Thoughts for the New Year

Joe McHugh TD photographed in Claggan, Donegal, 23 July, 2009.'Photo: Liam Sweeney
Joe McHugh TD photographed in Claggan, Donegal, 23 July, 2009.'Photo: Liam Sweeney

Donegal is enduring a tough winter. A hurricane of 160km/hr blew across Malin Town last Tuesday. Eight inches of rain fell during October and November, flooding homes and villages, and destroying several potato crops. Bondi Beach on Australia’s east coast was apparently an enjoyable 26°C on 25th December; so many young Donegal people were there on what must have been for them a strange Christmas Day, having moved abroad to look for career opportunities that are sadly not available at home in this New Year.

On the first day of the new Dáil term last March I voted ‘Tá’ on the nomination of Enda Kenny as Taoiseach. He leads a new team of Fine Gael and Labour TDs charged with building an Ireland that must offer hope and futures at home to the young people who were on Bondi Beach last week.

In the novel Hard Times Charles Dickens said: “In this life we want nothing but facts”. This Government’s job is to replace the doomed domestic construction industry with a new industrial structure based on exports, and to severely cut public expenditure so that the State stops spending money that Irish taxpayers do not have. For the last decade Ireland has imported far more than it exports, and public expenditure grew to €50bn per year, even though the Irish economy generates just €28bn per year. The tough new cuts and taxes that were announced in last December’s Budget are not just unavoidable but urgently needed. Next December’s Budget and the subsequent two Budgets must contain similarly severe measures.

The painful national transition is particularly tough in Donegal. The 2006 census shows that 22% of Irish men worked in building and construction; here in Donegal 30% of men worked in that failed industry. Manufacturing is increasingly important in Ireland now; Donegal is still adjusting to the calamitous collapse of our textile industry. Our county has strong traditional agriculture and marine industries; those sectors were neglected by the Celtic Tiger’s political leaders.

But when the wind and rain are at their worst spring is only around the corner. Slowly and painfully, some real new opportunities are emerging, in tourism, agriculture, fisheries, energy and manufacturing.

Donegal tourism is benefiting from the Government’s reduction of VAT on tourism products and also from the general lowering of prices: Ireland is no longer regarded as a rip-off tourist destination.

Donegal’s retail sector is benefiting from shifts in currency strengths and from the changed VAT differentials; whereas in 2009 the VAT differential between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was 6.5% and the sterling was relatively weak, today following British VAT hikes the VAT margin is 3% (a 20-year low) and the currencies are now more competitive. The haemorrhaging of shoppers from Donegal across the Border has thankfully stopped.

The heavy rainfall in October and November caused major farmyard waste difficulties for many farmers in our county, as well has a serious crisis for potato farmers. But beef and sheep farmers secured record prices for stock in 2011, and 2012 promises to be equally successful. There are similar grounds for optimism in fisheries. The Government has secured major quota increases and bye-catch rule changes for Inishowen fishermen who work in haddock, boarfish, plaice and megrum fisheries. And the Government has tasked BIM to investigate a suitable site for a major off-shore salmon production unit off our coastline, which has massive potential for on-shore and off-shore jobs in Donegal. I am actively involved in this exciting initiative.

This is a very difficult time for many Donegal graduates and skilled young people. Emigration must never be used by the State as a get-out clause, but today Ireland is lucky that high-quality jobs in Australia and in Britain are imparting skills and real workplace experiences that will position talented and qualified young Irish people for employment opportunities at home when the upturn comes. Today’s emigrant experience differs greatly from the often exploited Donegal Tattie Howkers’ experiences in Scotland and across Britain in the earlier decades of the 20th century.

Of course, the Government has a responsibility to involve emigrants in the national conversation: whereas in the past there was regrettably no political engagement with those who were forced by economic circumstances to leave Ireland, today’s Government must keep up communication, explain to emigrants that efforts are being made to sort out the country’s problems, and that the State’s ambition is to build a country that offers the option to return home to live and work. There must be political change at home too.

Some real progress has been made already: An Taoiseach Enda Kenny has cut the cost of his special advisors by 47% compared with his predecessor Brian Cowen; Ministerial salaries were substantially reduced when the new Government took office; 29 Quangos have been abolished and more will be chopped in 2012; Ministers (with the exception of the Minister for Justice, for security reasons) do not now have the use of State cars; and the Government has scrapped former Taoisigh’s entitlement to allowances for phone bills, secretarial assistance and VIP services at Dublin Airport. This year the Government will hold a referendum proposing the abolition of Seanad Eireann.

For me, the transition from Opposition politics to working in Donegal and in Leinster House as a Government TD has been quite striking.

It is fair to say that, in Government, the tone of engagement from some constituents is sometimes very different to what it used to be when I was an Opposition representative. But that is a reality of political life at a time when people are experiencing extraordinary pain and difficulty.

I encourage constituents to continue with the engagement, because it is variety of opinion that enriches and enlightens every political decision and every political choice. I enjoy the role, and I am absolutely convinced that I am part of a Government that is putting Ireland on the road to recovery.

The political leaders of the Celtic Tiger tried to claim that the good times would go on forever; in July 2007 Bertie Ahern said of talking down the economy: ‘I don’t know how people who engage in that don’t commit suicide’.

Now, in this most dismal time for our country, some political voices claim that the bad times will continue forever. There is a political advantage for those voices in talking down the country, but the politics of despair will not bring young Donegal people home from Australia.

The poet Shelley asked, ‘if winter comes can spring be far behind?’ In his Christmas message to the Diocese of Derry & Raphoe Bishop Ken Good told his flock that a conscious decision to be positive can be quite empowering.

Donegal people are resilient. Our county has the human and physical resources to be in the vanguard of Ireland’s economic recovery.