Republican News · Thursday 19 November 1998

[An Phoblacht]

It's not just about roads - it's about people

By Caoimhghín O Caoláin


This week Sinn Féin TD Caoimhghín O Caoláin is presenting to the Dublin government a pre-Budget report on the roads of County Cavan, for long notorious as the worst in the country.

The Sinn Féin TD said the ``essential issue is not about roads, it is about the people who use those roads. Communities, families, individuals throughout the County have their lives blighted and disrupted because of the deplorable state of the routes which they must travel every day.'' Here he describes the reality.


Too often the roads of Cavan have been the butt of jokes for people outside the County who do not have to experience the daily ordeal of impassable roads to and from home, school, farm, workplace and every service from shop to hospital. Cavan people can see the grimly funny side of the problem too - and often stoic humour is the only relief in a situation where despair can easily take over. But they are deadly serious about getting justice and ending the nightmare which they have had to endure for far too long.

When I raised the issue of the roads of County Cavan with An Taoiseach Bertie Ahern in the Dáil on 28 January 1998 there was laughter in Leinster House. This is typical of how the problem has been regarded politically outside Cavan. But Cavan is not an isolated County, even though it continues to suffer marginalisation and disadvantage because of the historic legacy of the border and economic underdevelopment. The huge roads problem which mars the County is not a local or County problem only - it is a national issue. The rights of over 52,000 Irish citizens are the direct responsibility of the Irish government; a black spot on the Irish transportation map devalues everybody's efforts.

This report is being presented this week to assist the work of the Cavan County Manager, the County Engineer and staff in addressing the roads issue. It is not in conflict with the members of Cavan County Council or elected representatives of any party. Rather is it an effort on the part of this TD, in conjunction with ordinary people across the County, to confront this situation in a united way.

The County Manager and elected representatives are to be commended for their efforts to cater for the needs of the citizens of County Cavan within the limited resources allocated to them.

A piecemeal approach from Government is not enough. The plans to solve County Cavan's road problem are already in place and can be fully and successfully implemented if sufficient funds are provided. Annual subventions which fall short of what is required simply continue the spiral of decline. A political decision needs to be taken to prioritise the County with the most persistent and widespread road problem in the country. The people of County Cavan deserve no less.

 

In a presentation to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government Noel Dempsey on a visit to County Cavan on 5 September 1997 County Manager Brian Johnston and County Engineer John Tiernan stated that the restoration of the non-national roads is ``still the most major task which faces Cavan County Council''.

In the Cavan County Council Estimates for 1998 it was stated that there are 63 miles of national roads in the county of which 42 miles are classified as national primary and the remaining 21 miles as national secondary. 37 miles of the national roads have been reconstructed and may be regarded as suitable for modern traffic. The remaining 26 miles are in urgent need of realignment and reconstruction. Clearly there are difficulties but these are being addressed because of the national priority being given to these routes.

The contrast with the non-national roads of County Cavan could not be greater. There are approximately 1770 miles of non-national roads in the county. 270 miles are classified as main roads but only 23 miles of those main roads are suitable for modern traffic. The Council Estimates state that ``the improvement of the remainder is a matter of urgent necessity but progress will depend on the extent to which funding is made available''.

The vast majority of roads fall into the category of county roads - all 1500 miles of them criss-crossing the 730 square miles of the County. This is where the problems are most acute and these are the roads that make daily travel an ordeal for thousands of citizens in County Cavan.

 

Three months after Minister Dempsey's visit the report of the National Economic and Social Council (NESC) published on 19 December 1997 identified County Cavan as one of the four Counties which have declining population, remain on the margins of the urbanisation process and endure disadvantage in economic development. The County's population of 52,903 is 84% rural with only 16% living in and around the towns.

This is the demographic context of the roads problem. The geographic context has two key aspects.

First is the topography of the County which features weak saturated underlying soil. When combined with intensive farming practices this creates special and acute difficulties in maintaining consistently sound road surfaces.

The second aspect of the geography of County Cavan, bearing on the road problem, is the border.

The legacy of road closures led to deterioration of roads on and around the border and the redirection of major traffic onto minor roads. That is the immediate physical aspect. But much more profound has been the political, social and economic effect of the artificial frontier. It has contributed greatly to the marginalisation of the County, cutting off natural hinterlands, compounding economic underdevelopment and reducing the perceived importance of the County in the eyes of policy-makers in Dublin.

Thus we have a three-fold problem. A predominantly rural population dependent on a very large network of non-national roads in their daily lives. A topography which makes the maintenance of those roads more difficult than in other parts of the country. And political and economic factors, including the border, which marginalise the County and make it more difficult to impact on policy-making at State level.

 

The 1997 NESC report identified economic development with urbanisation. In other words wealth and employment is created in towns and cities while rural districts experience depopulation and economic decline. Cavan's predominantly rural profile provides a prime example. But this pattern of development only in urbanised areas need not be endlessly repeated and government policy in recent years has been, in theory, to reverse rural decline. The prerequisite for reversing rural decline is the provision of the necessary infrastructure and the most basic infrastructure of all is the roads network.

Thus, as far as County Cavan is concerned, the test of any administration's commitment to rural development and the ending of disadvantage must be its political will to give special attention to the premier problem faced by the County. The political decision must be made once and for all to solve the problem of Cavan's roads.

Detailed plans already exist to solve the problem. The County Council management, responding to the needs of the community, have provided those plans. With the elected representatives and Council staff they have worked to implement them in innovative ways, pioneering new technology in roadworks in Ireland. But they have had to do all this within the constraints of the inadequate finances allocated by central government. The demands of reconstruction, repair and maintenance cannot be met within these bounds.

As well as providing the necessary funding for the non-national roads special government attention needs to be given to the needs of the border with County Fermanagh which makes up 72 kilometres of County Cavan's boundary. Support should be given to the County Council's Border Roads Initiative which aims, by improving all cross-border roads, to physically de-emphasise the border.

In the Council's 1996 Annual Report County Manager Brian Johnston stated that ``in the event of allocation on an annual basis being increased to match requirement, we will see an end to Cavan's most urgent problem''.

It was estimated last year that the requirements for Cavan County Council roads based on a ten-year programme is 9.6 million per year. In 1998 the central government allocation fell short of this requirement.

It cannot be emphasised sufficiently that shortfalls - even though they represent increases on previous years - put the solution to the problem quite literally further down the road. As stated in the Council presentation to Minister Dempsey over a year ago now: ``Major advances have been achieved with the increased allocations over recent years, but even after the Five Year Programme there will be a substantial backlog of Local Roads in poor condition.''

Given revised estimates an amount significantly in excess of 9.6 million must now be allocated for 1999, sustained thereafter, and increased when necessary, until the ten-year plan is successfully completed. In 1999 Cavan County Council will increase significantly its contribution to the roads fund. The Government should follow suit.

A determined effort now in the allocations for 1999 will avoid continuing decline and inevitably greater costs to be borne by central and local government - and thus the ordinary taxpayer - in years to come. And it will be the beginning of the end of the ordeal for the people of County Cavan.

There will never be a better time to solve this problem. The Irish economy is in its healthiest state ever. The peace process has provided a new climate for social and economic progress. The physical barrier of the artificial frontier is being removed.

The Strategic Management Initiative for Cavan County Council speaks of the need to ``unlock the full potential of our county into the 21st Century''. Unless the road problem is addressed as it should be, that potential will remain locked in. If it is addressed, then new social, economic and cultural vistas open up for all the people of this once marginalised county.

The people of County Cavan are determined that the long-neglected road problem will not be allowed to hold them back from playing to the full their part in the progress of our country.


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