Pat Cox commented on the palpable ‘spring in the step’ of the local business community when visiting Waterford on Thursday last, when speaking at a Waterford Chamber Breakfast, where he predominantly focused on Brexit.
That the former European Parliament President reserved most of his 50-minute address at Dooley’s Hotel to the great economic and political minefield of our times was of no great surprise. But the two cents Mr Cox offered on the brighter future that lies ahead for Waterford proved particularly insightful, all the more so given the developing narrative which has featured in these pages in recent months.
Waterford’s brighter future cannot simply be about Waterford, and everyone with a vested interest in our city and county must firmly grasp that nettle – and not let go of it.
“One of the things I would strongly commend to you (Chamber members) is that your imagination about that future should be ‘yes’ for Waterford but not Waterford only,” he stated.
“Frequently in Ireland we fall short of doing big things by the incessant intensity of our localism and failing to connect up elements with our near neighbours and making the most of the synergies of the separate parts.”
Mr Cox added: “I do a lot of work separately as a co-ordinator for one of the major transport projects for the European Union and I do a lot of work in seven Member States around that (but not Ireland as the rules around such work dictate)…but I’ve learned a lot through that, and I deal with Scandinavia a lot and their regions and cities are very smart at co-operating, even as they know that at another level, they’re competing.”
Pat Cox suggested to Chamber members that a potential connection could be made with “someone who has done some joining up of the dots in Scandinavia to come and talk to you, and maybe to some other Chambers across the South, South East, and heading up into Limerick and Galway, to see how can you create the dynamic which is not the anti-Dublin but the non-Dublin pole which doesn’t have to be just one, two or three places”.
He felt it timely to emphasise the regional dimension in view of the “new energy” he felt during his visit to a city he knows well, primarily through the 15 years he spent in Brussels as a Munster MEP. “I think it’s worth channelling that energy in a direction that can be more productive by being more connected, rather than more isolated in the pursuit of recovery.”
And Pat Cox expanded on those points when I spoke with him following the close of formalities, which were sponsored by Appian Asset Management, whom he recently joined as a non-executive director. “While there’s been a political debate about the (Project Ireland 2040) plan, whether the communications been good, bad, indifferent or political or not, there hasn’t been a lot of debate about the substance of the plan, which at the end of the day, is the element of the debate which matters most,” he declared. Referring to his experience of dealing with Scandinavian stakeholders, he stated: “They all understand they’re in a very northern and comparatively isolated and peripheral part of Europe and that in their view, their best option, to ‘best’ their own options, is to actually work together whereas we tend to have very good and committed people who will work very hard to develop Waterford or Cork or Kilkenny or Limerick or Galway or Sligo, we can often struggle to cross the border and work easily with the other guy..
“Our biggest issue in Ireland when it comes to development hinges on two elements: one of them is the extraordinary concentration of the Greater Dublin region and the cost associated – be it inflated housing, huge congestion costs, lifestyle issues, long commutes to work, these are very real. And so we have an alternative Ireland that has the space and less of a problem on that front, and that can include a whole sweep around what I’d call the peripheral element of the State: by that I mean Kilkenny, Waterford and through Cork, Limerick, Galway, Sligo and up to Donegal. There’s a big space there and they’re all competing in that space, but the big competition is between Ireland and the rest of the world – we need competitive conditions right but we can’t do it by behaving like separate atoms. We need to be able to bond these and to create a coherent offer.”
And in terms of that offer, Pat Cox believes the North Quay development can play a welcome role.
“If you’ve got commercial office potential there, that should be able to draw some very attractive services sector industries and employers into Waterford, but that should open a lot of opportunities in terms of linking back into the higher education system here for the skillset that’s needed, which in turn can lead to developing ‘specialisms’ that the South East region could prioritise in a way that isn’t being done in the same way in Cork which in turn may be focused on things Waterford isn’t honing in on. We need to get better at doing that so that we’re all really good at doing some things but not all trying to be a jack of all trades at everything. We’ve not been the best at that in Ireland over many years. Of course we’ve local pride, we should have that…but the counterpart of that is intense localism and sometimes we’re so wedded to the local that we can’t see the bigger picture.”
There are sufficient stakeholders with influence here in Waterford who’ve got the bigger picture firmly in mind. And they’re the ones worth following. After all, progress should not be impeded by a county boundary.