I am glad of the opportunity to raise this very important issue about which public representatives in the six southern Border counties are concerned. Recently voluntary organisations and other interested parties have expressed their support for our efforts. The retention of Objective One status for the period 2000-06 for the Border region is essential if regional imbalance and disparities in economic performance are to be eliminated. The case for Objective One status is economically and politically justifiable. The infrastructural deficit suffered by the Border region must be addressed. This will only be achieved through the drawing down of the maximum level of Structural Funds.
Structural Funds exercise the minds of public representatives and bodies in the region. At recent meetings in Belfast, Derry and Omagh of the sub-committee of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body we learned that this issue is one of key concern for public representatives in the six northern Border counties. Last June the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, launched the Border regional report, "The Border Region after 1999: The Case for Special Status". It outlines in a comprehensive manner the numerous valid and cogent arguments for the retention of Objective One status and has been submitted to the Department of Finance. I trust the Minister and Government have had the opportunity of studying it. It outlines the poor performance of the region in socio-economic terms and articulates the region's unique status in the Irish and EU context. Subsequently, a more detailed report was submitted to the Department by the Border Regional Authority, who I commend for its active role in this campaign.
It must be accepted that the prolonged northern troubles had a devastating effect on the economy of Border counties and the seemingly intractable situation inhibited the normal pace of economic growth and development in the region. The Border created an economic divide, with towns being cut off from their natural hinterland and rural areas being cut off from their natural towns. The area suffered from security problems and from a general lack of development in social and economic terms.
In 1997, 14.7 per cent of the labour force in the Border region was unemployed. This was the highest unemployment rate recorded in any region and well above the national average of 11.8 per cent. Fortunately, employment here increased in the period 1993-97 and unemployment fell. However, the Border region's performance again lagged behind that of other regions which meant that fewer new jobs were created and the reduction in unemployment was lower than anywhere else in the country.
Urbanisation is a feature of economic growth and the Border region is hindered in its potential development due to its largely rural nature. As a region it was unable to achieve the full benefit of the Objective One status the country has enjoyed to date because of the political difficulties in the North. The region looks forward to the implementation of the British-Irish Agreement. The ongoing peace process must be underpinned by large scale investment in infrastructure, inward investment and the creation of employment. Now is the time to redress the economic difficulties the region has suffered over a period of almost 30 years.
The region faces new opportunities for the future arising from the peace process but it also faces a new challenge in being on the exchange rate frontline when Ireland enters EMU without Britain. The region has benefited from Structural Funds expenditure, funds which were successfully negotiated in 1989 and 1992 by Fianna Fáil Governments. However, it did not achieve the success rate of the rest of the country.
The report by the Border Authority clearly outlines why the region should retain full Objective One status. The region is clearly below the 75 per cent of GDP threshold which determines eligibility for Objective One status. It continues to be remote and peripheral in EU terms and it has special status regarding the historic political and economic opportunities arising from the peace process.
I call on the Government to favourably examine the merits of the case advocated by the Border Authority. With the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and my Fianna Fáil colleagues in the Cavan-Monaghan constituency and other Border counties, I lend my support to the arguments outlined in the authority's report. I wish to see the region achieve its potential in economic and social terms. That can only be achieved by large scale and early investment in our roads, water and sewerage services, industrial buildings and telecommunications. The region will only enjoy an increase in employment and a halt to rural depopulation when such investment occurs.
West of the Bann suffers from lack of development similar to the southern Border area. The implementation of the British-Irish Agreement should add considerably to economic convergence on this island. The retention of Objective One status for the southern Border region and north of the Border is needed so the necessary economic development can take place to under-pin the peace process. We need investment on a large scale. This is an opportune time to show that our Government and the European Commission are committed to economic and social progress in the Border area.
I thank the Minister for Finance for listening to the case I put forward. I look forward to his response.