European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee talks Brexit, broadband, rural Ireland…and the election
One of the most instantly recognisable politicians in the country strides into the beautiful, spacious foyer of Roscommon’s Civic Offices. It’s Monday evening, and Minister Helen McEntee is in Roscommon for a combination of ‘Fine Gael business’ and meeting and greeting with local enterpreneurs (and agencies).
Minister McEntee is all smiles. She has a warm greeting for Senator Maura Hopkins (the party’s candidate in Roscommon/Galway). Later, on social media, the Meath native quips that this is her ‘second county’. Minister McEntee is indeed very familiar with Roscommon. Her husband is Castlecoote native Paul Hickey. Later on Monday evening, Minister McEntee guested at a Fine Gael AGM in Gleeson’s in Roscommon.
We’re used to seeing Helen McEntee striding with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on the ‘red carpet’ in Brussels. The European Affairs Minister has been a key player in the Irish Government team over the course of the marathon and frequently tense Brexit preparations. And it’s a Brexit agenda in Áras an Chontae this evening too. Minister McEntee is here to meet with representatives from Roscommon County Council, Roscommon LEO and local businesses on ‘Brexit preparedness’. Before that, she has an appointment with the Roscommon People.
Minister McEntee and Senator Hopkins sit down at a large white table, as local photographers click away. The man from the Herald is first in with the B word. B for Brexit, of course. The Minister outlines the purpose of her visit. First and foremost, she will be in listening mode when she meets with LEO (Local Enterprise Roscommon) and local businesses. She is anxious to hear if Roscommon businesses have thus far being availing of services (and funding) put in place by the Government for the purpose of Brexit preparedness. She is hopeful that they have, and if they haven’t, she will advise them of the supports that are there. Minister McEntee is much more relaxed on the Brexit issue now – as compared with a few weeks ago – though certainly not complacent. The risk of a no deal Brexit is now very minimal, she says. There is, however, still “potential for disruption to business”, not least because Boris Johnson wants a different future relationship (with the EU) than that envisaged by his predecessor as PM, Theresa May.
Minister McEntee says that regardless of what aid is in place, Brexit will still be challenging for Irish businesses. She points out that the Government has been proactive (in its recent Budget, and generally) in seeking to protect these industries. In Budget 2020, €2bn was made available for businesses affected by Brexit, with an emphasis on tourism, agriculture and SMEs. EU funding for farmers (of €50m) is being matched by the same level of funding from government.
To local issues. I ask the Minister about Roscommon’s lot, reminding her of the paltry number of IDA visits here, and of the lamentable quality of broadband in some rural areas. Of rural depopulation too. Are we being left behind?
Minister McEntee sees a different picture. Of every ten new jobs being created, eight are ‘in the regions’, outside the major towns and cities. There has been “huge investment” in sport and infrastructure, with €900m in extra funding for roads, schools, hospitals, etc. “We are absolutely focussing on rural Ireland” Minister McEntee says.
She dismisses the opposition’s calls to scrap the National Broadband Plan – or at least to put it into reverse – saying it’s essential to move ahead and, to borrow a phrase, get it done.
As for that brief but intense pre-Christmas election speculation a week or two ago, she says it was “never on the cards” – much more important to progress Brexit and ensure that our economy is on an “even keel”. The no deal threat has lessened, she advises, but it’s still there.
Minister McEntee condemns the recent acts of violence in border regions, while insisting that supports are in place for An Garda Síochána. “Unrest in Northern Ireland in recent months has been a particular concern…minority factions have started to reappear”. It is time, she says, for the Northern Ireland Executive to sit again, and “certainty on Brexit” can help that process.
Before our time is up, there is an endorsement by Minister McEntee of the local candidate. Senator Maura Hopkins has been “working extremely hard” her colleague says. Minister McEntee believes Senator Hopkins can win back a Dáil seat for Roscommon in the general election. “We are investing in Roscommon, and in rural Ireland, and I think the people will be happy to support Maura in the election”.
The biscuits and tea are tempting. A quick sip, but the business leaders are circling. In fact they’re waiting, in an adjoining room. We wrap up, and Minister McEntee heads across the hall to her next appointment, her next date with the B word…