Dáil debates

Thursday, 19 December 2013

4:55 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister and also the opportunity to raise the important issue of job creation and ask about progress in securing jobs for the Mullingar area. Unfortunately, in recent years we have seen a steady decline in jobs in the town and almost every week hear about small scale job losses. In the last year alone the town and surrounding areas lost more than their fair share and a number of community employment schemes folded. We suffered job losses in the barracks, which equated to two major industries. There has been no new major industry in Mullingar in the past 20 years.

In recent years the midlands region has lost jobs at Ericsson, Tarkett Ireland and Atlantic Mills, to name but a few companies. To date, there have been no replacement jobs. Statistics are just figures; it is what lies behind them that counts. Job losses have a ripple effect in every community. As a consequence, less money is being spent in local economies which, in turn, impacts on other jobs. What is more important is the well-being of individuals and their families and the impact of unemployment in terms of loss of self-esteem, confidence and a good education, which has a demoralising impact on all age profiles.

Mullingar is located off the motorway, less than an hour's drive from Dublin. It has fine schools, an abundance of recreational facilities, hotels and other natural assets such as lakes - it is located in the heart of the lake county - and rivers, which make for a certain quality of life. Above all, it has an educated, dedicated and skilled labour force of all ages, with a wealth of experience to offer any potential employer. It has a workforce hungry for work.

God only knows the last time IDA Ireland brought a major Industry to the town. While we have a new IDA Ireland business park, all we have in it are the services provided and signs. The people of Mullingar are very disappointed that they are not being considered for any new potential enterprise and baffled as they believe they have a lot to offer a major industry. It is a very fine place in which to work. While I understand why decentralisation did not and could not go ahead in the format proposed, there was a loss of up to 400 jobs, which was a devastating blow to the town.

Every time I meet representatives of Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland I receive strong indications that something is in the pipeline for Mullingar. Perhaps the Minister might provide a timeframe for when major job announcements will be made for Mullingar and the north midlands region. We need the Government to give this part of Longford and north Westmeath urgent attention to produce employment opportunities for the several thousand who are unemployed. The unemployment figures suggest the north midlands region, Mullingar in particular, has a higher than average rate of unemployment. We need early clarification before the town and rural areas are drained of their population. I ask the Government to pay very serious attention to this problem and its knock-on effects.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The story of Mullingar and County Westmeath is not unlike that in the rest of the country. Essentially, we have been in a very difficult transition. This has been at the heart of the Action Plan for Jobs. When we started work on the action plan process, the economy was losing about 1,600 jobs per week, but the most recent data show that the economy is now adding 1,200 per week. That is a great testimony to the influence of enterprise and workers in knuckling down to meet the challenges presented by the crisis.

The transformation is also reflected in County Westmeath. The figures from Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland in the past four years highlight the transition. For example, 405 jobs were being lost under IDA Ireland at the height of the recession in 2009. We have since added jobs every single year: 88 in 2010, 138 in 2011 and 222 in 2012. IDA Ireland companies have been expanding and IDA Ireland puts in a lot of effort to work with companies. Some 70% of announcements concern companies expanding in Ireland. It is not, therefore, all about greenfield start-ups. Enterprise Ireland shows a similar trend of transition. In 2009, 706 jobs were lost in county Westmeath, and 91 in 2010. We have since added 30 jobs in 2011 and 171 in 2012; therefore, an improving trend is evident. The purpose of the Action Plan for Jobs is to build on these trends.

IDA Ireland seeks to market the midlands region and regional operations account for 20% of its resources. It seeks to work in the midlands region in the so-called hub locations of Athlone, Tullamore and Mullingar. There are 44 IDA Ireland client companies in the region and there is progress in County Westmeath.

The pipeline for future IDA Ireland projects is built around companies looking at Ireland as a potential country in which to invest. Between 2010 and 2012 there were 44 site visits by potential investors in County Westmeath. In 2013 there have been nine such visits. It is encouraging that these site visits were by new companies visiting the location for the first time and by senior executives in existing companies.

