Are we awake to the west’s challenges?

What's best for the west

PAINTING THE TOWN Local community groups like the Ballina Community Clean-Up showcased the most heartening aspect of our What’s Best for the West series, says Dr John Bradley. Initiatives are driven by dedicated individuals and groups who identify local challenges and take action to address them. Here Ballina volunteers Rodney O’Donnell, Tony Newell, Derek Leonard and Barry Higgins take a well-earned break during their recent painting of Pearse Street in the town.

Dr John Bradley casts a critical eye  over what our What’s Best for the West series has revealed

It was brave of The Mayo News to initiate a series of thirteen articles on regional development, entitled ‘What’s Best for the West?’ This is a difficult topic to treat within a county like Mayo that is both peripheral within Ireland as well as containing lagging sub-regions within itself. Taking responsibility for internal co-operation and making difficult local choices in formulating regional strategy does not sit easily on our local politicians. It is always easier to blame outsiders (the so-called ‘permanent government’, national development agencies, lack of representation in cabinet, etc).
The first topic each week was an interview with a regional or local politician, with CEOs of state agencies, the Northern & Western Regional Assembly (N&WRA) and the Western Development Commission (WDC); and analysis of two crucial infrastructural projects, Ireland West Airport Knock and the Western Rail Corridor (WRC). It concluded with views from the local business community, including Tommy Griffith, the CEO of PEL and James O’Doherty, a Westport-based business consultant.
The second topic examined how regional development trends and challenges impacted at the micro or local level for communities, groups, organisations and businesses. These often find themselves at the remoter end of the policy support chain, but are vital in serving people who tend to be written out of the wider policy picture. Finally, the third topic was an invited essay on ‘Home Thoughts’, where individuals – natives and inward migrants – were asked to reflect on the community in which they lived and worked.
One does not have to live for long in Mayo before realising that we are not comfortable speaking truth to power, particularly to local power. Open articulation and trashing out of regional policy challenges are not our way. The ‘quiet word’ in a back room; unwillingness to rock the boat; seeking an inside track; the fear of a political backlash to criticism all colour our conduct. We seek out external enemies and direct our ire outwards at them rather than inwards at ourselves. We call on other, external, people and agencies to do things that we ought properly be doing, in part, for ourselves.

Lacking situational awareness
What did we learn from the ‘Best for the West’ series? Let’s start with the dominant contribution, namely the extended interviews carried out since July with eight regional and local politicians. With two exceptions, one might characterise our politicians as lacking in ‘situational awareness’ of regional strategy. In other words, few of them presented a coherent view of the development needs of the economy of Mayo as a whole, within the wider context set by the current national strategy (Project Ireland 2040) or the N&WRA’s Regional Economic and Spatial Strategy (RSES). Their observations were often either vague and unfocused or related narrowly to specific initiatives. Confusingly, often both simultaneously.
A difficulty with interviewing regional politicians is that they are never likely to be critical of popular goals (the WRC, GMIT Castlebar, the Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC), etc). In Mayo these are ‘motherhood and apple pie issues’, ie issues that cannot be questioned because they appeal to universally-held beliefs or values. Politicians will always pledge their undying support while seldom doing anything concrete or coherent about them. One would admire them if the tried, and some did. Many don’t appear to try very hard other than to make well publicised ‘calls’ for action by others.
Two of the main topics were interviews with the CEOs of the WDC, Tomás Ó Síocháin and of the N&WRA, David Minton. In the case of the WDC, an earlier interview with a former Chair of the WDC (Mr Paddy McGuinness, Mayo News, July 28) had painted a disturbing picture of an unloved and underfunded agency that lay outside the national policymaking mainstream and appeared to play a more symbolic than real policy role.
In the case of the N&WRA, after penetrating the confusing wealth of detail, one saw that the Assembly was primarily a vehicle for transmitting national policy decisions to the N&W super region and downwards to the individual counties. It was not a genuine attempt to provide interactive, bottom-up elements to policy making.
The most worrying aspect of the ‘Best for the West’ series were difficulties experienced in finding people from the business community who were prepared to speak openly, frankly and perhaps critically about any deficiencies in the regional strategy system, particularly as it affects Mayo. In other EU states the business and trade union organisations are regionalised and are active participants in regional debates. This serves to give individuals cover for constructive criticism. However, in Ireland the regional offices of, say, the ICTU and IBEC function mainly in the narrow HR negotiation area and play little effective part in regional strategy. The regional offices of national agencies like the IDA and Enterprise Ireland have highly restricted powers and few analytical resources.

