Seanad Éireann - Volume 157 - 24 November, 1998

Incentive Scheme for Border Region.

Ms Leonard: I thank the Minister for Education and Science for taking this motion tonight on behalf of the Minister for Finance. I ask the Minister for Finance to provide special incentives to attract industries to Border towns which have suffered from 30 years of armed struggle in the North. I tabled this motion because this is the right time to provide a package to allow towns in my area that have been badly affected for 30 years to have an opportunity to reach the same standard as towns further south, for example, Clones which is the nearest town to me. Other examples are towns such as Castleblayney or Ballybay, Belturbet and Blacklion in County Cavan. In Clones our initial problems started when the railways closed. For the past 30 years the commercial [441] trade in Clones has been badly affected by road closure, the political conflict and the difference between sterling and the Irish punt in latter years. Clones is only half a mile from the Fermanagh border to the North and if one travels west one must cross into Fermanagh twice before reaching County Cavan. Seventy-five per cent of its trade came from Northern counties but with all the problems it was cut off from the rest of the country.

Last week the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, Deputy McDaid, announced an EU special support programme for Peace and Reconciliation and £750,000 was allocated to 20 towns and villages in the Border region which were the most badly affected by the Troubles. The money is targeted at improving shop fronts, the layout of premises and management of business in the area. Luckily four towns in my constituency have been included in this package. Unfortunately, this incentive scheme on its own is not enough to attract businesses to Clones and that is why I tabled this motion. There is no point in simply having shop fronts looking well. We need another incentive scheme which will work in conjunction with the special support scheme to attract industries to the area.

It is only now that proprietors in the town are regaining their confidence after years fighting a losing battle. Now that they are getting the confidence to invest we need to provide tax incentives or some other scheme to attract other investors into the area, either foreign investors or indigenous companies. If we have good premises they will be used and if people work in an area they will spend their money there.

In Clones what was the business centre of the town 20 or 30 years ago now has one foodstore, one newsagent, about a dozen pubs and betting offices, 20 derelict houses and one derelict cinema. The money we will get from Europe will help to improve the look of the premises and then all we need is for people to spend their money there.

County Monaghan has been the product of our own misfortune because it has always been viewed as an entrepreneurial area. Unfortunately, all of our industries are home based and many of them are family run, ranging from the manufacturers of furniture, to agriculture, turkey rearing and mushroom production. We have been very unsuccessful in attracting foreign investors. I do not mind what type of industries set up or whether they are multinationals. There are people who would be willing to invest in a company but it is very difficult for anyone to start up on their own. An incentive scheme to attract industries to areas like Clones would be of benefit to the county. To emphasise my point, the live register figure for unemployment has decreased by 22 per cent nationally over the past five years. In the Border area the figure has decreased by 10 per cent but in the Cavan-Monaghan area it has only decreased by 6 per cent. These statistics [442] show that we are not on a par with the rest of the country.

The economy is going well at the moment and people are gaining confidence from the British-Irish Agreement. People are willing to invest in their own area. We have a number of development associations and various groups that are trying to improve their areas. The time is right for us to utilise our European funding and my area will improve financially if we get a package from national funding. If we can improve economically then there will also be social improvements.

I thank the Minister for taking this motion and I look forward to his reply.

Minister for the Department of Education and Science (Mr. Martin): Unfortunately, the Minister for Finance could not be here but I am glad to be in a position to speak on his behalf.

The Government is keenly aware of the negative impact of the conflict in the North on the economy of the entire Border region. We all hope the Good Friday Agreement will herald a new era characterised by lasting peace and economic prosperity for both the North and the Border counties which have endured so much over the past 30 years. The Minister is convinced the achievement of lasting peace is the greatest incentive for economic development in the Border counties. Prospective investors need to be assured of stability if they are to be attracted to a region. This is the case in all economic sectors but is particularly true in the case of the tourism industry.

However, the Minister is also aware that a region which has suffered from so many disadvantages over recent decades requires special assistance to overcome such obstacles. This view has also been shared by successive Governments and by the EU Commission. A reflection of this commitment is the number of initiatives established to address the special needs of the region.

The EU community support framework for Ireland, 1994-9 includes a commitment on the part of the Irish and UK Governments to maximise co-operation on Northern Ireland. Under the existing round of Structural Funds, the entire country enjoyed Objective One status which entitled it to the highest rate of assistance from the funds. Per capita income in the Border region remains below the threshold of 75 per cent of the EU average. If the Government's regional approach meets with the approval of the EU Commission, then the Border region would continue to enjoy the benefit of Objective One status.

Members will be aware that the Border region is already receiving special assistance under various programmes. These programmes include the International Fund for Ireland, the Programme for Peace and Reconciliation and INTERREG. The International Fund for Ireland was established by the Irish and British Governments in 1986 with the aim of promoting economic and social progress in Northern Ireland and the Border [443] counties. The fund has received contributions from the European Union, the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. It has already provided a total of £350 million in funding for a large number of projects.

The Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, established by the European Union in 1995, is aimed at Northern Ireland and the Border counties. It involves total EU expenditure of approximately £320 million over four years. At least 20 per cent of this funding is available for the six Border counties. The Commission recently indicated its support for a further 100 million ECU, approximately £80 million, for 1999.

Under the joint INTERREG II programme, £130 million of EU funds have been allocated to Northern Ireland and Ireland on the basis of a 43 per cent allocation for the North and 57 per cent for the South. Together with matching funding from both Governments and other sources, the [444] total investment available is £210 million. The regions covered by the programme are Northern Ireland, with the exception of Belfast, and the six Border counties of Donegal, Leitrim, Sligo, Cavan, Monaghan, and Louth. The programme is divided into six subprogrammes covering regional development, human resources development, infrastructure, agriculture/fisheries/forestry and environmental protection.

Further funding for these programmes beyond 1999 will be pursued in the context of the next round of Structural Funding and EU Commission and Council support for underpinning the peace process. In addition to the measures assisted by the EU, the Border region can avail of various national incentives for development. The Minister believes the benefits flowing from the Good Friday Agreement and the many measures in place to aid the Border region will result in a new era of economic prosperity for that region.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.25 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 25 November 1998.