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
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
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
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
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
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.