The financial crisis in 2008 was felt more strongly in Ireland than in many other countries; however, the past few years have seen a return of optimism and growth. I attended the European Infrastructure Conference in Dublin, which featured a dozen panel discussions on delivering new infrastructure, public–private partnerships, housing, green energy and transport. It focused primarily on Ireland, with references to Sweden, the US and Denmark (which is one of the world leaders in renewable energy).
During the conference, I was struck by the positivity and attitude of the speakers. The country expects to be knocking on the door of the G20 by the end of the decade and has a young population, growing by 3% this year (2022), some 120,000 people. Through the Project Ireland 2040 National Planning Framework, the government will invest €165 billion in a range of infrastructure improvements. The plan will guide the future development of Ireland, facilitating a projected one million increase in population, creating 660,000 additional jobs and building 550,000 more homes. This will require extensive roads and rail, water and wastewater, light rail, port and airport infrastructure development.
There will be challenges. Mainly, the state needs to ramp up to meet the needs of a flourishing private sector, a seemingly continuous crisis in the provision of adequate new housing capacity and, as always, planning. One major port infrastructure project took 15 years to get through planning for a two-year build. However, the politicians who took part in the conference were equally positive and impressive, and some improvements in the delivery process have already been achieved.
As one delegate said, “Being a windy island on the edge of Europe used to be a bad thing; well, now it’s a blessing”. Ireland’s offshore wind capacity is estimated to be 85 GW. With its domestic electricity requirements projected to grow to only around 18 GW, Ireland could potentially export vast amounts of clean, green energy. This could be through a European super grid that would interconnect all of the EU on a high-voltage direct current (HVDC) network. If it comes to pass, this could have a massive impact on the Irish economy. Infrastructure improvement will be at the heart of this to enable the exploitation of Atlantic winds. Ports will be redeveloped, motorway and rail access extended and interconnected and social infrastructure all delivered to support the growth. The government has set its ambitious target of achieving 7 GW from offshore wind and making 80% of its energy renewable by 2050.
Is the Celtic Tiger awakening from its slumber? Will the ‘Tiogar Ceilteach’ roar again? Well, it’s too soon to tell, and the headwinds are currently strong for every economy in this uncertain world. Through the sweeping curves of the Dublin Tunnel to the impressive two-terminal airport – itself subject to huge infrastructure improvement plans – I jumped on a flight back to Old Blighty (or is it just blight now?).
When I landed in Edinburgh, the positivity and determination of the speakers and delegates in Dublin were quickly left behind. I learned of the £55 billion of tax rises and cuts imposed by the Chancellor in his Autumn Statement. It has simultaneously cost us all more money while generating a 7% fall in our living standards, moving us back a decade. Less bang for more buck! It appears to me that Ireland’s government and infrastructure sector has a strong sense of itself and the part it can play to improve the prospects of its people. It will be at the centre of Europe in the green energy revolution. I will be watching the delivery gather pace with great interest and suspect that I may be looking enviously across the Irish Sea. I think Ireland’s future is burning bright.