A rural affairs minister isn't a cure-all. But we can 'rural-proof' policy
During the General Election, and in the weeks that have passed since, there has been a great deal of debate around the issue of rural Ireland. Was poor communication from Government about its achievements in rural areas in part to blame for this? Its developments and its investment in projects, services and organisations seem to have been lost in the noise, and it is paramount that we get the message out that rural Ireland has always been, and continues to remain, a priority and focus for this Government.
I believe that it is an extremely facile argument to simply say that a new Department of Rural Affairs will sort out rural Ireland. As if one size fits all.
I believe the challenge requires a more unique approach: a rural-proofing policy, so that when decisions are being made, the impact on rural areas is a priority before policy is changed or implemented. For example, the pupil-teacher ratio is the same for the islands as it is for the mainland, despite the different challenges facing their schools and teachers. To avoid such discrepancies in future, logical thinking needs to happen at a decision-making level.
Any success from this new approach will be closely linked to increased resources. You cannot achieve what is needed in this area without a robust budget.
In my own Department of the Gaeltacht, the capital budget in 2008 was €26m - in Budget 2015 it was reduced to €6m. Yet against this backdrop, recruitment has been happening. The predominantly rural Gaeltacht saw 533 jobs created in 2015 and the lowest level of job losses on record.
There is also the potential for this new rural-proofing role to act as a 'watchdog' in terms of rural policy - for example, taking into consideration the concerns of small inshore and islands fishermen.
There is a need for more resourcing for EU Leader programmes, Tús schemes, Rural Social Schemes, Udarus and CE schemes. These organisations already do vital work in their areas and, rather than reinventing the wheel, we need to support them more with additional funding and consideration at a policy level.
Broadband is another crucial area in this debate, and is one of the biggest challenges facing rural areas throughout Ireland.
The National Broadband Plan is an absolute priority. While there has been some criticism over the length of time it has taken to implement it, it is worth noting that approval had to be sought from the EU for the plan, as this will be a Government intervention in an existing market place.
As a consequence, the new plan will cover 30pc of rural areas that will not be covered by commercial interests.
The Wild Atlantic Way is one example of a success story that can be used as a template for the idea of rural-proofing.
This initiative achieved its goal of increasing tourism to regional areas, both from Ireland and abroad. It has been a phenomenal success story, receiving attention from all over the world.
The next phase of the project is to include locations previously excluded from the plans, so even more areas can benefit from its success.
There are positive stories in rural Ireland. Last October I got on a plane with an official from Údarás na Gaeltachta to meet representatives of company in Manchester. I am happy to say that, later today, that same company will be creating 125 jobs in Gaoth Dobhair in North West Donegal.
We can make things happen as politicians if we trust in the mandate that we are given. Unfortunately, too many elected representatives have adopted the narrative of fear through an abdication of responsibility and a negative outlook for the future.
Joe McHugh is TD for Donegal and is acting Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs