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Friday 30 September 2016

Rural Ireland is as angry as hell and not going to take it any more

To resist slow death by a thousand cuts, the forgotten Midlands has vowed to fight back

Claire Mc Cormack

Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30

Good neighbours: Dr Padraig McGarry making a house call to Pat Wilson in Ballinalee, Co Longford
Good neighbours: Dr Padraig McGarry making a house call to Pat Wilson in Ballinalee, Co Longford

Generations of midland families have been reared, educated and thrived from working the bogs of the country's low-lying heartland.

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At times it's been tough, the weather often a curse, but for most people peat production, harvesting, development and turf-cutting has been a constant source of strength throughout two recessions.

As families absorb, accept and support Bord na Mona's 15-year plan to slowly turn its ship towards biomass, wind and solar-powered energy, a recent court ruling against the semi-state company has sent shivers through communities in Longford, Offaly, Westmeath, Roscommon, Kildare, Meath and further afield.

As the odds continue to stack against rural Ireland - closure of garda stations, banks, pubs and shops - a clear message for Government is emerging in the region: "If we're forced out of bogs before an alternative plan is ready, we won't dig you out of the next hole."

Meanwhile, a battle to save rural doctors is gaining local momentum.

Since 2011, GPs from Donegal to Kerry have raised concerns over their excessive hours, lack of resources and inability to get cover.

Many claim these issues have made rural practice an "unviable" and" unattractive" option for young doctors.

Though to start with, two weeks ago, An Taisce - a charity working to preserve and protect Ireland's natural heritage - secured a court order overturning planning permission for the continued operation of a BNM peat-powered plant near Edenderry, Co Offaly.

It currently employs 180 people.

The decision was reached due to the narrow scope of an Environmental Impact Statement on the bogs where the peat is harvested.

A stay on the ruling is in place until April 2016, and An Bord Pleanala is currently accessing a second planning application for the site.

Although sources say BNM is "confident" the second application will pass, the situation has unsettled the community of Lanesborough, Co Longford, where a similar plant - the ESB's Lough Ree Power Station - operates.

At least 200 BNM staff - permanent and seasonal - supply peat to the Lough Ree station under a fuel purchase agreement.

The station's licence is up for renewal in 2019.

In light of the Edenderry scenario, locals of the pretty fishing and tourist village along the banks of the River Shannon are worried about the environmental opposition they too may face down the road.

Gerald Farrell, a local publican, businessman and Fine Gael councillor, said that it would be a huge blow to the local economy if planning permission didn't go through in 2019.

"It would be absolutely heartbreaking. We get some tourism revenue during summer but BNM and the ESB is our main source of employment," he said.

"People are very fearful of the same problems happening here. We know they are going to stop harvesting, but this is a bit of a blow that it could be coming sooner rather than later," he said.

Joe O'Brien, owner of The Corner Shop newsagents in Lanesborough, says nobody expected the decision.

"From the minute the An Taisce appeal was won, it's been on the tip of everybody's tongue. Bord na Mona has reared and educated many generations of excellent people. The place would be decimated if the plant was to go," he said.

Midland TDs say unless local fears are addressed the situation will manifest and become a major election issue for the region.

Robert Troy, the Fianna Fail TD for Longford/Westmeath, said: "This a trial run for us on how to identify challenges we will face from an environmental perspective in 2019.

"It highlights the need for Bord na Mona and the Government to show clear commitment and to bring forward an alternative source of energy to keep these plants going."

However, he urges An Taisce to be "more realistic" and "practical" in its approach.

"Their objections are being addressed, and no one wants to see a detrimental impact on the environment but at the same time it has be to done in a structured manner, it has to be gradual."

Meanwhile, Michael Fitzmaurice, Independent TD for Roscommon/South Leitrim, says he was "appalled" by the reaction of Eamon Ryan, Green Party leader, to the Edenderry ruling.

"It was disgusting that Eamon Ryan came out with a smirk on his face when the announcement was made. It's appalling that someone would take pleasure out of putting a risk to their fellow Irish citizens to see them basically dumped out of a job if this comes to pass," he said.

The farmer, turf-cutter and agricultural contractor, is calling on the Taoiseach to implement emergency legislation to protect peat-powered electricity plants.

"It continues to show the disconnect between some people in cities and people who earn and make a living down the country - without any government help. Leadership needs be shown immediately to once and for all sort this mess out and make sure people are kept in their jobs," he said.

Mr Fitzmaurice also urges BNM to reconsider its intentions to finish with peat.

"It's not a good plan and it's badly thought out. We should be able to use our own resources. We're subsidised on wind heavier than anything else - all we'll be doing is making money for investors."

As for forestry, Mr Fitzmaurice claims there isn't enough timber in Ireland. "I know mills all around the country and they don't have enough timber so we're actually importing timber from Scotland already.

"We need to stick with peat for as long as possible until there is a cheaper, viable option that is self-sustaining within our own country and at the moment there is nothing on offer for that," he added.

Meanwhile, the plight of rural doctors is also set to be a major election issue.

Dr Padraig McGarry, chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation GP Committee, says the situation is at "crisis point" as 20pc of GPs are now in the 60-plus age group, while 33pc are aged over 55 years.

The IMO says one in eight GPs will retire over the next five years.

"A lot of people will end up in nursing homes and on hospital trolleys not because of a particular illness but because they lack support to stay in their community," Dr McGarry said, adding that the situation was having a serious impact on the health of GPs.

The HSE currently has contracts with more than 2,400 GPs - an increase of 400 since 2009. However, the IMO claims there are areas around the country where the HSE can't fill rural posts.

The worst-hit counties include: Sligo, Kerry, Galway, Mayo and Clare.

Pat Wilson, a retired banker in her 70s, says it's "absolutely vital" that the rural practice remains open in her village of Ballinalee, Co Longford.

"It's a life-saver, particularly for elderly people who don't drive. I'm eight miles from the next doctor," she said, adding that a taxi to the nearest town costs €30.

"We've already lost the bank and garda station, if the GP goes there will be nothing left except a church and the post office."

The IMO is calling for immediate investment, a ring-fenced budget, a review of out-of-hours arrangements and special measures to encourage young doctors to consider rural posts.

As part of a new national campaign - Rural General Practice: Don't Let it Die - the IMO is spurring rural dwellers to ring their GPs and local representatives to make the crisis an election issue.

Sunday Independent

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