On the occasion of his first visit to County Clare as Taoiseach to attend a lunch with members of Shannon Chamber, Leo Varadkar reminded guests that he is no stranger to the area having been here many times as a private citizen and in past ministerial positions.
Welcoming the Taoiseach was Kevin Thompstone, the former CEO of Shannon Development, who thanked Mr Varadkar for having the foresight as Minister for Transport to give Shannon Airport its independence.
Mr Thompstone reflected on Shannon’s history of internationally trading manufacturing, beginning with early foreign direct investment and culminating in successful indigenous companies such as Mincon and Ei Electronics that have become significant employers producing innovative products for world markets.
“These companies,” he added, “sit alongside the cluster of blue chip international companies that operate from Shannon, which now includes Jaguar Land Rover.”
“Shannon,” according to Kevin Thompstone, “is now a key aviation and enterprise trailblazer with regional and national economic impact and a diverse and vibrant sectoral spread of industry leaders, who are not ready to sit on their laurels.”
Looking to the future, Kevin Thompstone noted that Shannon Chamber, and its partner organisations along the western seaboard, have formed an active working group, the Atlantic Economic Corridor, to contribute to economic growth from Donegal to Kerry.
Business leaders involved in the AEC envisage increasing the area’s GDP by up to 3.5 times its current level by working together to develop concept proposals and unique propositions of scale based on the comparative advantages of places across the corridor.
Mr Thompstone took the opportunity to highlight Shannon Town to the Taoiseach and pointed out that despite have a population of 10,000 and a workforce exceeding that, Shannon is missing a key piece of infrastructure.
He said that Clare’s second largest town, with a history of innovation and an ability to turn ideas into action, lacks a recognised town centre or heart and streetscape.
“Shannon,” he said, “needs a focal point for community, civic and creative activity.” Mr Thompstone told the Taoiseach that plans are in place, supported by financial backing from the private sector, to develop a response to this glaring need in the form of a multi-purpose civic, cultural and amenity centre called The Venue.
“We are at a key decision point with this project,” Mr Thompstone added. “Voluntary effort and private funding to the tune of €0.9 million – 98% from the private sector and the balance from Shannon Town Council – has delivered a turnkey project from concept to strategy to planning, with full planning permission already approved.
“The business and community of Shannon have shown the way through action with time and hard cash inputs. Government support at national or local level is the critical next step in moving the project forward.
“The completion of this multi-function community, civic and creative centre would be the innovative solution to drive Shannon forward. It would be part of a new beginning, in the same way as the new town concept was in the Lemass and O’Regan eras,” said Mr Thompstone.
Beginning his address, the Taoiseach voiced his support for Clare TDs Pat Breen and Joe Carey, referring to Minister of State Breen as “a strong and consistent champion for business and trade and a very powerful advocate for balanced regional and social development in this part of the country.”
Turning to Joe Carey, he said, “Joe and I have known each other since we became TDs back in 2007. Joe has a reputation for being one of the hardest working and most personable deputies in Dáil Éireann and is a powerful voice for Shannon in particular.”
Mr Varadkar stated that this part of the country has been close to his heart for some time as he developed a personal connection during his time as Minister for Tourism, Transport and Sport when it was decided to separate Shannon Airport from the Dublin Airport Authority and establish an independent State-owned enterprise.
Since then, Mr Varadkar said he is glad to see that passengers using the airport have increased by 25% from 1.4 million to 1.7 million. During that same time, the Shannon Free Zone now has a 90% occupancy rate in terms of office space.
Commenting on this, the Taoiseach said, “I am absolutely certain that it was the right decision to separate Shannon from the other airports and I’m absolutely certain that we’re only getting started.”
Recalling that Shannon handled 3.5m passengers at its peak, he said that’s what is aimed for in the years ahead while also continuing to develop the industrial zone and attracting employment and investment into the area in the years ahead.
