Service to rural Ireland ‘must not be provided at any cost to the taxpayer.’
‘I have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayers are protected, and the State does not squander their money.’
Sligo News File.
Once again the Irish countryside is being relegated to the back burner as chaos jams the works over the provision of the long-promised rural broadband programme. And now a local TD has thrown in his tuppence worth arguing that “value for money must be the key consideration in the rollout.” He has also submitted that the department must assess the “cost and analyse all options.”
God only knows how long then delivery of the rural plan is set to take.
Commenting after Department of Communications personnel met with the Public Accounts Committee, Deputy Marc MacSharry said officials admitted that their department had “failed to undertake a full cost-benefit analysis on faster and more affordable alternatives such as 5G wireless.”
Agreeing that rural broadband “must be delivered,” he stressed, however, that it must not be “at any cost to the taxpayer.”
“Before the government makes a decision that will involve spending billions of euros, we need to ensure that everything is costed, considered and completed.”
“I have grave concerns that the State could end up spending billions of euros on rolling out the National Broadband Plan without ensuring the best value for money for taxpayers,” he said.
“What we learned from officials appearing before the Public Accounts Committee about its plans for the roll-out of rural broadband is worrying.”
“As a rural TD, I fully appreciate the need for high speed, reliable broadband. Rural communities simply can’t wait any longer. However, I also have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayers are protected, and the State does not squander their money.”
The proceedings at the Public Accounts Committee did nothing to inspire confidence, he claimed.
“If the Department is happy with an uptake of only one-in-five home to its fibre to the home broadband solution, as has been Eir’s experience in urban areas, this, he estimated “could see the cost of connections hit €27,000 per house.”
Alternatives to the prevailing system included “5G fixed wireless which could connect 99% of homes in Ireland for as little as €1,000 per home.
“The most technologically advanced countries globally – the U.S., Japan, China and South Korea – are now moving to launch 5G service.
He added that the department and the government needed to ensure that they “do not sleepwalk into a bad deal for taxpayers.”
‘The strategy and constant push to use unused railways as greenways is flawed and represents a capitulation to the political failure of successive governments to balance development and opportunity on the island.’
Sligo News File.
In the words of the song, there are days when you feel like screaming which surely must have been the state of mind of many when a group announced that they planned to turn a potentially viable Sligo rail track into a footpath for cyclists and backpackers. What has come over the North West that people are seemingly willing to allow the track out of Collooney to be practically killed off? Not only that, but the government is being asked to dole out millions in scarce taxpayers money to bring the plan to fruition.
Imagine how the late, great founder of the nearby awe-inspiring Knock airport Monsignor James Horan would have reacted if it had been proposed that the airport site should be instead used as an outdoor activity facility. He pulled off a magnificent result for the West because he refused to accept second best for the area. And when government funding for the development fell short of what he needed to progress the works, he raised massive sums in private donation to launch what is now a fully fledged international airport towering proudly over the West.
Great credit is due to the people behind West=on=Track who have tirelessly fought to have the disused Collooney Claremorris track brought back into service as a fully functioning railway, people such as sociologist Fr. Micheal MacGreil, Colman O’Raghallaigh and, in Collooney, Peter Bowen Walsh. Detractors have pointed to costs, they have pointed to the community rebuilding role the revived service could play in linking the North West to the South and the dividend it would return both as passenger service and freight transportation operation linking towns and villages dying for want of essential transport infrastructure.
To be fair, the efforts of a body calling themselves Sligo Greenway Co-op are deserving of some praise; their initiative in proposing the laying of a greenway over the trackbed of the rail line from Collooney to Bellaghy has at least highlighted the existence of an important publicly owned resource which government and local public representatives have largely ignored over the years. Sligo Greenway must, however, appreciate that the provision of a recreational walkway at the expense of digging up the existing rail
infrastructure would be no substitute for the reinstatement of a working railway.
Peter Bowen Walsh explains, saying:
“The strategy and constant push to use unused railways as greenways is flawed and born out of an acceptance that the Atlantic regions are going to become places for people to visit, retire to, or make movies there.
“It represents a capitulation to the political failure of successive governments to balance development and opportunity on the island.
“A fully re-instated Western Rail Corridor from Limerick to Sligo would open up the far too long neglected West.
