Broadband ‘will transform’ the west

What's best for the west

ON THE RIGHT TRACK  Seán Canney (left), then a Minister for State, pictured with then Chairperson of the Western Development Commission, Paddy McGuinness; then Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring; Colmán Ó Raghallaigh, West on Track; and Ireland West Airport Knock Manager, Joe Gilmore at the launch of the CICERO Report on Phase 1 of the Western Rail Corridor at Ireland West Airport Knock. Pic: Henry Wills

Interview

Edwin McGreal

Galway East Independent TD Seán Canney was Minister for State for Natural Resources, Community Affairs and Digital Development in the previous Government  and, therefore, has valuable experience in many of the areas we are examining as part of our ongoing series.
From Beclare, outside Tuam, Canney speaks about the challenges facing rural Ireland and the west of Ireland but is keen to stress the many opportunities and how the area’s potential might become a reality.


EMG: Do you feel that various different government strategies and national plans have helped or hindered the development of the western region?
SC: I would say the last plan was beginning to help the region in that we had the Department of Community and Rural Development and within that we had a minister at the cabinet, who had a voice and the man that had it (Michael Ring) had a good voice. He was focused on rural and community development. That was something we felt was important.
The other thing I find about policies is that we write down policies and say this is what we want to do, whether it is a policy about job creation and trying to put jobs into the west of Ireland, or into the rural areas, as opposed to into the greater Dublin area.
I think that comes unstuck when it’s being implemented. That’s the key – the implementation may not go as smoothly as what the policy may have said.
I think the biggest thing that we have to grapple with when we talk about rural Ireland and the regions is there are many different types of rural Ireland.
When you take the IDA and they said ‘we’ve located so many jobs in the regions’. But when you look at it you might see that all these jobs are in Cork City, Galway City and Limerick city. They don’t really reach into the regions.
The IDA don’t really look at the regions. In my area here if you look at Tuam, Loughrea, Gort and Athenry, they get crumbs in terms of jobs being located in those areas.
It might be for the simple reason that maybe the investor himself wants to go to the city. He wants to go to Galway, because he might feel Galway is buzzing as a pharma hub and so on but to sell the fact that maybe you could locate in Tuam or Claremorris is the big challenge.

EMG: Do you feel is there enough political priority, a push on that type of spread?
SC: No.

EMG: So does there need to be a proactive strategy to incentivise businesses to go into those areas?
SC: Yes, there can be. It’s about the marketing of what the investor is looking for. It’s assurances that the population is there, that he can draw people to work for him with the required skills. The other thing that the FDI guys are looking for is the capacity of people to work from home, and this is before Covid came along, more and more of the FDI companies are looking at, if they are employing 500 people, and they have to create a facility to put them all into a single unit, and all the costs that come with that, a cost that they don’t need at times, and often times they could have a lot of their workforce working remotely. To work remotely you need to have the broadband in place. And that is coming. So that will transform things, I think, over the next four to five years. What we need to do is sell that, that every house in this country will have fibre optic broadband and can run it up to 140, 150 mbps.
That is something that we need to market for foreign direct investment. The other thing I find is there are difficulties for local people who are trying to invest in their own areas, that they come across a lot of issues. That’s spurned them a bit. It could be planning, stuff like that, where somebody wants to set up a small business, a start-up, they can’t afford to go in and buy a site in the town, and they might want to do something in their own area and I get it all the time, where people get into trouble for planning, say like repairing tractors in rural areas, for instance. This will keep people at home and you might have two or three people working individually in the back of a house. There’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a pushback from planners on that type of thing.
We need to strengthen that to allow more rural types of enterprise and to actually incentivise locating in the rural areas, not just in the regions. That is something I find people get agitated about, they are willing to pay the tax, the rates, and they’ve been shoved into towns where, maybe, they might be better suited in rural areas. That kind of thing is drawing people from rural areas, into the towns. That’s why I’m saying there’s a difference between rural and the rural towns and the regions.
Apart from that, then the other thing I would say is often times, what happens is, policies are made to react. For instance, because we have a huge population in Dublin we’re reacting to that. I think we should be a bit more visionary and build the infrastructure-led development. If you put in the roads, people will follow. If you put it in broadband, people will follow. And if you put in the road transport, people would follow that, as well.
Because they can say, well, hold on a minute, I can do more of what I want to in, take Belclare or, say, Achill, with the same quality of return as I can do it in Dublin or Galway City or wherever. I think if you put in the infrastructure and invest in the infrastructure, you will get the return. You were inclined to say, well, there’s no people there. But if you put nothing in, you will not retain the youth or bring the people there.

