Wednesday, 18 April 2018
Topical Issue Debate
Trans European Transport Network Programme
I raise the issue of the exclusion of the north west from Trans-European Transport Network, Ten-T, core funding and seek answers from the Minister on a grave injustice perpetrated against the people of the north west by his Government and a decision taken by Fine Gael in government which has massively disadvantaged the economy in the north west for decades to come.
The Trans-European Transport Network is a European Commission policy directed towards the implementation and development of a Europe-wide network of roads, railway lines, inland waterways, maritime shipping routes, ports, airports and railroad terminals. It consists of two planning layers, the first being a comprehensive network covering all European regions and accounting for 5% of the funding available. The second and most important part is the core network, consisting of the most important connections within the comprehensive network, linking the most important nodes and accounting for 80% of funding available. The remaining 15% is reserved for projects of common interest. To complete the TEN-T core network corridors by 2030 will require approximately €750 billion. However, the north west is precluded from applying for that funding.
The key issue is that to qualify as a core network and receive core funding, an area had to have both a road and rail link. Information I have received shows that in 2011 the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, who was then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, purposely removed key transport projects in the north west from Ireland’s application to the European Union’s Ten-T funding programme and effectively wiped the north west off the core map.
The western rail corridor was removed from the core network map by the then Minister, now Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar. That relegated the western arc, the road running from Cork to Derry, to the comprehensive funding box because without the rail link, the road network could not qualify for core funding. Remarkably, when the western rail corridor was taken off the map, Shannon Foynes Port was added and the rail link between Limerick and Foynes was put in in order that Shannon Foynes Port could qualify for core funding. The Navan to Dublin rail link was also included. It is clear, therefore, that there was money for some projects but not for all. The effect of removing the western rail corridor and relegating the western arc road to the comprehensive funding box meant that key transport infrastructural projects in the north west were also precluded from receiving funding up to 2030. That affected Galway Port, Ireland West Airport Knock, Killybegs Port and Sligo Airport in applying for core funding under the TEN-T programme. It is hard to believe all this happened on the watch of a Mayo Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, and a Fine Gael Minister, Deputy Michael Ring, who was a Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport at the time.
The projects had been included by the previous Fianna Fáil Government prior to leaving office in 2011. The western rail corridor which was to extend into Claremorris, County Mayo had been completed from Limerick to Galway and was to be extended to County Mayo in two phases. Ballina is the busiest freight location in the country and it beggars belief that the line was not prioritised, given the hugely positive economic impact it would have had on the county and the region. The maps initiated by Fianna Fáil when in government which included the north west and County Mayo were redrawn by Fine Gael and the then Minister, now Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in 2011 and prioritised road, rail, port and airport infrastructure for Dublin, Cork and Limerick, with a link to Belfast, while everything north of Limerick - the entire north-west region - was excluded. There really are few words to describe the devastating impact that has had on the region's economic development. Remarkably, at the time the then Fine Gael MEP for the north west, Jim Higgins, warned his colleague, Deputy Leo Varadkar, that it could close off the projects to future EU funding for good. It is a warning the now Taoiseach chose to ignore.
The western economic arc, the road from Cork to Derry, is still included on the comprehensive funding map which only accounts for 5% of funding, but if one looks at Ireland 2040 - it was called the fantastic plan - that was launched by the Government, the road is not mentioned. How does the Minister explain this? Where is the Government's commitment to this road network? It seems that all we are getting is a small section upgraded around Collooney in County Sligo. Perhaps we should be satisfied with the small crumbs we in the north west get from the Government.
The trans-European transport network, TEN-T, is a Europe-wide network of roads, rail lines, ports, airports and rail-road terminals throughout the 28 EU member states. It comprises the comprehensive network and a subset called the core network. The core network is required to be completed by 2030. It is the most strategic part of this European transport network, with the objective of TEN-T being to address the most strategic aspects of the comprehensive network with the highest European added value, in particular cross-border sections, missing links, multimodal connecting points and major bottlenecks. The network builds on existing and planned infrastructure in EU member states and was identified on the basis of the European Union's planning methodology which has to comply with common requirements or standards. Ireland's agreed core TEN-T network runs from Belfast to Dublin to Cork and includes the core ports of Dublin, Cork and Shannon Foynes. The proposal for the TEN-T network included technical specifications which must be achieved by member states within specified timeframes. That had to be taken into account in considering the draft network in 2011. For example, the proposed specifications at the time included a requirement for full electrification of all railways on the proposed core network. In fact, it was only when, during the subsequent EU co-decision process, Ireland obtained an exemption from the need to roll out ERTMS - a European wide telematics control system for rail traffic - and electrification on its rail network.
