26 October 2006 Edition
SF meets Cowen - All-Ireland investment and peace dividend discussed
BY ROBBIE SMYTH
It is probably the most important set of decisions the coalition government will ever take, and it could mean commitments to spend over €70 billion in the 26 Counties alone, but serious questions have been raised this week about the Dublin Government's National Development Plan (NDP) - not just the efficiency of the plan, but also the question of its all-Ireland dimension and how focused the two Governments are on ensuring the best possible use of funds to invest in the transport, housing, health, energy, telecommunications and other infrastructural needs of the coming decades.
Last week Sinn Féin's General Secretary and Foyle MLA Mitchel McLaughlin, Louth TD Arthur Morgan, and economic policy adviser and Ard Chomhairle member Caoilfhionn Ní Dhonnabháin met with Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Brian Cowen to discuss the Irish Government's contribution to a peace dividend and proposals in relation to the pending National Development Plan.
Arthur Morgan is keeping the peace dividend on the political agenda by raising it at the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body meeting this week in Belfast. Morgan said that he would use the opportunity presented by the meeting to "seek broad support for a peace dividend". It was, he said, a "crucial element of the ongoing efforts to see the Good Friday Agreement political institutions put back in place".
ESRI call for a spending slowdown
This week, in one of the most detailed evaluations yet of government economic strategies, the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) launched its own assessment of the investment priorities of the coming government development plan which, with a December or possibly January launch, is set to be a substantial part of the 2007 Fianna Fáil election platform.
The ESRI evaluation raises serious questions about the Government's approach, particularly around the value for money of government projects (some of these issues are highlighted in a separate box).
The ESRI have called on the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat Government to slow down some parts of its proposed €10 billion annual spending on infrastructure.
Focusing on previous development plans, the ESRI said that the level of investment was "ramped up too rapidly", leading to an increase in inflationary costs of the projects as well as to "project management difficulties". This has reduced the rate of return of the Government's investment.
Examples of such projects would include the 5.6km Dublin Port Tunnel, which was supposed to open in 2004 and to cost €446 million. It is still not open in late 2006 and its costs are running to at least €752 million, with another €200 million in expenditure the subject of a contractual dispute between the builders and Dublin City Council. Then there is the Luas, originally budgeted at €269 million but with a final cost of €775 million.
One reading of the ESRI report is that there is little changed in the government mindset coming into this new plan. This means that the Government could once again end up wasting hundred of millions of Euros of public money.
Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the ESRI evaluation is that the Government had rejected its findings even before the study was publicly launched.
The All-Ireland dimension
The ESRI report also focuses on the North-South dimension, saying that "significant economic benefit can be derived from forging stronger links" and that "there is significant scope to further strengthen these links through the development of an all-Ireland electricity market and sufficient interconnection between the existing transport and energy systems".
These were some of the issues raised by the Sinn Féin delegation that met Minister Cowen last week. Mitchel McLaughlin spoke to An Phoblacht about the meeting.
McLaughlin said that the all-Ireland aspects of the NDP were on Cowen's agenda but that he wouldn't commit himself to details. Sinn Féin raised specific issues with Cowen such as the Ulster Canal, the Warrenpoint-Cooley Bridge project, the Derry-Dublin Road upgrade, the reopening of the Derry-Dublin rail line, the linking of Dundalk IT with the Newry College of Further Education in a new University of Dundalk and Newry, investment in cross-border rural transport services and the creation of an all-island telecommunications system with a single regulator.
Cowen baulked at supporting the railway proposals but did agree that there was a rationale for a feasibility study for the project, and did concede that many other EU states were returning to rail as the best long-term solution for public transport services and traffic congestion.
So as we wait for the Government to publish its long awaited development plan, the first question will be this: have they learnt from past mistakes and the millions wasted?