When Clare County Council’s first meeting of the new year was hosted in Shannon Airport it was Killaloe-based councillor Tony O’Brien who best encapsulated the positive aspects of the meeting when he professed himself enthused by the frequent use of words such as “partnership, collaboration and working together”.

A new year appears to herald a new era of cooperation on a range of issues that are of mutual interest, foremost among them the growth of Shannon Airport and development of tourism and industry across a region that may no longer be defined by traditional boundaries but by applying strategic thinking to an economic area that desperately needs to assert itself as a counterbalance to metropolitan Dublin. In this regard, Clare County Council’s new chief executive Pat Dowling made a curious observation that, “it will be our ambition to take a regional approach so that we can add value or an alternative to the Dublin city region”.

Proceedings opened with Cllr Bill Chambers, Cathaoirleach of Clare County Council, noting that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr Brendan O’Regan, the visionary entrepreneur who put Shannon firmly on the map. In doing so, like the late Dr TK Whitaker, who sadly passed away last week, he opened Ireland up to global trading opportunities with his ideas for airport duty free and industrial free zones. Cllr Chambers stated that the Clare Museum will hold an exhibition to formally mark the anniversary in May and said, “it is important that we celebrate his entrepreneurial spirit and his significant contribution to this region.” He added that Dr O’Regan would be very proud of what is being achieved in Shannon today.

Rose Hynes, chair of Shannon Group PLC

Rose Hynes

This theme was taken up by Shannon Group chair Rose Hynes who also has plans to celebrate the anniversary. She described Dr O’Regan as “an intrinsic part of Shannon Group’s history both at the airport and at Shannon Heritage.” In her presentation, Ms Hynes recalled the formal separation of Shannon from the Dublin Airport Authority and said that would not have happened had it not been for the support and collaboration with Clare County Council and other stakeholders in the region.

“Separation, she said, “was a game-changer for Shannon, marking a new era for both the airport and the region.” She added that, together, the airport and the local authority can achieve greater things. According to Ms Hynes Shannon Group has fulfilled the first phase of its objectives by reversing declining passenger numbers, integrating its business and addressing historical under-investment at the airport. Since it was established in September 2014, the board has been focused on growing its core businesses and has invested €45m across the group.

With regard to Shannon Airport she said the aim is to drive traffic numbers, increase connectivity and boost financial performance while developing the aviation industry cluster at Shannon. Ms Hynes noted that 2016 was the first time in 10 years that four new airlines were secured within a year and predicted further growth in future. She pointed out that airport facilities have been improved following a major upgrade of the terminal building and said the emphasis is on improving customer care.

On industrial matters, Ms Hynes referred to the €21m investment programme for Shannon Free Zone, and stated that the aim is to provide state of the art business accommodation, which IDA Ireland expects will assist in attracting new FDI. The group is particularly keen to attract more aviation related companies to add to the 50 businesses already making up the largest cluster of aviation industries in Ireland. Ms Hynes said the International Aviation Services Centre (IASC) is working with national partners such as IDA and Enterprise Ireland to market this cluster. She added, “We have probably the best relationship in a long time with those agencies, so we are confident about the future.”

With regard to tourism, Ms Hynes said Shannon Group will be a catalyst for economic growth and for attracting more tourists into the region by investing in Shannon Heritage attractions to match the best in Europe and continue to showcase Ireland’s rich heritage. Ms Hynes believes that Shannon Group will continue to be the key economic driver for the region even though it has existed for just two years and is already very influential in the wider region.

Addressing members of Clare County Council directly, Ms Hynes said, “I believe the interests of the council and Shannon Group regarding growth and prosperity in this region are very much aligned. She added, “I think there is a greater necessity for us to work together, we think that together we will achieve a much greater result.”

Matthew Thomas, Shannon Group CEO

Matthew Thomas

In his contribution, Shannon Group CEO Matthew Thomas pointed out that Shannon Group controls a property portfolio extending across six counties. He noted that the group’s influence extends beyond the 700 people employed by the group, 2,000 working in the airport and 7,000 on Shannon Free Zone, to all those in the region “who’s lives we touch”.

Mr Thomas commented that Dr Brendan O’Regan’s role in creating the first duty free, giving birth to the leasing industry and Ireland’s first economic development agency, were among the reasons he left New York to take up the position here. He commented that the organisation has a history of firsts, including more recently the first US pre-clearance outside of the United States. Having a reputation for innovation means that when they engage with airlines and FDI businesses, they are already aware that Shannon is a place they can do business.

