White Throws Down Challenge
In the final Donegal Times political interview prior to the May election, our reporter spoke to Jim White and probed the energetic hotelier into revealing his views on a myriad of subjects.
D.T.: Jim, a hands-on businessman - out of politics for twenty years, why do you want back in?
JIM: There would be a jumble of reasons - I was never in politics for personal advancement - I felt I had something to offer and I worked very hard for this constituency when the national economy was worse than it is now - and I took pride in my achievements. The nineties were the years of plenty - the government had oodles of money - yet nothing has happened for this constituency. I am disappointed that Fine Gael are at such a low in County Donegal. This county needs a strong Fine Gael voice and I am willing to play my part.
D.T.: You topped the poll county-wide in 1977, beating the legendary Neil Blaney - that must have been a proud moment?
JIM: It was and it wasnt - it was nice to top the poll, it was a recognition of my work as a politician for Donegal and, of course, there was a quiet pleasure at being ahead of Neil; I had enormous admiration for his ability but I didnt agree with his politics.
D.T.: You were never a County Councillor?
JIM: No, Fine Gael in my time as a T.D. always had three excellent councillors in this electorate area - Mick Melly, Colm Gallagher and Frank Cunningham - these were all councillors I worked very closely with. We now have only one in the area - John Boyle in Dunkineely. I want to be part of a resurgent party that can win back those lost seats. Combining the Council with being a T.D. is almost impossible if you are to do both jobs right - but it is important for a party to have strong representation in Lifford.
D.T.: You started as an Independent on Ballyshannon Town Commissioners?
JIM: Yes, and I was a young man who wanted to get things done but I was quick to see that I needed support to further my ideas and plans, so I joined Fine Gael and became part of a great team - but of course I still have a mind of my own and an impatience at lack of progress which also explains why I am back on the political canvas.
D.T.: You have now experienced life as a top businessman - was that satisfying and can you combine the two?
JIM: Yes, business is my other passion - the two sides of me have always been business and politics and whether it is one or the other or both combined, I give it everything.
The business side gives me great insight into the economics of areas and regions and how to create sustainable jobs - politics provides insight into the social conditions and structures and the plight of the unemployed and the less well off. In this way I have a very simple realisation that the economy and the Government should be run so that there are good jobs available for those who want to work. This can only be done by sound management, aware of what is going on in the real world and having a full awareness of how valuable a resource we have in our young educated work force.
D.T.: You served under Liam Cosgrave and Garrett Fitzgerald - were they the good old days for Fine Gael? Has something gone badly wrong?
JIM: Both Cosgrave and Fitzgerald were leaders but they had a committed body of TDs, senators and councillors behind them and their policies. We have to get back to that - there are probably too many of our people with personal agendas - Fianna Fail are also like that but, being a bigger party, they somehow can get away with it. Fine Gael needs a return to cohesion and electoral committment. We are too nice.
D.T.: Would you concede defeat to Fianna Fail at this stage?
JIM: The election campaign hasnt even started and all the Fianna Fail candidates in the county expect to be in a new cabinet - the arrogance of this is unbelievable, especially considering how little they have done for Donegal and the South/West in particular over the last five years when there was an opportunity like never before.
D.T.: Mary Coughlan was the lone government T.D. in this constituency over the last five years - is your criticism directed at her?
JIM: You are forgetting about Thomas Gildea who has taken any credit that was going. I never heard Mary Coughlan refuting any of Gildeas claims - Gildea got out because he knew he had no chance of re-election. What does that tell us? It means that there was no substance to his claims. Mary didnt refute these claims because all added together they amounted to next to nothing.
D.T.: Did they not get ¤30 million for Killybegs Harbour development?
JIM: Well, Thomas Gildea announced it about five times and each time somebody from Fianna Fail would come out to announce that they should get the credit. The truth is that the fishing industry in Killybegs fought for and got this funding - which will come from Europe by the way - but spending money on the pier is not all that is needed in Killybegs - there is a need for added value developments - a need for other industrial diversifications. It has enormous potential as a tourist centre which could be a catalyst for realising the same potentials in Kilcar, Carrick, Glen, Ardara, Glenties and Fintown.
D.T.: At one stage you thought there was a chance of Fine Gael picking up Gildeas seat. In the light of Pat the Cope coming back and the TG4 poll you must have had a re-think?
JIM: Well, it would have been a long shot and, since I entered the field, Pat the Cope has come back to shore up Fianna Fail and Gildea has retired. I am still happy about entering the field. I expect the Fine Gael vote to increase from 7,000 to 12,000.
