Friday 22 March 2019

Determined to succeed

Acting Editor Paul Deering talks to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar during his Sligo visit last Friday about his proposals to lift rural Ireland and his thoughts on when he believes there'll be a general election

An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar came to Sligo last Friday to launch what he called was the money behind Ireland 2040, also brought to the public's attention from here last February much to great fanfare.

It was ironic as the latest glossy literature was being handed out at The Model on Friday morning called 'Strengthening Rural Economies and Communities' that figures were released the very same day showing Dublin and the commuter belt was swallowing up more than 60 per cent of new jobs.

That's the reality facing rural Ireland with a huge chasm being created between our capital city and the rest fo the country.

We're said to be near full employment but many would say the 'live' register doesn't reflect the picture accurately with many tied into many schemes such as Jobpath which takes a person off the list.

So, the reality on the ground when the Taoiseach came to Sligo on Friday to defiantly declare that not all roads lead to Dublin is that it is a place devoid of post offices and garda stations with banks shutting branches left right and centre.

It could be said rural Ireland is shutting down. Broadband and road infrastructure is so poor, many businesses are struggling to keep going.

While it was certainly good to see grants being provided for a surfing centre and towards signage for a Yeats Trail in Sligo, is it what we really expected?

Surfing is very much a minority sport and so too is mountain biking and I'm really pleased to see the creation of national centres for both in the county.

They will bring in much needed money and visitors.

In conjunction with projects such as these why can't this new Rural Regeneration and Development Fund not be used for finishing off the N4 and or be pumped into rural broadband too?

Leo is not an Enda Kenny or a Bertie Ahern, there's an aloofness about him that will always surround him and when you sit down to talk to him the seriousness kicks in immediately. No, said the Taoiseach, in fact 60% of all jobs over the past three years had been created outside of Dublin. The figures released on Friday, he asserted included Louth, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow.

"Every county has seen a significant fall in unemployment, in Sligo and Leitrim of about fifty per cent and every county has seen an increase in employment, that's the truth of the situation," the Taoiseach insisted but he did accept that the recovery has been uneven.

"Some areas have benefited more than others and Sligo and Leitrim are among the areas that need to benefit more as we ensure that the prosperity and recovery gets to every part of the country and to every home and a lot of that is going to be investment in infrastructure and investment in the road network in particular, in rural broadband once we get there and announcements such as those today for the surf centre and the Yeats trail."

In terms of the roll out of broadband the Taoiseach says by the end of this year three out of four premises will have access to high speed broadband, up from a half when this government took office.

He admits it becomes more expensive to roll it out in more peripheral areas. He says he is determined to ensure that people aren't left out.

He expects the review by Peter Smith into the handling of the tender process to date following the regisnation of Communications Minister Denis Naughten to be published in the coming days allowing a decision to be made then "whether we can go ahead with the project as planned."

"There's a few variables such as the costings," he says but he is adamant that he believes it is as important as rural electricfication was in the 1950s.

The new funding will not be extended to roads, no mini windfall to speed up work on the N4, a road he says he is very familiar with and its white crosses relfectng the many deaths the lethal stretch from Castlebaldwin to Collooney has witnessed.

"I'm conscious of upgrading that both to bring more economic development to Sligo but also of the road safety issues.

"Nobody can miss the white crosses as you drive along that road and the need to improve road safety too.

It is in tender process and we are going to make sure that project gets done. I know people are a long time waiting.

"I remember the project well when I was Transport Minister so it is one I have a personal interest in seeing over the line.

"The money though won't come from the Rural Regeneration Fund. Roads are really expensive so we are going to continue funding those out of the Department of Transport's allocation."

He pointed out that the Department's allocation for Sligo this year was €17.6 million up from €9.5 in 2017, most of the difference going into the N4.

Regional roads funding for Sligo went from €8.4m in 2017 to €10.5m in 2018 and there'll be further increases in 2019.

The Taoiseach was less forthcoming on the possibility of getting a Cath Lab in place at Sligo University Hospital.

"It sounds like a good idea," he says, but went on to say: "there's a mobile one operating between Letterkenny and Sligo at the moment but we have to work out over the next period as part of the national review into cardiology services if there is a critical mass of patients to justify it.

"Would we have a reasonable confidence to staff it?

"As you know, increasingly as it comes to health care, you need a critical mass of patients in order to ensure safety.

"Gone is the day where someone took out a gall bladder on a Monday, an appendix on a Tuesday and an operation on the heart on Wednesday so you need specialists seeing large volumes of patients and doing the one thing."

And, shortage of staff is not just a problem in Ireland but across the World. Staff wish to centre themselves in large hospitals attached to universities, he says.

The Taoiseach was right in the middle of Brexit concerns as he sat down on Friday lunch time with the deal brokered by Theresa May awaiting approval by Brussels but he says he is very conscious of what it will mean for border counties.

"These are the foremost in my mind. We often talk about avoiding a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland but the areas which could be most directly affected would be the border counties.

"We have a deal of the table that works. It is going to be very difficult I know for the Prime Minister to get Parliament to vote for that but she is lining up support from business and farmers, from people who are concerned about their jobs and economies and their rights and their freedoms.

"I think as the date approaches and MPs have to vote, they are going to have to consider more and more what alternative deal they would actually manage to get through their parliament.

Everyone accepts we cannot have a no deal scenario except for a very small number of radical Brexiteers.

"So, if it shte case that this deal is not supported by MPs those not supporting it have to ask themselves what deal they would think would be acceptable to parliament and the 28 members States.

"I think when you begin to think about the reality of that some people who are now waivering may vote yes in the end."

A pressing concern too is is the future of his own government which all depends on his ability to get Fianna Fáil to sign up to another Confidence and Supply Agreement.

"I'm not going to set aany artificial deadlines. I wrote to Micheal Martin at the end of August and suggested that we agree that there shouldn't be an election until the summer of 2020, giving us lot of time to bring the country through Brexit and also setting out what I think a government could reasonably achieve in terms of health and housing and reducing taxes and growing the economy, education, all of the areas that are important to people.

"Up to now Fianna Fáil has only been willing to engaged in a review which largely focuses on the past, I'd really like to start talking about the future, what we can actually get done between now and the end of this Dáil."

The problem with plan launches is that they look good ont he day and it's all positive.

Figures and statistics can be argued over for an eternity but it will always be results on the ground that matters.

And, it there's an election early next year where does this leave all the plans and announcements.

How come Sligo and rural Ireland always seem to get a mention towards the twilight of a government's term of office and never in the first year?

The day after the Taoiseach's visit, a new phrase was coined, we in rural Ireland now have what is termed, 'boom envy'.

It's where rural dwellers look on with green eyes at the continued rapid growth and expansion of Dublin.

We live in hope that the 'boom envy' will be no more in the coming years. Rural imbalance needs to change and quickly.

Sligo Champion