Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Restoration of the Bishop Palace Building

The bishop palace is a splendid building in the heart of the city centre. It was designed by local architect John Roberts and was built in 1746. It is currently used by Waterford City Council but under the Viking Triangle Plan will become a contemporary museum. It is intended to restore the building to its original state. An exciting part of the plan for the overall Cathedral Square area is to remove the car park beside the Bishop Palace and replace it with a Garden. In my view this will transform the Mall and add to the splendour of this building. City Council officials are working on a draft proposal which will be published shortly.

There has been some discussion recently about the removal of a small number of trees from the front of the ESB building. While removing trees is always a concern for some apparently this was necessary to accommodate tourist drop off at the visitor centre and it is intended to plant eight new trees at the new plaza at the entrance to the centre. The overall plan for the area is exciting and the placement of a garden adjacent to the Bishop Palace will create a little gem in the heart of the city.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Obama Health care reform – is the glass half empty or half full?

There has been much debate about President Obama’s proposal to reform health care in the US. The debate has split along party and ideological lines with little room for bi-partisanship. Republicans describe it as a Government takeover of the health care system. This is simply not true. In fact most Americans will not be affected by Obama’s health care legislation as they will continue to receive cover through their employers. The Reagan era created a health care system which relied on large for-profit insurance providers whose primary motive is to make money rather than improve health care. Government intervention is necessary to protect those who cannot afford coverage.

Obama has been forced to row back and compromise on his favored public option. The latest plan requires most Americans to carry health insurance coverage, with Government subsides to help those who cannot afford premiums. The plan also allows the Government to deny or roll back what democrats describe as ‘egregious insurance premium increases’ which infuriate customers. The plan does not provide Universal State Health care and will be a disappointment for some. However it is a step forward and will provide coverage to tens of millions of Americans without cover. Depending on their perspective I suspect people will view the final passing of reform as the glass being half empty of half full.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Supporting entrepreneurs is the key to our economic recovery

Economic activity is inextricably linked to entrepreneurial activity. The state has a role and a responsibility to both generate and redistribute wealth. The government and local authorities can create a favourable environment in which jobs can be created and can also directly create jobs through the provision of public services, the building of infrastructure and stimulating the economy with direct investment. However the key to Waterford’s future economic success is in supporting and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurship is about taking risks. It demands courage, stamina, energy and talent. I believe the skills, enthusiasm and creativity of our people must be used to build a sustainable and prosperous future for Waterford. We need to enable people to establish vibrant new businesses, social enterprises and co-operatives. The Waterford road to recovery will not be found in solely looking to Dublin. We need to get things moving locally by using the public and private sector, enterprise agencies and educational providers and employer and employee organisations to kick-start local economic recovery. We need to get things done and adopt an attitude of ‘Just do it’.

This work has already started. The new Waterford Crystal project and destination Waterford are examples. However we must now look beyond these ventures and identify potential growth areas for economic development. I believe a specific focus should be put on young people and self employment. Many of the young unemployed want to take control of their own destiny. They should be encouraged to do so. By following their passions, utilising the skills they have acquired and turning them into enterprise, the future is in their hands. This is the most effective way to encourage a better attitude to entrepreneurship in the city. We need to ensure that self-employment is a real option for some of the young unemployed.

Two areas for potential growth are in the IT sector (Animation, gaming and digital media) and in Green Technology. I wrote about the potential of Green Technology in a previous post and have tabled a motion to Waterford City Council seeking a City Green Tech Plan. The I.T. sector is an area where we have huge potential and obvious advantages. Waterford has the potential to be a digital media leader. It is recognised that Irish digital media firms are becoming a global force in particular niches such as mobile technologies, animation and digital video and gaming. Both animation and gaming are areas where new and creative industries can be developed with the help of Waterford Institute of Technology.

Enterprise agencies need to work with Waterford Institute of Technology to explore ways in which practical business; training and financial support can be given to those studying in these areas who demonstrate entrepreneurial flair. We need to address potential skill shortages of those working in this field particularly in the area of sales and marketing. We also need to prioritise start-up funding and premises to digital media start-up companies.

