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Saturday 22 July 2017

The battle for rural Ireland is worth winning

After seven years of recession, rural communities feel they are in a major fight for their very survival

RURAL IDYLL: Richard Curran with his wife Kathy Donaghy and their boys Oirghiall (left) and Dallan near their home in Inishowen, Co Donegal. Three years ago, the couple left the hustle and bustle of Dublin behind. Photo: Declan Doherty
RURAL IDYLL: Richard Curran with his wife Kathy Donaghy and their boys Oirghiall (left) and Dallan near their home in Inishowen, Co Donegal. Three years ago, the couple left the hustle and bustle of Dublin behind. Photo: Declan Doherty
Richard Curran

Richard Curran

The numbers are stacking up against rural Ireland. Communities up and down the country have been ravaged by seven years of recession. For some, the fight is about holding on.

More of the population is living near to the east coast and that looks set to continue. By 2030 around 60pc of the population will live within 25 miles of the east coast.

Dublin accounts for around 40pc of our national economic activity or GDP. London, accounts for around 20pc of the British economy, according to Davy Stockbrokers.

There is no doubt parts of rural Ireland are doing well through tourism, the food industry or a reasonable number of foreign multinationals that came a long time ago and have stayed.

But the patterns are worrying for many rural places. Two thirds of all multinational jobs created last year were in Dublin and Cork. When you include Galway and Limerick, the figure runs to 75pc.

What happens to rural Ireland matters greatly to those who live there. I am one of them.

Three years ago, my wife Kathy and I left Dublin to live in the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal.

We had wanted to move for some time, both for ourselves and for our children, who are aged six and three.

I had grown up in the country and lived in Dublin for 27 years. Kathy was from Donegal and we both felt we would never be fully happy in a city.

I travel to Dublin a lot for work and I see the stark contrast of both places. The gap seems to be widening. It isn't just about jobs. In Dublin 36pc of the adult population have third level education. Seventeen of the top 100 feeder schools for universities are in South Dublin. Fourteen of them are fee paying.

Ireland is going through a significant but delayed process of urbanisation.

There are 170,000 fewer people farming today than when we joined the EEC in the 1970s.

This has left a gap in employment in rural areas. For a while the building boom masked this massive change until it all came crashing down. To a certain extent the real poison of the property crash wasn't just what it did, it was what it hid. Towns were losing traditional jobs in manufacturing, food processing or other sectors. But it didn't seem to matter as long as they could go into construction work. When the crash came, reality dawned.

Even among higher-end multinational jobs, we were employing fewer people during the boom and nobody seemed to notice. There has been a definite concentration of multi-national jobs in bigger cities.

Between 2004 and 2013, which covers the boom and the bust, numbers employed by foreign multinationals in the north east region fell by nearly 1,000. In the north west, the fall was 1,500 and a 5,000 drop occurred in the mid-west. In Dublin, job numbers grew by 13,000.

During the boom, young people who might have made good entrepreneurs were sucked into quick property gains both in the cities and in our towns. When the crash came, rural Ireland was hit worst.

The gap in local jobs used to be partially filled by foreign direct investment (FDI) located in towns around the country. In the past we tried to attract every kind of multinational to everywhere we could.

In recent years that has become more difficult. Ireland is competing against numerous other centres for FDI. Many of the sectors we have concentrated on want locations in or near cities.

A lot of the best FDI jobs created in recent years are in technology. Tech giants want to be near population centres. This is also true of pharma companies and financial services where we have also been strong.

On the home front, we have made good strides in developing an entrepreneurial culture, which could provide a lot more jobs for rural places. But we are starting from a low base.

There are lots of examples of successful indigenous companies forming in small towns. Look at Fexco in Killorglin or Netwatch in Carlow or E&I Engineering in Donegal. These are large exporting companies based in rural areas. There just aren't enough of them.

Companies achieving that size and scale come along in a rural area about once every 15 or 20 years. A Martin Naughton, of Glen Dimplex in Louth, or a Eugene Murtagh from Kingspan in Cavan, come along about once every 40 years.

Creating the environment where more of these entrepreneurs can flourish takes time and money. It also needs a plan.

The Government recently announced new regional jobs plans. They contain some good ideas and should be a help, but they have come very late in the day.

The wealth gap has been evolving for some time. Dublin has the edge in disposal income, access to education, house price recovery, levels of mortgage arrears, and many other things.

Why should it matter that parts of rural Ireland are in trouble? Some would argue it is simply the latest twist in centuries of change.

The starting point for preserving as many rural communities as we can is to acknowledge there is a problem and try to figure out what we want rural Ireland to be. We also have to realise somebody is going to have to pay for it.

Rural Ireland is changing anyway, from the old idea of farmers in boots on tractors. Nearly half of the working people in rural Ireland commute to towns and cities. Proximity to a city appears to be a major factor in preserving population and economic growth for rural areas.

In that sense, cities may well be the saviours of many rural places rather than their executioners.

If your rural area is a commutable distance from a city, you have a better chance of retaining your population and keeping people living there. That is why the challenges are even greater for places like the border counties, the north west and the north midlands, because they don't have a city.

Rural Ireland should be more than just places to grow up in and grow old in, with not a lot in between.

Rural Ireland is fighting back. People sense communities are slipping away. The change is gradual but very real.

The National Spatial Strategy was devised in 2002 and it promoted what it called balanced regional development.

Critics of the plan said it was simply trying to replicate in Roscommon or Cavan what people enjoyed in Dublin, and simply wasn't possible. Others criticised the plan for focusing on too many places. The plan was officially abandoned a few years ago.

These are hugely divisive issues but ones that need to be thrashed out if some places are to survive as sustainable vibrant communities.

Of course rural Ireland is made up of different kinds of places. Tourism meccas like the Ring of Kerry or agricultural belts like the Golden Vale have huge economic contributions to make. Even those regions have communities that are struggling, never mind the future of regions that are not strong in tourism or the food sector.

The answer is a combination of outside help through the right government policies and people in those areas doing what they can for themselves.

There is no easy solution but communities have to examine their own localities and come up with their own plans.

But many of these places need help. They need to know there is some kind of plan as to how those rural places can survive.

If start-ups are the answer then they need people to want to go there to set up a business.

Some towns in a particular region are doing better than others. Some of that is history. Some of it is natural advantage or a bigger public sector presence in one town which has held more jobs there.

Without intervention from outside and real effort from inside these communities they will continue to suffer.

They won't vanish today or tomorrow but where will they be in 10 or 20 years from now?

I don't know if my kids will end up living in Donegal or in a city in the future. But it would be nice to think they would have a choice.

'The Battle For Rural Ireland', Monday, 9.30pm, RTE1

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