Western Development Commission: Discussion with Chairman Designate

I welcome Mr. Paddy McGuinness and thank him for his attendance to discuss his new role as chairperson designate of the Western Development Commission. I draw to his attention the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person, persons or an entity either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise Mr. McGuinness that his opening statement and any other document submitted by him to the committee will be published on its website after the meeting. I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Before commencing the presentation, on behalf of members, I thank Mr. McGuinness for his perseverance and patience.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

I thank the Vice Chairman and members of the joint committee for their invitation and affording me the opportunity to outline my vision for the Western Development Commission, the challenges and priorities that I see for the organisation and the strategies I hope will realise these goals. In this regard, it might be helpful to say a few words about the background to the setting up of the commission, its status and structure, the composition of the current board and existing and ongoing goals and to list briefly some of the commission's achievements since its establishment.

The Western Development Commission was set up following intense public pressure and concern about serious economic and social decline in western counties during the 1980s and early 1990s. It is a statutory body established under the Western Development Commission Act 1998 and mandated to promote the economic and social development of the seven counties of the western region, namely, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and Clare. It currently has ten members whose names are listed in the pack provided. It is serviced by an executive staff of 12 operating out of offices in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon and functions under the auspices of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

The strategic goals of the organisation are to contribute to balanced regional development by ensuring the western region maximises its full potential for economic and social development; to promote the benefits of living, working and doing business in the western region; to support the sustainable economic and social development of the rural economy; and to provide risk capital for SMEs and social enterprises. Some of the more notable examples of work done to date by the commission are listed in the appendices under appropriate headings. Also included in the presentation pack are copies of recent reports and presentations.

To give an overview of the current position, the region has made significant economic and social progress since the establishment of the commission. That is not to say the commission is responsible for this progress; however, much of it was built on the growth of sectors now severely hit by the economic downturn, for example, the construction industry, the retail sector, other locally traded services and the public sector. The employment and population gains of the past decade and the potential to build on what has been achieved will be undermined unless there is a continued strategic focus on the region. In recent times substantial infrastructural improvements have been made, for example, the M6 to Galway, the strengthening of the electricity grid, greater access to broadband in rural areas, although much work remains to be done, and the first phase of the western rail corridor. However, a great deal more needs to be done if enterprises in the western region are to operate on a level playing field with enterprises in other regions and if the region is to be attractive to investors and highly skilled workers. This is the key to the region realising its full potential to achieve growth and job creation. In this, the commission has strived to identify the western region not only as a key resource for Ireland but also a critical asset as a bountiful region on the periphery of Europe, with untapped resources unique to the location and landscape in areas such as renewable energy, tourism and the creative economy.

The west still requires targeted support to maximise its employment potential and contribution to the national economy. If the potential of lagging regions is not harnessed for the benefit of the national economy, there will be a waste of talent and opportunities and it will reduce overall national economic performance. Regional development is not a zero sum game; growth in one region does not have to be at the expense of another. Improvements in physical infrastructure generate productivity gains for local businesses and increase the attractiveness of an area for investment and tourism. Access to quality road, rail and international air services, broadband and energy resources plays a crucial part in positioning the west within a modern global economy. In a higher value, more knowledge based economy the efficient movement of people, knowledge and information is essential. Improvements in infrastructure alone, however, will not be enough to unlock the west's potential for the national good. The OECD has found that human capital is even more important than infrastructure as a determinant of regional performance.

I am deeply honoured to have been nominated by the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, as chairman designate of the Western Development Commission. More importantly, as I took the invitation literally and was under the impression that the committee could veto my appointment, I am here to try to convince members that I am suitable for the job.

I see it as a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is to lead the organisation towards making the region a better place in which to live, work and relax. The opportunity is to work with a competent board and a committed staff in a united and determined effort for the attainment of those goals. I am particularly conscious of the current strains on the public finances and of the need to avoid waste through the duplication of work of other organisations. I will be keen to foster co-operation and will strive to work in collaboration with the public, private and voluntary sectors to focus on the needs of the west. The €1.2 million regional tourism marketing programme co-ordinated by the WDC and funded through a consortia of Fáilte Ireland, Tourism Ireland and five regional local authorities has, during its first year, enabled local communities to contribute to the direct marketing of the region internationally.

