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Transport 21 – An Exercise In Deception

Andrew McGrath

On 1st November 2005, the Government released a ten-year transport plan. Titled “Transport 21”, it outlined a ¤34.4 billion spend on road, rail and light rail projects across the country. As part of this programme, it was announced that the Western Rail Corridor would be re-opened in two phases, starting with the Ennis-Claremorris section and followed by the Claremorris-Collooney section. If one were to go only by the media reports greeting this announcement, one would have been left with the impression that the money allocated was extra investment, and that the projects it was intended to fund were all new initiatives. However this was not so. The electoral confidence trick played here by the Government was to include monies already allotted to road programmes and to reannounce programmes already planned for. The plan itself is suspiciously lacking in actual detail regarding the costing of individual projects, and this is no surprise given the ever-ballooning road-building bonanza that is being enjoyed by contractors, and the land-rezoning holiday that goes with it. The inevitable cost increases and delays do not feature in the plan, strengthening the contention that it consists mainly of pie in the sky.

Regarding the Western Rail Corridor element itself, which was such a prominent feature of Government PR in promoting the plan in the media, it forms a part of the campaign on the part of the State to ensure the economic isolation of the West of Ireland. For instance, as the Sligo Champion pointed out in response to the announcement, “[t]he Western Rail Corridor is the only project in the ten-year plan that could have been started relatively soon. Here was an ideal opportunity for the government to show some serious commitment to the West and North West by getting on with the rail project. Instead, it will be spread interminably over ten years… The section of track between Claremorris and Collooney will be preserved in mothballs – but nobody is taking bets on whether a train will ever use it. Many people in the West are also puzzled by the ten-year timeframe put forward for achieving the Ennis-Claremorris section of just 68.5 miles, considering the 26 miles from Ennis to Limerick was renewed in eighteen months. And there is the question of whether massive EU funding will be lost to the project because of the delay.” In the meantime, the bulk of the spending earmarked in the programme is concentrated around Dublin, in an attempt not to bail out the sinking ship of infrastructure and housing development, but to rescue the Government’s chances among the electorate in the region of greatest population density. 
In fact, the loss of EU infrastructure funding is no longer a question, it is a certainty. Here is an extract from a speech by Minister for Finance Brian Cowen on the 17th of July 2006 to the Fianna Fáil Parliamentary Party: “I want to emphasize that Ireland will draw down its full entitlements under the Structural Funds for each region. This means that investments will continue to take place under the current programme beyond 2006 in both regions. Under the Structural Fund Regulations, expenditure on co-funded measures can continue to the end of December 2008 and will be eligible for the drawdown of structural funds from the 2000-2006 allocation. Not only will the available funding be drawn down but, as attested by independent assessors, the results achieved with the resources from the structural funds has been good.” Under the EU Structural Funds, the Government would be able to claim up to 70% (over ¤270 million) of the cost of the Western Rail Corridor, provided an application is made before the end of 2006. 
However, a spokesperson for the Department of Finance stated on 17th July, on the same day the Minister made his speech, that there was no intention to apply for EU funding for the project. If the Western Rail Corridor is to proceed at all, it must be funded in full by the exchequer. But the refusal of the Government even to apply for funds demonstrates that their commitment to providing a rail infrastructure for the West of Ireland is hollow. What with the endless capacity for taxpayer-funded expansion in the civil engineering, i.e. road-building, sector, there is no prospect that the Government will meet its commitments under Transport 21, and no reason to believe that there was any intention to do so. 

© The Tara Foundation, 2006