So there are sections of the Waterford economy that have the potential to put local people back to work. Sectors where we enjoy a natural advantage such as tourism, sectors where we have begun to build an emerging reputation through W.I.T. in the I.T. digital and gaming sectors and sectors whose potential has not been tapped such as green technologies. In order to reach our potential and kick-start our economy we need to act locally and foster a new spirit of entrepreneurship which gravitates around getting things done.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Waterford people send mayday message to Government - Save our service

When I was 17 someone said to me ‘the funny thing about common sense is that it is not all that common’. Every since I have seen this confirmed over and over again. Last week it was announced that Waterford and the Southeast is to lose its 24 hour Air Search and Rescue Service in 2013 as part of a cost cutting exercise. The decision beggars belief. The southeast is littered with coastal and fishing villages from West Waterford to North Wexford. It unfortunately has the highest number of deaths at sea in the country. Yet of all of the regions it alone is to lose the 24 hour emergency response cover. Common sense is absent yet again.

The public reaction in the southeast has been quick and decisive. We are not going to tolerate this cut. The Government can find some other way to save money. Cutting the service will save €1m. How on earth can this be justified? Imagine if we allowed the service to be cut. Imagine if there was an accident late at night. Imagine if lives could have been saved if the air emergency response service was in place. There would be a national outcry. So let’s not end up in this position. Let us collectively work together, politicians, civic leaders and citizens in overturning this decision. Next month Sinn Féin councillors will table emergency motions to both Waterford City and County councils. Our national Spokesperson on rural development and fishing Martin Ferris TD will visit the region and pledge his support. Lets collectively take a stand and refuse to accept a second rate service for the Southeast.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dog fouling and illegal dumping

Before I start this post I must point out that I like dogs. I own a dog. I bring my dog for a walk. I pick up after my dog. And yes, I know most dog owners are responsible so I am talking here about the few and not the many. Increasingly I am getting complaints from members of the public about the nuisance that is dog fouling. Like illegal dumping it is an anti-social act. I will get to illegal dumping later.

I cannot understand why some dog owners refuse to pick up after their dog and put it in a bag. It is very simple. The pooper scoopers are even available free of charge through your local authority. There is no excuse. Dog fouling and littering are illegal offences. So I am finding it very difficult to understand the motivation of people who do so.

Here are some simple facts about dog fouling. The clean up costs the taxpayer money. Dog faeces can be harmful to human health. An infection called Toxocara canis can be caught if the waste is not removed immediately. The potential harm to human health from this infection is quite high, and can cause blindness in some cases. Dog faeces is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria such as salmonella and other forms of infection. It is often children who pick up the bacteria. So its simple really – we should not tolerate dog fouling. While I would support increasing fines and better surveillance as ways to combat the problem the real solution is people behaving a bit more responsibily.

Now to illegal dumping – another illegal and anti-social act. I was informed recently of a huge amount of rubbish found dumped along the Tramore Road. It is dumped near the river and sometimes into it. This is only one example. Illegal dumping is rampant in the city and the county. The cost of the cleanup is enormous and again there is no excuse. People who dump illegally know it is wrong yet they choose to do so. And in choosing to do so they should face the consequences. Waterford City Council operates a name and shame policy. I agree with this. But first people have to be caught. I would encourage anyone who witnesses someone engaged in illegal dumping to report it to the relevant authority. It is something that is getting out of hand and has to be seen as more socially unacceptable.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Ard Fheis 2010

2010 is the tenth Ard Fhéis I have attended. It is an opportunity to take stock, present new policies, meet people from across the country, share ideas and most of all have your say. And many did. The economy dominated the weekend. Speaker after speaker called for Government action. The Government were reminded of Sinn Féin’s 2008 job creation proposals and their failure to implement them. I hope the Government was listening. The 440,000 people out of work deserve better.

The issue of coalition was a lively topic of debate. A Waterford delegate spoke against coalition with any of the main parties. In some respects it was a false debate. A motion putting the decision making of entering Government in the south in the hands of party members was proposed and passed. This is sensible. In my view Sinn Féin has no intention of going into coalition with either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. However to close your options prior to an election is folly. You simply end up getting squeezed out of the debate. Why on earth would you do this? We will fight the election on an independent ticket. If we win enough seats to be potential coalition partners we will seek to have our policies implemented. If other parties step up to the plate and help us in this we will work with them. If not we will gladly lead the charge from the opposition benches asking the hard questions.

Another topic that incited debate was on hare coursing. A number of contradictory motions were tabled ensuring a good discussion. Unfortunately it was cut short, much to the dismay of many delegates. One delegate supporting motion 66 got a bit ratty. Well I jest, he talked about a hierarchy of animals and asked why people were so concerned about rabbits and hares and not rats. He invoked a mixed response when he criticised those who started the morning with a traditional fry up yet moralised over hare coursing and addressed some of the myths. Indeed.

