Strong communities and balanced regional development

We believe in a Republic of Opportunity that is built around people, communities, and commercial and social enterprises. We shall empower communities to knit together their diverse elements and to sustain communities that enable a vibrant and supportive environment for those of all ages and in all parts of the country. We know that communities do not exist in isolation from broader economic developments, so we will continue to prioritise balanced regional development to ensure all parts of our country share in our prosperity.

Over the past decade, population has increased in every county, and employment is growing in each and every region across the state. We want to continue this progress.

Our ambition is that:

  • the pattern of future population growth is balanced between all parts of Ireland, and with growth in rural as well as urban areas;
  • a person’s location is not a barrier to fulfilling their potential and new businesses are being opened in all parts of the country;
  • coherent planning for skills, enterprise, and innovation will create the basis for sustainable competitive advantage in adaptable sectors for every region;
  • new approaches are developed to buttress towns and villages as vibrant centres for thriving rural hinterlands;
  • new ways of meeting the needs of citizens at local level will be developed by harnessing technology;
  • we accelerate the delivery of high-speed broadband across the country;
  • the rich tapestry of sport, culture and heritage is woven together as assets that can sustain tourism, as well as active and engaged local life; and
  • our local government system is further enabled to support community and regional development.

Among the actions that will be brought forward to meet this ambition are:

Implement ‘Project Ireland 2040’ – our plan for all parts of Ireland to grow and prosper

Ireland’s population is expected to increase by 1 million by 2040. Without policy intervention this population growth will result in an ongoing shift in population and jobs towards Dublin and the neighbouring counties. This is not in the interest of Dublin, or any other part of the country.

Fine Gael in government brought forward ‘Project Ireland 2040’, and is fully committed to its implementation. ‘Project Ireland 2040’ will ensure sustainable growth over the next twenty years for all parts of Ireland. We will not repeat the mistakes of Fianna Fáil’s National Spatial Strategy that promised something to everyone. ’Project Ireland 2040’ encompasses the National Planning Framework, which sets out how we are planning for this population growth, and is backed up by a €116 billion 10 year capital plan. This will mean that for the first time in Ireland’s history we will ensure that our planning and capital investment plans are meaningfully aligned; the money follows the plan.

Balanced and sustainable growth for all parts of Ireland

‘Project Ireland 2040’ will also ensure that over the next twenty years there is a more effective balance of growth across our country, with the intention that all the regions grow at broadly comparable rates. Furthermore, we want to build up the cities of Cork, Waterford, Limerick, and Galway, as viable alternatives to Dublin, with each being targeted for population growth of more than 50%, twice the growth range projected for Dublin. Under ‘Project Ireland 2040’ there is scope for the growth of all towns in Ireland, in particular those with key regional functions such as Athlone in the midlands, Sligo in the north-west, as well as the cross border city-regions of the future like Letterkenny-Derry and Drogheda-Dundalk-Newry.

To ensure the vitality of our rural areas, a significant proportion of national population and economic growth will be targeted at building up the fabric of smaller towns, villages and rural areas, with much of that happening by redeveloping derelict and under-utilised lands inside small towns and villages.

While there is significant targeted investment in ‘Project Ireland 2040’ to achieve these goals, Fine Gael understands that central government does not have the answer to every question. That is why we introduced a new approach in ‘Project Ireland 2040’ and established four funds, with a total of €4 billion of funding, which will be allocated on a competitive basis to the best projects that achieve the objectives of ‘Project Ireland 2040’.

Improving transport links for all parts of Ireland

Fine Gael has always placed importance on accessibility for all parts of the country. This is recognised in ‘Project Ireland 2040’, which provides funding for an extensive road building programme ensuring that all parts of Ireland are linked not just to Dublin, but also to each other. It also places a particular focus on improving the access to the North-West, which was neglected when it came to roads investment during the Celtic Tiger.

During the course of the lost decade, it was necessary to prioritise investment in maintenance over bringing new projects through route design and planning. This meant that many worthwhile projects have been delayed over the past decade. We are now committed under ‘Project Ireland 2040’ to developing a strong pipeline of future road development projects so that there can be steady and sustainable improvements in our road network in the decades ahead.

