World of Politics with Harry McGee
This strangest of years has resulted in some very unusual moments and events in politics, and as we head to its conclusion, here – in no particular order – is my list of highlights.
(Big) Political Party of the Year: Sinn Féin. Like all parties it has had an uneven year. It’s found itself in more than one spot of bother (more of that later). But it surpassed everybody’s expectations in the general election including its own. The only reason it wasn’t the biggest party is that it didn’t run enough candidates. And if it had any inkling it would have won so big, it definitely would have chosen different candidates in a number of constituencies.
(Small) Political Party of the Year: The Social Democrats. Another party that defied expectations. Before February it had only two TDs, Roisin Shortall and Catherine Murphy, and both of them were co-leaders. Of all the parties who might gain from the referendum campaign on the 8th amendment, the Social Democrats were the best suited. And so it turned out – the party trebled its number from two to six with four excellent new TDs in Jennifer Whitmore, Holly Cairns, Cian O’Callaghan and Gary Gannon.
Top Scientist: Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation. Mike is from Curry Co Sligo and studied medicine at NUIG, around the same time as myself. He has spent most of his career at the WHO, often on the frontline – he made numerous trips to Africa to respond to deadly Ebola outbreaks. His comment at the beginning of the year that “speed trumps perfection” has become the phrase that has defined the coronavirus. He has been a rock of common sense and of non-dramatic advice.
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.
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Údarás defends financial support of companies on east side of Galway City
Údarás na Gaeltachta has defended its financial support of companies based on the east side of Galway City and Claregalway.
It comes after the regional authority responsible for economic, social and cultural development of the Gaeltacht was criticised for supporting companies in predominantly English-speaking areas of Parkmore Business Estate and Claregalway.
Kevin O’Hara, a Sinn Féin representative in Conamara, said the State agency should not support companies in Claregalway or Parkmore on the city’s east side. He suggested Enterprise Ireland or the IDA should support those companies rather than An tÚdarás, even though they were technically situated within the Gaeltacht.
Speaking on Adhmaidin on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltacht, he questioned what benefit the Conamara Gaeltacht reaped by Údarás na Gaeltachta supporting enterprises in Parkmore or Claregalway.
Instead, Mr O’Hara said Údarás should focus on supporting jobs from Knocknacarra westwards, in Gaeltacht Conamara, and in particular in Casla, where it was badly needed.
He said it did not make sense for it to be spending money on client companies in Parkmore or Claregalway, and instead it should be focused on where it would be more valuable to the language and Gaeltacht areas, in South Conamara.
The controversy arose after Údarás announced its end-of-year statement for 2022, which highlighted how its client companies in the Galway Gaeltacht had shed jobs last year.
There were a total of 3,222 jobs in Údarás client companies in Galway at the end of last year.
Some 278 new jobs were created in these companies, but 331 jobs were lost, meaning a net loss of 53 jobs.
Údarás said the previous year, 2021, was “exceptional” for job creation.
In a statement to the Tribune, Údarás said it “does not currently support any companies in the Parkmore Business Estate”.
“We offer qualifying businesses and companies from various sectors a range of incentives and supports to start up, develop, expand or locate throughout the Gaeltacht regions, as defined by statute,” it added.
The fall in Galway Gaeltacht employment, it said, was “associated with the closure of some large companies on the eastern edge of the Gaeltacht” – which is understood to be in Parkmore.
“Most of the new jobs were created in companies operating in the medical devices, science and engineering sectors, including Aran Biomedical and Micron Clean in An Spidéal, and ÉireComposites in Indreabhán.
“In addition, there was an increase in employment in niche manufacturing companies as well as in the community services, education and language sectors,” the review said.
In the coming year, job creation will mainly be in the food and drink, biotechnology, audiovisual, aquaculture and services sectors, it said.
Údarás said 2022 was challenging for its client companies due to rising costs, particularly energy, and an uncertain international trading environment due to geopolitical unrest.
“It is clear that some of these challenges will still be with us in 2023. But Gaeltacht companies have shown stability and resilience, driven by constant innovation,” it added.
Language plans were being implemented in eight of the ten Language Planning Areas identified for the Galway Gaeltacht at the end of 2022, with total funding of €1.3m per year.
Implementation of the language plans will begin in the other two Language Planning Areas, An tEachréidh (Claregalway) and Bearna and Cnoc na Cathrach in early 2023.
‘Gobbledegook’: Galway 2020’s language on €1m legacy funding spend
The Culture Minister has been pressed to provide clarity on what exactly the €1m ‘legacy’ funding for Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture (ECOC) will be spent on.
And Galway West TD Catherine Connolly (Ind) accused Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin of using language that was “gobbledegook” to describe the legacy funding.
The money will be channelled through Galway Culture Company, which is the latest iteration of Galway Cultural Development and Activity CLG, commonly referred to as Galway 2020, which was initially established in 2016 to run and operate the European Capital of Culture designation.
Minister Martin told the Dáil that the company will publish details of its “proposed legacy framework” on its website.
In broad terms, however, she said the €1m legacy funding could be broken down into the delivery of three aims.
There was €300,000 to “facilitate EU and international relationships and funding”; a further €500,000 “to develop and support place-based cultural programming”; and €200,000 “to provide supports to the cultural and creative sector”.