“As an essential infrastructural component of the Atlantic Economic Corridor, it would take a lot of freight and traffic off the roads, saving millions in wear and tear; it would have great ecological and environmental advantages; it would create and maintain employment by encouraging industrial development; it would encourage tourism; it would encourage a vibrant counterbalance to a far too rapidly expanding Greater Dublin Area; it would provide a large variety of commuting opportunities for workers and
students; it would facilitate travel for hospital patients and the partially abled.”
He said: “The advantages to tourism in the region, by attracting cyclists and walkers through the creation of greenways would be as nothing compared to the advantages to industry, tourism and the development of the west, which a high-speed Western Rail Corridor would provide.
“The cumulative strength of the WRC is greater than the sum of its parts. It is a regional asset, strengthened by the integrity of each link.”
All who are campaigning for the WRC, he said “are doing so in the best interests of this region, and for the country as a whole.”
Speaking in support of the West=on=Track campaign, secretary of the Sligo Farming Platform, John Gallagher said the retention and preservation of the rail track was essential for the “continuation of the Western Rail Corridor to serve the Western region and towns along the track.”
He said both national spatial policy and Western county councils’ development plans envisaged and supported a development policy to restore the railway infrastructure from Athenry to Collooney.
“National and European environmental strategy and policy advances the concept of carbon mitigation, and in future it will be a requirement to transfer both passenger and freight off roadways on to rail. This will reduce road congestion and extend road life.
“Sligo County Council Development Plan supports the concept of the Western Rail Corridor and that the railway be preserved and restored.”
Referring to the proposal to lay a greenway over the trackbed of Collooney Bellaghy track, he said a greenway could instead be constructed along the “existing land take adjacent to the railway track without having to interfere with the existing track or its infrastructure.”
Twenty-two applications have been received for the €53 million allocated by the government for the development of greenways over the years 2019 to 2021. National funding is usually supplemented by ‘match’ funding by councils promoting greenway developments, meaning, one way or another, Sligo will be saddled with the bill for any outstanding costs of the Collooney Bellaghy pathway and, too, maintenance and other overheads into the future.
State-supported creches and constituency offices of ministers’ and TD’s are rates exempted.
Sligo News File
Struggling privately run creches will continue to be hit with costly commercial rates. The providers also have to compete with state-operated creches, all of which are rates exempted.
The issue was raised by Deputy Eamon Scanlon when in a written question he asked the Minister for Local Government Eoghan Murphy about the “the substantial disadvantage placed on privately operated crèches which are competing against State supported crèches paying no commercial rates.”
Murphy pointed to a previous reply on the issue, then went on to state that “there are no proposals under consideration for a discount of commercial rates for childcare service providers.”
The business taxation of private creches runs counter to the position governing constituency offices of TD’s which, like State aided creches, are free of all local commercial rates.
Owing to higher overheads, creche costs have been recently increased with charges in Dublin now more that €1,000 per month
and nearly €700 per month in most parts of the country besides.
Change as proposed ‘would pose a real danger to human health and environmental quality.’
Sligo News File
A Bill aimed at easing restrictions on the construction of one-off rural dwellings in areas ruled unsuitable for septic systems has run into opposition from An Taisce.
TD Martin Kenny told the Dail that for some years a guideline on the suitability of soils for development issued by the Environmental Protection Agency had prevented houses being erected in some parts of Leitrim.
What he called the EPA code of practice drawn up in 2009 came into effect in 2010, he said. The measure specifies that if the soil on a site is too dense and fails the percolation test, the result would be rated zero emissions or zero discharge.
“In other words, no matter how well the treatment system on site treated the effluent, even if it treated it to drinking water standard, a cup of that water is not allowed into a river or stream,” he said.
“That was taking it to an extreme that I do not think anyone ever intended it to go.”
He said that in places like Leitrim, where almost 90% of the soil will not pass the percolation test, “people have been denied permission to build a house and to live in their own community, where they grew up, or to send their children to the schools they went to themselves and have their children play for the football club that they played for.”
However, under the Bill he was tabling, a local authority would be empowered to issue a discharge licence for a single house system “where the effluent is treated to bathing water standard.” The system, he said, could be “assessed, tested, regulated and stood over by the local authority when it issues the licence.”
