“Ní neart go cur le céile” as the old Irish saying goes: There’s no strength with division.
Of course division can sometimes be essential: Where would the G.A.A. be without county loyalties and rivalries? But division can be destructive as well.
One cause of our recent crisis arises from the way poor planning and transport decisions – underpinned by a confetti style spatial strategy – spread housing population and roads around the country with no focus or thought.
Every county and town wanted to hang onto its own way of doing things. And for understandable reasons: The fear was real that conceding power outside would result in losing out.
Indeed it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Because every county behaved like that that is more or less how it turned out and the ghost housing estates, negative equity and communities stranded with no jobs are a legacy of how divisions prevented far better decisions being taken together.
But now there’s a recovery. And if better collaboration back then could have prevented some of the crisis that has hit rural counties from being as bad as it was, collaboration now can speed the recovery we need to bring jobs back to Longford.
And Longford has much to offer. For a start some of the country’s most important tourist sites: With few more important events in our history than the famine, Longford is home to the Corlea Archaeology and Biodiversity park, the walking/cycling route along the Royal Canal being developed into Longford and, by 2016, onto Dublin.
Some pretty famous people also came from Longford including one of the foremost poets in the English language (Goldsmith), one of the world’s leading mathematicians (Edgeworth), Michael Collin’s fiancée (Kitty Kiernan) a British field marshal and many more.
Last but not least there is the pretty town of Abbeyshrule. Winner of the tidy towns competition in 2012 Abbeyshrule is also– depending on how ambitious you are for your county – a potential site for a midlands airport. Yes you read right, I just floated the idea of a fully fledged regional airport for the midlands in County Longford.
That’s because Longford has something else besides the amenities I’ve mentioned. Like Westmeath, Offaly and Laois around it it is centrally located within an hour’s drive of more of better internationally known tourist destinations like Donegal, Galway, Fermanagh, Clare and Wicklow.
Now there I may have touched a nerve. Telling anyone from any county that one of the good things about their county is the ease of getting to another one.
But I’m glad I did. Because to busy tourists, being connected to other places they want to see as well matters.
So why aren’t the tourists – and the tourist jobs coming? According to Fáilte Ireland’s latest available breakdown by county, Longford performs worst in Ireland for tourists with just 20,000 visiting the county in 2012.
But Longford is small I hear you say? Louth – the smallest county in Ireland – got 92,000 tourists that year and a spend of €30 million.
But Longford has fewer people I hear you say? Longford has 39,000 inhabitants according to the 2011 census making up 0.9 per cent of the population. But the €6 million in tourist revenue it received a year later was less than one quarter of one per cent of all tourist revenue generated.
So what’s wrong?
I come back to the old Irish saying “Ní neart go cur le céile”. Longford isn’t the only county that – despite laudable efforts of its county council Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland - underperforming in tourism: Offaly and Laois and Westmeath deserve to do better too. Much better. And they can do better. But only if resources, branding and strategy are combined.
And that is why I’ve come up with an idea: By using regional boundaries as defined in the Local Government planning Act and creating a “Heart of Ireland” brand for the midlands, Laois Longford Offaly and Westmeath all four counties can project – not only onto the national stage – but onto the world stage a tourism brand that, while different, is in its own way every bit as marketable as anything else in Ireland.
The strategy isn’t to create false hopes. Just to ensure that by 2016 these four counties are well on their way to achieving their fair share of Ireland’s tourism numbers and revenue.
In Longford’s case that should mean at least quadrupling tourist visitors over the next four years. I will be submitting the idea to public representatives, stakeholders and local authorities in the coming weeks and hoping for their support.
The idea is that by this summer there will be stragetic plan to properly develop tourism – in line with government policy – for the four counties on a collective basis.
That means not only marketing the region collectively but sharing the gains of that collectively too.
Local authorities are particularly important: I strongly admire the dedication of local authority staff and they have made strenuous efforts to market the county over the last number years. So it is no criticism to say that much more can be achieved for the people of the midlands by local authorities collaborating on creating a common “Midlands” brand.
So hopefully they will agree with me when I say that the time has come to put the midlands at the heart of Irish tourism.
And as for the airport idea, it isn’t as crazy as it sounds: Why, after all, should the midlands be the only region in Ireland to have no airport of its own?
Logistically it makes total sense that the only counties which have the unique advantage of being in reach of everywhere else would be at the centre of transport policy.
It might, by the way, also be vaguely relevant that one of the midlands most famous sons is now CEO of Europe’s largest and most successful airline.
Just thought I’d throw that in there for good measure.
Marc Coleman presents “The Marc Coleman show” on Newstalk 106-108fm and chaired the Mid@s conference for Small and Medium sized enterprise in the Midlands that took place in Mullingar last November.