Varadkar defends decision to drop transport links from EU scheme

Including west and northwest projects in Ten-T could have exposed State to ‘majority of costs’

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee: ‘The country simply did not have the resources at that stage to commit to that level of investment’, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee: ‘The country simply did not have the resources at that stage to commit to that level of investment’, a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended his decision when minister for transport more than six years ago to drop west and northwest projects from an EU cross-border network funding scheme.

Continued inclusion of capital projects without a strong economic case would have exposed the State to the “vast majority” of expenditure at a time when it was emerging from the economic crash, Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said.

Freedom of Information documents reveal that projects such as the western rail corridor and the upgrading of Galway and Sligo airports were deleted from the EU’s Trans-European Transport Network (Ten-T) programme in late 2011 at the behest of Mr Varadkar, The Irish Times reported on Thursday.

The change went ahead despite Mr Varadkar being warned by a party colleague, the then Midlands northwest MEP Jim Higgins, in December 2011, that it could close off the projects from EU funding “for good”.

The current Government, which includes a number of Independent Alliance TDs from western constituencies, has committed to seek a review of Ten-T .

The documentation obtained under Freedom of Information shows a commitment to apply for this review by September 2016 has been stalled by a need to “assess the implications of Brexit”.

Mr Varadkar’s decision effectively deprived transport projects north of Limerick of any prospect before 2030 of qualifying for EU funding under criteria which dictates there must be a rail, road, air, sea and cross-border elements.

The Fianna Fáil minority government submitted the western/Atlantic road and rail cross-Border route from Cork to Derry, including the Limerick-Foynes rail line and the N69 Limerick to Foynes road, for Ten-T approval by early 2011.

Renewed relevance

The EU programme has renewed relevance for Ireland in the context of Brexit, as it provides potential funding for direct transport links to the European mainland.

Mr Varadkar’s spokesman said the inclusion of capital projects on the Ten-T network “had no impact on whether they were funded by the Government at the time”.

“If successful, Ireland still would have been required to cover the vast majority of the cost of the projects, as the EU funding would have only covered a minority element,” the Government spokesman said.

This “minority” would amount to up to 30 per cent of total costs, he said.

“The country simply did not have the resources at that stage to commit to that level of investment, as it was only just emerging from the worst economic crash in its history,” the spokesman said.

“In spite of these extreme conditions and limited resources, the previous government under Leo Varadkar as transport minister initiated the Gort to Tuam motorway, the biggest ever infrastructure project in the west,” he said.

“This is just one part of the Atlantic Road Corridor proposed in the Government’s development plan, Project Ireland 2040, which will be extended further to Limerick and Cork via the M20. Project Ireland also proposes countless other significant projects in the west between now and 2040,” the spokesman said.

However, Galway-based consultant Kealan Flynn estimates that the decision could have cost the region about €1 billion in infrastructure stimulus investment and up to 17,500 jobs.

Developing a growing rail freight network from Mayo directly to Cork, Foynes and Waterford ports without the forced routing via Kildare depends on a rail extension from Galway to Claremorris, Co Mayo, he said, and this “will be crucial after Brexit”.

‘Short-sighted’

Fianna Fáil spokesman on transport Robert Troy described Mr Varadkar’s decision in 2011 as “short-sighted”.

“Despite being warned of this possibility by a party colleague, An Taoiseach [when minister for transport] decided to proceed with his decision to remove these projects from the Irish funding application,”he said.

“It seems to me that if a project is not in Dublin, this Government does not value it at all.”

Mr Troy’s party colleague, Galway West TD Éamon Ó Cuív said that an estimated sum of €70 million to €80 million required to extend the western rail corridor to Mayo should not depend on EU funding in any case.

He said the rail links the Government was trying to present as uneconomic were imperative in the context of required commuter rail routes to and from Galway, as it is one of five cities earmarked for growth in Project 2040..

Independent Roscommon-Galway TD Michael Fitzmaurice said that the exclusion showed that “the Taoiseach cares little about rural Ireland”.

He called on fellow TDs to “step up to the mark and put the west of Ireland on a level playing field”.

Galway East Independent TD Seán Canney said exclusion was a “mistake” and that Brexit now provided renewed urgency for a review. The western rail corridor extension is being reviewed as part of the Government’s Ireland 2040 programme, he noted.

Midlands-North West MEP Marian Harkin said she was “disgusted” and the move “showed a complete disregard for the region… particularly given the length of time it could take to reinstate projects with Ten-T”.

Sinn Féin Midlands/North-West MEP Matt Carthy said it was “further evidence” that Fine Gael had “no vision for rural Ireland”.