MAKING A MARK In his final year as a MEP, Jim Higgins was honoured with the MEP of the Year award, being selected out of a total of 751 MEPs for his contribution to EU Transport Legislation.
In the coming weeks we will be exploring challenges and opportunities for the western region, speaking to politicians and people in authority, examining case studies and hearing personal stories of people who call Mayo home.
A Fine Gael TD in Mayo for 15 years as well as being a MEP for the region for ten years, Ballyhaunis’s Jim Higgins has a wealth of experience at the coalface of Irish politics.
He also served as a member of Seanad Eireann, sat on Mayo County Council and was a Minister for State and Government Chief Whip in the Rainbow Coalition from 1994-1997.
In Europe, he sat on the Committee on Transport and Tourism and all his political experience combined with the fact he is now retired makes him an ideal person to give an honest assessment of the current situation.
EMG: In your experience has the west fallen victim to an indifferent approach to balanced regional development?
JH: Absolutely, there’s no doubt that the west has fallen down. If you use population as a yardstick of survival the statistics don’t lie. For example, in the 2011 census, every county in Ireland recorded a population increase with two exceptions – Donegal and Mayo. And the same thing that was repeated in the 2016 census.
So if you look at the population, for example, of Dublin City, and the population increased to a population of 1.34 million. So you have a massive population imbalance driven by the economic reality that the East and Dublin in particular is just exploding and the west unfortunately is receding.
EMG: What do you think needs to be done to redress it?
JH: I would be very critical of the performance of the IDA. In 2018 they announced this wonderful press conference that they had 22,785 jobs. Highlighting again the multinational sector jobs. It was said by (Minister) Heather Humphries that it was the largest regional development growth in 17 years. It was, in counties in the immediate vicinity of Dublin.
If you look at it you had only three site visits in Mayo in the first nine months of 2019 which is a decline from ten in 2018 and that’s from a total of 541 site visits in Ireland.
If the IDA were serious, if they had an agenda other than producing global figures for the country at their annual press conference where they wheel out the numbers and so on and it’s all happy, happy … why don’t they show prospective investors the success stories that are the Baxters, the Hollisters, the Allergans?
If Baxter, Hollister and Allergan can defy the so called logistics of location and the disadvantages of the west of Ireland … If US companies are coming here, why don’t they showcase those companies as success stories?
What I’d love to know is when the IDA do their site visits do they visit Baxter, do they visit Hollister? Do they visit Allergan? Do they talk to the management? Do they basically, you know, have a one to one in terms of the advantages of locating here.
I think we need to know how the IDA goes about its business of selling the west. If these companies can survive and thrive and grow … there is no strategic planning on the part of the IDA, basically they seem to focus on just getting in as many companies as possible but rural dispersal just doesn’t seem to be in their psyche.
EMG: How much of these issues come back to politics? Is balanced regional development a political priority?
JH: No, I don't think it is. If you look over the years have been various efforts, creating the impression that we would have balanced regional development. We were supposed to have hubs and growth and so on. It was nothing more than a paper exercise. Nothing ever happened, there was no follow up.
I think this needs to be driven at political level and essentially from the point of view of social and regional imbalance.
Dublin is a mess. You have traffic congestion, long queues, limited time with your families in the evening. Two hours going to work, two hours coming home. There’s huge pressure on school places. Affordable accommodation, to rent or buy, is huge. Costly leisure facilities.
Then if you look at the west of Ireland, you’ve no traffic congestion, loads of family time. You’re home at 5.30/6pm if you’re commuting from Ballyhaunis to Castlebar. Lots of top quality school options, cheap housing, an international airport, all the solutions.
Then you’ve someone like Michael Ring who did a huge job in terms of enhancing the quality of life, he pumped millions, literally, into all kinds of community facilities to enhance the quality of life. But that’s not addressing the economic malaise that’s there, the cancer. We’re dying. It’s a slow death. It is not like as if we were in A&E or intensive care, but it’s so slow.
If you look at the population figures, if you look at the decline, I mean, that's just the reality of where we're going, you know, and we’re going downhill at a very fast rate.