EMG: Does this come back to a mindset shift being needed and what was your view of sitting around the cabinet table – did you feel there was enough of an understanding of the opportunities of rural Ireland and the reality of rural Ireland?
SC: I would say the present makeup of the cabinet I have concerns about. We’ve Dara Calleary in there now as a senior minister, but at the same time, the mindset, there’s probably a lot of people who might be ideologists more than anything else, and they don’t have the practical knowledge, they might come down to Achill for a weekend, and say it’s great, and then go back again. But to live in an area for all year round, and see how it might struggle, it’s a different thing. So, someone might come down this weekend and say it’s thriving but it’s artificial.
I give you a good example, the Western Rail Corridor. If we can join the rail line between Athenry and Claremorris, we can link the region – Ballina and Westport to Galway and down to Limerick and Cork. And we can create a corridor of infrastructure there for, I feel €200 million would get that to a fine state. It’s a very small investment, really for the next 100 years and what it would do for transforming transport. And then you see there’s talk of putting in Metro North to the airport, which is great, and should be done, but it’s costing billions. And if you think of the opportunity we have in the west, where we have Shannon Airport and Knock Airport and if you had a rail connection to both of them along the west … It’s not a pipe dream, it’s a reality for the fraction of money. What we should be doing is running with that and gaining the support of Europe, through the TEN-T funding process to help to build that out.
You look at Foynes Port, which I think is another jewel in the western crown, and we need to run a rail out to that and it will cost about €30 million.
What I’m saying is, basically, some people, and I would have had problems trying to convince some politicians in government that they will be making a great investment in the west for something like this. They were indoctrinated by the Department of Transport, who had a mindset that nothing like that should be done and railways were finished with, and we shouldn’t be touching them and all that kind of thing. I think it’s coming back around and the case has been proven with the Galway to Ennis and Limerick line, the fastest growing railway line in the last three or four or five years, gone from a 200,000 up to half a million.
The mindset there was why should we do more if phase one didn’t work but if you look at the actual figures of it, Limerick to Galway is outgrowing all the targets it ever set, and will continue to do so.
We seem to be very reluctant to take a punt on this. And if you go back to Monsignor Horan, if he was alive now and he was on about building the airport in Knock, he probably would be buried. That idea would be buried out in the mountain, and you’d never see it again.
He had the vision to go at it and the guts to go at it. You wouldn’t get away with doing that now. The rail can be a proper hub for people coming in and out of the west.
And I think we need to have a vision, and the strength in numbers in political representation, to make sure we can deliver these things.

EMG: There seems to be more of a challenge getting investment for this region. Was that your experience?
SC: Absolutely. I would say the region, it just got to the stage where it’s at. If you look at representation, and where the people are and where they vote. You try and accommodate them people.
We have created this thing, where, if you’re a young person, young couple in Dublin and trying to buy a home to live in that you’re paying a hell of a lot more for it, because of the fact there’s such a demand out there and what we need to be doing is rebalancing that to make it more attractive for people, not just to go out to the commuter belt but to come to, say, Leitrim to work, to set up incentives for people who can work remotely, and still work with the big companies.
It can happen. It does happen in small little projects but we need to be doing it in bigger projects, for the regions. The Atlantic Economic Corridor region, there are 12 counties in that from Donegal down to Kerry. And all of that physical area really has Cork City, Limerick and Galway, and Sligo. But there are huge tracts of places that doesn’t have anything as an anchor. We probably need to do two things. One, devolve a bit more power to the local authorities, and give them better resources to help build the infrastructure that we need.