Mr Varadkar assured people that central Government will be very much behind Shannon in the years ahead and that he will listen closely to any suggestions about how Government can help Shannon to continue to grow and reach its potential which, he said, “is so much more than where it is at present.”
One of the most encouraging statistics for the region, according to the Taoiseach, is the fact that 6,500 people out of work two years ago have returned to employment in Clare and Limerick.
“By some measures,” he said, “this is now the second fastest growing region in the country and confidence is improving.”
Noting the announcement by Jaguar-Land Rover of 150 new software engineering jobs, Mr Varadkar said that Shannon was chosen because it is now recognised as a centre of excellence for current and future software engineering talent.
He believes that new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence and new driving technologies, will transform our world over the next 20 years, just as mobile phones and the internet have done over the last 20 years.
“I want Ireland to be part of that and ahead of the curve in terms of embracing those new technologies,” he said.
Mr Varadkar paid fulsome tribute to Shannon companies such as Ei Electronics, describing it as “an Irish company that is a global leader in the preventative fire safety market”.
In addition, he said there are now 55 companies in Shannon providing aviation-related services and employing 2,500 people. In 2012 there were 40 such companies and a workforce of 1,600 staff so that’s an increase of 1,000.
“It’s fair to say that this part of the country is helping to lead Ireland economically but now we want to do more and better,” said Mr Varadkar.
“We want to make sure that Shannon and the Midwest region, becomes a great place to work, to study and to live, providing competition for Dublin, Cork and Galway and also other parts of the world. I think there are many grounds for optimism in the regard,” said the Taoiseach.
Mr Varadkar said his Government has a vision for an Ireland that is ambitious and outward looking while providing opportunities for all citizens. Mr Varadkar outlined five pillars of economic policy which will underpin these plans.
First is to have an economy on a sound footing. Balancing the books and continuing to reduce the national debt is important. The Government will also establish a rainy day fund this year to prepare for future economic shocks and will support companies to prepare for the challenges of Brexit.
Second is an infrastructure investment programme to continue growing the economy and remove bottlenecks while also building a fairer and more just society.
The third is raising living standards to ensure people have more money in their pockets and to make work pay by reducing personal taxation.
Fourth is achieving full employment. Six years ago, he said, unemployment was at 15%, now it’s down to 6%. Mr Varadkar also aims to ensure that everyone will have access to a pension plan as two-thirds of the private sector have no pension plan.
Number 5 is to see Ireland take its place among the nations of the world. Mr Varadkar said this means having a foreign policy that supports free trade, wealth and migration that keeps Ireland at the centre of the world and the heart of Europe.
Central to this is a plan to increase the country’s diplomatic presence around the world by opening new embassies to facilitate agencies like the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Tourism Ireland and Bord Bia in their work of attracting employment and investment.
The Taoiseach also spoke of developing a new infrastructure plan so that by 2021 state investment in infrastructure will rise by €8.4 billion a year and will become 10% of all Government spending.
“That,” he said, “will see us move from being the EU country with relatively low levels of public investment in infrastructure to one of the highest in just three years.”
In the next few weeks, the Government will publish a 10-year plan outlining its objectives and priorities. “Some of the projects we are talking about, for example, include the Limerick Northern Distributor Road and the M20, a huge project costing about €800m, that will improve connectivity between Cork, Limerick and Galway while also benefiting Shannon and Ennis. It will create an economic corridor and provide opportunities for investment and become an alternative to the Greater Dublin Region.”
In his concluding remarks, Mr Varadkar said,”For some people, their ambition to survive, our ambition for Ireland, and this region, in particular, is to ensure that this region and this town thrive.
“I’ve always believed that people, if given the opportunity and a fair go, can reach their potential. For me, the Shannon region epitomises some of the best qualities of Irish business – a spirit of enterprise, a belief in innovation and determination.
“In so many ways you have demonstrated the character of Irish society and what we can achieve when we work together and if we have the courage to succeed.”