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Major report on redevelopment of the West of Ireland to be debated in Seanad today

24 February, 2009 - by Pearse Doherty TD

Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Regional Development and author of the Oireachtas Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Committee report 'Awakening the West' has welcomed a Seanad debate, which will take place today, on the report recommendations recently adopted by the Committee.

The report entitled 'Awakening the West: Overcoming Social and Economic Inequality', is the first report of its kind in decades and has been put together after a major consultation process involving various stakeholders along the Western Seaboard. In a significant move earlier this month Senators agreed to debate the recommendations of the report in the Seanad.

Speaking in advance of this afternoons debate Donegal Senator Pearse Doherty said:

"If this report and its recommendations are properly implemented I believe that we will make serious inroads into addressing and reversing decades of economic and social inequality in the West.

"This report spells out a vision of a confident and vibrant Western region. It is a vision of a region that has access to employment opportunities, to public services and that is provided with the opportunities to maximise its potential. This report demands nothing more and nothing less than fairness. The West of Ireland can no longer be an after thought for political leaders.

"Along the Western Seaboard, from Donegal to West Cork, communities are fighting for their very survival. Government policy has proactively favoured the east coast of the country in infrastructure, job creation and political influence.

"The West has suffered the withdrawal and downgrading of vital services, such as public transport, post offices and Garda Services. The destruction and collapse of traditional employment sectors, such as the textile and fishing industries, coupled with the exodus of small farmers from the land has resulted in depopulation and led to unemployment and poverty.

"The rural West has been losing population at an alarming rate due to the decline of traditional employment in farming and fishing. In recent times this region relied too heavily on employment from construction which is now suffering disproportionately from the dramatic downturn in that sector.

"Given the rural and sparsely populated nature of the west of Ireland, and the isolation experienced by many, communities frequently feel helpless in their ability to halt the decline. Their voices are not being heard in the corridors of power. Their lobbies are too weak to exert the pressure that is needed to bring about change. In many cases, these areas find themselves pitted against each other in an 'either or' battle to retain services or attract investment.

"Our aim with this report was to bring all the disparate groups across the west of Ireland together in one united voice to demand an end to the inequalities in the west and to come up with realistic and reasonable proposals to that end. The west needs an alliance for change. It needs a regrouping of progressive social, political and economic individuals and organisations.

"This report is a call to action. I have been particularly encouraged by the all-party consensus on the recommendations of this detailed and progressive report.

"I would again thank the Senators for their support and I am looking forward to today's debate. Now is the time to address the inequality of the west. We can no longer afford not to do so. Our people deserve better." ENDS

Key issues affecting the West

· Depopulation in rural communities is a major problem which is going un-tackled. The movement of people from rural communities within the West to urban centres between 1926 and 2002 saw a decline of 40% of the populations of Clare, Cork, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Leitrim, Limerick, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo.

· The structuring of state institutions and delivery of public policy have also contributed to the current inequity between the regions. There is limited regional policy co-ordination and insufficient consideration of the goals of the National Spatial Strategy.

· Across the Western region agriculture, forestry, fishing and construction amount to 20% of all employment. Each of these sectors is undergoing serious difficulties.

· In 2007 only 2,400 people were directly employed in fishing. Three quarters of the entire fishing workforce is located in Counties Donegal, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Clare, and West Cork. The total catch for these fleets has declined from 390,000 tonnes in 1995 to 210,000 tonnes in 2006. The Irish fleet has declined by over 30% since 1993.

· In 2007 just 8.1% of the 9,216 new IDA supported jobs were located in Counties Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Mayo, Roscommon, Clare, Limerick or Kerry. While Galway and Cork accounted for 21% of these new jobs they were concentrated in the gateways of Galway City and Cork City.

· The retention of graduates is another serious problem. Only 38% of the western region's graduates find their first place of employment in their home counties in comparison with 79.5% for Dublin.

· The North-West has suffered a decline of 30% in overseas visitors since 1999. In 2006, Clare, Mayo, Roscommon, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal combined generated just 9% of the overall tourism revenue.