It was a lively, positive and up-beat Ard Fheis. There was an air of optimism and confidence I have not seen for some time. The presidential speech was inspiring. It was a call to action. Now, I must get back to work and play my small part in building the Republic.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Dr Mark Rowe, Friends of the University of the South East, speaking at Sinn Féin economic forum, Waterford

Ladies and gentlemen:

I thank you for the opportunity to speak at your meeting on the progress - or perhaps ‘lack of progress' is the more appropriate term - being made towards having Waterford Institute of Technology re-designated as University of the South East.

It is four years ago this month since the Institute made its detailed submission to Government on this issue. Given there had already been considerable debate and groundwork before that, this is certainly not something that national decision-makers can be accused of having rushed to judgment on!

This evening, I'd like to revisit some of the main arguments for providing a regional university in the southeast and perhaps underline how these have been made all the more compelling during the economic slump.

In the order of €300m has been invested in Waterford Institute of Technology over the last 40 years with particularly striking progress made on the campus over the most recent 10 years. For the maximum return to be achieved for the taxpayer on this investment, it is vital that the Institute be re-designated and given the tools to compete fully on the national and international stage. In any other EU country, an Institute of this calibre would not be blocked from becoming a university. Rather, it would be made to do so in an effort to ensure the money already invested would not be wasted and that the momentum achieved would not be lost.

We hear a lot of talk about the need for a ‘stimulus package' to promote economic renewal. We also hear almost daily references from various commentators to the importance of Ireland building a so-called ‘smart economy'. These words ring hollow in the southeast if we continue to be required to compete without a university against regions that typically have not only a university but also an Institute of Technology.

The southeast region has competitors nationally and internationally. If we look at the regions that we compete with that we are all most familiar with then it is a clear advantage to the mid-west, west and southwest of this country that they have higher education institutions at both Institute of Technology and university level. If the students of Limerick, Galway and Cork can have ready access to colleges at both these levels then surely it is downright unfair for Waterford students to be told they cannot go to university without leaving their region and travelling at least 80 miles.

You will all be familiar with the spiral that there's been in the number of people out of work in this country since the recession took hold. The numbers are staggering and can perhaps sometimes mean we lose sight of the human stories behind the statistics. For instance, in the southeast region where we have 11 per cent of the population, we account for 13 per cent of those on the Live Register. To put this in raw numbers, over 56,000 people were on the Live Register in the southeast last month - a jump of over 13,000 on the equivalent figure a year earlier and an increase of over 167 per cent from the figure when the university submission was made in February 2006.

Alarmingly, much of this increase was accounted for by people aged under-25 so there's a very real risk of them becoming long-term unemployed or being forced to emigrate in pursuit of work.

Waterford and the southeast made two major bets for employment during the boom construction and large-scale manufacturing.

Construction has almost completely disappeared as a significant source of sustainable employment while the days when individual industries employed thousands of people at a small number of locations are also behind us with jobs continuing to be lost at almost all of the major industrial employers in the southeast. Even the success stories that are out there in terms of foreign direct investment are no longer adding to their head counts so they cannot be relied on to provide career opportunities in the numbers our young people require. Rather, we must look to build our own regional resources and eke out opportunities from within.

The southeast has a population of over 460,000 and there are Institutes of Technology in Carlow and Waterford but no university. That makes this the largest region by population in western Europe that is forced to compete without a university. It is little wonder then that disposable incomes here lag well behind the national average.

In what now looks to have been a cynical stalling tactic to get them over the 2007 general election, the Government - in the person of then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern - announced amid much fanfare in October 2006 that there would be a "preliminary independent examination" of the submission made earlier that year by Waterford Institute of Technology. This, we were told, would be carried out by "an eminent international expert on higher education" and "be used to guide the Government's future decisions".

Dr Jim Port of UK-based JM Consulting was selected by Government to complete this assessment and his report which was published in February 2008 provided a strong endorsement of the arguments made two years before that. Dr Port could hardly have been clearer in noting that Waterford Institute of Technology has "an academic maturity and an activity profile" similar to universities in Ireland and other Western countries. He further found that the Institute "fulfils many of the broader roles of a university, especially in terms of support to regional economic and cultural development and knowledge transfer".

Dr Port's report also recognised that Waterford has "the governance, management and strategic planning capabilities required of a university" along with an attractive and suitable campus environment and - importantly - a secure asset base to permit future development.

