AFTER a succession of Irish Independent articles criticising the Government’s decision to pledge €5m to Waterford Airport, the region has found an unexpected champion in the form of Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
Speaking at the weekend, Mr Varadkar said that it wasn’t parish pump politics because “this was a region, and Waterford is a city”.
“Waterford is a city that we aim to double in population by 2040 and it’s at the centre of a region involving Wexford, Kilkenny, Waterford and South Tipperary. If this was happening in Shannon or Dublin would people be calling it Parish Pump?” he said.
Mr Varadkar admitted that he was advocating funding for the airport “against the advice of officials from the Department of Public Expenditure”, saying that it was the “job of politicians to listen to advice from all sides and make a decision” and that it was the “default position of the Department of Public Expenditure to say no to expenditure”.
“Waterford Airport doesn’t have any airlines because it currently doesn’t have the infrastructure to support them,” Mr Varadkar said. “This is an investment by local authorities and private investors, which is what makes it unusual yet encouraging. The fact that private investors, and the three local authorities are willing to put money means that we’re only being asked to put in less than half of the money. I think it’s something we should try. Waterford and the South East region needs a boost.
“Among the things we need to do there is to try to get the airport up and running again, deliver on the technological university of the South East, and put in the second cath lab into the hospital, which is also going against official advice by the way. I know a lot of people in Waterford sometimes feel that officialdom always seems to advise against things in Waterford and I wouldn’t sometimes blame them for feeling that way.”
The Taoiseach’s words provided a timely safety net for Minister for State John Halligan who had been criticised from certain parties because of what was being described as his “pet project”.
“To have the Taoiseach categorically state over the weekend that this was not ‘John Halligan’s pet project’, was very welcome,” he said. “Mr Varadkar has put it on the public record that this is a worthwhile investment. I believe it is. So do Paudie Coffey, David Cullinane, Mary Butler and Minister John Paul Phelan, and the widespread support from Oireachtas members right across the South East has also been very helpful.”
Written support for the investment provided by both Enterprise Minister Heather Humphreys and Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy also helped to advance the project, said Minister Halligan.
“Both of them were brilliant. I sat with the two of them over a few days, making the case for the airport and both ended up backing the investment during cabinet meetings and they should be thanked for that,” Minister Halligan said. “If they hadn’t outlined their support at cabinet level (Transport Minister) Shane Ross would have been a lone wolf on the issue. So to have ministers in such key briefs supporting this proposal, when you consider the clear need for sustainable regional development, was huge.”
The resistance within the cabinet, elements within the Department of Transport itself and backbench Fine Gael TDs, was palpable, according to Minister Halligan.
“Michael Ring (Mayo TD and Minister for Rural & Community Development) was no fan of the project; I feel there was a little bit of resistance from Cork even though that doesn’t appear to have been raised at cabinet level and there was certainly resistance from TDs in Galway, given the closure of Galway Airport (in 2016, having had no commercial traffic since 2011) but I guess that resistance was always likely to make itself known… and some within Fine Gael are railing about it.”
All of Waterford’s Oireachtas members came out in force last week to welcome the project, with Deputies David Cullinane and Mary Butler both saying that the airport investment was “vital for the region.”
WIT lecturer Dr. Ray Griffin and Fianna Fáil General Election Candidate Cllr Eddie Mulligan, also welcomed the news, but expressed concern about how the Government were pledging the funding.
“This is good news in principle, but it is far from a done deal,” Dr. Griffin said. “€8.86m has been confirmed for Donegal, Kerry and Knock along with the recently announced investments in Dublin and Cork. Anyone versed in how Irish public service works will note that this is still a non-commitment to this much needed strategic investment in Waterford Airport.
“The South East already had this agreement in principle to this matched funding three years ago in the programme for Government. Well over a year after private investors, supported by the region’s councils, put this proposal to Government, they continue to be an unreliable partner. We really have learned nothing in this news other than Donegal, Kerry and Knock airports with massive Ministerial support have gotten money into their bank accounts; and Waterford, a constituency and region without a Minister, still has an application on file.”
Cllr Mulligan said that the news “looked good” but the “ambiguous nature of its announcement” was cause for concern.
“If the Government wanted to pledge €5m to the Airport, which is clearly the right thing to do, then why don’t they just do that?” Cllr Mulligan said. “Inserting conditions about the cost of the development causes unnecessary concerns.”
Responding to those conditions, Minister Halligan said that they “weren’t unusual”.
“The Government applied the same approach when giving money to Páirc Uí Chaoimh,” he said. “This has become the normal thing for Governments to do and the private investors have said there’s no problem with that. They will come up with the money straight away and they will. Everybody is happy with that, the airport is, the Chief Executives (of the three local authorities) are too. This is normal practice nowadays. The airport will contact the Department in relation to how things proceed from here; planning permission (for the runway extension) is expected to be lodged straight away and what happens next is now between the airport and the Department, and I’ll obviously continue to keep an eye fixed on this. But the money is now there. I know that for a fact. The money is held in trust and once the developers start investing the money in to do the job, the Government will then put its money in.”