The TG4 poll will serve to spur on the Fine Gael party and supporters and, I repeat, the election has barely started. With the record of this Governments inaction in this constituency, we are sure to win the debate and I would hope to be vocal enough to get peoples attention.
D.T.: You had a reputation of being the hardest working constituency T.D. in the Dail?
JIM: That is right and I did it with one secretary and no other back-up. I was the lone Fine Gael TD in this huge constituency and I became renowned for my political clinics in every part of this constituency. I got to love the area and its people. Tom ODonnell was Gaeltacht Minister and we achieved so much for those areas - Kilcar, Glen, Dungloe and the Gweedore Industrial Estate.
I am dumbfounded and sad that this current crop of politicans have let so many industries and jobs be lost. There were a total of 1348 jobs in the Gweedore industries and this has dropped to 349 full-time jobs and 541 part-time - 456 jobs have been lost at a time of economic boom in the rest of the country - at a time that the county manager and the agencies have been operating under the aegis of a Donegal Task Force - at a time that we have European Objective 1 Status - at a time that cross-border and international funds were supposed to be available to create jobs in areas such as West Donegal and other Gaeltacht areas - at a time that Western Commissions were spewing out reports of what needed to be done. The only jobs created were for consultants who lived and operated in all sorts of areas except South and West Donegal.
D.T.: You sound angry?
JIM: Im sorry - maybe I shouldnt be - but I am - I am more saddened - South and West Donegal must have viable industry and jobs. There are too many objectors to necessary developments. This has been said often but nothing is ever really done about it - this constituency has enormous tourism potential from Bundoran to Creeslough and it is time we put resources into visitor centres and tourism amenities and improve the product on offer in every town and village of the area.
The tourism industry, together with crafts and factory industries, can live side by side and produce a vitality with all sorts of commercial and social activities spin-offs. What is needed - direction, resources and commitment.
D.T.: There are two developments at either end of Donegal Town here awaiting clearance but progress is slow, should the process be speeded up?
JIM: Of course it should - planners and officials should cut away a lot of the red tape which serves nothing except to delay. They are oblivious to the benefits of a sense of urgency in completion of developments.
Dom and Michael Breslin experienced no delays or objections for their Pier 1 development and, even though the project is in direct competition with my two businesses, I was totally co-operative through the whole process to completion. Of course Dom and myself have been friends for many years and now we are friends and neighbours.
D.T.: There have been changes over the last thirty years since you were first elected?
JIM: Some great changes in education - our second level schools are probably the best in the country but I cannot understand the reluctance to put in similar resources at primary level. I left school at 16 years of age and I know there are many people who would like another chance through real serious adult education courses.
Community Health Care has improved greatly but Health Boards must get their act together properly at the acute hospital end of health care and in the A & E area.
There have been great strides in the service industries but the regional and national planners are mistaken in their plans for designated growth areas in Sligo and Letterkenny. Those towns are already suffering strangulation but they are draining commercial activities from towns like Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ballybofey, Killybegs, Glenties and Dungloe.
There have been great improvements on primary roads but more urgency is needed in completing improvements in our secondary roads through the Gaeltacht and scenic areas. At the same time we should not be selling ourselves short about our infrastructure. Magee, Abbotts and the Killybegs Fishing Industry are proof of our ability to accommodate industry, large or small, in South Donegal.
D.T: For a man so passionate about business and politics, I am sure you have no hobbies?
JIM: I have a few other passions - I love gardening and spend a lot of time at it - my other hobby is walking - that is hill walking - the Donegal Ramblers dont get nearly enough promotion but then maybe that would spoil it. Those two hobbies are totally relaxing - all business and political cares fade away.
D.T.: Do you spend much time with your family?
JIM: Well I have my wife and three teenage children at home and they are only fantastic to be with and mind you they keep me aware of what life is really about - on my toes and up to date.
D.T.: You are quite critical of your opponents in this election, so are you pessimistic about our future here in South West Donegal?
JIM: I am never pessimistic - I also start from where I am now. If we have missed opportunities, then we must go forward and create new opportunities. The future is going to create problems for our farmers and our fishing industry but if we understand the nature of these problems then we can prepare the ground now to overcome them.
Our job creation agencies are failing us all here in the South/West but we have a great adaptable work force easily trained and many highly educated. This will be a great resource if properly harnessed.
We are seeing a shortfall of up to 25% in the tourism industry this year to date when we should be looking at increases - but we have such potential in South and West Donegal. All we need are resources and investment combined with enterprising direction and management. If we develop and promote our tourism product properly to a high standard the world will come to our door.
Yes I am optimistic but we have to make it happen.
D.T.: Thank you Jim and good luck in the election.
JIM: Thank you, and I will need all the luck I can get and can I take this opportunity to canvas your vote.
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