Fine Gael appreciates the importance of local and regional roads. We are conscious that despite the strong recovery in the public finances, we have not yet reached the level of roads funding that is necessary to properly maintain our regional and local roads. However, the €4.5 billion in regional and local roads funding under ‘Project Ireland 2040’, in addition to the €7.3 billion regional road accessibility in national roads, will remedy this.

Make real the Atlantic Economic Corridor

A strategic objective of ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is to promote economic development across Ireland and to enable all parts of the country to achieve their potential. The development of the Atlantic Economic Corridor from Kerry to Donegal can strongly contribute to that objective of balanced development. The development of a high-quality road network from Cork to Limerick, Galway and onto Sligo under ‘Project Ireland 2040’ is the spine of the Corridor. Our Atlantic region provides a vast array of opportunities for businesses of all scales across a wide range of sectors. The skills on offer along the Corridor make it the ideal place for any company to set up and expand. Across the Corridor there is a strong presence in every sector including medical devices, biopharma, ICT, agri-food, aviation and finance. Fine Gael in government is working to capitalise on these strengths.

Designated Atlantic Economic Corridor Officers in Local Authorities along the Corridor are working together to ensure a cohesive approach to developing and promoting the Atlantic Economic Corridor. We will ensure that this important network continues to receive resourcing.

Commitment to the Local Improvement Scheme

Fine Gael re-established the Local Improvement Scheme (LIS) which had to be suspended during the lost decade. €37 million has been allocated to LIS since it was reintroduced last year with over 1,100 rural roads improved as a result in the last year. We will continue to fund this important scheme in the years ahead.

Investing in the rail network and improving connectivity

We are committed to investing in the rail network. To that end we will examine how line speeds on all the interurban routes can be improved, enhancing the role of the rail network in facilitating inter-urban connectivity. As outlined in ‘Project Ireland 2040’, Fine Gael is committed to fully examining the opportunities for improving the journey times and/or developing high speed rail links between Belfast, Dublin and Cork, and delivering upon that, if a robust economic case is identified. The introduction of high speed rail could transform connectivity between the high population centres on the island of Ireland. That could mean getting from Belfast to Dublin in just one hour, or Dublin to Cork in 90 minutes, with a connection to Limerick. We will ensure that this feasibility study is commenced in 2019.

An external review of the viability of the extension of the Western Rail Corridor to Tuam and Claremorris is being carried out at present. If this review demonstrates a positive cost benefit analysis for this project, then this project will be prioritised in line with ‘Project Ireland 2040’.

Broadband to every home, farm and business across Ireland

Fine Gael is committed to the delivery of the National Broadband Plan which is provided for under ‘Project Ireland 2040’. The National Broadband Plan will ensure high speed broadband access of at least 30 megabits per second to all premises in Ireland, regardless of location. Already the National Broadband Plan has been a catalyst in encouraging investment by the telecoms sector. The contract negotiations for the National Broadband Plan are approaching their conclusion. Once delivered, it will mean that every home, farm, and business in the state will have access to a future-proofed broadband service.

Regional Enterprise Strategies to ensure that every part of the country shares in our economic prosperity

Fine Gael in government was responsible for the first coherent response to the enterprise needs of the regions with the Regional Action Plan for Jobs. Employment is now expanding in all regions. These multi-annual plans involve exploiting the new investments being made in key infrastructural arteries, in heritage assets in town centres, and in educational infrastructure. We will ensure that these plans are regularly updated.

At their heart is a strategy for regional initiative that achieves co-ordination among the national enterprise agencies and the regional stakeholders. They will continue to be driven by:

regional jobs targets by IDA and Enterprise Ireland;

competitive funds for the development of regional sectoral initiatives;

the strengthening of resources for enterprise start-ups;

the increased uptake by enterprise for quality programmes for management, lean production, innovation and market diversification;

a programme of investment in advance facilities by IDA in strategic locations; and

the promotion of local business networks for collaborative initiatives.

