Sunday 25 September 2016

Analysis: Regional towns must be at the heart of any new plan for rural Ireland

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Broadband availability is an issue in rural Ireland.
Broadband availability is an issue in rural Ireland.
Richard Curran

One of the big lessons of the recent general election was not to presume too much about how people in different parts of the country are doing.

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Highlighting a 7pc growth rate in the economy to people who simply aren't feeling it is like having a political death wish.

The outcome of the election has put the question of rural Ireland centre stage once again. But, having successfully grabbed the Dail's attention, the big question is what should be done about it.

We aren't actually closer to solving the problems facing rural Ireland because there is little agreement on what those problems are.

Broadband, lack of foreign multinationals, crime and health services are frequently mentioned. But there isn't even any agreement on what we mean by rural Ireland in the first place.

Rural economies are increasingly plugged in to the major towns or cities in their region. There are around 170,000 fewer people farming than when we joined the EEC in the 1970s. Farmers are vital in a rural area because they work, generate income and employment, in the very parish in which they live.

If anything there aren't enough of them and the numbers are expected to fall further in the future.

They have great scope to act as future employers in rural areas. The cyclical nature of farming incomes and profit is a real challenge.

Nationally, there is definitely a poor understanding of the dynamics of rural economies. Too often the economic performance of rural Ireland is seen exclusively through the lens of farming.

Today, nearly half of all working people living in rural Ireland commute to towns or cities. So, if we want to work out a plan for rural economies, we have to think not just about the future of the post office at the crossroads, but also what happens to major towns like Athlone, Longford, Letterkenny or Dundalk.

Some will argue there is no two speed economy between Dublin, and a couple of other cities, and the rest of the country. I have seen statistics used in recent weeks by commentators which "prove" that incomes in rural Ireland have grown by just as much as the capital city.

Sometimes statistics don't tell the whole story. You could be lying down with your head in an oven and your feet in a deep freeze, and statistically speaking you are comfortable.

Unemployment levels in rural areas might not tell the full story of how many people have left the place. Someone in Donegal with a similar income to a person in Dublin, faces a much bigger battle sending their children to a university that is hundreds of miles away.

By 2030 around 60pc of the population will live within 25 miles of the east coast. That concentration of population will bring economic advantages not just to Dublin but to the entire eastern seaboard.

This population growth shift will increase the economic advantages of the higher populated east coast over other places.

Bigger populations get a bigger call on resources, investment and representation. For example, there are now 18 TDs representing Cork City and County, but there are only 20 for the entire province of Connacht.

Of course Dublin and its environs have to plan for this change too or it will go hopelessly wrong. The current housing crisis in Dublin is just one early symptom of the problems that may await inhabitants of Dublin in the future.

The debate shouldn't be about Dublin-bashing. Ireland needs a vibrant economy in the capital city but if as a society we also want parts of rural Ireland to be vibrant places too, then it will require some real planning.

So where does the eastern population advantage leave places like Connacht, the Midlands and the North West? As a greater portion of people living in rural communities will actually work somewhere else, a commutable distance away, proximity to a city or vibrant large town is becoming more and more important.

Rural Ireland has grabbed the nation's attention. But the problems facing rural Ireland are not just about what happens in their parish, but what economic, infrastructural and other plans are put in place for each region.

The other part of the solution for rural communities is to look at developing entrepreneurship in their locality.

Creating employment in a rural area can be done, and has been done successfully all around the country. The problem is that we don't have enough entrepreneurs.

In Co Monaghan, more than one in five people working are self-employed. Seven of the county's top 10 employers are local companies.

Necessity has been the mother of invention there, but other counties could learn from that experience.

The best way to get more home grown employers is to target supports into these areas.

But local people also have to make their community an attractive place to live. It stops people moving away and encourages others back again or to move there for the first time.

If Dublin gets its population explosion wrong, and it looks like it is going that way, local rural communities can provide an attractive alternative for talented smart people to set up businesses.

That is where all the other stuff comes in. These communities need broadband. People need to feel the nearest Garda isn't 25 miles way. They need access to health and community services and decent schools.

Short term spending by government without long term thinking won't benefit anybody in the long run. There can be a fair and a bright future for rural places.

But throwing a bit of money at very local social issues, without thinking through a wider economic plan, won't be enough.

Richard Curran is a columnist with the Irish Independent

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