IDA works closely with educational institutes in the region in developing the skill set necessary to attract high value added employment and has invested in the physical infrastructure required to attract FDI to the region. This included investing €3.5 million in a quality flagship business park in Athlone which is now an integral part of the agency's international market programme. IDA is also working with SOLAS to provide guidance in developing the skill sets needs of those already in the workforce who need upskilling.

The midlands possesses a number of strengths and regionally-based assets that can be harnessed to develop further the existing enterprise base and capture future opportunities. The establishment of the local enterprise offices under a centre of excellence within Enterprise Ireland offers new potential to develop entrepreneurs within Westmeath in particular and the midlands in general. It is the new formation. The county enterprise board figures are not as strong. There have been job losses in the last two years in companies supported by the county enterprise boards and we will have a big thrust in 2014 to examine entrepreneurship regionally and nationally and see how we can build the capacity of communities to establish enterprises and see them survive and grow.

I am very conscious that Deputies feel the need for a better regional enterprise strategy. An opportunity is emerging, which I am assessing, to examine the plans of the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and the local enterprise offices in a more integrated framework to try to develop a combined strategy for enterprise within each region. I would like to see that ambition fulfilled because one can build better collaborative networks in regions such as the midlands to exploit the skills there and ensure we present the midlands to best advantage and develop the opportunities we seek to put in place. I thank Deputy Bannon for raising it and assure him that we are making progress in the area, but we are not satisfied with the progress and want to do much more.

5:05 pm

Photo of James BannonJames Bannon (Longford-Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister's response. He referred to the midlands in general. There is a lot happening in the Athlone area and it gives an imbalance regarding the number of jobs being created. I referred to the north midlands, particularly Mullingar and Longford, where we have not the same employment opportunities. We need a stronger indication of the urgent need to support Mullingar and Longford regarding enterprise and jobs. I acknowledged the major contribution by Westmeath County Enterprise Board. It does a fine job but needs more support from the national bodies.

I have asked both privately and publicly for a special task force to be established in the midlands to try to promote job opportunities for the midlands. We have a very well-educated workforce in the midlands. I was recently amazed to learn that only approximately 5% of Mullingar graduates find jobs in the town. I do not expect 90% of Mullingar graduates to stay in Mullingar but I would like to see a higher percentage having an opportunity to do so if they wish. This must be addressed.

A very strong message came from Mullingar recently that it is open for business. This was very evident in the calibre of speakers who spoke at a recent Chamber of Commerce conference at the Mullingar Park Hotel which I attended. We need to consider the midlands because it has haemorrhaged jobs in the last ten years. The Minister, Deputy Bruton, is not responsible for that, but there is a view in Mullingar and Longford that the IDA has done sweet damn all for the northern part of the midlands.

Photo of Richard BrutonRichard Bruton (Dublin North Central, Fine Gael)
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The figures speak for themselves in terms of County Westmeath as a whole. Last year, companies supported by the IDA created 222 jobs and companies created by Enterprise Ireland created 171 jobs. That is almost 400 jobs in the exporting sector alone. Let us not forget that part of our strategy has been to build tourism and agriculture. Agriculture took on an additional 25,000 people this year in farming and food. These are sectors where the midlands has a competitive advantage and we will be trying to build on the strengths of companies in the space.

I do not believe in having task forces speckled all around the country but we need better integration of our enterprise effort in regions. We have an IDA office, Enterprise Ireland and we will now have the local enterprise offices, LEOs, all of which will be developing enterprise plans. There is potential to consider the integration of those plans and build relationships with the wider community to ensure we are exploiting the assets of regions such as the midlands and towns like Mullingar. The criticism of the IDA is unfair. Companies decide on their locations, not the IDA or the Minister. We are in a competitive environment where we are competing hard to win projects not against competition from Dublin, Galway or Athlone but we are fighting to win projects for Ireland.

When we win a company, it comes and decides which area best fits its needs. It is not led by any politician or official in the IDA. We must ensure we present our towns and regions in the best possible light and integrate our resources to make strong offers to companies which are considering investment. That is my ambition and I am keen to develop better regional enterprise strategies that can get buy-in from the assets and agencies in the region. We need to work on that over the coming years. I thank Deputy Bannon for raising this. Clearly, his impatience for more development is rightly placed and reflects my own impatience to build more job opportunities, not just in Westmeath and the midlands but nationally.