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Thursday 21 June 2018

A route to prosperity or just another road to nowhere?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo which failed to mention third-level education funding Photo: James Connolly
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of Project Ireland 2040 at IT Sligo which failed to mention third-level education funding Photo: James Connolly
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. If good intentions could be converted into tar and chippings, there wouldn't be a pothole from Cork to Donegal.

Those of us who have seen plans come and go or have read piles of glossy documents promising a factory in every village and a light on every lamp post have reason to be cynical in the face of the publication of the latest Government document, 'Project Ireland 2040'.

They should call it 'The Road to Nirvana' or maybe they could give it a trendy Irish name like 'Slí Nirbheana'. Inevitably this would spawn a skyscraper of sub-committees such as the Slí Nirbheana Framework Policy Group, the SNFPG to those in the know, (to those not in the know, it would sound like something to be fired at an armoured personnel carrier). Of course there would also be the 'Slí Nirbheana Implementation Committee' or SNIC: "I can't meet you today, I have a SNIC meeting."

On and on it would go until the Slí Nirbheana Review and Monitoring Committee (SNRMC) concludes it was poor value for money and, from the start, was located in the wrong department. The SNRMC recommends it be split up and so 'Slí Nirbheana' becomes the road to nowhere. It disappears leaving behind a mountain of paper stored in a five-bay industrial unit along with tons of pristine 'final' reports unseen and barely touched by human hand.

Most people familiar with Government programmes and initiatives will recognise the pattern. In 1999 during Bertie Ahern's first tenure as Taoiseach, a much-anticipated 'White Paper on Rural Development' was published only to be swallowed by the Celtic Tiger. There is universal agreement that the implementation of the National Spatial Strategy published by Martin Cullen and Bertie in 2002 was a fiasco.

In January 2017, the current Government produced its infamous 'Action Plan for Rural Development'. This re-packaged mishmash of programmes and initiatives already in operation, or indeed concluded, was greeted with howls of derision by anyone who knew anything about rural development. The omens for the latest initiative are not good.

Over the last 20 years, national plans, rural plans and regional plans have come and gone, but one programme stands out as a consistent success in delivering development and jobs to rural Ireland - the LEADER programme. Principally funded by the EU under CAP and co-funded by the exchequer, it has delivered jobs, training, community capacity and improved infrastructure to rural communities throughout the country.

The Irish version of the programme used to be quoted throughout Europe as an example to follow. The key element was the 'bottom-up' approach, which involved locally based delivery companies, made up of local people drawn from across the sectors, identifying local programmes and projects for support. These companies became veritable hubs for a multitude of community and enterprise projects, both privately and publicly funded. Politicians had little control over them, meanwhile their success attracted many a jealous political glance.

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Up to recently, LEADER survived the hazards of Irish politics. That was until Enda Kenny's first government took a hatchet to the structures stripping the LEADER companies of their independence and commandeering the programme for the local authorities. It is currently lumbering on at a snail's pace thanks to added levels of bureaucracy.

The previously independent companies are now subject to a committee of the local council, the Local and Community Development Committee (LCDC). All LEADER project applications are passed through this committee and then on to Pobal, a national clearing-house for funded community and voluntary bodies. This body examines all applications twice, pre and post local sanction, putting them through a 60-question wringer. Every project application crosses at least 17 bureaucratic hurdles before it can be funded. The lead-in time for projects getting the green light can be anything from four to eight months. There are less than two years left in the current programme and the level of project approval is abysmally low.

Over the years, LEADER has found itself pitched from one department to another. It started life under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture, it was then given to a newly formed Department of Community and Rural Affairs with Eamon O'Cuiv at its head. After that, it was passed on to the Department of the Environment under Phil Hogan and it was here that it was bound to the political system. Hogan included LEADER in his much-vaunted revision of local government where town councils were closed, others amalgamated and many disembowelled, taking away such functions as their responsibility for water, which he handed to Irish Water.

Many would credit Mr Hogan with seriously wounding the LEADER programme in Ireland. It has since passed through the hands of Alan Kelly, Heather Humphreys and now sits in the lap of Michael Ring.

The more cynical believe that LEADER and its funding were handed to the local authorities so that increasingly disempowered councillors might have some discretionary funding at their disposal. In fact, since the programme moved to the councils, certain councillors are treating it in a shamelessly clientelist fashion, seeking to be the first to announce the award of funding and often jumping the gun in relation to this.

A successful and admittedly bureaucratic programme is now almost completely mired in bureaucracy. Many local areas will struggle to allocate even a fraction of their funding before the current CAP expires in 2020. One person working with the new incarnation of LEADER says only large-scale projects can cope with the level of bureaucracy now required - small projects haven't a hope.

As this latest framework document 'Project Ireland 2040' is launched, many will not share the official excitement. Over the years, scores of these glossy plans have been produced to great fanfare only to be thrown on the back windows of ministerial Mercs where they fade into sepia. Is it idiocy, egotism or cynicism that drives our political leaders? They vaunt and they launch, they break what is not broken and ignore what so badly needs fixing.

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