Mr Thomas stated that the Shannon Group aims to become the leading developer of commercial property in the West of Ireland and, on the heritage side, the leading operator of heritage attractions in Ireland. Acknowledging the close relationships built up with IDA, Enterprise Ireland and other development agencies, he said that while the group is a provider of property it will take a team effort to attract the major foreign direct investment companies to the region “that we are all so desperately keen to see arrive.”

Noting the shared interests with Clare County Council, he said they both recognise the need to attract more tourists and people to live and work in the region as this is the best way to deliver growth and prosperity to those who are already here. On a personal note, he remarked that he has held a number of meetings with Pat Dowling and said, “we’re really looking forward to building our legacies together this year and as we move forward.”

Brexit

Mr Thomas commented that Brexit is creating opportunities as well as threats for the Shannon Group’s business. “We are very keen to convert the opportunity that Brexit will present but we absolutely understand that there are very real risks and we are going to need to be very nimble and very collaborative in meeting those challenges ahead. Matthew Thomas believes that collaboration, not just with the local authority in Clare, but with all the councils in the region, is a way to prepare for what the region will look like in 10 or 20 years and will encourage policy makers in Dublin to seriously consider the needs and opportunities existing in the Midwest.

Pat Dowling

Pat Dowling, CEO of Clare County Council

The recently appointed CEO of Clare County Council characterised Shannon Airport’s independence as representing both its biggest threat and biggest challenge given that the airport’s growth and expansion is of paramount importance to Clare and the region. Referring to a new National Planning Framework, Mr Dowling said collaboration means looking collectively at how the region “can best add value to the Dublin city region going forward”. He contends that taking a regional approach will add value or an alternative to the Dublin city region to compete effectively into the future.

He added, “We will not necessarily be bound by traditional boundaries but will look strategically at a logical economic entity in the West of Ireland, that includes Clare in the heart of it, which will also benefit Shannon Airport”. From his perspective, the future of Clare County Council and Shannon Group I think our future is bound together. He remarked, “we have to put the common good over self interest in everything that we do”. Mr Dowling said that a good start has been and that by having senior planners in both organisations collaborating on the National Planning Framework and other initiatives, “that can only produce positive results”. While also acknowledging the good relations being built, Mr Dowling suggested that the local authority will play a key role in ensuring the Shannon Group’s future sustainability, and added, “at executive level we will do everything that’s required in that regard.”

Democratic deficit

Independent councillor Gerry Flynn

While there were several references to officials from both organisations holding regular meetings, independent Shannon councillor Gerry Flynn claimed there is a democratic deficit with a lack of information for and input by elected representatives Cllr Flynn acknowledged the very positive approach taken by Ms Hynes and Mr Thomas. As a local councillor who has lived most of his life in Shannon, it is his intention to contribute in a positive way.

He indicated that there are a number of issues which “have caused a political vacuum” and pointed out that Shannon Municipal District had requested the attendance of a representative of Shannon Commercial Properties at their January meeting, but the offer had been declined.

Responding to this positively, Rose Hynes told the councillor that this may have been due to scheduling but added, “there will be a day when it can work”. Mr Thomas commented that Shannon Group wants to be a transparent and open organisation, and emphasised, “any request like this would certainly have my support.”

Cllr Flynn also asserted that there is an information vacuum that leads to people in the community asking questions of their local councillor. In an attempt to address the democratic deficit he had listed a motion on the agenda for later in the meeting calling on the Shannon Group to consider having an elected representative of Clare County Council on itsboard of directors. He also expressed concern in relation to the issues arising in relation to flood embankments around Shannon in the CFRAM study. Reading from a response from senior engineer Tom Tiernan, he quoted, “it is a matter of concern that CFRAM deals with the town and airport embankments as separate entities and appears to put inappropriate emphasis on individual responsibility for separate sections of embankment above the overall need to define what action is required to ensure an appropriate level of protection for Shannon (town and airport) into the future”.

Cllr Flynn invited the Shannon Group management to share his concerns on this issue given that the embankment at the airport was breached during the storms of 2014. He claimed that a response from the OPW points the finger of responsibility for this at the local authority and said, “that is something the Shannon Group with the members and officials of Clare County Council can work on”.

