Editorial from The Western People: Fighting for what Matters

Fighting for what Matters

Western People Editorial 12 February 2018

In 1964, the Committee in Defence of the West, a grassroots organisation comprising representatives from parishes across the western region, held its inaugural meeting in Ballina.

Among the speakers was Fr Willie Davis, the Crossmolina-based priest who worked tirelessly in the 1950s to convince the ESB to construct a power station in Bellacorick. Fr Davis did not mince his words: “Every generation looks forward to passing on some improvement of its country to the generation following,” he told the meeting. “But I am afraid the present generation will not leave any lasting monuments, only monuments of empty houses and closed doors in every village.”

The worst fears of Fr Davis were, in fact, proved wrong. The meeting in Ballina sparked a campaign for western development that culminated in a whole series of government-backed initiatives in the 1970s, most notably the decision to encourage large multi-nationals to locate in rural Ireland. Hollister came to Ballina, Asahi to Killala, Travenol to Castlebar and Swinford, and Allergan to Westport. Thousands of new jobs flowed from these companies, thus leading to a western revival that saw the population rise in Co Mayo for the first time in more than a century. Not every village was saved, but rural Ireland had – in the words of journalist John Healy – “shouted stop” and a wretched period of decline was finally halted.

Fr Davis’ words have a particular resonance this week as we await the publication of the National Planning Framework, the Government’s blueprint for the development of Ireland during the next 20 years. The signs are not good. Speaking on RTE Radio 1 on Sunday afternoon, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar barely mentioned the north-west, preferring instead to talk about road connectivity between Galway, Limerick, and Cork. The only reference to the north-west was in relation to Sligo where the plan will be launched next Friday. One hopes that the decision to hold the launch in Sligo is not a cynical, PR-motivated gesture designed to placate those in rural Ireland who have already expressed grave reservations about the draft document. In truth, the Government can launch this plan on the moon if they want – and nobody in rural Ireland will be too bothered as long as we get fair play, something that has been sadly lacking for the longest time.

But governments come and governments go. What matters really – as Fr Davis knew all those years ago – is the people, and if we are all speaking with one voice then we have some chance of changing the course of history. That’s why it is so disappointing to see the ongoing campaign in Connacht for a greenway on the route of the Western Rail Corridor. The promoters of this project are undoubtedly well motivated but they are wholly misguided in their view that a greenway through the heart of our province can spark a new period of western regeneration. It will, at best, create a small number of jobs in the tourism sector, but the damage it will do – both directly and indirectly – would be immense.

Let’s look back to the 1960s when the Defence of the West campaign was launched. At that time, Foxford Railway Station had been closed and there were fears for the entire route from Ballina to Claremorris. Ironically, the track would have made for the most beautiful greenway had anyone thought of proposing such a thing back in 1964. The route is truly spectacular, taking in picturesque Pontoon, which has to boast some of the most majestic scenery in the country. What if the Defence of the West had settled for second best half a century ago and surrendered a piece of infrastructure that was deemed to be in such rapid decline one of its stations was closed? Well, Asahi would never have come to Killala in the 1970s nor would Coca Cola have come to Ballina in the 1990s. That little railway line has been the lynchpin of North Mayo’s industrial base for 40 years, but it might easily have been lost in the 1960s had people not stood up and fought for it.

The challenge posed by Fr Davis is as relevant today as it was in 1964. Are we – the current inhabitants of a region with a proud history – so utterly broken that the best we can offer the next generation is a cycle path through the heart of our province? Is that going to be our monument, our epitaph? Seriously? If it is, then we should hang our heads in shame because we will have failed ourselves, future generations and, worst of all, those who came before us and fought so hard to reverse rural decline.

If the Western Rail Corridor is not featured in the National Planning Framework and the Government’s capital investment plan then we must stand up and fight. And if we don’t then we deserve our fate – and what a fate it will be. Indeed, to use a cycling analogy, we’ll be back on the Penny Farthing in jig time.