By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — In an effort to maximize regional grants to Ireland from the European Union structural funds after the year 2000, the government has decided to repartition the country, with a new border enclosing a patchwork of 17 counties along the west coast, the border and the midlands.
The rich-poor division has been dismissed as a farce and blatant subsidy shopping by the opposition, which says the late addition of Kerry and Clare demonstrates it is a cynical political exercise.
Taoiseach Bertie Ahern defended the move saying it would be nonsensical to propose the country as one area for EU aid when virtually every other member state was seeking the maximum and adopting the regionalization approach.
Category One status is granted by Brussels if the per capita income in GDP terms is below 75 percent of the EU average.
Previously, the whole of Ireland had qualified, but increased prosperity from the Celtic Tiger economy has meant that overall national income levels exceed the threshold. The European commission forecasts that per capita GDP will be 116 percent of the EU average by 2000.
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Originally, only 13 of the 26 counties had been considered for the new region. They covered about 30 percent of the population and 60 percent of the land. Included were Donegal, Sligo, Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Cavan, Monaghan, Louth, Longford, Westmeath, Offaly and Laois. According to Brussels, the three regions involved have GDPs of 66 percent (Midlands), 71 percent (West) and 76 percent (Border Counties).
Category One status means those areas would get greater subsidies for farm and industrial development. Industrial grant aid will be 40 percent compared to 20 percent in other areas of the country. It is estimated that £100 to £150 million could be involved.
The Kingdom come
The later addition of Kerry — and with Clare thrown in to join it up to the other 13 counties farther north — has delighted colorful South Kerry Independent TD Jackie Healy-R’, who had been lobbying vociferously for his area.
With typical hyperbole, he claimed his area was bog, rock and wilderness, and emptied of people by emigration. Brussels claims the southwest region — which includes Kerry — has a GDP of 102 percent.
Healy-R”s vote is crucial to the survival of the minority Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrat coalition and the designation of Kerry made it his happiest day in the Dail since he was elected last year. When he arrived home from Dublin, hundreds met his train to celebrate their penurious status.
Kerry and Clare are both above the European threshold but figures for the other 13 counties are low enough to bring the overall average down. The government is taking issue with the Brussels figures, claiming they are too high.
The portrayal of Healy-R’ as a political Mr. Fixit has angered government backbenchers who claim they are just lobby fodder with little influence.
The government claims the inclusion of Kerry and Clare was first suggested last summer, but the political perception is that Jackie has managed to "pull a stroke."
Britain has achieved regional status for Devon and Cornwall but only after two years of negotiations that followed a comprehensive review of their administrative structures since the early 1990s.
Whether the late Irish conversion to regionalization is looked on favorably by former German trade union leader and now EU Regional Commissioner Monika Wulf-Mathies remains to be seen.
Europe likes logical regions which are contiguous and have genuine regional structures and powers. It is not clear if the contiguous areas definition would include the water border — the Shannon Estuary — that Kerry and Clare share. Another problem is that Clare and Kerry are being carved out from existing regions.
There has been criticism of the regionalization move as a "farce" and "subsidy shopping." Labor Finance spokesman Derek McDowell said that adding Clare and Kerry was an ad hoc approach and the EU could be used as the scapegoat if the plan failed.
"It is now blatantly clear that there was no economic or social rationale behind the government’s plan," McDowell said.