Leinster House

This land is… somewhere

(Image: Photocall Ireland)

8 February 2017

Billy MacInnesI was interested to read about the launch of Ireland 2040 – Our Plan, The National Planning Framework (www.npf.ie) at the beginning of February. Despite the name, it was noticeable in the reports I saw about the launch was that there was little, if any, mention of places in Ireland outside Dublin and the four cities of Galway, Cork, Limerick and Waterford.

National planning? Possibly, if you drew a line from Dublin to Galway and ignored everything above it. Ireland? Same again. Our plan? Yours, maybe. The only mentions of most of the border counties, including Donegal where I live, were in the section headlined ‘Ireland in an All-Island Context’. That section highlighted ‘hotspots’ of cross-border interaction between Derry and Donegal, Newry and Dundalk, Cavan and Enniskillen and Monaghan and Armagh.

Which is all well and good but it does miss the point in terms of what is being done, if anything, to strengthen interactions between those areas and the island of Ireland to the south of them. There is, for example, no motorway linking Donegal to the rest of Ireland. None of Ireland’s eight Designated Cancer Centres are located above the Galway/Dublin line.

For the birds
As Mayo County Council Fianna Fail councillor Damien Ryan, put it, speaking a week before the launch: “Everything above the line from Galway to Dublin will be a glorified wildlife park.” His council colleague, independent councillor, Michael Kilcoyne summed it up well when he stated: “A third of the country will be left for the birds, because it’ll be for nothing else under these plans.”

The executive summary for Ireland 2040 – Our Plan acknowledges that Ireland has “a more spatially uneven pattern of regional and urban development than other similar OECD countries” and that it depends more on its largest city “than other comparator countries and our ‘next tier’ of cities and their associated regions are comparatively weaker”. Just how much Ireland depends on Dublin City was illustrated by figures showing it accounts for 40% of the national population and 49% of economic output.

Dublin’s spatial pattern has become so disproportionate that it now extends to 11 counties: Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Kildare, Laois, Carlow, Wicklow, Wexford, Cavan, Longford and Kilkenny. As the summary acknowledges: “Dublin’s success as a city-region is a double edged sword. While it has enabled Ireland to compete in an international context, such success has also given rise to pressures in areas such as housing, transport and infrastructural requirements, which affect competitiveness. If Dublin is underperforming, Ireland is underperforming.”

Ireland’s four regional cities – all on or south of that Dublin/Galway line – could absorb some of the strain that Dublin “has been subject to in terms of accommodating growth in employment, housing need and infrastructural requirements and drive their wider regions.” The problem is that while they’re growing, they’re not growing as fast as Dublin. So, if things are allowed to carry on unchecked, the country will become even more unbalanced.

Can technology play a role in trying to redress the balance? You would hope so but it’s notable that nearly all of Ireland’s large technology businesses and US multinationals are based in Dublin or have their largest presence there. While there are a number represented in the four regional cities, beyond that, there’s barely anything. For many other areas, there has been little or no technology benefit that has resulted in the development of sufficient jobs to replace those lost over the years.

Country matters
That’s not likely to change anytime soon. The problem is that the IDA struggles to attract businesses to locations outside Dublin. Martin Shanahan, CEO of the IDA, has admitted it is “extremely challenging” to attract foreign companies to rural areas. No wonder then that 94% of unoccupied IDA properties are outside Dublin.

But just because something is a challenge, doesn’t make it insurmountable. Given the many advantages Ireland has to offer FDI companies, it’s surely not unreasonable to negotiate harder with them to locate their premises somewhere beyond Dublin and its environs.

A leaflet on the NFP website poses 10 key questions. Many people living above the Dublin/Galway line might wonder whether anyone in government will give a damn about their answers, especially for the first three:

1. What should Ireland look like in 20 years?
2. How do we ensure that every place can realise its potential?
3. Where will jobs be located and what will those jobs be?

The sad fact is that for many parts of the country, the answer is likely to be:
1. A country that extends above the Dublin/Galway line
2. You won’t
3. Not here

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