Pádraig Hoare: Just go and build the M20 motorway

The recovery is ongoing, our political leaders say. Regional development is now priority, they promise. The south-west has enormous economic potential, they insist.
Pádraig Hoare: Just go and build the M20 motorway

Yet, as we enter 2017, two of the most important centres of economic life in Ireland outside of Dublin are linked only by an execrable road network that would not be out of place in emerging democracies around the world.

It is a fact of life than, on any given day, a motorist can be stuck in second gear behind a tractor for half an hour at a time when travelling between Cork and Limerick.

It is not the image Ireland, and the south-west region in particular, wants to go out to those utterly vital foreign direct investors on the east coast of the US, especially in the wake of Brexit and a Donald Trump presidency.

There can be no more postponement. The M20 motorway must be given priority in the upcoming Capital Infrastructure Plan review in 2017. We know how vital that foreign direct investment is to the region.

University College Cork economist Seamus Coffey says that more than 14% of all jobs created by foreign investment nationally are in the south-west. It is not just foreign investment. Small business owners rely on proper transport links to import and export their goods.

An inadequate road between Cork and Limerick is costing those businesses time and money. Ireland needs to be at its very best when selling itself as an investment destination par excellence in an uncertain economic world post-Brexit.

A tough thing to do when bringing investors down from Shannon on a road that would have been poor, even in the 1950s. Cork proprietor of Wild Way Tours, John Fitzgerald, told the Irish Examiner the road is a recurring theme from his clients from the US and Canada, even though they are tourists.

The Wild Atlantic Way network of roads is charming to his clients, he says, but coming from Shannon to Cork always begs the same question: How is this the only link between Limerick and Cork, considering the national importance of the region?

If the tourists are aghast, imagine the feeling of potential investors? Danny McCoy of business group Ibec spoke for a range of people in the business community when he described the lack of a motorway between Cork and Limerick as “financial and economic illiteracy”.

Look at any updated map of Ireland and you will see the glaring omission. There’s motorway between Limerick and Galway, Dublin and Belfast, Dublin and Galway, even from Dublin to Carlow. Between Cork and Limerick, there’s barely a section of dual carriageway.

It is truly lamentable coming into 2017. Former head of the National Roads Authority and now Transport Infrastructure Ireland, Fred Barry, warned the previous Coalition Government, in 2015, that unless the process began immediately, it would be 2030 before a motorway could be completed. His views were ignored.

Transport Minister before last February’s general election, Paschal Donohoe, was unequivocal. There was no money for the project.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny was visibly annoyed when pressed by this reporter on the matter in February.

“Cork got its motorway to Dublin. It’s amazing how the expectations grow just as the economy starts to improve,” he said.

It was yet another indication that the Government had underestimated the desire for improvement outside of Dublin. It found out the hard way in February, and now may just be listening.

Transport Minister Shane Ross greenlit €1m to restart the planning process for the M20. Small change, considering €20m was spent on planning before it was postponed indefinitely in 2011, but a significant shift in thinking all the same.

With a national homelessness crisis, earmarking €800m for a motorway may seem imprudent.

Yet without it, Cork, Limerick, and the entire south-west cannot compete on the same scale as the eastern seaboard of Ireland.

Investment brings jobs, stability, improvements in socio-economic circumstances, and a better standard of living.

It won’t be the panacea and it won’t be delivered overnight, but giving it the green light will demonstrate that regional balance is indeed a priority for the political establishment.

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