Deciding how to spend the money raised through taxation and borrowing is, in the main, a matter of the political priorities of the people elected to make the decisions Should it be €23m spent on wage increases for low-paid public sector workers in health, education, policing, and the Defence Forces — or a similar sum to build a new Irish embassy in Tokyo? That would be the “state-of-the-art” building the Foreign Affairs Department says is needed to replace the current embassy in Japan. The business case provided by our ambassador is that the new embassy — a “major gleaming platform” for promoting Irish exports — will have paid for itself within 20 years.
And there’s transport, too; that’s a high priority for people who think money needs to be found for expanding rail and bus services, and for widening air transport options out from Dublin to the rest of the country. Where are these on the Government’s list of priorities? They’re not at the top. Shane Ross, the transport minister, has offered a helping hand to Waterford Airport, which has been without commercial flights since 2016, and which needs a longer runway.
It’s a grudging offer: Central government and local councils will put in €7m of the €12m needed, but Dublin would pay its €5m share only if private investors came up with a matching contribution. Without this backing, says Mr Ross, the airport’s future is highly uncertain, thus appearing to be relaxed about writing off a regional airport that, if revamped, could handle large passenger planes. The lifeline comes with another stipulation: It’s not an up-front offer of public money. The Government’s €5m would be paid in arrears when the runway is signed off as fit for service by the Irish Aviation Authority. It’s hardly confidence-building, is it?
Sceptics might have noticed that exchequer grants totalling €8.85m have been given to Donegal, Knock, and Kerry airports without terms and conditions. Those are airports that have significant ministerial support. Waterford, unfortunately, is a constituency and a region without a minister.
Cork Airport is, overall, in a much healthier condition, which would have been even better had it not been for the decision by Norwegian Airlines, after all Boeing Max 737s were grounded, not to resume its transatlantic services this year, and instead to reroute them from Dublin. Shannon Airport’s flights to the US have also been given to Dublin. Norwegian says it will look again at its suspended Cork and Shannon services next year, by which time they will have been comfortably accommodated by the capital’s airport.
The consequences for Cork and Shannon, along with the Transport Department’s unenthusiastic support for Waterford, suggest that ministers are in no hurry to decentralise an air transport network in which 96% of the growth in passenger numbers is taken by a dominant Dublin, leaving regional airports to share the remaining crumbs.
The Government’s stated aim is growth and regional development that is balanced. Whether or not it is prepared to add action to those words depends, of course, on where the item is on its list of priorities.