest people in Mayo is Mayo County Council. I would say Mayo County Council has been absolutely ruined in the last number of years.
The local authority should never be a community development group, a rural development centre. The core functions of the local authority in terms of infrastructure delivery, to me, should be sacrosanct and the investment put in there.
I was vehemently opposed to the functions of the Leader programme and the rural development programme coming under the local authority.
Yes, they have a role to play in terms of good practice and exchange of international projects. And yes, there was a role for them to play. But for them to let go hundreds of outdoor staff to take up roles that were already being filled by local development companies was absurd in my view. The core functions of the local authorities have been neglected.
When you look at the regional authorities yes, I think they need to see what are their core functions. I think they’re important in the sense of developing strategy and ensuring those strategies are implemented. I think there needs to be better coordination, collaboration and communication.

EMG: What are your views on the Atlantic Economic Corridor?
RCW: I would see great potential in the Atlantic Economic Corridor. I am really disappointed that the Department of Rural Affairs is now coming under [the Department of] Social Protection. I would have felt this was a really opportune time to appoint an economic minister for the Atlantic Economic Corridor, if the government were really serious about underpinning that and driving it forward.
There are great minds on that Economic Corridor with massive experience and massive determination to change the Atlantic Economic Corridor.
There is huge potential in terms of wave energy, wind energy, and really valuable other sustainable projects and high value jobs, but they cannot do it without the investment.
And they cannot do it without somebody around the cabinet table, having an economic mindset. That’s why tagging Rural Affairs onto welfare really angered me because to me, it said in the regions you’re fine. We will look after the region, patting us on the head. We’re not a welfare region. We are a region with enormous natural resources and enormous human capital, an awful lot of people who live in the region and along the Atlantic Economic Corridor, people who travel the world and have vast experience in very successful companies. There’s a huge human capital here. There’s a huge bed of natural resources. All they need is the capital, the investment and somebody at the cabinet to be able to prioritise the Atlantic Economic Corridor.

EMG: Do you feel there is a need for greater cross-party co-operation to assist the likes of the Atlantic Economic Corridor?
RCW: I think there is and I think that needs to be organised across party. Because you don’t have a separate department at the moment, you do not have a stand alone rural affairs committee.
I think there’s a responsibility on all of us across party to have a political mechanism there, where we can reach consensus.
Cross party we agree on many of these things. I think the majority of TDs from all parties with a few exceptions agree about the necessity for the Western Rail Corridor.
I think nearly all the TDs would agree with the investment that’s needed for Knock airport and the N5 so you’re pushing an open door.
The committees have just been established. They haven’t met yet. I do think we need to get our heads together to do that.
I’m very happy to work with all of the TDs cross party on this. I don’t believe in this nonsense of it’s no good unless I delivered on it.
I’m the only opposition TD in Mayo. My job is holding the government to account, holding Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to account in terms of delivering the programme for government.
I think it takes a very effective opposition to make a very good government. And I think so far, in the number of weeks we have been operating, I think people can see that we are fulfilling our commitment of being the most effective opposition that the state has ever seen.

EMG: The west of Ireland and rural Ireland in general is often seen more as a burden than an opportunity from a central government level. How much of a solution can the west be?
RCW: I’ve always believed we have rural solutions to national problems. If we work from that point of view, it’s a no brainer.
There is a recognition there of a necessity, because people realised during Covid, that they don’t want to be working and living in high population areas so there’s a real opportunity for us to avail of that.

EMG: What are your thoughts on Project Ireland as a tool for the west and regional development in general?
RCW: I think if everything is implemented … What they need to speed it up, it needs to be front loaded. It needs to be speeded up. We cannot afford to wait any longer. Without the investment … we have enormous potential and enormous opportunity. And we have the factors of production in our natural resources and human capital. But we just need the monetary capital to be able to put these projects in place and the political will to put them in place.
It’s okay as a document. It’s the implementation of it. It has to be more than just spin. There’s nothing wrong with it. It sets out what needs to be done. But there isn’t any urgency around it. It’s the urgency that’s going to make it work.
The urgency in the implementation of it. That’s why I’m saying we don’t need any other reports. We just need action.

EMG: What would Sinn Féin do differently?
RCW: The broadband and the fast tracking of that … I have grave concerns that we don’t end up owning these structures. That needs to be fast tracked. And telecommunications in general.
My priority projects are Knock airport, the Western Rail Corridor, the Atlantic Economic Corridor, supporting that properly in terms of what needs to be done for wind and wave energy and other sustainable job creation enterprises.
In terms of education, the GMIT in Castlebar is a huge opportunity. I think Covid presents real opportunity for GMIT.
As it is at the moment, they are putting on and providing a lot of very good courses. And I encourage students from Mayo to look at what’s available in GMIT. You can attend there and go home every night. You don’t have the accommodation problems that you might have in other areas.