Looking at the regional impacts, Dr Port writes of "significant benefits" in having a university that, he notes, would benefit the southeast "economically, socially and culturally".

In short, Dr Port found Waterford Institute of Technology ready to become a university and recognised that the southeast needs a university. The next steps must now be taken on that course without any delay. Dr Port - who, remember, was commissioned by the Government - underlined that continued inaction was the least desirable of all options. Yet, that's exactly what we have had in the two years since his report was published.

Developed countries that perform well socially, culturally and economically are built on strong city regions equipped to compete internationally. Strong regions in turn require strong gateway cities with regional universities that support not only regional but also national priorities. Indeed, if we look at successful regions across Europe and beyond, the common trait is a university taking a lead role as a powerful dynamo for growth and a hothouse for ideas.

In the southeast, communities as diverse as business and industry; sport and hospitality; the trade union movement and public representatives are as one in recognising the region's deficiencies and the huge catalytic impact that University of the South East can have.

The glib argument has been made that Waterford Institute of Technology is every bit as good as a university so it doesn't need re-designation. Those making this case cite the Illinois; Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology as well as some of the equivalent institutions in Asia. This ignores the reality that these are in fact universities in terms of their governance, funding and independence. Waterford, on the other hand, is held back in a second tier of Irish higher education that it has long since outgrown. In terms of attracting and retaining the best students and staff, this is a huge impediment - especially at international level where important collaborative opportunities are being missed out on.

The equally facile "we've enough universities" counter-argument is not borne out internationally. Finland, a world leader in higher education, with a population of 5.2 million against the Republic's 4.2 million has 20 universities compared to our seven.

Critically, at a time of acute concern about public finances, Dr Port's report addresses cost issues around re-designation and states clearly that economic benefits to the region would - at the very least - offset any additional public expenditure on University of the South East. Indeed, the cost of inaction will prove far higher and the hundreds of millions of euro invested at the campus in Waterford will have been simply spent rather than invested.

There is a living ‘brain drain' from the southeast each autumn when some 7,000 full-time students from Carlow, Kilkenny, Tipperary, Waterford and Wexford leave this region to receive a university education. As that happens, exactly zero university students come in the opposite direction.

The case for University of the South East has been many years in the making, it is socially and economically sound, it is necessary to ensure balanced social and economic development in Ireland and - above all - it is just and equitable.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) captured the regional impact of higher education investment well in September 2007 when writing of how "Higher education institutions have a significant economic impact on the local and regional economy. They are employers and customers as well as suppliers of goods and services. HEI staff and student expenditure have a direct effect on income and employment in the cities and the regions. The HEIs are also consumers of local government services and local firms' products. In regions with a strong higher education sector, the contribution of HEIs to regional gross domestic product (GDP) can be significant."

The OECD continued, "HEIs have an even greater role in enhancing the human capital, pool of knowledge and attractiveness of the local area. From the perspective of agencies promoting city and regional development, HEIs are becoming a key resource. They contribute to the region's comparative advantage by generating new businesses particularly in knowledge-based industries and by upgrading existing industries. They strengthen the human capital base through attracting and retaining talent in the region, as well as providing professional updating of the workforce and lifelong learning. Finally, they provide local gateways to marketing and inward investment in the private sector and provide content and audience for local cultural programmes."

If Waterford and the southeast region that it is the designated gateway to under the National Spatial Strategy are not to be allowed fall further behind during the recession and to be hindered from fighting back when economic recovery begins then it is vital that we have a university from which new ideas and enterprises can emerge and to which the brightest and best of our people can be drawn.

The impact of University of Limerick in the mid-west region has been tremendous and the innovative way that it was delivered and developed with a mix of public and private sector support provides a roadmap for how a higher education institution of similar calibre can be provided in the southeast with its comparable population.

Almost nine years ago in May 2001, the Report of the Action Group on Access to Third Level Education included the following pertinent passages that bear careful consideration in assessing the case for University of the South East - "Education makes a fundamentally important contribution to the quality and well-being of Irish society. Education plays a crucial role in the social, intellectual, cultural, economic and political life of the country. The State, through its involvement in education, seeks to achieve a range of aims, in particular those concerned with economic prosperity, social well-being and a good quality of life for all citizens within a democratically structured society.

