Irish Rural Link is proposing that Rural Protocol should be first consulted before the closure of any services in rural Ireland. Such a protocol might save a great deal of negative energy and anxiety expended by rural communities in order to defend, what seems to be an ongoing attempt to disenfranchise rural areas. So, before outlining it in more detail, let me put the need for such a protocol in context.
In rural Ireland, services have a habit of closing. Among the more prominent are the Post Office branches, Bank branches, national schools, pubs, shops and not to mention the occasional downgrade of hospitals from time to time. Yet all national and European union policy points to the urgency to renew rural communities so that they can become sustainable in economic and social terms. Currently there is much anticipation of the implementation of the CEDRA report launched by An Taoiseach in April 2014 and the implementation of the European Union Rural Development package, with particular interest in the new LEADER programme.
So when Ulster bank announced that it was closing another 14 branches in 2015, there was little surprise in rural areas. Since the beginning of the recession, most rural communities have become used to such closures and worryingly rarely hear of alternative services being proposed. The result is that the general well being of rural areas has suffered, with above average unemployment rates, emigration and an ever increasing cost of living, which is above that of the national average.
It should be noted that Allied Irish Banks have closed 67 of its branches, Bank of Ireland 19, and Dansk Bank the former National Irish bank have closed over 50 branches since 2009, Permanent TSB 19. The Ulster bank list for closures includes:
Athboy, Co Meath, with services moving to the Trim branch
Ballinrobe, Co Mayo, with services moving to the Castlebar branch
Ashbourne, Co Meath, with services moving to the Swords branch
Athy, Co Kildare, with services moving to the Carlow branch
Castleblaney, Co Monaghan, with services moving to the Monaghan branch
Castlerea, Co Roscommon, with services moving to the Roscommon branch
Clones, Co Monaghan, with services moving to the Monaghan branch
Croom, Co Limerick, with services moving to the Dooradoyle branch
Ferbane, Co Offaly, with services moving to the Athlone branch
Loughrea, Co Galway, with services moving to the Athenry branch
Manorhamilton, Co Leitrim, with services moving to the Sligo branch
Moville, Co Donegal, with services moving to the Buncrana branch
Roscrea, Co Tipperary, with services moving to the Nenagh branch
Wicklow, Co Wicklow, with services moving to the Bray branch
The opposition organised by the community of Ferbane in Offaly has to be lauded. By standing against the closure, they have made it clear that the rural hinterland of West Offaly does not wish to become another statistic in the wind down of rural areas, but instead wants to build a long term infrastructure that sustains the area into the future.
Similarly there are plans to close many rural schools. As I write I am aware that the Minister of Education has relaxed some of the conditions in place that determine these closures. These are welcome and provide us with some hope that some real thinking is afoot.
All of these closures increase the barriers to rural sustainability and therefore contribute to the likelihood of consistent poverty. Young people must migrate or emigrate, rural businesses do not emerge and the line spun by many of our economists that rural communities are a burden to the state becomes more frequent.
A protocol in simple terms challenges the proposers of closures to manage it in a way that allows the community to have an input. It starts by engaging with the area in question in the task of conducting a socio economic analysis in terms of reasons for closure and the consequences of same. It also allows the community to examine the issues involved and perhaps put forward proposals that could offset the need for a closure. It equally puts some obligations on the organisation, government or private company that proposes closure.
Following closures, an automatic nomination of a Government task force would occur, which would conduct a dialogue with all stakeholders in the area, with a view of improving the conditions, so that the bank branch, Credit union, post office branch or any other service facing closure might benefit from increased community commitment. We are proposing that the management of such a protocol would rest with the office of Minister for Rural Development.