Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is committed to ensuring ‘that all roads no longer go to Dublin’, writes Political Correspondent Juno McEnroe.
The last time a Taoiseach and Cabinet met in the country’s second city was when Bertie Ahern hosted his own council of ministers in the historic surroundings of Cork City Hall.
That was some 12 years ago — and as it later emerged it was a lavish affair, costing taxpayers €5,811 for the politicians’ away-day.
This time around, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar brought some goodies for the citizens of Cork: Committing to a major motorway project linking Limerick and promising major infrastructure plans for Munster, a region that now is home to the fastest rate of employment in the country.
A packed business breakfast meeting at the spectacularly refurbished Páirc Uí Chaoimh stadium was the setting for Mr Varadkar’s first public engagement in Cork since taking office.
No pressure then, especially as onlookers wondered what it would have been like if Cork’s own Simon Coveney (also at the breakfast briefing), the foreign affairs minister, had trumped Leo Varadkar in the Fine Gael leadership race and was the Taoiseach instead.
But Leo Varadkar knows his audiences and, as well as referencing past Munster politicians and sports accolades, he knew the crowds gathered for the early fare were hungry for news of what the Government will do for Cork, especially under a Dublin Taoiseach.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Varadkar — who today is exactly four months in office — outlined his vision for major infrastructure projects. He also spoke about the recent pensions discrimination scandal which has erupted in the wake of the budget this week.
He said the 10-year capital plan — to be announced in December — will boost spending in schools, roads and railways: “But of crucial importance for Munster and Cork and Limerick, is that it allows us now to resume and get back on track the M20 motorway connecting Cork and Limerick.”
The announcement, initially made at the Cork chamber breakfast launch, sets in motion a commitment to build the long-awaited 80km stretch of road between the two biggest cities outside of Dublin.
This is a huge commitment. The building of the road alone will cost more than €800m. Given that planning and design could take three to four years, it now looks like its construction is likely close to a decade away.
It is too long a time to improve connectivity and commuter road safety in the region.
Nonetheless, Mr Varadkar now has given the green light to put the M20 back on track: “So the Gort-Tuam motorway opened just a few weeks ago, connecting Galway to Limerick and Clare.
Now we want to do the next part of that, making sure that all roads no longer just go to Dublin by connecting Cork and Limerick via the M20.”
Crucially, Mr Varadkar revealed that the 10-year capital plan will, in fact, include details about building the M20.
This is likely to include some cost elements or timeframe. Most importantly, even after allocating some tight spending for next year in this week’s budget, he also said: “The money is no longer a barrier to progressing that project.”
Mr Varadkar remembers all too well when during his tenure as transport minister plans for the new motorway were halted with the country facing huge cuts: “I remember when it had to be suspended because we didn’t have the money to progress it anymore.
"Now we do have the money, so it’s the most important transport project in Munster. It’s going ahead, just like the Dublin metro is going ahead.”
This is an important comparison and confirms how serious the new Taoiseach understands the project to be.
He also told the Irish Examiner he is committed to building the Cork City events centre. The future of the 6,000-seat facility is in doubt after its developers hiked up the estimated cost to more than €70m.
The ensuing disagreement has seen the Government held over a barrel by being asked to increase the taxpayers’ contribution to some €38m. The State is only willing to pay €30m and the stand-off continues. Now, a value-for-money review is underway, confirmed the Taoiseach.
“We also need to make sure we wouldn’t run into any problems with the tender, having to repeat that for example, which would set it back, which is obviously something that nobody wants.
"So any time there is a change of plan and increase in cost, we have to do due diligence, which is ultimately taxpayers’ money. It is absolutely a project that I am enthusiastic about and I look forward to seeing, not just under way, but completed.”
As fallout from the Government’s budget announcements continues this week, Mr Varadkar also addressed the pensions discrimination scandal. This has resulted in widespread concern about tens of thousands of older people whose State pensions were left short by hundreds or in some cases thousands of euro.
The State pension is calculated by adding up PRSI contributions a person makes and dividing that by the number of years between when they started work and when they retired.
A complex anomaly arose after law changes in 2012, which saw many older people, particularly women, punished because they had taken time off to bring up a family or taken up part-time work.
The source of the contributory pension row dates back to when eligibility rules changed in 2012. Many contributory applicants are now getting smaller amounts. Advocacy groups had hoped the fiasco would have been addressed in the budget. But it was not.
In the interview, the Taoiseach admitted it may take years to alter the pension rules. A simple reversal of the 2012 criteria would be unfair for people who worked all their life, he
“We are going to examine it but it is important to say that if we went back to the rules that were there before 2012, they weren’t particularly fair either because in those rules before 2012, people who made an average contribution of 20 [years] got 98% of the pension but people who made an average contribution of 48 [years] got 100% of the pension.”
Simply reversing the 2012 rule would result in people who worked substantially different numbers of years possibly getting the same amounts.
Instead of this, the Taoiseach and the Government want to have a much longer look at the pensions anomaly, but this could take years, he admits.
“But like all these things, any time you change the way you calculate something, some people will be better off, some people will be worse off. And before we make that change, we need to properly understand the profile of people who would be affected.”
The Taoiseach also spoke about Ireland’s hopes of winning the Rugby World Cup bid, an announcement on which will be made in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, it was all smiles for the cameras yesterday as the Cabinet enjoyed its away-day and think-in on the leafy grounds of University College Cork.
It was also a clever move by the Fine Gael-led coalition, which stole the news headlines yesterday as Fianna Fáil prepared to open the doors on its Dublin-based Ard Fheis at the RDS.
While Fianna Fáil leader and Cork South Central TD, Micheál Martin, was drumming up support among lieutenants in Dublin, Leo Varadkar was in his backyard stealing a march on him with big promises for voters and leaving his own indelible mark on the second city.
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