Education and skills as drivers of balanced regional development

A rich pool of talent in a region is a magnet for foreign investment and a seed bed for new enterprise.  We will:

make multi-campus Technological Universities a driver of regional development; and

strengthen the further education options to build the skill base of sustainable regional sectors.

Fine Gael has an ambitious vision for the role which Education and Training Boards can play in delivering balanced regional development. They will provide key resources to support strong enterprises with innovative products and services, capable of building diversified and sustainable markets.

New apprenticeships, traineeships and new blended certified programmes will help enterprises to strengthen their talent base, both of new recruits and existing management and employees.

Technological Universities will deliver a wider range of higher skill programmes, develop capacity for applied research, strengthen enterprise hubs and become a spine for regional hubs around key sectors, such as ICT, food, software, advanced manufacturing, pharma, and engineering. The enactment of the Technological Universities Act means our focus is now on working with the various consortia to get these new technological universities up and running. ‘Project Ireland 2040’ commits resources to the development of technological universities, with a particular urgency being attached to the establishment of the Technological University of the South East.

We will facilitate the creation of ‘Technology and Innovation Poles’ which will be collaborations between Institutes of Technology, Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland and private enterprise and funds are provided for this under ‘‘Project Ireland 2040’’.

The new Regional Skills Fora are developing a strong bridge between enterprise and the education institutions. Investment in education at all levels will develop essential arteries to support the proposed pattern of population growth set out in ‘Project Ireland 2040’.

Expand and extend the tourism opportunities in the regions

Fine Gael is the party that placed tourism at the centre of our economic development. We recognise its importance in providing employment across the country and to a wide and diverse range of individuals.  During the height of the economic crisis when Fine Gael took office, we prioritised measures to boost the tourism sector and in 2015 published the “People, Place and Policy – Growing Tourism to 2025” policy document.

That document set ambitious targets for Irish tourism, including that by 2025, revenue from overseas visitors would increase by €1.5 billion to €5 billion, that employment in the sector would grow by 50,000 to 250,000, and that there would be 10 million visits to Ireland. All these targets are likely to be achieved in the near future.

In addition to the tourism capital investment programme, Project Ireland 2040 also commits €56 million to tourism greenways investment over the next four years. This investment will be in line with the Greenways Strategy, which provides the optimum basis for the development of national greenways. We are committed that this level of expenditure on greenways will continue post 2021, thereby providing over time a significant network of greenways that are attractive to domestic and foreign tourists alike, and encourage longer stays in more rural areas.

Air access is particularly important to our tourism sector, and further air access initiatives will be provided, as will continued support for our airports outside of Dublin through operating subsidies and development grants.

The agri-food sector at the centre of Irish economic development

A strong agri-food and seafood sector is a major part in driving employment and economic development in the most peripheral areas of the country, as well as in every town and village. Fine Gael has always recognised the importance of the family farm structure and the need to ensure rural and coastal communities receive the investment needed to continue to grow.

This requires a continued focus on delivering the targets contained within the ‘Foodwise 2025’ and ‘Harvesting Our Ocean Wealth’ strategies. Diversification of markets is hugely important. Expanding our agri-food exports by opening new and emerging markets, growing live exports and focusing on building up the presence of agricultural attachés and Bord Bia/Enterprise Ireland representatives is central to the ‘Global Ireland’ initiative.  As we approach 2025, we will begin work, in partnership with the sector, on a successor strategy to meet our national growth and sustainability objectives including climate mitigation targets.

Under the current CAP, Fine Gael has delivered €12 billion for the farming community. A strongly resourced CAP will be vitally important for farm families and a vibrant rural economy in the coming years.

The next CAP is set against the backdrop of Brexit and the global challenge of climate change. There will be an increased emphasis on knowledge transfer, technology adoption, and competitiveness, and new incentives for young farmers. Fine Gael will be very firmly focused on maintaining vital supports for farm income. The budgetary allocation for the 2021-2027 period will be critical in terms of meeting the challenges we face, and we will be strongly and robustly defending the CAP at an EU level.

