Tuesday 27 September 2016

Parish pump politics aside, fixing our rural problems actually makes sense

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

Illustrated by Scratch
Illustrated by Scratch

'Go West, young man' is a familiar phrase to many, but remarks by John Moran, former secretary general of the Department of Finance, on rural Ireland might give people pause to wonder.

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As Mr Moran opined, the Government can no longer afford to "subsidise" the individual choices of people who choose to live in rural areas and he had some strong words for those current TDs who have been open in their desire to bag some goodies for their own constituencies.

During his four-year term at the Department of Finance, Mr Moran was one of the most powerful figures in the country and was perhaps the most influential non-politician at a time when the country was in serious crisis, so he's certainly a man who should be listened to, even if many people won't like what they hear.

He is hardly the first person to express doubts about the viability, or even simple logic, of throwing good money after bad on regional politics which keeps the locals happy but makes no sense in any context other than grabbing votes for the next election. But he is certainly one of the most authoritative. And it's impossible to argue with his assertion that we need to move on from the old parish pump ways where: "There was one for everyone in the audience or an IDA factory in every town."

Not only is such pork barrel politics demonstrably inefficient and unworkable, he even warns that it could be seen as a microcosm of the country itself, saying: "The type of issues being faced at the moment by some of the less populated counties along the western seaboard and in the midlands may become the issue for Ireland in the future, particularly if things like corporate tax rates are equalised across Europe."

Those comments were quick to open the always-ajar feelings of resentment and bitterness towards Dublin and the larger urban conurbations, and this being Ireland, there was no shortage of overreaction to his remarks, not least in the letters page in yesterday's Irish Independent, with one correspondent bizarrely arguing that it was cheaper for the Government to have people living in isolated rural areas because: "The cost to the exchequer of urban lawlessness, crime and anti-social behaviour generally would far outweigh the cost of rural rejuvenation."

Mr Moran prefaced his remarks by criticising the lack of a "mature debate" in the Dáil about this issue.

But if we can persuade this Government to try something useful for once, rather than concentrating on merely securing their vote for the next election, we could create a situation where two birds are killed with the one stone.

Rent in Dublin is simply prohibitive, while actually buying your own home in the city now just looks like a mad dream for tens of thousands of people who have abandoned the once simple aspiration of a house, a back garden and 2.4 children.

Equally, broadband in much of this country is an absolute disgrace. In fact, on a recent trip to Mayo it felt like retreating to the late 1990s, with connectivity speeds not much better than the long-forgotten dial-up.

Mr Moran is right to say that the Government shouldn't be subsidising people's individual choices in rural areas - they shouldn't be subsidising them in urban areas, either.

But surely proper investment in an effective, efficient and fast broadband service is more than merely "subsidising" people who live in rural areas? In fact, there are some who argue that this is the most pressing issue since the Rural Electrification Scheme which was launched in 1946.

That might seem like hyperbole to some. But the simple reality in this electronic age is that not having an adequate and speedy internet connection isn't merely an infuriating inconvenience for individuals, it is effectively a death sentence for any business.

Citing the fact that Ireland barely registered on the Brexit debate in the UK as a "wake-up call", Mr Moran has been quick to point out some uncomfortable truths, the main one being simple - we're too small.

As he admitted, even he was surprised at "how marginal Irish issues are in Europe and in very large corporate boardrooms across the world . . . This is not an easy message for rural Ireland, and there will be casualties in terms of life as we have known it."

That's a rather stark and almost apocalyptic message from one of the country's most experienced mandarins, but there is always hope.

If we were ever able to genuinely connect all areas of the country, then a rural existence becomes more viable for both people who can't afford to live in Dublin and for businesses which want to start up or expand.

Envisioning a future Ireland as simply a collection of large - by Irish standards - cities dotted across an otherwise desolate, ignored, rural hinterland may not win you many votes, either literally or metaphorically, but it doesn't have to be as stark as that, either.

After all, we're more than just an economy and a small migration of people from the cities to the countryside would be a win-win situation - freeing up accommodation space in the urban areas and restoring some sanity to the costs, while rural areas which have been slowly withering on the vine through the toxic combination of emigration and job losses would have an infusion of new blood.

Maybe, if people on both sides of the urban/rural divide could put down their cudgels and see the bigger picture that Mr Moran paints, then we can find that most unIrish of things - a sensible solution, devoid of gombeenism, that actually works for both individuals and the country alike.

Irish Independent

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