I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for allowing me the opportunity to raise this important matter.
The IDA has had another successful year according to its 1999 annual report. Some 18,000 jobs were created, which is another record. This job creation level continues the unprecedented growth rates of the previous five years. It means that employment in IDA-supported companies has increased nationally by 50% since 1994. However, the same report makes grim reading for those of us in the north west region, particularly in County Donegal. The north west region consists of counties Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim. Of the 18,000 plus jobs created nationally in 1999, less than 300 came to the north west, or less than 2% of the total. However, the real situation is far more critical and disturbing.
During 1999, overall employment in IDA-backed industries in the north west declined by a massive 1,235 which is by far the highest reduction on record. It is estimated that 1,200 of these job losses were in County Donegal. The 1999 figures are not a once-off phenomenon. The north west has consistently lagged behind the other regions in each year since 1993. The difference is that 1999 was by far the worst year from the job losses perspective. Donegal has the highest unemployment rate in the country. While the national unemployment rate is 4.6%, in Donegal it is 20% or more. This is intolerable and cannot be allowed continue. There have been major job losses in Buncrana, Raphoe, Millford, the Finn Valley and throughout south Donegal. Unless the region is to go into an unemployment and economic tailspin drastic and urgent action must be taken.
I accept that IDA Ireland cannot direct industrialists to locate in an area against its better judgment. This is where Government policy plays a crucial role. The Government can direct that preferential treatment be given to industries that locate in certain areas. A company establishing an industry in Dublin gets almost the same level of grant assistance as one locating in Donegal. This policy is leading to an unbalanced regional distribution of jobs to the advantage of the east coast and to the detriment of the north west and Donegal. More generous concessions and incentives must be offered to companies willing to locate in the north west. Limited recognition was given to such a strategy in the Finance Act, 1998. That year the upper Shannon basin, comprising counties Leitrim and Longford and parts of Roscommon, Cavan and Sligo had been given generous concessions that can be availed of by industrialists and other investors who locate there. These incentives have already stabilised the employment situation in these counties and greatly increased economic development. The effectiveness of such tax incentives is beyond dispute. These concessions should be extended to Donegal immediately.
In the north west there is a core of educated and skilled young people, products of the Letterkenny and Sligo institutes of technology. However, they leave the area to take up employment with high-tech companies in Dublin and along the east coast. They leave by bus on Sunday evenings and return on Fridays for the weekend. Why can we not attract industries to the north west to provide employment for these young people in their own environment?
It is generally recognised that the quality of life in Donegal and in the north west is as good as, if not better, than that in Dublin. Housing is cheaper and travel is certainly much easier. We cannot afford to have the lifeblood of rural areas drained away. What is now a temporary weekly absence may eventually become permanent.
County Donegal has given this Government more loyalty and support than any other county – five out of its six Deputies support the Government in Dáil Éireann on a daily basis. The county is also represented by a Senator and an MEP who are Government supporters. However, in the area of investment and job creation that loyalty is not reciprocated by the Government. Donegal is being taken for granted. We simply cannot have a repeat of 1999. Rhetoric and promises are no longer acceptable or sufficient. We demand a fairer share of the spoils of the Celtic tiger economy, nothing less is acceptable. The Donegal task force has prepared a development blueprint for the county. Its immediate implementation is the only solution. This can only be done by a more determined and serious Government commitment – so far that commitment has been totally inadequate and pathetic.