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Thursday 29 September 2016

'Some people believe rural Ireland is all about making jam - it's not'

My week... Maura Walsh, Castleisland, Co Kerry - chief executive, Dulhallow Leader

Published 07/10/2015 | 02:30

Maura Walsh
Maura Walsh

It's been a hectic few weeks for Maura Walshe, the veteran campaigner for rural Ireland and a bête noir of successive Ministers for Agriculture when it comes to getting every available Exchequer and EU funded euro back to the countryside.

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She was just back from a rural renewal conference in Canada two weeks ago when she had to fetch up at the 'Go Kerry' tent at the Ploughing before spending most of last week campaigning against the latest cutbacks in EU rural funding.

"It would be wrong to say I am impressed with what's going on with rural funding at the moment. It has been slashed in half but I am not going to be churlish and not thank the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, for the €30m of rural renewal funds.

"But it will go nowhere near making up for the planned cutbacks in funding between now and 2020'', she says.

She then does the maths. Yes, €30m is a big wad of money but it is spread over six years and has to be divided by 30 to cater for the number rural development companies entitled to a share.

"That's an awful lot of division and when all the division is done it certainly doesn't look like a big wad of money'', she says in the fashion of someone who knows how far an Exchequer or EU euro will go.

"Put it this way - Duhallow alone received €10.5m under the last EU rural development programme and will only receive €2m in the soon to be finalised round of rural funding up to 2020.

The rural programme run by the EU and government lacks joined-up-thinking she says.

"Some people believe rural Ireland is all about arts and crafts and making jam. It's not. And it needs as many of the high-tech jobs coming into Ireland as anywhere else in the country.

"Take Kerry Group's decision to open their state-of-the-art food production centre in Kildare. How did that happen?" she asks with the irritation of a woman who views the decision in the same way she would a pebble in her shoe.

"I know that companies will go where they can make the most money, but surely the state development agencies could have pressed the company to locate in their own region. It could have been a hub for graduates from UCC and Tralee IT and would have been a great boost to the rural economy in Kerry. Instead they locate in the traffic congestion of greater Dublin where house prices are soaring out of control again," she adds.

But that was the last battle and she is now concentrating on getting the Government to compensate farmers affected by conservation designations.

"These farmers should be compensated in the same way as farmers who convert to forestry. They should have some return for maintaining their land for a public good. Otherwise this land will return to scrub - that's for sure.

Mixed farming

"The necessary funding should be put in place immediately," she adds.

Maura, an economics graduate, worked with the Department of Social Protection and the ESB before transferring to the Duhallow Leader partnership on the Cork and Kerry border in 1990.

She was brought up on a mixed farming enterprise near Banna Strand outside Tralee.

She and her husband Mark, who runs a farm machinery business, now live in Castleisland, Co Kerry.

Spreading the word about how vital balanced and well targeted rural investment is for the future of rural Ireland and the Irish economy generally is always on Maura's agenda.

It's her specialist subject as the Canadians she met on Price Edward Island can attest to.

"They said my paper at the conference was the best and was trending on Twitter - no less.

"Now where are we on the fresh-water pearl mussel project in the Blackwater Valley?" she asks aloud.

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