The Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin has heaped praise on Galway during a speech at the Galway Chamber of Commerce today, but said that Galway’s ambitious plans for population and economic growth are only achievable if it can overcome its traffic problems and also develop a far more substantial public transport system.
He said that Galway being European Capital of Culture in 2020 can have a lasting and incredibly positive impact not just on the city but also the wider region.
Addressing the Chamber of Commerce, the Fianna Fáil leader said: “Galway has always had a very distinct identity because of the role of the Irish language in it civic and cultural life. It is the only city where Irish is a central part of all public occasions and its university retains a leading role in the support of Irish.
“I would like to acknowledge the unique role which Galway Chamber plays in promoting the use of Irish within business and in the daily life of the city.
“Throughout our country families are choosing to send their children to Irish-medium schools are an unprecedented level. As a result of many initiatives implemented by Eamon O Cuiv, the level of engagement with the language has risen, with people wanting to maintain their use of the language after they leave the education system.
“Your initiatives in helping businesses to include Irish within their premises and in acknowledging businesses which make a particular effort is something which others should learn from.
“I would also like to acknowledge your exciting plans for the Europan City of Culture in 2020. I know well from Cork’s year in 2005 that it can leave a lasting and incredibly positive impact not just on the city but also the wider region. It is a huge logistical, creative and financial challenge. There are always bumps on the road but it is always worthwhile. I have no doubt that Galway 2020 will be a great success and I assure you of the full support of my party.
“In the spirit of your ambitious work as a voice for Galway I would like to use this as an opportunity to talk about what I think are the key challenges for our country and how a new departure in regional development is an urgent necessity. In particular I want to respond to the tradition of Galway Chamber in talking about both the economic and social needs of the city by taking this wider perspective.
“We all know that this is an important moment in our country’s history. We face challenges which will determine the type of economy and society we are in the future. These are both domestic and international – and they touch every community.
“We face enormous pressure to provide good public services for our people.
• To ensure that there are decent and affordable homes to rent or buy.
• To stop the relentless concentration of high-end employment, population and investment in a limited number of places.
• To diversify our economic base – particularly through strengthening indigenous firms.
• To protect the social cohesion which is built on aspirit of community and shared opportunities.
• To overcome the impact of the historically regressive Brexit vote in our nearest neighbour.
“These and other challenges make this potentially a defining moment on par with when Seán Lemass without needing to market his ideas set the basic blueprint for modern Ireland which is still largely in place.
“One of the things which I object to most in national politics is when people suggest that there’s nothing which can be done – or that certain problems are beyond us. And in reality there is a growing tendency for this to be used as an excuse in political debates.
“If there’s one thing which we should have learned from the last sixty years it is that with determination and long-term commitment there is almost nothing we can’t achieve as a country.
“Galway is an excellent example of this. A city once known simply as the capital of an area of extreme poverty on the edge of Europe is now a genuine world leader in certain sectors. But when we see how Galway hosts 9 of the 10 largest medtech companies in the world we should remember how this didn’t happen by chance – it happened because of many long-term decisions and a close partnership between local and national policy makers.
“At a national level, the commitment to playing a positive role in Europe, a pro-enterprise tax policy and investment in education were the key elements. Locally, a strong determination by different institutions and by the community as a whole that Galway would forge a new role for itself was central.
“The medtech industry cannot exist without highly-skilled people and a broader ecosystem focused on knowledge and excellence. When we decided twenty years ago to radically expand funding and supports for research and innovation Galway jumped at the chance. Every piece of investment received by NUIG it won through open competitions subject to international review. When you look at the fine new buildings in the university you are looking at the product of strategic planning, world-class research and cooperation between academics and industry.
“Galway’s success has also relied on the progressive and responsive work of its Institute of Technology and Education and Training Board – both of which work closely with industry.
“No single effort created the world-class technology cluster in Galway. It is testament to what can be achieved through short, medium and long-term actions combined with leadership and community support.
“Many of the pressures which Galway faces today come from its dynamism and also the local impact of national challenges.
“Galway is a modern city without modern transport services, with unacceptable pressures in key public services and urgent social issues such as unaffordable housing. At the same time, the scale and pace of change in the national and international economies means that nothing can be taken for granted in terms of future economic success.
“I believe in being constructive, so let me outline a few of the policies and specific actions which I think need to be taken.
“I believe we can have a country which secures for its people a good standard of living, access to affordable housing and good public services over the long-term. Where once our size and location were a problem they are now actually a strength. We have the ability to continue to use globalisation to our advantage and with the right commitment can address own concerns.
“Investment in people and in knowledge creation will actually become more important in the years ahead than it has been in the past. Just as many of our most successful companies or indeed the biggest industries didn’t exist twenty and thirty years ago, the only thing which is for sure is that the industrial and technological landscape of twenty years’ time will be very different from today’s.
There is no example in the modern world of a society which has secured high living standards over the long-term without investing in the skills and ideas of its people.
“And central to this is to have a broad approach which is broad and flexible enough to both address the skills needs of today and allow innovation the space for the breakthroughs which create new industries.
