Thursday, 16 November 2006
Industrial Development Bill 2006: Second Stage
Jan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
While the Bill is relatively short with quite simple content, it represents an historical moment for Shannon Development and it would do no harm to use some of my speaking time to acknowledge its work over the years. Especially worthy of praise has been Shannon Development's innovative approach to regional development, which did not exist in Ireland until the body was created. Shannon Development has provided an excellent example of what can be done where there is a regional focus. I pay tribute to the current chief executive, Mr. Kevin Thompstone, his predecessors and the staff who have worked and will continue to work in Shannon Development. Given that the Bill represents a milestone in many ways, it is a good time mark the company's record.
Many positive developments in the mid west, due in no small measure to the work of Shannon Development, have been innovative but they have not happened in other parts of the country. It is a pity we have not followed the regional model elsewhere in Ireland rather than pursued the destruction of regionalism through the creation of various forms of boundaries. The House should consider the example of the Shannon region for which the Shannon Free Airport Development Company has responsibility. The political geography for voters in the part of County Clare just outside Limerick city which is in my constituency requires them to vote in local elections in Clare County Council's area, general elections in Limerick East and European elections in Connaught-Ulster. Their situation is just one example of the craziness of regional divisions politically in Ireland, but such divisions pose problems in other ways. Regional authorities are broadly based on what were the original regions in Ireland while the HSE administers larger regional areas than were administered under the health board system. My constituency is in the western area for HSE purposes. Traditionally we have considered the mid-west to be composed of Limerick city and county, Clare and north Tipperary, but Breastcheck for Limerick people will be run from Cork while for Clare people the service will be run from Galway. These examples are indicative of the obstacles to proper regional planning in Ireland, a problem we need to address. The model we had in the Shannon region was an excellent one which should have been maintained and extended to the rest of the country instead of being destroyed.
The Bill contains specific provisions which relate to the return from 1 January 2007 to Enterprise Ireland of functions assigned to Shannon Development. As Deputy Pat Breen outlined, serious political and other objections were made initially to the proposals the effect of which would be to deprive SFADCO of its wealth and powers through the removal of the Shannon Free Zone from its remit. SFADCO would have been left with few resources with which to carry out its initiatives. Thankfully, the policy was reversed on foot of the pressure brought to bear on the Government, which had every intention of going ahead with its original proposal but had to respond to local demands. The original decision was intended to sustain and prevent the bankruptcy of Shannon Airport on its detachment from Aer Rianta by taking money from regional development, which is no way to do business. The Labour Party has opposed that approach and would not have supported the Bill had its provisions included the removal of the zone from Shannon Development.
While the staff of Shannon Development will do what is required of them under the new legislation and are anxious to continue to do the good job they always have, they are somewhat concerned that there is a lack of clarity about their enterprise mandate for the future. I noted in the Minister's speech his contention that Shannon Development will now have a more focused strategic role on the broader economic and regional development of the Shannon region; and will work in partnership with key public and private sector organisations in the region to identify and promote new initiatives, projects and programmes to maximise the development potential of the region and help to create a viable counter-pole to the more developed east. The policy is welcome in many ways. The current trend in development is good for neither the eastern region nor the western part of the country. The east cannot cope with the demands of its population on road and other infrastructure. The M50 is a prime example of the pressure on eastern infrastructure and it will be an even better one when the Dublin Port tunnel is opened.
It would be positive for everybody if a balance were struck between the east and west. Those of us who represent western constituencies have argued consistently for more Government attention to our needs. Western rail and road corridors to connect the west with the south east through Limerick would represent a means of connecting the rest of the country; all roads should not lead to Dublin. However, the Government has persisted in thinking that while we should all be linked by great roads to Dublin, there is no great urgency about linking us to each other in the west and south east. Shannon Development and universities in the west, mid west and south have proposed these links and advanced a blueprint to strengthen them to provide people in the regions with what they need. If one is to nominate gateways and formulate a strategic plan, one is required to provide the resources to make those policies effective. While Shannon Development is in a position to play a very positive role in this context, it must be provided with the clout and teeth to be effective, which means the provision of resources. According to Government spending proposals, however, approximately 90% of resources for infrastructure will be provided in the eastern side of the country. This policy is unacceptable and will perpetuate developmental imbalance by failing to recognise and address the needs of the west.
Shannon Development has been very involved in planning a rail link to Shannon Airport from the Ennis-Limerick line. While a feasibility study is being carried out, Transport 21 contains no commitment to provide the money to construct the line should its viability be established, which I have no doubt it will. There is a great deal of potential for expanding rail infrastructure, not only through a western rail corridor but through the development of commuter services in Limerick along the Ballybrophy line to north Tipperary, the Foynes line to west Limerick and the Ennis line with connections to Shannon. Stations should be built at places like Moyross and other parts of the city which are adjacent to local railway lines. Shannon Development has played a key role in developing many useful concepts and needs to know it will have the clout and resources it needs to continue its work. People in the mid-west need to know if the region generally is to get the resources it requires also.
Shannon Development has also been involved in the infrastructural project on waterways development. I note that the Ulster Canal is to receive funding which should make it possible to travel from Belfast to Limerick and on to the Atlantic by inland waterway. There are obstacles which must be addressed if this is to happen. For example, Shannon Development have been considering the opening of the Erina Canal to allow boats to bypass Ardnacrusha. While these projects are of future rather than immediate concern, we are used to planning ahead in the mid west, not least because we have had the services of Shannon Development. We are used to thinking ahead and developing innovative strategies as Shannon Development has proved. I hope it will be given the power and resources to continue to operate in that way.
Deputy Pat Breen referred to the number of jobs lost in global companies in Clare. A similar problem exists in Limerick city and county. We must focus on jobs for people in the mid-west. Shannon Development and the higher education institutes in the region are involved in networking in respect of research and development. When funding for higher education research projects was announced recently a network was set up between University of Limerick, Limerick Institute of Technology, Mary Immaculate College and Tralee Institute of Technology. The group received a large amount of that money. This shows how the mid west has the potential to bring added value because institutions in the area are used to co-operating and thinking regionally. While I accept the content of the Bill, we must maintain the flexibility and innovation in the mid west generated by SFADCO. I do not see the same level of innovation in any other region. Perhaps I am biased because I represent the region.