“Galway Culture Company is working to develop the legacy framework of Galway’s designation as European Capital of Culture and to build on the learnings and outcomes of Galway’s many European and global designations, including European Capital of Culture, UNESCO city of film, European Green Leaf city and European region of gastronomy,” Minister Martin said.
But Deputy Connolly expressed frustration at the use of language that lacked clarity.
Repeating that sentence uttered by the Minister, which was a direct quote from the company’s website, Deputy Connolly said: “I feel like saying ‘mother of Jesus’. What are we talking about here with regard the €1m of a legacy in terms of infrastructure and artists on the ground getting money?”
Minister Martin replied: “It is the strategic objective of Galway Culture Company to bring together key agencies and stakeholders to drive forward a collective creative vision for Galway through meaningful partnership and collaboration, so creativity is at the heart of that.
“It will seek to complement the work of the two local authorities in Galway by working with the cultural units in the city and county councils and will assist in the implementation of both arts plans and the cultural strategy.”
Deputy Connolly said Minister Martin’s heart was in the right place, but twice she labelled her description of Galway Culture Company’s role in delivering a legacy for Galway 2020 as “gobbledegook”.
And the Independent TD urged Minister Martin to take a ‘hands-on approach’.
Minister Martin said that physical infrastructure, and new cultural buildings “is not and never has been part of the direct delivery and legacy of Galway 2020 European Capital of Culture”.
The delivery of physical arts and cultural infrastructure was a matter for Everybody Matters, Galway cultural strategy 2016-25 developed by its two local authorities, she said.
The €1m for legacy is included in the Department’s €15m overall support for Galway 2020.
Minister Martin had agreed in April of 2021 that the legacy funding would be paid, and she acknowledged in the Dáil last week that the allocation was finally approved last December.
Taoiseach “shares frustration” around construction delays at University Hospital Galway
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “shares the frustration” caused by delays to construction projects like the new Emergency Department and paediatric and maternity units at University Hospital Galway.
Mr Varadkar said the units “should have been under construction by now” and he will be pursuing the matter with the Minister for Health, Stephen Donnelly and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe “so that we get those projects up and running”.
He was speaking in the Dáil last week following criticisms from Galway West TD Noel Grealish about the standard of healthcare in Galway and the West of Ireland.
“I share his frustration that so many important projects in the West have been delayed, particularly the Emergency Department and the paediatric and maternity units at University Hospital Galway, UHG, which should have been under construction by now, let alone have gone to planning.
“That is something I will be pursuing with the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, over the course of the year so that we get those projects up and running,” the Taoiseach said.
Deputy Grealish said there had been a lot of debate about the state of the country’s health services, with growing waiting lists and Emergency Department overcrowding, but added that this “missed” what was happening in the west and north-west of Ireland, where services lagged behind the rest of the country.
“A capacity review carried out by the Saolta University Health Care Group [which operates Galway’s public hospitals] in 2019 found that almost two thirds, or 64%, of the infrastructure at the region’s biggest hospital, UHG, was classified as either not satisfactory or unacceptable. In the case of its sister hospital at Merlin Park in the city, the figure increased to a shocking 95%.
“During 2022, waiting lists for inpatient and outpatient pain relief treatment in Galway increased by 75%, while the rest of the country only saw a tiny increase of just 1% in such waiting lists.
“The numbers in Galway waiting for 18 months or more, many in severe pain, are now more than three times greater than this time last year, while the rates in the rest of the country dropped by almost one fifth. In specialties such as orthopaedics, the experience of the patients in Galway falls well short of what is happening in the rest of the country,” said Deputy Grealish.
He went on to say that the West of Ireland currently has the lowest survival rate in Ireland for breast and lung cancer.
The Independent TD called for a task force to be set up to assess health services in the region.
“Experts in the field point out that late diagnosis leads to poorer patient outcomes. The facilities for the treatment of cancer in Galway are not fit for purpose. Cancer patients are competing with elective and emergency patients for vital life-saving treatment. I welcome the recent announcement that a new cancer care centre at UHG is to be included in the HSE’s national service plan this year.
“We need similarly urgent action to be taken in relation to the rest of the health services in Galway and the West. At the very least, we must bring them up to a standard that is fit for purpose.
“The West is starved of proper services and I am calling for a task force to look at what is going wrong with the health services in the region and what needs to be done to improve them,” said Deputy Grealish.
He added that the Taoiseach may point out that a new elective hospital is to be built on the grounds of Merlin Park.
“Realistically, it could take 15 years or more, given that the recently-opened radiotherapy unit in Galway took over 14 years to deliver. There are many instances in the provision of health services where Galway and the West are falling well behind the rest of the country,” he said.
The Taoiseach responded that the spend for the Saolta Hospital Group – which covers six hospitals in the west and north-west – has a budget this year of €1 billion, which is an increase of 24% in five years.
He added that cancer survival rates have increased significantly in the past two decades.
“Almost all regions of the country would say they are underfunded or under-resourced when it comes to healthcare. The Deputy has made the case very strongly today for the West,” said the Taoiseach.
He added that the Government is committed to its plan to build elective hospitals, “but we are realistic that it will be 2027 or 2028 before patients will be seen in those hospitals and we need interim measures”.