I will now provide some personal information, although only the positive bits. Members may have read negative comment about me in the newspapers. I am a friend of the Taoiseach, which in certain sectors appears to be a crime. I was born in 1945 and lived until I was 16 years old in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan. There I received my primary and secondary education at the local Patrician Brothers schools. In 1961, I was successful in a Civil Service examination to become a post office clerk and was sent to Ballina for training. I subsequently served in Ballina, Greystones and Castlebar. During my time with the post office, I served at local and national level on the national executive of the Post Office Officials Association. The following sentence is for the benefit of Deputy Flanagan. The general secretary of the union at the time was former Deputy and Senator Mr. Jack McQuillan from Roscommon, who was one of the finest men with whom I worked during my 68 years.

In 1975, I resigned from the post office and opened a retail shop in Castlebar selling paint, wallpaper and DIY products. During the following five years, I opened further shops in Ballina, Westport and Claremorris. In 1990, I formed a buying and marketing group for similar type shops. Today, this chain, named Albany Home Decor, has outlets in 32 towns across Ireland and employes 157 people. In 2003, I passed the day-to-day running of the business to my son, Seán. Outside of work I have always been involved in voluntary community work and have served on boards and committees of many organisations, including Castlebar Chamber of Commerce, of which I was president in 1980. I was director of the Castlebar International Song Contest from 1975 to 1977 and again in 1981, 1983 and 1988. I founded the Castlebar Community Development Association which played a large part in reversing a decision to close Travenol Laboratories, now Baxter Laboratories. I also served on the boards of Castlebar-Mitchels GAA Club, Western Care Association, Council for the West and the National University of Ireland, Galway.

At political level I served as an independent councillor on Castlebar Town Council from 1985 to 1999 and had the privilege of being its Cathaoirleach in 1985 and 1999. I served for one term on Mayo County Council from 2004 to 2009 as a member of the Fine Gael Party. I am perhaps best known for having spearheaded an 18 year campaign for the provision of third level education in Mayo, which culminated in the establishment of GMIT, Castlebar, which now caters for almost 1,000 students from almost every county in the country. As part of that campaign, I stood as an independent candidate for election to Dáil Éireann during the by-election of 1994. For this I can be credited, or blamed, for the election of the Minister of State, Deputy Michael Ring, as the transfer of the bulk of my 6,275 went to the Westport candidate.

In terms of relaxation, I do a great deal of hill walking and am interested in all types of sports, although nowadays as a spectator only. My hill walking is restricted owing to plantar fasciitis in my heels. Socially, I enjoy a glass or two of good single malt whiskey. Perhaps it will cure my heel problem.

I thank the joint committee members for their attention. Should the joint committee agree to support the proposal of the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to appoint me to the position, I promise to apply myself to the task to the best of my ability. I will do my best to answer questions which members may wish to ask, although they will understand I am not au fait with every detail of the commission's work. In fact, my approach to this presentation is entirely different to that of my earlier presentation in that I believed this to be an assessment of me as a person and my commitment to the job. If my answers to questions about the commission are inadequate the Western Development Commission will be happy to appear before the joint committee at a future date for a full and more formal teasing out its workings.

I thank Mr. McGuinness for his presentation and for his offer in relation to the Western Development Commission, which I am sure the joint committee will consider at a later date. I wish Mr. McGuinness every success in his role. I am sure he will bring his considerable political and business experience to bear in that post for the benefit of the people of the west of Ireland.

I welcome Mr. McGuinness and thank him for his presentation. I wish him all the best in his role, which is an important role. As a Galway and Connemara man, I know that the west of Ireland has lagged behind in development terms for many years. I note there are a number of important projects to be brought to a conclusion, including the West on Track project, continuation of the M17 and the broadband project. Connectivity in air, rail and road is hugely important if we are to develop tourism and business in the areas covered by the Western Development Commission.

Energy is an important issue. Perhaps Mr. McGuinness would outline the direction he would like to take in relation to wind, electricity, oil and gas and renewable energy potential so as to ensure the State gets the best dividend from the resources available to us and as many jobs as possible are created in the area. Having worked in the audiovisual sector in my previous existence, I note the WDC has produced a number of good reports on the development of the audiovisual and creative sector. I would welcome comment from Mr. McGuinness on how this could be harnessed.