The measure would not conflict with the current EPA requirements “because the guidelines state that one can apply for a water discharge licence.” Licensing would also mean “the environment would be protected to a new standard,” that would be “actually much higher than the one we have at present,” he argued.
However, An Taisce has dismissed the otherwise widely supported bill as “flawed.”
The proposed change to the existing planning restrictions, they have stated, “would pose a real danger to human health and environmental quality.”
Another body has said that the amendment as proposed “conflicts with EU Water Framework directives on the protection of waters.”
Despite concerns, the Bill has been referred to the Select Committee following a vote in which it was supported by 72 TD’s while 50 voted against the move.
‘Rotten and stinking deal done by the Irish Postmasters Union’ – McGrath.
Sligo News File
The virtual wipeout of the post office network continues to generate heated debate in the Dail where last night a Donegal TD lashed the “deceitful way” in which the rural service is being killed off.
Pat the Cope Gallagher said 17 of the post offices in his county are currently earmarked for closure. “There was no commercial analysis, no economic analysis and no rural proofing.”
Closure of the offices will mean “people will have to walk or cycle or perhaps use public transport, if it is available. I refer to 15 km.
“The people of rural Ireland, and particularly the people of my county, have been conned by this Government.
“I came in here with others, and we voted unanimously on an amendment to provide a public service obligation, PSO, for those rural areas. What has the Government done? It has ignored it.”
Calling it “a very sad day,” he also strongly criticised the absence of Communications minister, Richard Bruton from the Dail.
“If the Minister has a duplication of business, it means this is less important than the business he is now attending to. To us this is the most important business being discussed in this House today. It is a total insult to us as Deputies and to rural Ireland that this is being done. It is just not good enough. We are not prepared to accept this.
“We are looking for the Minister to meet a representative cross-party group of Deputies to discuss this matter and the associated protocols.”
“I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Canney, to confirm tonight that the Minister will meet that group of rural Deputies.”
Deputy Mattie McGrath dismissed a reply from Minister of State Sean Canney as “balderdash.” He said: “This is a rotten and stinking deal done by the Irish Postmasters Union, IPU. Who gave it any mandate to close post offices? I salute all the postmasters and postmistresses. More power to any of them who took the redundancy as they are entitled to it. Park that first of all. It did not give the IPU the right to negotiate away services from my village in Newcastle in Tipperary or the other five villages in Tipperary
losing their post offices. The Minister would not even come in here, which demonstrates his disdain.
“I have written to the four Fianna Fáil Deputies, including Deputy Michael McGrath, who are renegotiating the confidence and supply agreement. If Fianna Fáil cares about rural Ireland, with the Government it will prioritise these post offices and disband this cabal of people on a so-called independent inquiry team. Its members had neither the manners nor the respect to write back to our committee in Newcastle, which has gone about its work diligently and honestly.
Acting Chairman Deputy Eugene Murphy: The Deputy has gone way over his time.
McGrath: “The Minister must act. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael must keep these post offices open. If that does not happen they should call an election and go to the country so the people can make a decision rather than a cabal of so-called independent people with a rotten and stinking deal that the union negotiated behind people’s back.”
Canney said he couldn’t make a commitment on behalf of the Minister (Bruton) “but I will bring to him the Deputies’ request to meet an all-party delegation.
‘Turas Nua and Seetec must be rubbing their hands together and laughing with glee.’
Sligo News File
Minister for Employment Affairs and Social Protection Regina Doherty has refused to say how much the government is paying JobPath for its services.
However, she revealed that thousands who have completed training with the organisation have not been able to find a job.
Replying to a Dail question from Deputy John Brady, Doherty said that 193,000 engaged with JobPath since 2015 but 15,000 have had to be referred to the service for the second time.
JobPath, said Doherty supports the long-term unemployed in securing full-time paid employment with jobseekers being directed to the service using a selection process.
Those who complete a year with JobPath are referred back to an Intreo “case officer.” Intreo is yet another government paid body contracted to work with job seekers and employers. It may reselect JobPath previously trained persons to “go back on JobPath,” where they will be assigned “a personal adviser.” Adviser and jobseeker together will then prepare “a new personal progression”JobPath plan.