Against the backdrop of a very difficult economic climate in 2011, Ireland was required to consider the specific implications of the proposed network for its transport infrastructure, as well as our financial capacity to complete the technical specifications of our portion of the network within the timeframes proposed, namely, 2030 for our core network and 2050 for our comprehensive network. Inclusion of transport routes in the TEN-T network could potentially allow projects on those routes to be part-funded by the European Union. However, that could only be done through competitive EU-wide processes which were expected to be and were and continue to be considerably over-subscribed. The majority of costs of any capital project being funded by the Exchequer would still be borne by the Exchequer, with just the potential, if applications were successful, of a minority of grant funding coming from EU sources. All projects would also require accompanying cost-benefit analyses to be approved by the European Commission.
It was in that context that Ireland, like other EU member states, liaised with the European Commission on its views on the appropriateness of the draft TEN-T network in line with the proposed methodology and the affordability of completion of the network at the time. That resulted in sections of the proposed network not ultimately being included in the final TEN-T maps agreed to by all member states in 2013. Despite the economic challenges the country has faced, priority has been placed on access to and within the north west. The most notable demonstration of this is the Gort to Tuam motorway, the largest transport investment completed anywhere in the country since 2011. That priority is further maintained in the national development plan, Project Ireland 2040. Project Ireland 2040 places a strong emphasis on further improving connectivity, including the development of the strategic Cork to Limerick road link. There will be a review of implementation of the core network by the end of 2023. The Commission will consult member states and evaluate progress made in implementation of the TEN-T regulation, as well as the impact of evolving traffic patterns and relevant developments in infrastructure investment plans. The regulation further sets out that the Commission, in consultation with EU member states, will evaluate whether the core network should be modified to take into account developments in transport flows and national investment planning.
I thank the Minister for repeating the wholly inadequate response he gave me in reply to a parliamentary question. The excuse from the Government is "Brussels made me do it". The then Minister, now Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, said he was being directed by Brussels on the projects that were to be included. We now know that to be false because the then MEP, Brian Crowley, wrote to the EU Transport Commissioner at the time and her response was that member states retained "substantial sovereign rights" to decide on projects. The second excuse is that we did not have the money, that we had to cut projects and that we had to provide matching funding. Again, that is false. I direct the Minister to Decision No. 1692/96/EC of the European Parliament and the Council of 23 July 1996 which stated: "These projects shall form a common objective, the implementation of which depends on their degree of maturity and the availability of financial resources, without prejudging the financial commitment of a Member State or the Community". It is there in black and white. The Minister did not need to have the money in the bank to make the application. To date, no Government representative has explained why Fine Gael redrew the maps when it took over in government in 2011; why the north west was wiped off the map and the western rail corridor was taken off it. The Minister said the rail network had to be electrified. Once he realised that was not the case, did he go back to the European Union and ask for the western rail corridor to be included and if not, why not? I have still not received a response to my question on the criteria used by the then Minister to decide what projects would remain on the list and what projects would get the axe. From the maps at which I am looking, it was projects in the north west that got the axe, while everyone else was left alone.
The Minister has referred to the review of the TEN-T funding programme under way. It is due to be completed in 2023. We do not have five years to wait. In the context of Brexit, there is a renewed impetus to bolster transport infrastructure. Will the Minister seek to have the review conducted at the earliest possible opportunity?
It was not just a matter of applying for the grant.
He would also have had to produce money out of the air. There is only one thing easier than spending money in the future, at which Fianna Fáil is very good, and that is spending money in the past, at which it is becoming even better. Fianna Fáil is rewriting history and stating the money was available, but we know what the financial position was in 2011. We also know why it was thus in 2011 and it had nothing to do with the then Minister, Deputy Leo Varadkar.
The reality was that the then Minister was forced to make decisions of that sort because there was absolutely no money left for him to spend on projects of the sort proposed by the outgoing Fianna Fáil Government.