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Wednesday 18 October 2017

Minister Michael Ring on why he's 'really sick' of the negativity about rural Ireland

Michael Ring, the newly appointed Minister for Rural Affairs, at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Michael Ring, the newly appointed Minister for Rural Affairs, at Leinster House. Photo: Tom Burke
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

On the day Leo Varadkar was made Taoiseach, Michael Ring paced his office up and down, waiting, wondering if he'd done enough to get 'the call'.

After 23 years championing rural Ireland in his professional, political and private life, the Mayo native felt he was the right person to finally flip tiresome rhetoric of regional decline.

At 5.50pm, Michael got word from Fine Gael's new, suave 'city boy' leader, offering him the position of the country's first ever Minister for Community and Rural Affairs.

"Leo said, 'This is a very important role.' Because he is from Dublin, he wanted to make sure that rural Ireland would be well represented in the cabinet.

"He said, 'You are the person that is going to be there and you'll have whatever support I or any other Department can give you. I want to send out a strong message that I believe in rural Ireland; I want rural Ireland to be strong and thriving.'

Although it's been just three weeks since the 63-year-old celebrated his big win to the sound of Tina Turner's smash hit 'Simply the Best' at a homecoming ceremony in Westport, he is hitting the ground running. "I'm really sick of people coming out and talking negatively about rural Ireland all the time. What we need to do is sell more positivity and less negativity. We need to change the narrative."

Michael Ring
Michael Ring

"Of course we have problems but there are problems in cities as well as the countryside. What I see for rural Ireland is a glass half full, not half empty and it's my job to peddle that mindset," says the head of the Government's new department of Rural and Community Affairs based between Ballina and the capital.

Minister Ring insisted the word 'rural' took precedence in the naming of his department, which the Taoiseach separated out from the former Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs.

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"There is a wealth of entrepreneurial spirit in rural Ireland and a resourcefulness that we need to maximise and build on. Rural communities are well capable of finding solutions to their own challenges and I intend to help them reach their potential," he says.

He outlines job creation, rural broadband and a review of the National Spatial Strategy as key issues.

Defence Minister Paul Kehoe and Regional Economic Development Minister and local TD Michael Ring are debriefed from the bridge of the LE Samuel Beckett situated near Blacksod Bay in Co Mayo. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Defence Minister Paul Kehoe and Regional Economic Development Minister and local TD Michael Ring are debriefed from the bridge of the LE Samuel Beckett situated near Blacksod Bay in Co Mayo. Photo: Steve Humphreys

"The spatial strategy plan needs to be looked at. Planning is a big problem. If local authorities really want people to live in rural Ireland, they have to change the county development plans. We're finding great difficulty with young couples, people that want to set up businesses, but county development plans are blocking them from getting planning permission.

"In the past there was an over- build in rural Ireland, some not good, but now they've gone to the other extreme: they don't even want to let family members build beside their own home and it's creating great difficulty."

He says many affected couples whom he is currently engaging with are not looking for any State handouts but are instead prepared to borrow and pay for their own one-off homes.

"We can't be hypocritical on one side, saying we want people to live in rural Ireland, and at the same time plans from local authorities are pushing them into the towns.

Michael Ring and Enda Kenny in Castlebar
Michael Ring and Enda Kenny in Castlebar

"The current planning laws need to be looked at in the new development plan and it's a priority for me."

Delivering on the Government's Action Plan for Rural Ireland - a unique whole-of-government strategy aimed at delivering real change in rural areas - is his ultimate ambition.

Having previously served as Minister of State for Regional Economic Development from 2016 to 2017 and Minister of State for Tourism and Sport from 2011 to 2016, the self-confessed "homebird" and sports fanatic is well versed on the adversity remote regions have faced over the last decade.

"I set up the Rural Renovation Scheme, the CLÁR programme, LEADER; the Town and Village Scheme will be announced soon, so in fairness I have a good bit of experience.

"Over the last 10 years, I've also witnessed the tourism industry roll up their sleeves and work harder than ever. Some survived, others didn't, but they are all making a recovery now," he says.

He praises the vision and conviction of volunteers that have strived to reinvigorate communities.

"Volunteers in the GAA, rugby, soccer, Tidy Towns, Macra na Feirme, Foróige... we don't appreciate enough what they do in every corner of this country. Their commitment is amazing: it's a way of life and they have done huge work to keep our youth on the straight and narrow - and, let's face it, when the economy wasn't going well, we lost part of that, but it's coming back again," he says.

Tax credits

Although Michael is not of farming stock, he has dealt with farmers all his life and says he learned a great deal from working closely with the late Fine Gael politician Hugh Coveney on the party's agriculture brief in the mid-1990s.

He says the Action Plan is also farmer-proofed with the introduction of new taxation measures for increases in earned-income tax credits, new income averaging initiatives for farmers and an examination of taxation measures to support farmers through periods of income volatility.

As for budget, there is a total estimated spend of just over €79m in the rural coffers for 2017 - up 29pc on 2016.

Having witnessed first-hand the rewards investment brought to his hometown of Westport, Michael insists he "loves money and won't be afraid to spend".

"In the '80s, there were three general elections in a row; there were big issues; the town was in dereliction.

"Today it's one of the finest towns in the whole country. Why? Because people pulled together, worked together and they talked the town up," says the father of three, who is based in Dublin four days a week while his wife, Ann, and daughter Susan head up operations in Ballina.

"When I'm driving home on a Friday evening and you're coming down the Castlebar Road into Westport - and you look down on a fine evening and see the sea, the islands and Croagh Patrick - I know I'm coming home.

"I love the West of Ireland; I love what we have - you can go any place in the world and you won't get anything more beautiful."


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