Wednesday 26 October 2016

Opinion: We need a new rural government department with real powers

Downing on politics

Published 04/05/2016 | 02:30

Pat Spillane
Pat Spillane

Yes, getting high-speed broadband into rural Ireland is vital. But it is only one of many things needed for rural communities.

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The late Mick Lally, who played Ireland's best-loved fictional farmer, Miley from Glenroe, memorably told us that "poverty is a terrible inconvenience." Most of us will agree that the only way out of poverty is work and regular income.

Being poor in an urban setting is truly awful, but odds are you could be close to others in the same boat and close also to cheaper, and even free things, to ameliorate poverty. But in rural areas poverty also comes with isolation and crushing loneliness which threatens mental and physical health.

In rural Ireland also, to get work, be it ever so simple and low-paid, you generally need to put some kind of a crock of a car on the road. And that is expensive, quite possibly too dear to make that starter job not a viable option.

So, addressing Ireland's hit-and-miss rural public transport, which is non-existent in some less-favoured areas, is probably just as urgent as getting an acceptable standard of broadband beyond The Pale.

In the realms of rural public transport let us commend the original thinking of one Mustafa Kemal Attaturk, the reforming president and founder of modern Turkey. Way back in the 1920s and 1930s he is credited with promoting the "dolmus," a loose system of shared taxis which offered cheap transport to ordinary people.

Life is not as simple today as it was in the 1930s. The big bugbear in the path of such innovative thinking is insurance. Indeed in this increasingly litigious age the "i-word" often occurs early in discussion of snags impeding many of our social developments.

So, let us seriously broach arrangements for insurance to be made available for hackney drivers and small bus companies. More broadly, let us also intensify efforts to study the recent serious spike in all motor insurance costs, which have brought two years of hefty premium increases for all, this writer included, in both town and country.

There is no doubting the importance of broadband and the disappointment all of us have felt last week at reports of yet another delay in making it happen. The great Pat Spillane, coordinating author of the now two-year-old report of the Commission for the Development of Rural Areas, argues eloquently for the potential of good quality broadband.

In essence, the Kerry football legend, argues that it could bring half a dozen jobs to a workshop at a country crossroads.

Those jobs could be a tipping point in making viable the school, the post office and other services. It could mean the survival of a community.

But as a new and different style of government looms into view, let us beware of false dawns and undue hopes raised by window-dressing. Simply appointing a Minister for Rural Affairs will not achieve much, any more than calling someone Minister for Housing will end our housing crisis.

Establishing a rural government department, gathering in fragmented responsibility with real powers will be by far the bigger challenge here.

John Downing is a political correspondent with the Irish Independent

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