Mayo TD Michael Ring has called for action on the strategic development zone at Knock Airport in order to create an industrial hub there - and has been supported in his call by Minister of State in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Dara Calleary.
Speaking during a recent Dail debate on the topic of Regional Development, Deputy Ring stated: "I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, is taking this topic, because he, the Taoiseach and I and members of the board of the Ireland West regional airport, met recently at the airport. I was concerned in relation to some of the issues raised with us.
"As the Minister of State is aware, there has been a strategic development zone there. The Government has designated it. The problem is that while the land is there, nothing has happened with it over several years. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle comes from County Galway and I was glad to see that recently the IDA bought land there. It is not zoned and has no planning permission, but it is a substantial amount of land. I cannot understand why the same IDA could not come in and try to find something to be done with the land at Ireland West Airport, especially when it is zoned and there would be no difficulty with planning.
"I would like to see the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Government and State agencies come together to consider this matter. The Taoiseach said at the meeting that this was something he would examine. As a Mayo man in that Department, I know the Minister of State, Deputy Calleary, will make sure that the high-profile meeting will take place. It is a wonderful opportunity for regional development. It is a wonderful opportunity to have a place that is zoned where industrialists can come in and create jobs immediately.
IDA Ireland came to visit Mayo just once in 2022
"Last week I tabled parliamentary questions to find out how many times IDA Ireland visited Mayo last year. I was not very pleased with the answer. It was not 20, 15 or ten times. IDA Ireland came to visit Mayo once last year.
"I want to tell the Minister of State and the Government that it is time the Government was serious about this regional airport. It has done very well. I am sure the Minister of State will concur with me when I compliment Joe Gilmore and his team, the staff who work in the airport, Ryanair and the other companies that use the airport. It has been a tremendous success. It came through a very difficult time with Covid and it is bouncing back. Almost 800,000 people went through the airport last year.
"I would advise anybody from the region that instead of going to Dublin Airport, where we saw the chaos last year, to use Ireland West Airport Knock because it is a pleasure. It is a pleasure to deal with the people there and to go through the airport. I assure people that their journey will be nice and smooth and they will not be waiting for hours outside, as people were in Dublin Airport.
"The commitment I want from the Government is that the high-performance meeting will take place, the State agencies will come together and IDA Ireland in particular will bring more people into Mayo to look at that site. The site is ready-made for industry and jobs. The board is willing to help, as is the county council.
"We want balanced regional development. There is no balanced regional development in this country at present. I want to see the airport getting support from the Government. The reason it is not getting support is because the State does not own the land. As far as I am concerned, Mayo County Council has invested in it, as has the airport and the State. It might not be State land in name but it is State land. I hope that once and for all, we will see IDA Ireland and other State agencies taking a serious interest in the airport. There is no reason bodies such as the Passport Office could not be brought down to the area. There is no reason other Departments could not be decentralised to bring some of their work to rural Ireland."
Site has 'complicated planning history'
Responding, Minister of state Dara Calleary acknowledged that it was through Michael Ring's efforts that the strategic development zone was created at the airport, adding: "It is a matter of enormous frustration that it has not moved on."
He continued: "The airport is a critical piece of enterprise-enabling infrastructure for the region and the strategic development zone designation has the potential to enhance its role significantly as a driver of regional economic development, in the manner envisaged 40 years ago by the late Monsignor Horan, to develop both an airport and jobs. Deputy Ring is aware that the site has a complicated planning history. In fairness to Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív, he envisaged locating the headquarters of the Department of Community and Rural Development on the airport site. That fell foul of planning, which is why the strategic development zone was developed.
"In 2022, the Department launched the regional enterprise innovation scoping scheme which provided funding of €3.4 million for 42 projects. The Horan Airport Trust secured funding of €50,000 under the scheme to undertake a feasibility study looking at the potential for an infinity hub at Ireland West Airport Knock as a focal point for the circular economy and its development for industry and clustering activity for various sectors. It is clear, from my interaction and meeting with the board, that this money is not enough and will not allow us to proceed as quickly as we need. The stakeholders, including IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Mayo County Council, need to work collectively to achieve this.
"Deputy Ring was present last week when the Taoiseach visited. We have undertaken to get all the stakeholders around the table in the coming weeks to decide on a plan for the strategic development zone and to ensure that plan is followed. I will work with Deputy Ring to ensure the plan is funded."
Thanking the Minister of State for his response, Deputy Ring concluded: "The time has come. The land is there, the zoning is there and the commitment is there. What we need now is to get regional development and bring back some balance back to the regions."