Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an gCathaoirleach as ucht an deis seo a thabhairt dom an ábhar tábhachtach seo a chur os comhair an Aire agus an Rialtais.
I want to highlight the need for the Government to set up a special task force to combat the serious decline in industrial employment in County Offaly. I have seen task forces work in other areas and I think this case deserves similar attention.
This week Offaly County Council, of which I am a member, considered a report entitled Offaly 2000: Towards Integrated and Sustainable Development. This report was prepared by council management and put before us as elected members in formulating our submission to the Midlands Regional Authority as part of their process of seeking continued support from the Government and the European Union through Structural Funding in the decades ahead, in particular to seek the support of the Government and the EU in maintaining Objective One status for the midlands region, in conjunction with the Border and western regions.
For those of us who live and work in the county, the statistics in the report make for worrying reading. At a time when the country as a whole is doing so well County Offaly, from a socio-economic point of view, is at best stagnant and at worst in serious decline. The picture the report presents demands action from the Government in continuing to ensure that County Offaly, as part of the midlands region, will benefit in the future from Objective One status. However, this is a matter for another day and another debate. We in County Offaly demand the setting up of a special task force to tackle the serious decline in industrial employment in the county.
Regarding the regional question, I believe we are entitled to Objective One status and that the other two regions whose economies are so much below the national and EU average deserve special attention. This will require the putting in place of regional structures such as SFADCo. It is inconsistent for the State, which has lobbied so hard and so effectively to benefit from regional development in the European Union, to deny regions the chance to share in the national prosperity to an equal degree.
Regarding the demand for a task force in County Offaly, the facts exist and can be analysed clearly and objectively. At a time when population decline in the rest of the country has been reversed, population growth in County Offaly has stagnated in the last ten years. It actually declined in the 1986-91 period and while there was a small increase during the period 1991-6, this was way below the national average and came nowhere near reversing or restoring the decline of previous years. Within the county the picture is even worse. Only one rural district, Tullamore, showed any growth between 1991 and 1996. All other districts showed a decline with the Ferbane and Birr electoral areas suffering particularly badly. My colleagues and members of the county council know this only too well. In 1991 it was necessary to transfer a substantial number of people from the Tullamore electoral area to the Ferbane electoral area to allow them retain their right of representation of five members on Offaly County Council. In 1996 when the census was taken, we as a council had to face the prospect of again transferring population from Tullamore to Ferbane or losing a seat in the Ferbane area. The picture within the county is very uneven and unbalanced. The number of people leaving the county is well above the national average and most devastatingly, one-third of all those in the 20-25 year age group have left — 1,800 people in all. Their futures, or their children's futures, will not be in County Offaly.
Agriculture in the county, which accounts for almost one worker in five and nearly twice the national average, is under severe pressure. Our farms are in the main small, with marginal economic viability. Almost one-third of farm holdings disappeared in the ten years from 1981-91 —— from 6,000 to 4,000. That is a stark statistic. That figure is now almost down to 3,000 and it will be lowered still further by the Santer proposals unless they are substantially amended.
In industry, County Offaly is a blackspot. Unemployment is 15 per cent, well above the national average, while in some areas, such as the urban district of Tullamore, it is 20 per cent or more. There have been major job losses in the county. A year ago this month, Tullamore learned that Atlantic Mills, which once employed over 300 people, was to close. No task force was set up, no Minister came to town and 12 months later the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment has finally, if belatedly, agreed to meet the council this week. All I can say is better late than never and I hope she will have good news for us. Edenderry lost the shoe company and many jobs in Bord na Móna. Even though it is less than 40 miles from Dublin, the Government has failed to make EU funds available, as requested by Offaly County Council, to upgrade the Edenderry-Enfield Road and link the town to the development of the greater Dublin area. Perhaps the greatest devastation is in south and west Offaly which depended to a huge degree on Bord na Móna and the ESB.
The major change in employment in the county has been the job losses in Bord na Móna. In 1983, the company employed over 2,200 people. By 1993, it was just over 700. The loss of 1,500 permanent jobs in County Offaly is equivalent to 30,000 jobs in Dublin. The ESB has since cut a great deal of jobs and is continuing to do so through the CCR process. Taken together, losses of employment in Bord na Móna and the ESB amount to an equivalent of 40,000 jobs lost in Dublin. That would not just provoke a task force from the Government but a revolution.
A task force is needed to concentrate the energy of the Minister, the Department, the Government, State agencies and EU support on this major problem. As can be seen in Tallaght, Galway and other areas, task forces get results. We are entitled to this because in the 1970s and 1980s, when the council sought better treatment from successive Ministers, we were told we had Bord na Móna and the ESB. Now we no longer have them to the same extent and we need urgent help.
Governments since the 1960s have been committed to the balanced development of all regions. However, the recent NESC report shows this is not happening. Between 1973 and 1979, over 80 per cent of new jobs in Ireland went to regions outside our major cities. That figure is now less than 10 per cent.
I wish to make comparisons within the midlands and I do not mean to highlight your county, a Chathaoirligh, in any unhelpful light other than to further the case I am making for County Offaly. If one analyses the change in the total number of jobs in manufacturing and internationally traded services for industrial purposes within the five counties of the official midland region from 1973 to 1996, in Longford they increased by 61 per cent, in Roscommon by 98 per cent and in Westmeath by 78 per cent. However, over that period the increase in County Offaly was only 9 per cent.
The facts speak for themselves. Urgent action is required and a task force would assist us in no small measure. We want a task force because they have worked in other areas and I ask the Minister of State and the Government to sanction it.