The late Seán Flanagan years ago was reviled back in the 1970s when he was, I think, the last Minister for Lands and he said that the future the west of Ireland would be based on part-term farmers so farmers would have to have another job and that’s what has happened but then if the other jobs are not there, how can the farmer stay? The whole fabric of rural Ireland is under threat.
What needs to happen at ministerial level, what needs to happen is, you know, they need to sit down with the IDA. They need to focus on the social reality of where Ireland is going.
And this is that a huge burgeoning imbalance in terms of population in Dublin which is bringing with it all the problems.
If you look at it pre-Covid, what were the main problems? Housing and health. And when I heard on February 1 of 500 new Amazon jobs for Dublin, that’s 500 new bed spaces. That’s 500 people that’s going to be dislodged because they are in lower level accommodation. Every single job announced for Dublin means another bed space in an already chaotic situation.
EMG: It is often said that Irish politics is too centralised and there is not enough autonomy at local level. From your experiences in Europe, is this something you can attest to?
JH: It has to be addressed on two levels. I know there’s a big political brouhaha about Dara Calleary and I’m delighted he got promoted to Minister for Agriculture. But if you look at political clout, in 1965 Mayo had seven TDs, four in South and three in North. Henry Kenny, (Michael) Dalgan Lyons, (Micheál) Ó Móráin and Seán Flanagan in South Mauyo. In North Mayo, Miko Browne, Tommy O’Hara and Phelim Calleary. In 1969 it was reduced to six, reduced to five in 1997 and in 2016 reduced to four.
You then look at democracies local level. One of the worst decisions ever made was the decision made by Phil Hogan to abolish the town councils. Westport Town Council was a primary example of where councillors would bury their political hatchets, they put their party political jerseys aside and they worked collectively for Westport. Ballina and Castlebar not to the same extent but a great example of local democracy.
That’s a huge problem. I’ve got kids working in France. Small town councils over there represent people at the local level. Here we abolished the town councils and decided to introduce these regional structures and the further you move away from the local level, the more you’re diluting democracy and clout. The regional authorities cannot have their finger on the pulse like town councils. And that is a huge problem, you know. And, in my opinion, what needs to happen is to go back to the old system again and I think that will happen.
EMG: The Civil Service are often described as being ‘out of touch’. Is this a fair assessment, from your experience in government?
JH: I think there’s something in it, I think the Civil Service are extremely good in terms of being meticulous and upstanding and abiding by all of the principles, but there’s a distinct lack of imaginative thinking and creativity. The thing about is that they all live within a few miles of the capital.
Decentralisation happened to a small extent with (former Minister for Finance) Charlie McCreevy’s plans but then it stalled. The decision making, it all happens in Merrion Street (where Government Buildings are located). There isn’t a focus on looking at the overall reality of Ireland.
We're only a small country, you can drive from one end to the other. It’s three hours from Dublin to Westport. We’re not India and we’re not China. We should be able to redress this. To me someone needs to take the IDA by the scruff of the neck and tell them that they need to incentivize the west of Ireland for business by prospective FDI investors.
EMG:In 2011 you advised then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar against removing the Western Arc from the EU’s TEN-T Core Network for infrastructural projects. How much of a blow was that for the west?
JH: I think it was a huge lost opportunity for the west. And I would love to have been back there again to drive this. And I wish that the MEPs that are out there at present would actually drive this, because you can always revisit these things. And while Europe might seem all powerful, if you look at the decision on the Apple ruling this week, everything can be revisited and that should be revisited.
EMG: How big a role can collaborative approaches like the Atlantic Economic Corridor play?
JH: I think it is what’s needed but they do need to bare their teeth as a matter of urgency because the statistics, the graphs are all going in the wrong direction. We’ve got the Western Development Commission, we’ve the Council for the West, we’ve got different bodies. But, at the end of the day, we need to be looking at what are the measurements of survival and what are the measurements of success and growth? We need to get stuck in and get stuck in as a matter of urgency otherwise somebody will be writing another chapter like John Healy when he wrote No One Shouted Stop.
I know, it sounds like that I’m a prophet of doom but the reality is the statistics speak for themselves. There’s the odd glimmer because with the Covid situation working from home is one solution but we need a strong industrial base on the ground. We need feet on the ground. We need to have a sustainable economic lifestyle.