We are equally committed to a strongly resourced European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) to support the fisheries sector in the context of the next CFP. Fine Gael doubled the amount of funding available to the fisheries sector under the last EMFF, to €241m. A strongly resourced EMFF is vitally important for fishing and coastal communities in the context of Brexit. We will also invest strategically in our harbour infrastructure and continue to deliver Brexit response initiatives for our seafood processing sector, to provide the industry with the best possible competitive advantage in the coming years.

Brexit poses one of the most serious challenges ever faced by the agri-food and seafood sectors. We will continue to prioritise our farmers, food businesses, fishermen and processors in the context of negotiations and continue to rollout supports for the industry in meeting emerging challenges such as fluctuations in currency.

It is clear that the best interests of the agri-food sectors in both Ireland and the UK lie in a trading arrangement post-Brexit that is as close as possible to the current system. However, it is also clear that the trading relationship cannot be the same outside of the Single Market and the Customs Union, and that any final arrangement outside of these structures will involve friction and additional cost along the supply chain.

We will continue contingency planning and make the necessary arrangements for possible future customs, import control and export certification requirements in the agri-food sector.

We will also work on delivering initiatives that help to mitigate the potential impacts of Brexit, building on the provisions we have put in place to date; enhanced resources for Bord Bia, Brexit response loan schemes and capital investment supports, farm gate investment under the RDP, research and innovation investment in the Prepared Consumer Foods Sector and the pursuit and development of new markets.

Making sure that farmers are best placed to derive a fair price from the marketplace is strategically important. We will work with the Commission to introduce greater fairness and transparency across the supply chain at an EU level. We will continue the rollout of the producer organisation framework in the beef sector to give farmers more negotiation power in the marketplace and continue to invest in areas like knowledge transfer to give farmers the backing needed to innovate and increase profitability.

We will drawdown all available EU funds under the current RDP and will develop new schemes under Pillar 2 of the next CAP that will not only meet our environmental and climate objectives, but will also provide farm gate investment that helps the most vulnerable and disadvantaged farmers across all sectors.

In particular, we will work with the farming community to consider new measures under the next RDP that will mitigate the risks associated with challenging weather events that have become more prevalent in recent years, affecting fodder supplies.

Encouraging the next generation of farmers will be vital to securing the future of the agri-food sector. We will strategically use the National Reserve to encourage new entrants and younger farmers. We will continue to prioritise young farmers with enhanced grants in on-farm investment schemes and we will invest in the next generation through the green cert system, through agri-food programmes at third level and through research.

Helping charities improve accountability and corporate governance

Fine Gael wants to expand and support the role of volunteers, to encourage active citizenship, to facilitate the growth and development of philanthropy and, through oversight of the Charities Regulator, to ensure best practices and governance, management and administration of charities.

We understand that charities are facing increased levels of scrutiny and regulation in recent years. Enhanced accountability is a positive development, but we recognise that some organisations might not be equipped or funded to adequately navigate their way through the process. We will seek to work with all stakeholders to streamline the processes insofar as possible and tailor reporting requirements to the size of the organisation. We will act upon the recommendations of the recently published Consultative Panel on the Governance of Charitable Organisations to improve the quality of corporate governance in the sector, and also to ensure that the burden imposed is proportionate.

Having listened to the concerns of the sector, Fine Gael in government has introduced a VAT compensation refund scheme to enable charities to receive a refund of a proportion of their VAT costs from 2018 onwards. We will work with the sector to ensure that this scheme is as straightforward as possible.

Community development funding

We will continue to strengthen and fund community development initiatives like SICAP, CLAR, CSP, CEP and Outdoor Recreation Schemes.

LEADER plays a key role in providing grant aid for rural communities. Projects are now being approved much more quickly since reforms introduced last year. Fine Gael in government will continue to monitor the scheme to ensure it is operating efficiently and transparently.