Dedicated individuals and groups
The second element of the series, dealing with community activities, was the most heartening. In a peripheral, sparsely populated county like that of Mayo, individuals really matter. Initiatives are not abstract things driven by government policy and faceless officials. Rather, they are driven by dedicated individuals and groups who identify local challenges and take action to address them. The state supports, but private initiative and energy is what actually drives the work to success. The real tragedy illustrated by ‘Best for the West’ is that it illustrated starkly the very limited institutional continuum linking national, super-regional, county and community levels. This makes it hard to generate a better understanding of the location-specific challenges faced by isolated communities as well as the hidden potential that often lies dormant within them.
The third element of the series offered us personal reflections on what it is like to live and work in Mayo, including views on the attractive aspects that enhance the quality of life here, far away from urban congestion, pollution and stress. Of course, not everything is rosy in the Mayo garden, as the wry reflections of Ger Reidy showed! (Mayo News, September 1).
After 13 articles and series editor Edwin McGreal’s best efforts, we are still left with many unanswered questions. The crucial issue is the excessive centralisation of regional analysis and decisions in Dublin and the absence of much by way of institutions to ensure devolved regional thinking.
For example:
[a] Irish governments have tried since the 1950s to come up with governance structures that would empower and develop lagging regional economies. They all appear to have failed. In what way do the Regional Assemblies address past failures, and with what probability of success?
 [b] In what real sense is the N&WRA a ‘consultative’ forum? Let’s be honest and admit that its real role is to communicate to the constituent counties what national government decides in their absence.
 [c] More specifically, the nominated public representatives to the N&WRA (three per county) have no formal remits to transmit county policy upwards or to report back to their individual councils. How are the wider strategic needs of the whole region handled in light of the weak and poorly structured county inputs?
 [d] The RSES published by the N&WRA contained 273 designated Regional Policy Objectives, with no attempt to cost or rank them in order of likely benefits to the region. Is one to conclude that these ‘objectives’ form a kind of cornucopia ‘shopping list’, designed more to defuse county-level dissatisfaction than with any realistic possibility of implementation?
[e] Research on the economy of Mayo has criticised the neglect of the dynamic central and southern Mayo towns in contrast to the RSES concentration on Letterkenny (far north), Sligo (slow growing) and Athlone (really part of the greater Dublin catchment area). Why were dynamic Mayo towns relegated to the third division? Are Mayo policy makers happy with that situation and its implications?

Lessons from Covid-19
Is the middle of a pandemic a good time to reflect on regional strategy? Perhaps there is a lesson here? Our current pandemic policy making is conducted in a setting where there is a reasonably clear division of responsibility as between the expert medical folk on the one hand, who provide advice based on the best science, and the policy makers on the other hand, who have to take wider impacts on the economy and society into account.
We have never managed to design a system similar to this in our handling of regional strategy. Policy is dominated by ad hoc political and administrative factors; analysis is replaced by grandiose visions that have no foundations in experience. There is a confusing ambiguity between the requirements of spatial planning (eg urban/town renewal) and economic development planning (eg expanding the SME business sector). Local knowledge and experience are scarce on the ground, although Mayo County Council, with limited resources, have been working hard to fill this gap with its own strategic analysis.
Unless we move to a more systematic and knowledge-based approach to regional strategy, drawing on strengthened local institutions, professional expertise and location-specific knowledge, we will be doomed to replay the same conversations as published in this series, again and again, as we continually revisit a long list of failed opportunities to do better.

Murrisk-based economist Dr John Bradley is formerly a Research Professor at the ESRI, thereafter a research consultant in economic development, working in several EU states.