‘Nuanced’ approach needed if wealth to be spread across Ireland
Without help economic success will only extend to areas within commuting distance of cities, academic says
A general view of Galway Dock. The Government is being urged to take a ‘nuanced’ view to its development plan to give areas away from Ireland’s main cities a chance to develop.
Accents may not be of the Ross O’Carroll Kelly kind, but commuters using the western rail link between Limerick and Galway travel through one of the State’s most educated economic corridors.
The route is second only to south Dublin in terms of educational attainment, according to NUI Galway ’s dean of arts and social sciences Prof Cathal O’Donoghue, who uses the rail link to travel from his south Galway home.
Third level graduates from Limerick and Galway have fuelled the economic phenomenon that is Galway, but its success is not mirrored further up the Atlantic coast.
Prof O’Donoghue is co-author of a study which measured the spatial impact of the current economic recovery, and showed how it has been “twin speed” since 2011.
Whereas the last “boom” was more evenly spread, largely due to construction, the current recovery shows that Dublin and its hinterland have leaped ahead.
The study notes that while Dublin’s employment rise was almost 16 per cent, the increase in the midlands was 19.3 per cent and 18.2 per cent in the southeast. The lowest growth occurred in the mid-west (9.3 per cent), west (10.4 per cent) and the southwest (7 per cent).
The northwest’s critical situation is exacerbated by political paralysis in the North, affecting cross-border bodies, and the looming shadow of Brexit, Prof O’Donoghue notes.
He believes the Government is on the right track in prioritising investment in four urban centres - Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford - as a counterbalance to Dublin.
However, the ripples of success will only extend as far as towns within commuting distance of the cities unless there is a more “nuanced” intervention, he says.
“Rural towns grew faster than cities in the last boom, and more young people live in those towns than in cities,” he points out.
“But only those towns within a particular radius are surviving now, and many others are struggling. So strategies and investment that take a more localised approach are critical, because people are still going to live in those areas.”
Sociologist Prof Micheál MacGréil, who is a patron of the West on Track campaign to re-open the rail link between Cork and Sligo, believes the Government has to recognise this commuting reality by front-loading investment in public transport.
He is therefore disappointed at reports that the Western Rail Corridor, listed in the last programme for government, will be dropped from the 2040 plan.
“Now that property prices mean people are living further out, a rail link that brings people from Mayo into the centre of Galway is vital,”he says.
Forecasts for phase one of the rail corridor between Athenry, Co Galway and Ennis, Co Clare, exceeded projections, he argues, and passenger numbers on the Galway-Limerick route would be higher if Iarnrod Éireann took measures to raise sections of the line subject to flooding.
Frank Dawson, joint secretary of the State’s Western Inter-County Railway Committee, says 279,000 passengers used the Galway-Limerick route in 2015 - the most recently available figure. Some 200,000 had been forecast in the business plan, he says.
A pilot project to transport freight between Ballina, Co Mayo and Waterford proved to be so successful that it is making profit of more then €1 million, and Ballina is now Ireland’s “most successful inland port”, he notes.
Mr Dawson says he cannot understand why the voice of local authorities and business groups involved in the Atlantic Economic Corridor is ignored when it comes to investing in rail.
“The western rail link is the most negatively analysed railway in the country, yet it is a resource with a rail head in a major city, Galway, and no major physical obstacles, with its own right of way,”Mr Dawson says.
Prof O’Donoghue believes provision of broadband is the most critical issue, ahead of transport, as global business can work anywhere if it has high-speed connectivity.
The recent withdrawal of Eir, one of the remaining two bidders for the State contract to provide rural broadband, illustrates why privatising the telecommunications network was a mistake, in his view.
“Just like with heath insurers who cherrypick the healthier clients, private broadband providers are cherrypicking the areas easiest to reach,”he says. “It may need public intervention, because you have the example in west Cork’s Skibberreen where the digital hub can provide a template.” The Ludgate Hub, opened in July 2016, set a target of creating 500 jobs by 2020.
State intervention to alter a “mindset” that has led to Ireland being one of the Europe’s most centralised countries is also critical, Prof O’Donoghue says. “We were able to do balanced regional development in the 1960s and 1970s, and it is still not too late - with Denmark and Netherlands providing examples,”he says.
Prof O’Donoghue, formerly head of research with agriculture and food development authority Teagasc, cites as an positive example the approach taken by Simon Coveney during his time as minister for agriculture.
“Mr Coveney used to call in the agencies regularly to report on their progress in particular areas,”he notes. “States agencies tend to focus on national, rather than local targets, so that sort of regular check helped to reprioritise and rebalance existing resources.”