Shannon’s status

Fianna Fáil councillor Clare Coleman Molloy

Shannon Airport’s standing relative to Cork Airport and marketing of the facility in the USA were among issues of concern to councillors PJ Ryan, Pat McMahon and Clare Colleran Molloy. Cllr Ryan is of the view that Government policy positions Dublin as Ireland’s main international airport with Shannon and Cork downgraded to regional facilities. He also has issues with how Shannon Airport is promoted in North America and claimed New York travel agents appear to have a problem promoting Shannon Airport and will rather sell tickets to Dublin than Shannon.

Clare Colleran Molloy said she had a sense that things are turning around in the region and hoped this will counterbalance “the competition that is so pervasive from the Dublin region”. However she recalled reading that growth rates at Cork Airport are outstripping Shannon and asked how Shannon Group plans to compete effectively with Cork, if the road infrastructure between Cork and Limerick improves in the future?

Trump factor

Given that the new President of the USA will be inaugurated on 20th January it was inevitable that there would be some mention of Donald Trump at the meeting. Newmarket-on-Fergus councillor Pat McMahon stepped up to the mark when he pointed out that the opening of the new motorway to Tuam next year will offer a positive challenge to the airport. “Tourism is our main growth sector and can have an immediate positive effect, particularly with Dromoland, Doonbeg and the Trump factor, plus Bunratty establishing itself as a main attraction following huge investment after a few years when numbers had dropped,” said Cllr McMahon.

Ennis

The future development of employment in the Ennis area is something that Cllr Johnny Flynn feels passionate about. Having attended a seminar with the IDA earlier in the day, he noted that the agency plans to invest substantially in Limerick’s Raheen and Plassey Technology Parks. Cllr Flynn expressed his hope that Shannon Group will look favourably at the 25 acres currently under-developed at Ennis Information Age Park. Regarding the group’s investment in heritage development and tourism development, he proposed Ennis as an “ethical, independent thinking, heritage site” which could feature historical links with the town including Catholic Emancipation, Boycott and the de Valera era. “I think there are opportunities to develop an urban-based heritage product in the centre of Ennis ,” said Cllr Flynn.

Regional Assembly

According to Cllr Cathal Crowe, Limerick is being positioned as the country’s second city given the triangulation of motorways to Dublin and Galway and with Shannon Airport pivotal to this. He said Clare County Council had passed a resolution at their July meeting in UL calling for a West of Ireland assembly. Since the Midwest Regional Authority was abolished in 2014, Clare is now part of a Southern Regional Assembly along with some counties that it has little in common with. Cllr Crowe believes that Clare is ideally placed geographically to host a new West of Ireland Assembly as it is positioned between two major cities. He said it is hoped to convene an assembly to where all stakeholders, from politics, third level, enterprise, industry and the Shannon Group, can play a part.

Responses

Responding to issues raised, Matthew Thomas said competing with Cork and providing an alternative to Dublin, is top of his agenda at the moment. There is also a need to ensure that Shannon Group, Clare County Council and local authorities across the west coast have a shared vision of what the region needs to be successful in the future. While acknowledging that Cork had a good year in 2016, Mr Thomas wants to develop a compelling offer for airlines that want to grow in Shannon rather than Cork. he also looks forward to having the Shannon to Tuam motorway in 2018 as this will extend Shannon’s core catchment area so that Galway becomes part of our region.

With regard to Shannon Group properties, Ruth Hynes acknowledged that there is quite a lot of property in Ennis, and a specific property committee has discussed Ennis Information Age Park on a number of occasions, however there appears to be problems with an access road that are being worked out with the local authority. Ms Hynes also stated that the group has looked at individual properties that it owns and has made decisions for each individual property that are now down for implementation. She also commented, “Speaking as someone from North Clare, I am not forgetting any part of Clare.” In relation to the perceived democratic deficit, Ms Hynes said a vacancy exists on the board of directors but responsibility for the appointment lies with Minister Shane Ross and the public appointments system.

Referring to one particular property, Cllr Gerry Flynn pointed out that Ballycasey House is one of the oldest landmarks in Shannon but Shannon Commercial Properties are proposing to sell the building and the Craft Centre on the private market. Appealing to Shannon Group not to proceed with such a sale, Cllr Flynn said, “I have had representations from many people who feel that this premises should be kept in public ownership. “There are 50 jobs at stake in Ballycasey Craft & Design Centre and I appeal to you not to sell this, it is a vital property. Business owners were given a stay of execution until the New Year but I believe it is unwise to offload this”.

Ruth Hynes replied, “That will be taken into account”, while Matthew Thomas commented “that will be noted”.