In Mr. McGuinness's opinion, how could the commission's investment fund be best used to provide employment where most needed along the western seaboard? As I understand it, WDC does not provide grant aid but invests by way of share capital, preference share capital, loans, etc. Is this the best way to go in the current economic climate or does Mr. McGuinness envisage changing that model? The commission expects a financial return on moneys invested and does not provide hand-outs to prop up businesses. In Mr. McGuinness's view, what type of return on loans provided by the commission is fair in the current climate?

I wish Mr. McGuinness well in his new role and wish the commission every success in the future in development along the western sea board, which development is badly needed.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

I will give a general reply to all of the Senator's questions.

I refer, first, specifically to the fund. In the current period I advocate that we consider having a neutral charge. It is a very good idea to have a revolving rather than an investment fund because it keeps companies progressing and making money and the funds they pay back become available for new enterprises.

The commission has done substantial work on energy matters and published a good deal of research on the topic, about which I was reading last night. I am a newcomer to this, but I will bring my commitment to work hard, motivate the board to be constructive and the staff to work hard and co-operate. That is a general answer, but it is what I will bring to the organisation.

When I came to Ballina, there were three senior football teams in the area and the matches between them amounted to open warfare. Many of the players were on the Mayo team and when they played together, they passed the ball to one another. One of my roles with Mayo County Council involved chairing a county development board and I found it impossible to even get organisations to work together. The smaller the community the easier it was to bring it together in terms of drive and effort. I want to try to make it happen that Roscommon people can work with people from counties Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Donegal to create a united movement that will make our region the best, not the poorest. I do not say I will accomplish this, but I will try to instil this sentiment in both the board and the staff and hope we will make progress.

I wish Mr. McGuinness the best of luck.

There is a saying, "Fail to plan, plan to fail", of which I am sure Mr. McGuinness is aware. One of the best documents I have ever read about the west, including County Donegal and the areas covered by Mr. McGuinness, is entitled, The State of the West: Recent Trends and Future Prospects, subtitled Blueprint for the West. In July 2001 it outlined the spend that would be needed above and beyond what was being planned under the national development plan to enable the region to compete with the rest of the country. The plan made various recommendations, including some those suggested by Senator Trevor Ó Clochartaigh. Does Mr. McGuinness intend to produce a new plan, pulling together all of the issues faced in the area and taking a holistic view of everything, as a blueprint to drive us into the future? I am sure he is aware of the mantra - it is starting to become boring at this stage - "The Garda station is closing down; the small school is closing down and the GAA clubs are closing down." I could go on, but I am sure Mr. McGuinness has heard it one million times before. From what he said, it sounds as if he cares. I am terrified, however, that in 20 years there will be no town of Ballaghaderreen or Castlerea. Some will say I am being very negative in saying this, but I am not. I want people to wake up to the fact that this could happen. Will Mr. Guinness formulate a plan for the region, similar to the one produced in July 2001?

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

If we do not have a plan, we will have one. That might be too honest for a committee such as this, but that is the way I deal with matters. At 68 years of age, this is my last chance to make a difference and I am grateful that I have been given that chance. I will get the document to which the Deputy referred.

It is an excellent one.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

I have a lot to learn, but I believe I can bring the talents God has given me to bear to get people to work together. It is hard to beat hard work.

Mr. McGuinness is making a good start because he is honest.

I have two very serious questions for Mr. McGuinness, although one is really a comment. Ballina is very well represented today and I have just been informed that the clerk to the committee, Mr. Eugene Ó Cruadhlaoich, spent 12 years there. Perhaps that is why there were so many rows between the football teams. There is, however, a more serious and important point to be made. I am relieved that the Galway man has left, but we still have a Roscommon man present. Does Mr. McGuinness have plans that would help Mayo to win the All-Ireland football final?

Mr. McGuinness is smart, but he is not that smart.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

No, I do not. According to the story, a number of people must die first.

We will not go into it.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

No, we will not. Would I be out of order in paying tribute to Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan for waiting? He is the only Deputy who stayed.

One of two.

Mr. Paddy McGuinness

Of course. That is appreciated because his interest in the west is evident.

I thank Mr. McGuinness.

I thank Mr. McGuinness for his presence, briefing us and the excellent document he provided. I wish him every success in his new role.

The joint committee adjourned at 6 p.m. until 4.15 p.m. on Tuesday, 4 December 2012.