EMG: Do you feel there is untapped potential in GMIT?
RCW: Absolutely. And the likes of Paddy McGuinness saw that and he has fought for years. The truth is that they’ve never really wanted the Mayo campus of GMIT. It has never been wanted by the establishment. And it is only because of the likes of Paddy McGuinness and the great stuff he did that it is in there.
Given the proper investment, as well, GMIT can be a very powerful educational in Mayo that can act as a catalyst for the development of Castlebar and other areas of Mayo as well.
I also think that they need to look at the fiscal opportunities that can be there to attract businesses to Mayo and around Knock airport and its strategic development zone. They need to look at tax incentives, targeted tax incentives.

EMG: You mentioned it about GMIT, about Knock Airport and about the Western Rail Corridor – how people locally have had to campaign so hard for them. What does that tell us about central government attitudes?
RCW: They have to see it as an investment rather than a cost. When they do a project in Dublin or other areas, they see it as an investment. When they are sizing up a project in for the regions, they look at it as a cost. There is a difference. The models that they are using in cost benefit analysis are determining the outcomes.
In terms of the capital investment, I am hoping to get them to look at that as an investment. In the same way as you look at education, is it a cost or an investment? To me it is an investment in a child. It’s an investment in human capital.
It’s not something that costs in the stage. And that’s goes back to what worries me about welfare and rural Ireland. Welfare is looked at as a cost.

EMG: Throughout this series we’ve heard criticisms of ‘them’ or ‘they’, often meaning government or the civil service or the ‘establishment’. Who are the ‘they’ you are speaking about?
RCW: It’s a combination of political and senior civil servants and elected politicians based on party politics, rather than the capacity to deliver and the capacity to be able to analyse what’s going on and to be comfortable enough to say, this is what needs to happen. This is an investment and if you need to change one of the elements, then you will change it. Too many things are just taken at face value. Someone will say a report has been produced to say this won’t give us a return. But using different criteria, that’s not population led, more often than not it will have a totally different outcome.
We need to measure in outcomes. And we need to include proper elements in the cost benefit analysis.
You give me any project tomorrow morning and I can make it feasible or not feasible, depending on the elements that I use to measure it. The current measurements will always mitigate against rural Ireland.
Things are measured in a different way. And it’s just a mindset and you either have a cost mindset or an investment mindset. And you have short, medium and long term. And how do we want rural Ireland to look in the longer term? We can’t just sit back and let it go.
We’re not here to serve Dublin. We’re here to serve the people in rural Ireland. We’re here to serve the wide diaspora that would love to return to rural Ireland.

EMG: Speak to me about the reality of being a parent in Belmullet and the future for your children.
RCW:Looking at my own situation in terms of having my two sons Anthony and Peter. Anthony is going to college this year and Peter will be going in two years time. As we are at the moment, without proper investment, they will not have the choice of living in their own community. And I want them to have the choice in the same way as someone in Dublin has a choice whether to have a career in their own locality or not. The reason they don’t have the choice is because they don’t have the infrastructure in there to support the employment opportunities.
If you look in terms of a family moving back into the area, if you look at our childcare situation … that’s why the childcare model needs to change so that you have a State childcare system that will provide for everybody so you have sufficient places regardless of the ability of the child and that you will have afterschool and you will have affordability so that parents will be able to afford proper childcare to enable them to go out to work so one thing feeds into another. Then you watch schools being closed down because the population isn’t in rural Ireland. You’d have to ask why. Why isn’t the population in rural Ireland? The population isn’t there because you don’t have the job creation there and the career opportunities there. Everything presents a why. The whys aren’t being answered at every level from childcare to education to job opportunities to enterprise opportunities and we still manage to have a really good rural Ireland. I am absolutely petrified at the number of businesses that may be forced to close because of Covid. As we are right now in the tourism industry, you see a vibrancy in towns like Westport and Belmullet is busy, let’s roll into the middle and the end of September. How many of those businesses which are actually quite vibrant now, really good businesses that have been there for generations, how many of those businesses are going to be there because of restrictions?

EMG: Are we too reliant on employment from tourism and at the mercy outside forces?
RCW: We are because we don’t have the permanent population where people get a wage package every Friday evening that is spent in the community. We don’t have enough of those businesses. We don’t support our small and indigenous businesses. Businesspeople around Mayo … many of them never got any help whatsoever. Multinationals are important, yes but too many indigenous are excluded from so many things. They need to be targeted with proper investment, not just piecemeal bits and pieces.

This is an unabridged version of an interview that appeared in Tuesday’s Mayo News as part of The Mayo News’ ongoing series, What’s Best for the West?