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Taoiseach accused of being ‘at sixes and sevens’ over European funding

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FIELDING QUESTIONS An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar answered questions on the controversial Ten-T funding issue at the 'Creating Stronger Rural Economies and Communities' forum in Westport on Friday last. Pic: Maxwells

Ten-T issue raised during Taoiseach’s visit to Westport

Edwin McGreal

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been accused of being ‘at sixes and sevens’ over substantial Ten-T European funding which could assist projects in the west of Ireland following his latest comments on the issue in Westport last Friday.
The Taoiseach was quizzed on the matter by The Mayo News on Friday afternoon at Westport Town Hall Theatre.
The Western Arc, which runs from Cork to Belfast, along the west and northwest, was removed from the Core funding network of the Trans European Network - Transport (Ten-T) by Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Transport in 2011.
The Core funding network is worth hundreds of billions of euro and represents over 90 percent of the EU’s infrastructural budget to 2030. Only projects on the Core network can apply for Core funding.
The removal of the Western Arc means that the only parts of Ireland now in the Core network are from Belfast to Dublin to Cork and from Portlaoise to Limerick.
However it is a stated aim of the current Programme for Government that in the first three months of that Government (March to June 2016), Ireland would apply to the European Union ‘for the revision of the Ten-T Core Network, including applying for the reinstatement of the cross-border Western Arc’.
However, that has still not happened and the Taoiseach was asked on Friday if the Government were close to honouring their commitment in the Programme for Government.
“That is something that we are in discussions with the European Commission about at the moment. That is a commitment that is in the Programme for Government that we intent to honour,” he said.
“But it’s important to say two things. The big single investment that happened in transport in Ireland in the last seven years was the Gort to Tuam motorway … Anyone that is saying that rural Ireland was somehow mistreated compared to other parts of the country really isn’t speaking on the basis of facts …
“There is also a misunderstanding about Ten-T. Some people seem to think that Ten-T is a big pot of money that we can draw down money for roads and railways. It’s not like structural funds. If you include something on the core network of Ten-T you have to build it and you might get a bit of money from the European Union for it. However, the chances are that the projects that get funding are ones that are trans-European, ones that are cross-border projects for example ports and airports. There isn’t a pot of European money to invest in Irish roads and railways anymore. That era is over.
“If we decide to upgrade roads and railways we decide to do it. And we are going to do it with Irish taxpayer’s money. We are going to upgrade the road between Castlebar and Westport, the N5, upgrade the road between Castlebar to Collooney all the way into Sligo.”
He said the Western Arc was not a cross border project as Northern Ireland is leaving the European Union.

Questions asked of Taoiseach
However, Kealan Flynn, a leading authority on the matter and a former Government advisor, said the Taoiseach’s comments are contradictory. It was Mr Flynn’s Freedom of Information request which revealed, earlier this year, that Mr Varadkar had removed the Western Arc from the Core network in 2011 and brought the issue to national prominence.
“The Taoiseach seems to be at sixes and sevens on the Ten-T,” he told The Mayo News. “On the one hand, he’s saying, mistakenly as it happens, that there is no pot of European money for road and rail infrastructure. On the other, he’s promising to keep the pledge in the Programme for Government, to reapply to get the Western Arc/Atlantic Corridor put back on the EU’s Ten-T Core road, rail, port and airport network map. Which is it? And why is the application still sitting in Dublin two years after it was meant to be sent to Brussels?
“The EU is investing €500 billion in multi-modal (road, rail, airport and sea port) transport infrastructure from 2014-2020, with a further €250 billion needed to finish the Ten-T Core Corridors by 2030. It’s worrying to hear the Taoiseach say the cross-border element doesn’t exist because Northern Ireland is not a trans-European route. It is. And what is the Brexit backstop for, if it isn’t to protect and defend the special relationship and the all-island economy that requires these trans-European links?
“Europe is joining the dots – and handing Ireland the pencil. Last May, Ten-T leader Brian Simpson said funding rules were being rewritten for peripheral regions. The EU is now proposing an investment package for a new maritime route to Europe via Cork and Waterford or Rosslare, as the UK will no longer be a common transit area after Brexit. This is to upgrade port and supporting infrastructure, including rail and road. On funding opportunities, Mr Simpson said: “The reality for Ireland now is, in order to get EU money, you have to apply for it. You’re pushing an open door with me. If you do not apply for the funding you will not get it, so please apply.”
“For the Taoiseach to say there is no more EU funding, is to miss both the point and the opportunity. Ireland should grab, not spurn, the opportunities and partnerships,” said Mr Flynn.

MORE See more on the Ten-T funding debate from Mayo deputies Dara Calleary and Michael Ring on Page 20.