As events go, the type that involve the leader of a small country are well choreographed, scripted and managed. This briefing fitted firmly into that definition. There was a strong showing of local TDs and familiar faces from the local political circuit, time was pretty well adhered to and a few minutes before the arrival, the PA announced the Taoiseach and members of the cabinet would arrive soon.
In a quite casual manner they arrived and took seats in the auditorium behind the green lit Project Ireland 2040 banners. There were words of welcome from NUI Galway President Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, largely delivered through Irish, and the engagements with the TDs begin.
Sean Kyne, Minister for Community Development, Natural Resources and Digital Development opened by addressing the Taoiseach, more so than the audience, about projects in Galway at various stages of development. Road developments, the housing project at Arduan, Galway 2020 and the technological universities program were all referenced. He was followed by Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy. Murphy opened his speech with a gambit about technology, how it evolved through his education and somehow managed to squeeze in a reference to the Pacific Gyre garbage patch towards the end of his scene-setting paragraphs. He stressed a few of the points reiterated throughout the scripts for today’s event, stamping the concept that Project Ireland 2040 is a ‘Government wide regulated plan’ and this is the first time in Irish history this approach has been taken.
Minister for state and Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor took the baton from Murphy and focused a lot more on the educational layout of Project Ireland 2040. She emphasised that Education will be dealt with in the Project in the following way, stating the order as level of priority: 1. Student Centred Approach; 2. Staff development focus; 3. Increases in funding; 4. Exchequer funded building and 5. Skills based direction.
Some of these points come across quite directed , though the final ‘skills based’ point leaned a lot on phraseology about how responsibility will fall on students to direct themselves towards skills. One phrase, which was repeated almost verbatim in both Murphy and Mitchell O’Connor’s speeches was ‘students getting prepared for jobs that aren’t invented yet’. While on one hand, I think this rings very true in terms of prediction where technology will take our roles, it glosses a little over the concept of automation of employment, which is a very likely direction to be considered by any company wishing to maximise profits. I do wonder if this line was a subtle hint at preparing our future students for the rise of the robots.
Then came the turn of Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment Denis Naughten. This might be the first time I’ve witnessed Denis speaking publicly, and I will say, he’s got a compelling manner in delivering words. His speech took a strong line through policies on climate which are either already existent or have been quietly in the pipeline. What was really notable in his speech was the phrase ‘Ireland will go from being a climate laggard to a climate leader in Europe within ten years’. That’s a striking threat. The 2014 EPI ranked us around 20th in Europe in 2014 and we are currently facing fines based on the Paris 2020 agreement which suggest he’s taking on a massive challenge as Minister, as massive changes in farming, energy production and transport are the only viable route to striking ahead of our European counterparts.
The main act Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was welcomed to the stage. Again, this was my first time seeing him in person, he cuts a healthy figure and, of course, there are mandatory brightly coloured socks which seem to be some part of politics in 2018. It was also notable, of the men wearing ties on stage, 75% of them including Leo opted for Galway colours on this occasion.
Varadkar appeared very much as he does on television, titbits of humour were passed around before we heard his thoughts on Project Ireland 2040. He made it clear that it’s an evolution on the National Development Plan, and that part of that evolution is cross departmental nature of Project Ireland 2040. There are two phrases which really stand out – we are treated to an audio visual element mid-speech which, I guess was paid for somewhere along the line and did feature some nice tractor animations but I’m not sure how much it communicated with me. Anyway, the phrases in Leo’s script which stood out most were ‘climate change is the single biggest part of this package’ – a strong statement, albeit that it was delivered amid much talk of new roads being built all over the west – the other, regarding redevelopment projects, ‘the state almost becoming a developer itself’ is a curious inclusion.
There was a time not so long ago when ‘developer’ was almost a swear word in Ireland after the great economic crash, and further tying the state to this culture could probably have been worded about 100 different ways better – but it makes me wonder, what detail does Project Ireland 2040 delve into and what ramifications of having an entirely state-wide project acting as a developer will entail in years to come? There was the occasional peppering across the script today of ‘short term pain’ and ‘CPO’s’ (compulsory purchase orders). So taking the surface presentation of Project Ireland 2040 a pretty reasonable number of questions arise – the strong environmental stance outlined and the promise of long term planning, which, Mr Varadkar was absolutely right in saying, has been completely absent from Ireland for a long long time, drops stones in both the pond of problems we’ve invested in before, and the pond of a forward looking country taking account of itself.