Develop rural town centre policies and town teams

Rural towns are drivers for their surrounding areas through well-established economic, administrative and social functions. They form clusters of services, have a significant share of homes and jobs, and act as transport hubs for a much wider rural community. We will continue to strengthen rural towns as a focus for local housing and employment growth and regeneration, with initiatives such as derelict site transformation and new technology, such as low carbon and renewable heat and digital connectivity.

The €1 billion Project Ireland Rural Regeneration and Development Fund will play an important role in enabling such initiatives. In tandem with this, a new living village scheme will be developed to encourage residential occupancy in rural towns and villages. This scheme will take properties that are currently not in use in town or village centres, renovate them and make them attractive for residential purposes. The success of this scheme will inform future policy development. We will also continue to develop the Town and Village Scheme to allow the rejuvenation of rural towns and villages throughout Ireland.

Enabling local government to govern

Fine Gael is firmly committed to further increasing the powers and responsibilities of local authorities. We are committed to the principle of subsidiarity, which means that matters should be dealt with at the level of government that is closest to the people and most competent to deal with it.

We will hold plebiscites in Waterford, Cork City, Galway and Limerick asking the public if they wish to have a directly elected mayor who would provide leadership to their local authority and assume the majority of the functions currently carried out by the Chief Executive. If approved, legislation will be brought forward to allow for directly elected mayors to take up office in 2022.

Recognising the unique complexities of a Dublin elected mayor, Fine Gael will establish a Dublin Citizens’ Assembly to consider what type of local government structure and directly elected mayor, if any, would be most appropriate to Dublin. Depending on the outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly, a plebiscite will be held on the subject in 2021.

Living off-shore islands – an integral part of our nation

The islands are an integral part of the state, and therefore it is important that islanders feel united with the rest of Ireland. We will strive to improve transport and communication links to and from the Islands, to ensure better connectivity.

In recognition of the important role played by island schools, we will continue to provide additional ring-fenced supports for Island post primary schools. From 2018 the government is increasing teacher allocation for each of the island post-primary schools; an additional ring-fenced budget of €15,000 per annum for each post-primary island school to cover their additional operational costs will also be provided.

We think that the islands provide the perfect location to pilot an ambitious project for communities to make a rapid transition to a carbon neutral society by implementing sustainable energy generation, energy efficiency and rainwater harvesting.

Our islands are a unique and valuable aspects our culture. This should be cherished and sustained by investing in the communities and preserving their heritage for future generations.

We no longer think it necessary that the Islands cast their votes a day earlier than the rest of the country and will work to change this so that voters on our Islands vote on the same day as every other voter.

A post network fit for modern times

Fine Gael believes in a future for An Post and an Irish postal network that reflects the needs and demands of modern Ireland. Obviously the explosion of online services has contributed to a major decline in the volume of letters being sent while online payments have reduced footfall. However, the move to online retail and increased provision of banking services present major opportunities for An Post which, if grasped by the company, will ensure its long-term survival.

Fine Gael in government has sought to minimise any closures and safeguard the future of viable post offices, recognising the role they play in communities. As part of An Post’s renewed strategic plan for the network, communities of over 500 people will have a post office and over 95% of the population will be within 15km of at least one post office. We will ensure that this level of service is maintained into the future.

We will closely monitor the pilot of the recently-launched ‘Digital Assist’ post offices. As we move more public services online there will remain a portion of the population who either cannot or do not want to use online services. This pilot will examine the demand and suitability of post offices to fill that gap and if successful, we will expand it nationwide. We will also support the utilisation of the An Post retail network for banking and other services.

Libraries at the centre of communities across Ireland

Libraries across the country are attractive and welcoming spaces where all members of the community can access knowledge, ideas and information. It is where people can reflect, connect and learn. The local library provides a social space for the isolated in urban and rural communities and collaboration with local agencies and community groups can develop and enable initiatives that encourage people to use the library, promote civic participation and reduce rural isolation.

Our ambition is to develop the public library service as a relevant, modern and high-quality community service and to focus on improving access, use and visibility, establishing the public library as the “go-to” place for integrated local services. We will work to achieve this ambition through the recently published public library strategy.