· Of the 19 national road projects in construction at the end of December 2007, just two were located in the Western seaboard region, amounting to only 75 out of 458 kilometres of national roads.

· The Western Rail Corridor is the only major inter-regional rail project for the western counties under Transport 21 and is now at risk due to government cutbacks. The Western Rail Corridor will cost less than €200 million, compared to the Metro North in Dublin, which is estimated to cost €3.7billion.

· It is projected that by 2014 there will be a further 1,698 bed closures in public hospitals in the Western seaboard under its 'Regionalisation Scenario' and hospitals in Sligo and Castlebar are facing destabilisation and downgrading if the National Cancer Care Strategy goes ahead as planned.

· Of the 396 applications from primary schools in counties Kerry, Cork, Clare, Galway, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal, only 72 (18%) have progressed beyond initial stages.

· In 2007 one in eight jobs were lost in Údarás na Gaeltachta assisted companies. The lack of employment and services in the Gaeltacht is adversely affecting the socio-linguistic environment of Gaeltacht areas.

Key Recommendations

The report sets out a lot of detailed proposals to deal with the key issues affecting the West. The key proposals include the following:

· A single Government Department should be given overall responsibility for Regional Development.

· All State Bodies should be compelled by law to assess whether policies being developed would create regional imbalance and amend those policies accordingly. A Regional Development Impact Assessment Framework should be established to facilitate this.

· To address the clear imbalance in job creation along the West there should be regional and sub-regional job creation targets set out for Enterprise Ireland, the IDA and other Enterprise Support Agencies.

· The report calls for the establishment of a self sustaining state agency with a property portfolio to promote entrepreneurial activity at local level in the South West, North West and Western Counties.

· Forfás should carry out an immediate review of the capacity of the Western seaboard region to attract Foreign Direct Investment and the measures which need to be taken at a strategic level to improve its competitiveness and boost employment opportunities.

· The National Development Plan 2007-2013 should re-introduce its policy of having a specific goal of achieving balanced regional development with set targets for each region.

· The Western Rail Corridor is critical to the development of the west. It should not be subject to cutbacks but proceed as planned. There should be a review of the Claremorris to Collooney section as matter of priority.

· The Atlantic Road Corridor, from Waterford to Letterkenny, should be a seamless dual carriageway built under public finance.

· State financial support should be provided to pilot next generation broadband schemes in at least three towns in each of the 10 Western seaboard counties in which broadband infrastructure enables it.

· The Department of Communication, Energy and Natural Resources should identify renewable energy zones on the Western seaboard region and bring forward proposals for the development of community and wider regional renewable energy projects.

· The 1,700 public beds in the region's acute hospitals which are threatened with closure under the HSE's PA Report must be retained.

· National Cancer Strategy should be revised to provide for a balanced regional approach, particularly in relation to surgery and radiology.

· There must be a coherent strategy to maximise Garda visibility in rural areas.

· There is a need for a clear Government policy in relation to the minimum number of post offices that are necessary. In order to save a number of post offices at risk of imminent closure, the Government should intervene in the form of a public service obligation order (PSO).

· The government should bring forward a Charter of Rights, based on the needs of the individual islands, which would be guaranteed in law. These rights would form the basis of a strategy to re-populate the islands and encourage young people to stay.

· All plans and statutory provisions for Gaeltacht areas should be integrated into a comprehensive and cohesive planning process which would include language planning, local and physical planning, education planning, structural planning and social planning including family support services.

Note to Editor: Sinn Féin Agriculture and Fisheries Spokesperson Martin Ferris TD last week submitted a Report on Future Farming and Fishing in the West to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, of which he is a member, for their consideration. This report provides an accurate picture of both the current state of the rural economy, particularly in the West and of the sort of strategies needed to move us forward.

Sinn Féin Agriculture and Fisheries Spokesperson Martin Ferris TD last week submitted a Report on Future Farming and Fishing in the West to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, of which he is a member, for their consideration. This report provides an accurate picture of both the current state of the rural economy, particularly in the West and of the sort of strategies needed to move us forward.

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