EMG: Local attitudes have come up as sometimes being an issue. With the Western Rail Corridor, there is a counter campaign for a greenway. Do we need to be more demanding as a people?
SC: That’s an example where we have the divide and conquer attitude that has come in. We should the cheek that we ask to get a railway and a greenway. We shouldn’t be trying to compromise that we should be looking for one or the other. We shouldn’t have that competing element. We should be working together to deliver everything that we need. When you don’t get enough of the cake, you start to think if you get a small bit of it, you have to happy with it and that’s an attitude people have and politicians, too, have this. We should be looking for the entire package that’s needed in order to develop the area and develop the region.
We also probably have an attitude of underselling ourselves. I know in Tuam, for instance, we had the sugar factory and we talk a lot about it closing. I was going through what we have in Tuam for a project recently. I wrote down everything we have. We have state of the art sewerage, state of the art water, fibre optic broadband in the town.
We have industrial parks, a bypass, motorways. We have big employers in there. One employer, Valeo, is employing in the region 1,400 people. People might not be aware of that. And that’s exactly the point.
Two years ago, they invested 40 million in research and development and there’s about 500 people working in their R&D facility. It’s their biggest R&D facility, doing work on the autonomous car.
I would say 600 people were employed in the sugar factory. It comes back to mindsets. I think about people and businesses like McHale Engineering, JPC Manufacturing and Valeo, started out in the back kitchen of two young men at the time and they grew up to about 165 people, and they sold it on when it needed to go to another stage. We have the capacity. We have the wealth of people who have the brains and the courage to go and take these on.
JFC are a multi billion industry now and they’re going all over the place … We are a great small country but we could do a lot more of it in the regions.

EMG: What are your thoughts on your old Department of Community and Rural Development being tagged onto Social Protection in the cabinet?
SC: It’s not a positive sign. We have a good minister but I know because I was in that department with Michael Ring and I know the length and breadth of it and I know what was being achieved. And it was a new ambitious department with with people who wanted to make a name for themselves. Whilst they will remain as a full department, I feel that they should have a single point of a minister would have no other distractions. Social welfare is a big issue and a big department and tacking rural onto it was a bad message.

EMG:What are your thoughts on the regional authorities as a structure? Do you feel they can make a big difference if empowered a bit more?
I think so. Particularly, what it could be is it could become more about job creation, rather than just setting policies and the North and Western Regional Assembly needs to be resourced to do that. The Western Development Commission in the same way, it needs to be given a bit more latitude.
I think we have major opportunities. Organisations like the local authorities, the regional authorities etc are probably all governed by national policy. They get to do their plans and economic strategies after the national plan is in place, whereas it should be coming the other way. The county council should be doing theirs, feeding up from there. There’s no cost in changing this, it’s just a mindset.

EMG: You mentioned the Atlantic Economic Corridor. Do you feel that is another mechanism with transformative potential?
SC: Yes, it’s being seriously hampered in the fact that it doesn’t have any statutory standard. It doesn’t have any funding. As such, it’s more or less like a lobby group. It doesn’t have any statutory recognition, and it needs to. And it needs to have autonomy to make decisions. The regional authorities and and AEC should be working together but the AEC is left out on a limb, because it doesn’t have any power or status, and it ends up being a lobby group and that’s a pity because it does a lot of good work, but not to the extent that Chambers Ireland would have liked when they set it up.

EMG: Is it problematic that you can have a blurring of lines and responsibilities when you consider all the local authorities, the NWRA, the WDC and the AEC?
SC: Yes, you can fragment the whole thing by having too many people in the mix. What we need to have are clearer devolved authorities with the resources to actually make decisions.
That would be better for the people of the area. You do a national development plan, that’s fine. But I think what you need to be doing is before you do the national development plan, the regional authorities should be saying this is what we want in this area. And it should be devolved to them to do it for the National Development Plan.

