Thursday 23 November 2017

No field day for Leo as road to recovery shifts to higher gear

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar at the N4 sod-turning ceremony at Belvedere House, Co Westmeath, yesterday
Transport Minister Leo Varadkar at the N4 sod-turning ceremony at Belvedere House, Co Westmeath, yesterday

ALAS, it isn't like the Golden Olden Days when Transport Minister Noel Dempsey was on more highways than Dick Turpin.

There was barely a week when he wasn't standing on a stretch of pristine tarmac, snipping a ribbon and declaring that yet another multimillion stretch of the M-whatever was open for the convenience of all the Celtic Tiger trucks, sports cars and SUVs.

But now the Tiger is road-kill and the country is dotted with various roads-to-nowhere as infrastructure projects skidded to a halt.

Noel's successor doesn't get the glamorous gigs anymore -- and this was glaringly evident yesterday as he turned the sod on a road-building project in Westmeath.

For Leo Varadkar was launching a modest bit of construction along a section of the N4 dual-carriageway just outside Mullingar, which is designed to make safe a particular stretch which at present is criss-crossed with perilous central crossings and hidden side roads.

Leo found himself at a rather desolate spot next to a farm supplies depot, as a bitter wind whipped around a small huddle of semi-frozen souls who had turned up to witness a now-rare event -- a green-lighted public works project.

And in the perishing cold, Leo did his best to put an optimistic spin on the future of the country's high and low roads.

"Our ability to invest in roads is going to be rather constrained for the next number of years, but this event does show that some progress can still be made," he declared.

"There'll be three small NRA projects this year," he said, adding that, subject to all sorts of financial caveats, some motorway construction might commence (if the planets are all correctly aligned etc).

What's more, he assured us there was money in the government kitty to maintain the roads. And given that Leo is also the Minister for Salt, Grit, Snow and Subsequent Pot-holes, he must be thanking his lucky stars that the European big chill appears to have stalled in the vicinity of Holyhead.

Then he invoked another blast from the past: Fine Gael's shiny blueprint for a brave dawn. "You'll be aware of a plan we had before the election, the NewERA plan, which was to sell some state assets and then take that money and re-invest it in jobs and infrastructure," he reminded everyone.

Ah yes, but that was of course launched BT (Before Troika), when the nation still innocently assumed that state assets were ours to sell as we chose, and that we could do what we bloody well liked with the money raised at auction. Now it's the chaps from the IMF/EC/EU who call the shots.

But Leo had modest hopes of being able to persuade our overlords to part with a few shekels from any future sales.

"Subject to agreement with our international visitors, and subject to successful sales, it is intended that we'll be able to have at least a couple of hundred euro to invest in the economy from the sale of those state assets and, certainly, as Minister for Transport, I'll be arguing strongly in favour of that money being invested in infrastructural projects," he promised.

One suspects he'll have quite a scrap on his hands. If such a fabled sum were up for grabs courtesy of the troika, it's likely that the subsequent mob scene around the Cabinet table would be akin to a bunch of auld wans descending on the 52-inch flat-screen TV going for €1 on the first day of the Clery's Christmas sale.

However, Leo may also have to keep an eye on his own political roadshow.

Senator Eamonn Coghlan announced on Tuesday that he had joined Fine Gael -- and the former Olympian lives in Castleknock, bang-slap in Leo's political patch.

"Eamonn's extremely welcome to the party . . . I managed to sell him a Super Draw ticket (a fundraising raffle which this year netted over €1m for Fine Gael), so perhaps that was the portent of things to come," Leo laughed.

But would Leo like to see Eamonn put on the party ticket as his running-mate in the next general election? After all, elections in Dublin West -- with its preponderance of high-profile politicians such as himself, Joan Burton and Joe Higgins -- is by Leo's admission akin to "a knife-fight in a back-alley".

Leo reckoned it could be a runner. "I'd have no difficulty with that. Of course, we'll have to see how things stand in 2016 when the next election is held," he added carefully.

Then it was down to work, and Leo took the shovel, energetically dug out a sod and well-nigh tossed it into the next county.

"By God, are you available for Paris this weekend?" asked one impressed observer.

So Leo did it again with another sod. One more for the road, and all that.

Irish Independent

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