Government takes hit over ‘rural bias’ claims
Changes are made to national planning framework after Opposition unites in criticism
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar: Sensitive to the claims of an anti-rural bias. Photograph: Colins
In most instances Governments treat Opposition criticism as empty rhetoric, but there are times when it hits hard.
It is apparent the claims the National Planning Framework and the 10-year Development Plan were Dublin-centric had a big impact.
If the last-minute changes are anything to judge by, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his Government were acutely sensitive to the claims of an anti-rural bias.
The draft of the 25-year planning framework was published last autumn and, on the face of it, focused inordinately on Dublin and the bigger urban centres.
In particular, a triangle taking in most of the midlands and the northwest was hardly mentioned in the document. Urban centres such as Sligo and Athlone were seemingly excluded.
By coincidence, a number of other deficits relating to rural Ireland have cropped up in the same time period. The decision by the telecoms company Eir to withdraw from the competition for the national broadband plan again highlighted the long delays and string of promises that have been made to bring high-bandwidth broadband to rural Ireland.
There have been seven separate announcements since 2011 of “rolling out” broadband to every home in the country. And still 550,000 premises remain without access to decent bandwidth.
Nor was the Fianna Fáil Private Members’ motion this week on local and regional roads part of a bigger plan. But the underspend on these mostly rural roads played into the narrative that Fianna Fáil was embarking on a deliberate strategy on rural Ireland.
It may have looked like that, but Fianna Fáil sources said yesterday the planning framework was the only issue that the party had strategised on - in collaboration with all other Opposition parties including Sinn Féin, the Greens, the Labour, the Social Democrats, Solidarity-PBP and Independents such as Michael Fitzmaurice - and it just so happened that the other two issues materialised at the same time.
The effect was to put the Government on the back foot. There have some very late revisions to the framework over the past week, including an increased status for Athlone, Sligo and Drogheda.
The last-minute nature was confirmed in a statement by Minister of State for the OPW Kevin “Boxer” Moran, in which the Minister said he had intervened at the highest level with the Taoiseach and succeeded in getting Athlone designated as “capital of the Midlands” in the framework.
The arrangements for the launch on Friday - which will be attended by every Minister and every Minister of State - also reflected these sensitivities.
The venue for the launch is Sligo, a town that was wholly ignored in earlier drafts. It is clear the venue was chosen late, although the Government spokesman was not in a position to say yesterday when exactly it was picked.
The other telling change was the change of the title of the 10-year plan from being a “capital” plan to being a “development” plan. Apparently, Ministers were hyper-conscious that a capital plan might suggest it was a plan only for the capital city.
The Government spokesman yesterday dismissed any suggestion the Taoiseach was biased against rural Ireland. “One of the first things the Taoiseach did was set up a relevant department for rural department,” he said.
“He has taken a lot of initiatives and has been one of the most active [on rural Ireland].”
That said, the three-pronged attack from the Opposition in the past week certainly spooked the Coalition.