EMG: In terms of TEN-T, the Western Arc was struck off the map in 2011. The Independent Alliance pushed strongly for a resubmission of it to be included in the Programme for Government. If you had the influence now, what would you be saying to the Taoiseach and the Government on its importance?
SC: I would be saying if you’re doing infrastructural projects and you have an opportunity to get maybe 30 percent of that from Europe, it’s a no brainer. We should be looking at it. The reason they gave for taking projects off in the west of Ireland, it was probably an indication of the attitude. ‘We don’t have the money so take them out’. Because if you put in the project, you have to commit yourself to doing it and it probably was a litmus test and they failed because they said take out the projects rather than supporting them.
What we need to do is put them back in and follow through with it and if we’re talking about costs and if you can knock 30 percent off by getting aid from Europe, that’s the game we should be in.
I think Europe are very supportive of Ireland and there is sympathy for Ireland, as a result of Brexit but we should be capitalising on that sort of thing, especially for the west of Ireland, where we can see the figures coming out show we’re going back rather than going forward.

EMG: How important is infrastructure in terms of making the region as strong as it can be, in terms of traditional infrastructure like roads and rails and more modern infrastructure like broadband?
SC: I think broadband is number one. At this stage, it’s number one. Number two is transport in terms of rail and road. I’ll give you an example. From Gort to Tuam where the motorway was done, it has opened up huge opportunities for towns along that route. Particularly Gort and Tuam and Athenry but at the same time you go into Athenry and there’s an IDA park there with no services in it. If I’m an investor and I want to go in there in the morning, they are not ready to take you in because they need to put in water and sewerage. That should have been done. We all knew the motorway was going to open and if you’re trying to sell something to an investor and if can you say to him, you can locate in Athenry or Tuam or Gort rather than putting you into Parkmore in Galway, where all the workers are going to be maybe spend an hour extra a day in their cars. The IDA and these people should have their parks up to speed and to show the results and the benefit of the motorway rather than just let it sit there but the reaction seems to be slow enough.

EMG: Do you feel party politics and party loyalty can sometimes hinder the west in the sense the potentially strong collective voice is not as pronounced?
SC: It is and probably even as independents, we’re a bit to blame because we have a lot of independents. If you take it in Galway alone, we have Denis Naughten, Michael Fitzmaurice, Noel Grealish, Catherine Connolly and myself is five. If you go up along the regions, we should have more of a collective voice, even as independents. We’re seeing to be a bit fragmented and that plays into the hands of the establishment as well.
In party politics what happens is you go with whatever is set out nationally and the backbenchers have to accept it or whatever and sometimes that can play into the hands of where the population is.
Everyone would say in politics if you can win Dublin, you will have a majority that’s the political side. Party politics aside, I think, TDs sometimes should be more together in the rural areas, if not along the west to try and build a lobby group that would have to be reckoned with.

EMG: If you had an audience now in cabinet, why would you say it is important to invest and promote better regions?
SC: I think the biggest reason to invest in regions is that if you don’t want to, you’re going to have a very poor Dublin, and a very poor society in 20 years time.
If we kind of spread this out, so people can have alternatives, rather than having to move towards Dublin … And I think there will be a more benefit to Dublin to do that for better quality of life for people, for better balance of life, certainly, but I think we need to spread it out better not alone for the regions, but also for where the congestion is, where the centres are. If you look at traffic … would it not be better to have a little bit less commuting time for people who are commuting into Dublin from commuter belt?
And if they could just get jobs locally, or maybe work remotely, and spend less time traveling, more quality of life, more time with your family, you would have a better workforce and a better society.

EMG: Does it come back to choice and people having the choice of where to live?
SC: Yes, absolutely. Some people don’t have the choice. And they feel trapped. And a lot of people working in Dublin would feel that.
We always talk about what’s wrong but I think there’s also great potential and great hope. I’m always an optimist. What I think we have seen since March, rural Ireland has shown it is a great place to live and working but we need to make sure that we make it attractive for people to come and live, and make it more sustainable to live here. We can do that.
But this Covid lockdown has demonstrated that a lot more than anything. It gives great hope.
I wouldn’t be a guy that’s telling you what’s wrong. I’d like to see us putting things right, to make sure things are better. We just need to keep working at it and keep reminding ourselves, and you go back to the collective thing about TDs in our areas, reminding ourselves, how much has been achieved and what more we have to achieve as well.