Visions. The modern ones relating to rural Ireland started with Éamon de Valera, when in 1943 in a St Patrick’s day radio address he asserted in what’s known as the ‘Comely Maidens speech’ (wildly miss-quoted) that, “The Ireland that we dream of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age”.
In the Government White paper of 1998 an initiative spearheaded by the Late Noel Davern T.D, the vision was more practical;
“The ensuring of economic and social well being for rural communities by providing the conditions for a meaningful and fulfilling life for all people living in rural Ireland. It will become a dynamic, adaptable and outward looking multi-sectoral economy supporting vibrant, resilient and diverse communities experiencing a high quality of life with an energised relationship between rural and urban Ireland.
As recently as 2014 the CEDRA report chaired by Pat Spillane and launched by An Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D the vision states: “Rural Ireland will become a dynamic, adaptable and outward looking multi-sectoral economy supporting vibrant, resilient and diverse communities experiencing a high quality of life with an energised relationship between rural and urban Ireland which will contribute to its sustainability for the benefit of society as a whole.”
Coming down to earth, economic and social indicators would suggest that we have a bit to go before we achieve any or all of the visions listed. In CEDRA’s report unemployment at its height in the recession was 192% in rural areas compared to 114% in urban areas. Social Justice Ireland state in their latest report, that poverty in rural areas is 4.5% higher than urban areas. According to the latest unemployment statistics, unemployment in rural areas continues to average between two to three percentage points above the national average.
In the last year the plight of rural towns and villages has featured in all parts of the media and has been pin-pointed in the CEDRA report as in need of serious resuscitation.
Irish Rural Link has been battling with Bus Éireann on their proposed route closures. Closures to a range of services from banking to Post offices to Credit Unions and rural schools are habitual occurrences. Places like Ferbane in Offaly, Croom in Limerick and Ballinasloe in Galway have organised public protests in 2015 at these closures citing among many grievances, the complete lack of discussion or consultation with the local community before these decisions were made.
Rural isolation is heightened by the closure of Garda stations and the increase in rural crime figures recently published. The example of a man from Clare cycling thirty miles from his home so that he could sign himself into a nursing home because his house was broken into appalled the nation and reminded us all why rural isolation cannot be ignored. Yet it increases, mainly because employment opportunities for young people are scarce, forcing many of them to emigrate or migrate to the larger cities. The weakness of our transport system in rural Ireland has been well documented. Community based transport has been delivering a good service, but because of rationalisation and a fixed budget of nine million euro, which in real terms is declining, it means that there is little opportunity to expand it in a way that will cater for the real needs of people.
The highlighting of these issues should not be seen as a negative rant about rural Ireland. In fact there are plenty of reasons to be positive. We know that agriculture has performed well in the last five years. We know that the efforts of local Leader companies continue to improve employment as well as social well being in rural areas. Government initiatives such as publishing the CEDRA report complete with the announcement of a Minister of State for rural Development, Ann Phelan T.D must be welcomed. Equally the planned roll out of 8 regional jobs plans which is part of a €250 million regional jobs strategy under the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, has the potential to make a huge difference to rural areas. Recent announcements that broadband will be everywhere by 2020 must also be welcomed.
However the need for policy makers to make the leap from potential to actual achievement in rural areas would be helped by two underlining principles. The first is a new white paper complete with an extensive implementation plan and secondly the existence of a voluntary Rural Protocol, where all rural stakeholders would agree to a process of negotiation with local communities before they announce the closure of any service.
The need for the White Paper should be a no brainer. Its existence becomes an essential document in real time delivery Government of in rural areas. The protocol allows communities to propose alternative ideas that will allow a rethink of services closures or indeed show why the service is no longer fit for purpose.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s vision is that Ireland should move away from a boom and bust model of economic development. Applied to rural Ireland, such a vision would be a God send.
Irish Rural Link
Moate Business Park, Moate,