24 Jan 2022

Donegal's MacGill school speakers consider how Ireland should plan

MacGill session discusses: 'Strategic Planning for this Country is More Vital Than Ever'

Speakers at Donegal's MacGill school consider planning for future

Joe Mulholland, director of the Patrick MacGill Summer School, addressing the school last week. Photo: Thomas Gallagher

Ireland’s decision-makers must develop plans to address a range of scenarios, the Patrick MacGill Summer School and Arts Week was told last week.

Dr. Conor Skehan of the School of Spatial Planning at DIT said he was trying “to plead with government” not to make one plan, “but to make many plans that will be resilient under a range of scenarios”.

“We need multiple plans that are resilient under multiple strategies,” said Dr. Skehan, chairperson of the Housing Agency, adding, “We need to remember how little control we have over the factors that will drive us into that future.”

“Almost all of them are out of our control except for one - governance,” he said.

Dr. Skehan was part of the panel, “Strategic Planning for this Country Is More Vital than Ever”, with John Moran of the private consultancy RHH International and former secretary-general of the Department of Finance; and Mary Rose Burke, CEO of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, at the summer school last Thursday afternoon.

Dr. Skehan said accepted beliefs that Dublin “is the problem”, that the city is taking jobs, money, people and investment, are myths and said a national planning framework that promises balanced regional development to counterbalance Dublin is also a myth.

He said to say something is wrong in Ireland because the country has one large city, Dublin, and a series of smaller cities, is also a myth. Rather, he said, it was a completely normal type of urban distribution to the rest of Europe.

“We are a normal country dealing with normal issues,” Dr. Skehan said.

He added, “What we really need to be doing is addressing the real issues and not the myths.”

In her remarks, Ms. Burke said, “More than ever we do need to plan strategically to secure the well-being of future generations.”

She called urbanisation, “an overwhelming trend” around the world, saying, “We need to embrace it.”

Ms. Burke said with a realistic national plan, wisely managed, rural Ireland can still thrive within that sphere, recognising the population that is choosing to live in rural areas is declining. We must recognise the importance of the national capital, she said, adding that rural Ireland depends on the capital city to generate the income that provides for rural services.

The writer Patrick MacGill often wrote poignantly of his life in Donegal, Ms. Burke said. Like so many others he left his native land and did not return, she said. She said we need to ensure, “Donegal’s next Patrick MacGill has no such need to leave his country”.

Mr. Moran said he believed that “we have not done a good enough job about subordinating individual rights to the common good.” Property owners and car owners hear their voices heard more than that of the common good, he said.

He asked the audience what the last big transformative project in Ireland was and said, the Port Tunnel and Dublin Luas, “are hardly up there with the world’s great infrastructure projects”.

Mr. Moran said when he flew into Donegal Airport last week he saw how beautiful the county is, but as the plane drew closer to the land, he could see “how it had been destroyed by one-off housing”.

“When will we be honest enough to call out that this is unsustainable planning and we cannot afford it?” he asked.

“I have not said we should shut down rural Ireland,” he said. “We need to find a way to develop it that is much more sustainable.”

The public “should demand more of our leaders than fixing our local pothole or opening our local garda station,” Mr. Moran said.

He said it was time to start dreaming in Ireland of affordable housing, of fast trains connecting Irish cities, of hosting one of Europe’s best health systems. He said Ireland needs to plan for how to welcome newcomers to the island and for the country to become not just the best place to do business but the best place to live.

Speaking later, Mr Moran said, “We do need to demand better.”

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