“The actions and tasks agreed will be based on their previous engagement, with a particular focus on the identified barriers that prevented them from moving into full-time suitable employment during the first 12-month stint.”
Doherty also confirmed that JobPath providers receive a registration fee each time they register a jobseeker for the service. The balance of their fees is paid subject to their clients achieving sustained full-time employment for at least 13 weeks.
However, the Department does not release details of fees paid to JobPath providers as these are commercially sensitive,” she said, adding “To do so would place the State at a disadvantage both in terms of the contracts currently in place and, in particular, in any procurement that may be undertaken in this area.”
Brady retorted that “Turas Nua and Seetec must be rubbing their hands together and laughing with glee.”
He said: “The Minister implied in her answer that they are getting paid a second time when people sign the personal progression plan. What is the figure for this? How much is being paid out for the 15,000 people referred for a second time?”
“What is the difference between the training in the first stint, which has not worked in finding jobs for the 15,000 people, and that in the second?” he asked
“I have spoken to many of those referred for a second time, and they say they are doing the exact same a second time around, namely learning how to write a curriculum vitae and engaging in other meaningless tasks. There are being put in front of a computer and told to find themselves jobs. The service did not work the first time around, and it certainly did not work the second time around.
“Could I have the figures? The argument about commercial sensitivity does not wash. The service is costing us millions of euro. Issues are clearly arising, and I have raised them with the Minister on many occasions.”
Doherty: “The Deputy has an ideological problem with JobPath.”
“The Minister should not muddy the water between community employment and JobPath,” said Brady. “They are very different.”
“Do the State and Department have a responsibility to continue to feed agreed numbers to the two companies until the contracts with them expire? The State is running out of people to feed this monster that it has created. The Department is obliged under contract to continue to feed the two companies. That is why the 15,000 people have been referred for a second time.
“I could show the Minister dozens of cases in which people do not want to be in the service for a second time. They feel their time is being wasted by being referred for a second time. The Minister is saying people want to participate, but that is not true.”
The Central Statistics Office Live Register for October 2018 contained 199,247 people. There were 53,308 people participating in Activation Programmes in September 2018. Activation programmes are designed to support jobseekers back into employment. The number on the Live Register for the West and North West (Border) region in September 2018 was nearly 41,000.
Will the Ballina-based deputy leader of Fianna Fail, now use the negotiations for an extension of the confidence and supply deal to obtain a fairer distribution of new industry now largely confined to Dublin?
Sligo News File.
We imagine it must have come as a shock to Ballina-based TD Dara Calleary to discover that there have only been seven IDA visits to Mayo this year.
So, now, that he knows, what more is he going to do about securing fresh Foreign Direct Investment backed industrial activity for the clearly job-starved county?
He is not, of course, the only Oireachtas representative around; there’s also Michelle Mulhern and Paddy Burke, Fine Gael senators, Fine Gael TD’s Michael Ring and Enda Kenny, and Fianna Fail TD Lisa Chambers. Quite a large bunch there, yet the area is getting a relatively raw deal on job creation developments.
Ballina, Castlebar and most of the other Mayo towns have witnessed the closure of numerous commercial and retail businesses that arguably could have survived if the areas had the benefit of more industry and key service operations.
Roscommon and Leitrim are other areas on which Sligo News File has repeatedly focussed attention. Just two IDA visits to Roscommon so far in 2018, no better for Leitrim. Sligo has had announcements of developments but the potential employment, welcome as it is, in no way equals the phenomenal number of jobs lost to the region since 2011 and before.
However, there isn’t, in this, much evidence of the rural revival about which the Fine Gael-led government keeps blathering on. More frustratingly, the decline of rural regions is happening while more and more new industry and service sector business is being crammed into sites in Dublin. Indeed, the intensity of it is so high that the government is now targeting the River Shannon as a source to supplement the water shortage the region is experiencing because of the demand its expanding economy and the ever-growing industrial base is making on the city’s water supply.
Still, though, some credit to Calleary for highlighting the disturbing lack of IDA visits. However, as one of the Fianna Fail team currently negotiating for an extension of the confidence and supply agreement with the government maybe he – and Chambers – would make a pitch to have the west and north-west prioritised as the location for a share of the industrial and commercial operations now being sucked up by the capital.