“That’s why I believe we need a renewed commitment to supporting our schools, helping companies to take the risks required to innovate and funding both basic and applied research in our higher education institutions.
“It was recently admitted that Ireland will for the first time in twenty years miss an official target for research and development activity. This is the direct and specific outcome of a lack of political priority. This has to change. The ideas and the projects are there – they need to be supported.
“And we also need to place a much greater emphasis on building up our indigenous companies. Foreign investment will remain both important and valued, providing good employment for many thousands of people. However, we simply haven’t been anywhere close to good enough in supporting start-up companies and the broader SME sector. This is a major missing piece in building a sustainable economic future.
“If we compare ourselves to the strongest regions in Germany for example, the value which they put on the work of smaller, often family run, businesses is what has made them so resilient through many downturns. They have also used their long-term security to become a dynamic part of wider international supply chains and markets.
“Too many of our SMEs face difficulty in securing vital financing and both government and banks tend not to develop the strong relationships with them which can be critical to success.
“I strongly support new approaches to financing SMEs and in particular in terms of financing critical expansions which can deliver new products and new markets.
“There is no doubt that we must also be more ambitious in our transport plans. As we’ve seen in recent days, one short-term decision to exclude one project from long-term plans may yet have a very damaging impact on transport developments in the West. We must absolutely ensure value for money, but ambition is badly needed in transport planning.
“And where transport problems are posing a serious economic threat there has to be a way for priority funding to be available for short, medium and long-term solutions.
“Galway’s ambitious plans for population and economic growth are only achievable if it can overcome its traffic problems and also develop a far more substantial public transport system. As far as I am concerned the Outer Bypass is no longer just a local concern it is a national economic issue. Its absence is limiting the growth of nationally important businesses and sets a limit on the further clustering of key industries in this region.
“I welcome the fact that the City Council has proposed measures which can bridge the gap between now and when the Bypass might be delivered.
“Galway’s plans for the future also require delivery on housing.
“This isn’t just about escalating prices facing younger groups trying to buy a home – there is an emergency in every part of the housing market from owner occupier through, to private rental and social housing.
“At a national level the delivery gap is growing steadily. There are times when it looks as if the more photos of ministers in high-visibility jackets and hardhats there are the less likely they are to actually deliver on targets.
“It is actually quite shocking that the most recent housing survey in Galway showed that there was not a single home for rent which could be afforded under housing support limits.
“I know that there are various proposals being considered in Galway in terms of density and location of future developments – especially and integrated approach to the historic centre of the City. This is a matter for the citizens of Galway to decide. However it is clear that that a significant step-change in the speed and level of implementation of national policy is required urgently.
“There is no issue which we have spent more time on in this Dáil than housing. We have put forward a whole series of proposals stretching from regulation to concessions for private sector homebuilding.
“In the next six months demonstrable progress on housing and homelessness here and throughout the country will be a defining political issue.
“An essential part of having a high quality of life in a community is to have access to quality health services. The deterioration in core measures such as how long people have to wait to be seen in A&E departments or to receive needed acute treatment has caused a lot of concern in Galway and throughout the country.
“I think we’ve been through a few years of very damaging policy innovation in the health service. A now abandoned proposal on insurance involved a series of measures which took money away from effective initiatives and directly led to many of the crises which we see today.
“I strongly support the expansion of capacity to meet the needs of a growing population particularly of older people. However the essential first step is to affirm faith in the public health system, to give certainty to the professionals we need to deliver it and to start responding to urgent needs.
“We don’t just need a few high-profile projects, we need a commitment to investment at a community level which can make sure that GP care is available, primary care is expanded in other areas and that mental services become accessible.
“A broad economic base of both international and indigenous industry, a vibrant research and innovation sector, a new urgency on transport, affordable homes and accessible health services – these are interlinked elements of our future success.
“But the thing which can hold them together is community spirit and social solidarity which means we must work to be as inclusive and as fair a society as we can be.
“Look throughout the world today and wherever democratic societies are in crisis it directly traces to a breakdown in the shared sense of ownership of the society.
“There is no doubt that we face growing pressures which if left unchecked will create and increasingly divided society. A two-tiered Ireland where many have a sense of being excluded from the high-profile success of the country would not be sustainable.
“We have to be able to show that economic success and social progress are two sides of the same coin – and we have to be true to the spirit of social concern which delivered the success and progress of the past.
“This is why we have to have a balanced approach in how we use resources. It is why we have to be ambitious in addressing social issues. And it is of course why we have to respond to the impact of insecurity within the new economy.
“I am very positive about our country’s future. Because of decades of effective policy the ideas and innovation of our people remain our greatest strength.
“In every part of the country, wherever there are problems or opportunities there are local groups determined to address them.
“Just as Galway has a tradition of people coming together to plan for the future and emphasize the importance of community values, this is found throughout the country.
“What we need most of all now is an approach at national level which focuses on substance and delivery. One which understands the value of partnership and our need to move forward as a society which does not leave individuals or regions behind.”