"The State's role in education is underpinned by the principles of pluralism and diversity of individual needs for education, of equality and the elimination of educational disadvantage, and of partnership between all interests in the development of new policies. Widening opportunity for and participation in higher education has many benefits in strengthening democracy, achieving economic and social progress, advancing human rights, and improving the efficiency, quality and performance of the educational system."

In their editorial of April 5, 2008, The Irish Times dealt with the campaign for re-designation of Waterford Institute of Technology as University of the South East. It stated that "The south-east has a strong case. It is the only major region without a university and the one with the lowest disposable income per capita. A university would act as a catalyst for growth and regeneration. It would boost the region from an economic, social and cultural perspective. And WIT itself has the academic range and the appropriate governance and strategic capability required for a university."

The newspaper added, "Waterford has a persuasive case that has been eloquently and convincingly advanced over an extended period. It deserves to be successful on its own merits. And it should be possible to ring fence a decision in its favour to ensure the role of the wider IoT [Institute of Technology] sector is not compromised."

As I've hopefully captured this evening, we have backing from a diverse range of sources for the now incontestable case that Waterford Institute of Technology should be re-designated as University of the South East without further delay. This has already been a long and slow-moving journey. I would now encourage you to continue supporting this campaign and to miss no opportunity in your own networks to spread the word that this is needed and needed now.

For inspiration, we can perhaps look to a public representative from another era. Thomas Wyse who was MP for Waterford from 1827 to 1842 is generally credited as the ideas person whose prompting gave rise to the national system of primary education and, subsequently, the founding of the Queen's colleges at Belfast, Cork and Galway -the foundation stones of today's universities.
Thanks again for the opportunity to speak to you this evening on behalf of Friends of the University of the South East.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Pirates of the Celtic Tiger

A true tale of modern-day piracy, featuring: one small, damp island; lots of treasure; some pirates in pretty sharp suits; and a government that does whatever they ask. Oh yes, and YOU get to walk the plank!

Lying on the Hospital Trolley, Dreaming of Prada

It is not so long ago that Ireland was awash with cash. There was so much money out there even the Department of Finance couldn’t keep track of it. Every year when they did their figures, they found – oops! – the tax take is a couple of billion more than they’d planned. Now we are in reverse and we are borrowing heavily to pay for other peoples mistakes. The Celtic tiger is a hazy memory, like an all-night party which left you with a nasty hangover, embarrassing memories and an empty pocket. The pirates of the Celtic Tiger - the bankers, their politician friends and wealthy developers have run away with the wealth and left us deep in debt.

Despite all that money, we still don’t have a proper health system. That surely is a travesty. Our health system is still in deep crisis. Part of the problem is that it is still suffering from the deep cutbacks imposed by Fianna Fail-led governments in the 1980s. There are less beds in Irish hospitals today than there were 25 years ago – despite the country’s population being significantly greater. Another issue is the lack of an adequate system of primary care and the shortage of step-down beds, which leads to patients with minor problems or who are in recovery being treated in hospital. But the key problem is that government spending on health is swelling the coffers of the private sector. This is because Ireland has a mixed public-private health service, with the private sector subsidised by public funds.

Take the example of hospital consultants. Consultants on contract to provide services to the public health system are allowed maintain a private practice at the same time. They can see their private patients in a public hospital, using public facilities, during public time. This bizarre practice naturally leads to a situation where consultants, who are paid to work in the public health service, focus most of their energies on their more lucrative private patients, leaving public patients to be treated by non-consultant hospital doctors.

Another example of how public funds are used to prop up the private sector is the National Treatment Purchase Fund. Medical treatments which the state sector cannot provide are purchased from the private sector in Ireland and abroad. So what, you might say, so long as the patients get treated? But the result is another black hole into which taxpayer’s money disappears, and a further weakening of the public sector.

A third example of the creeping privatisation of health is the plan to gift public land on the sites of existing hospitals to the developers of private clinics. In return, these are meant to provide a certain number of public beds. Of course, the government could simply extend the public hospitals…but that would miss creating a “market opportunity” for the private sector. We get to walk the plank again.

Don’t let yourself be fooled: there’s a very good reason why you can’t get a loan to buy a house, or that you are paying over the odds for the one you have, or you can’t get proper health treatment. While you’re waiting, other people are laughing all the way to the bank – or lobbying the politicians for the next bank or developer bailout. Until we elect a government that isn’t in harness to the corporate pirates, the only thing that will change are the talking heads sent on TV to explain why one of the wealthiest countries in the world cannot afford to provide its people with some of the basic decencies of life.