EMG: Has there been enough collaboration between politicians in the west of Ireland?
JH: We all had a kinda common agenda. Maybe collectively we should be focusing more. We have four TDs at the moment. In my day we had PJ Morley, myself and Seán Calleary in the east, Flynn, Kenny and Gallagher in the west. Down to four and struggling. I don’t think we ever pulled against each other but I do think a collective approach is what we need, more structured.
EMG: Do you think political representation has delivered for the west?
JH: The thing about Mayo over the years is we were spoiled with ministerial representation. When I got into the senate in 1981 we had three ministers from the west – (Padraig) Flynn, Denis Gallagher and Seán Calleary. We had Paddy O’Toole in the 1980s, then it was back to Flynn and Co again, then he went to Europe but we still had Seán Calleary as Minister of State. Then there was (Enda) Kenny as a senior minister and I was Chief Whip and Junior Minister for Defence, and then you go to Kenny and (Michael) Ring and then Ring the last time. We’ve always punched above our weight, Mayo got more than our fair share but did it actually deliver to the county?
We’ve had all these ministers, including myself, over time but if you look at the graph we’ve been losing TDs (Higgins cites seven TDs in 1965 reduced to four now), we’ve been losing population, policy hasn’t changed. The IDA still goes on its merry way with its annual announcement paying platitudes to regional development and, at the end of the day, there is no grand strategic plan to address the imbalance on a small island where, on the one hand, it is almost tipping over into the Irish Sea and on the other hand it is rising above the Atlantic waters in terms of depopulation. There’s no one at central level looking at this and saying ‘where the hell are we going’ in terms of quality of life, in terms of the retention of a traditional way of life in small farming. That needs to happen.
EMG: What advice would you have for Dara Calleary and the new Government to address issues of imbalanced regional development?
JH: The three Government parties need to come together and sit down together and just have have one day together to look at where we're going as a country in terms of social imbalance, economic imbalances, and see it we’re going to do to address it.
You can get caught up in your ministerial bubble. The only one who didn’t but he didn’t have an economic remit, was Michael Ring. Ring had the budget and he sprayed it all over the place to enhance community facilities which should all add to the enhancement of the west.
We have the facilities but we don’t have the jobs and it boils down to jobs.
It’s sad. We all stand indicted. Unless something is done about it … I’m not saying it will go beyond help but Mayo and the west will be a much lesser place than it could be.
If anything epitomises what needs to happen in terms of breaking through the sterile thinking that allows decay to continue it is the Knock Airport experience.
The idea of it was appalled by civil servants, ridiculed by politicians of my own hue and the media and, yet, it ploughed ahead. It was the prime example of what could happen when Monsignor Horan and (former Taoiseach, Charlie) Haughey decided they were going to break through bureaucratic thinking and just do it. That’s what’s needed.
The thing about it is this … there is a problem but it is a problem that can be fixed quite easily.
Politicians need to get a grip on the situation. They need to break into the incrustation of the Civil Service because it is grand to be there and have your state car and all the trappings that go with it but the incrustation of civil service thinking is just incredible to break through.
I wouldn’t be a fan of Haughey but they just did it. What it has done is just incredible. That’s the kind of beacon of ingenuity and inspiration and determination that we need. If we could translate that into what we need to arrest the decline and realise the potential of the region we would be going places. That kind of determination is what you need.
EMG: How much of a role do you think Project Ireland 2040 can play in enabling the west to fulfil its potential?
JH: There’s a fair bit in it. I’d beef it up a little bit more. Implementation is key. Things are critical and unless there’s management from the top in terms of watching the statistics that are set down in terms of what the targets are and if they are not being realised, it needs to be redressed as a matter of urgency. There is no point having all these documentations if they are not being implemented.
EMG: How optimistic are you for the future?
JH: I think there’s a huge resource in terms of the determination of the people of the west of Ireland to survive but the will has to be held to account at a political level and an IDA level. Are they delivering? Every five years you have what we call the sobering reality of the census of population. If the population is declining it means there is an economic malaise, a cancer there that isn’t being addressed and needs to be addressed.
This is an unabridged version of an interview that appeared in the Tuesday, July 21, print edition of The Mayo News.