Adjournment Debate. - Western Development.

I thank the Chair for allowing me to raise this important issue. The controversy which has emerged in the past week has seriously exposed the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fáil led Government on the issue of western development. The Taoiseach shot himself in the foot by offering responsibility for the Western Development Commission to the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Cuív, and discovering that he did not want it. The Minister of State said: "I am a doer, not a talker – nobody likes a powerless politician and as far as I can see, this is what I will be in this new role".

Is the Deputy a doer?

In an even more startling interview inThe Irish Times, the Minister of State said, “I suppose I should be delighted at the new post, because I can put my feet up.” He added, “What is rural development?” and said he would not like people to think he was going to be able to save the west. I am glad the Minister of State is present to clarify those statements. His approach reminds me of the saying, “Nero fiddled while Rome burned”, in that the Minister of State could put up his feet while there is such work to be done in the west, which is currently in a state of decline.

Has the Taoiseach lost the run of himself in offering this brief to the Minister of State? This episode is a tangible demonstration to the people of the west that they are an afterthought or a hindrance to the Taoiseach and his Fianna Fáil colleagues. The Taoiseach finds himself in interesting company. The last person to have this attitude to the west was Oliver Cromwell and I do not propose to repeat what he said about Connacht.

I am sure not only the people of Galway West but every member of the Fianna Fáil Party west of the Shannon must be amazed at the attitude taken by the Minister of State. The attitude of the Taoiseach and the Minister of State is deplorable and one they will come to regret, not only because I intend, on behalf of the people of the west, to use every opportunity to remind them of the importance of the region and its urgent needs but also because the people of the west will make Fianna Fáil pay for it at election time. Fine Gael more than any other party in Ireland, and certainly more than Fianna Fáil, is aware of the needs of the west, the challenges faces by the people of the region and the urgent need for action to combat the many problems facing the region.

It was Fine Gael, under the then Minister of State, Deputy Carey, who established the Western Development Commission. The commission is responsible for promoting economic and social development in the seven western counties of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway and Clare. It works in co-operation with national, regional and local bodies to secure the development of the western region. Contrary to what the Minister of State said, there is neither funding nor function in his proposed new role. The commission also manages the western development fund.

Let me inform the Taoiseach and the Minister of State of some of the issues relevant to the west today which underpin the need for urgent action. The economic gap is widening. While the western region accounts for 37% of the country's landmass and 18% of the national population, it accounted for a mere 9.6% of the national net industrial output in 1996. Latest research shows that this share is continuing to fall. That is because there is Government inaction.

There is an imbalance in tourism performance. Rural areas in the western region have largely lost out on tourism growth. Most of the tourism revenue in the western region is drawn from the small number of coastal towns. For instance, accommodation clusters hug the coast with no major hotel with more than 250 beds located away from the coast.

There has been a failure to attract inward investment to the region. The western region outside of Galway attracted only 5% of new IDA jobs announced in 2000. IDA figures for the north west region last year showed a net jobs loss and the number employed in IDA backed companies in Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal fell by 1,240 since 1996.

The western region accounts for a high proportion of industries that are vulnerable to closure and have low productivity. Examples are food, textiles and timber. For instance, industrial productivity per person in the region is only 60% of the national average. The region has no major indigenous source of power and the national grid into the region is 30 years out of date and inadequate.

In the key areas of tourism, access, infrastructure, inward investment and energy, the Government has failed in its obligation and responsibility to the people of the west. In relation to the Taoiseach's handling of the issue and the Minister of State's irresponsibility in saying what he said about his new role, they should apologise to the people of the west. They should make the necessary investment to ensure the work required is carried out.

I am delighted the Deputy tabled this motion to explain the reason the seven western counties that constitute the western development region lag behind every other region in terms of economic development. I am delighted to speak on it, even though the Deputy did not address it. If he did, one would have to go back a long time in history, geography and topography to find the reasons this problem arose in the first place.

I am in the west by choice. I went there to create development. The people of the west, particularly the people of the Gaeltacht, will judge me on the record of what I have done. I have been involved in the creation of industry and wealth. I have the great privilege to live in one of the most rural areas of the country with the highest rate of industrial jobs per head of population that would match any city in Ireland. I have toiled in the field day and night to create employment. Members sitting behind the Minister of State would be able to vouch for that. It is interesting that a political colleague of the Deputy's spoke on Raidió na Gaeltachta yesterday in support of what I said. He is someone who had similarly worked in the field and knows what real development in the west is about. It is not the tokenism we seem to get so often.

The development of the west and of any area losing its population – and some of those areas are not only in the west, they are in the south east, the south, the midlands and even in the east – as in the case of solving urban problems, is the responsibility of the Government. Until all of us in this House understand that, we will not solve that problem.

Is the Minister of State saying the Taoiseach does not understand it?

I am saying the Deputy clearly does not understand it.

I certainly understand it.

The Deputy's party did nothing about it when it was in office.

We will do a great deal when we are there next time.

The Deputy's party will not be there.

The previous Government thought the injection of less than £1 million per county would solve the problems of the west. As a westerner and somebody involved in development, I can tell the Deputy that would not have solved the problems of Corr na Móna, not to mind the seven counties of the west.

The Minister of State should stop feeling sorry for himself; he should get the money and do the job.

The Deputy should cease interrupting. He had five minutes to make his contribution and the Minister of State is entitled to make his reply.

Since the foundation of the State and even prior to that, several efforts were made to redress this problem, including the establishment of the Congested Districts Boards, the foundation of Roinn na Gaeltachta and the foundation of Gaeltarra Éireann. Significant growth has been recorded in certain areas of the west in recent years, particularly in areas adjacent to major population centres, such as Galway city – which is thriving and booming and Deputy McCormack will explain that to the Deputy – Castlebar, Sligo and Letterkenny. Much more remains to be done.

Only 5% of the jobs were created outside Galway city.

I did not interrupt the Deputy.

Among the measures to be adopted to accelerate development in this region are its inclusion in the BMW region under the national plan, the establishment of the Western Development Board on a statutory basis, the expansion of the funding and work of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. For some peculiar reason, some people do not consider the Gaeltacht and the islands appear to be part of the west. The islands in particular are the most peripheral communities in the west. There has been major increase in activities on the islands and I will let the islanders be my judge on that one.

They all took flight.

I am surprised Deputy Reynolds did not mention this granting of special tax status in the Shannon basin, which has been of particular help to County Leitrim.

I complimented the Minister for Finance on it many times.

The fact is steps are being taken. This issue is a matter for everybody in Government and a responsibility for every Department. It would be foolish if I were to let the people believe that a type of operation that was possible in the Gaeltacht for historical reasons will be possible under my new ministry. The issue should be debated openly. Beidh áthas orm lá ar bith é a phlé go hiomlán leis an Teachta in aon áit a shocraíonn sé. I am sure that when that debate is finished, the people of the west will thank us for being honest and open and not simply defending the position. One of the reasons the Taoiseach gave me this job is that he knows I have controversial and outspoken views on this subject. I also have a track record which proves that I am willing to put effort into the issue of western development.