Project Ireland 2040 was changed to boost focus on regional plans

Taoiseach’s office intervened on National Development Plan following rural criticism

The Taoiseach’s office intervened shortly before the National Development Plan was published to boost the prominence of regional developments, such as a university for the southeast.

There had been criticism in the weeks prior to the plan’s publication from backbench TDs and some Ministers that major cities were being prioritised over regional areas.

In a draft of the plans circulated in late January, a senior official at the Department of the Taoiseach emailed the Department of Public Expenditure to state: "It's weak on the South-East. Neither Rosslare nor Belleville [sic] get a mention. They must have plans.

“Also, the TU [technological university] for the South-East needs to be singled out as a priority given the south east has no university.


“Could suggest it as a possible Irish campus of the new European University being contemplated.”

The final version of the plan included a stand-alone section on a new "technological university for the southeast", to be formed from the merger of Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) and the Institute of Technology Carlow.

It also contains a reference to it participating in a network of European universities.

This is a reference to a recent proposal from French president Emmanuel Macron for the establishment of a European university with campuses in different member states, with students rotating among them during their years of study.

While Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has spoken favourably about the idea, this email seems to be the first suggestion that WIT could be an Irish campus for such an entity.

Athlone IT

An email from the the Department of the Taoiseach also sought to boost the prominence of Athlone Institute of Technology.

"Can anything be said about Athlone IT in the context of Technological Universities (it doesn't seem to be part of any of the four potential groups)?" the senior official from the Taoiseach's department wrote.

In the end, no reference was added on the basis that Athlone IT had decided not to form part of any consortium seeking to become a technological university .

Emails released under the Freedom of Information Act also show the text of the plan was changed at a late stage to play down expectations that universities would receive significant State funding for capital projects over the coming years.

Officials estimated that universities planned to source about €3 billion over the coming decade in new and enhanced infrastructure, largely funded from their own resources, philanthropy and borrowings.

This included both approved campus development projects and those awaiting sanction, as well as a number of investments in student accommodation.

While an original draft of the plan gave a prominent position to the role of exchequer funding in these plans, it was reworded at the suggestion of Department of Public Expenditure officials to “reduce expectations” of such funding.

Records also indicate officials also decided to include private-sector investment in projects that were already announced, even though it was not “new investment”.

A National Treasury Management Agency official who was asked to draw up a list of private-sector investment in university public-private partnerships for the plan wrote: "We've excluded the projects which have already been signed and financial close achieved, as these will not be 'new' investment on this period."

He warned that investment in student accommodation was also at a preliminary stage, with no certainty of progressing at this stage given a number of hurdles yet to be crossed.

However, a Department of Public Expenditure official decided to include projects in the overall figures.

“While I note your point that these are not ‘new’, nevertheless, they will involve new investment by the private partner in the economy over the coming years, so I propose to leave them in,” the official wrote.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent