Sunday 23 October 2016

Ignoring the death of rural Ireland may yet haunt the Coalition

Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30

People scoffed at the late Jackie Healy-Rae for his unashamed 'parish pump politics'. Photo: Tom Burke
People scoffed at the late Jackie Healy-Rae for his unashamed 'parish pump politics'. Photo: Tom Burke

Who will save our towns? A simple but pertinent question to ask all candidates in the forthcoming General Election. The demise of rural Ireland since 2008 has been as acute and as palpable as the national economic and social slide. The rural recovery, however, has not been as equal.

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As An Taoiseach waxes lyrical about how we might reboot a global economy, perhaps more thought should focus on who will revive middle Ireland. It's all very well rebooting at Davos, but who is going to reboot Drumlish?

As the east coast and its upwardly mobile urbanites prepare to go once more into the breach of boom, social sectarianism is becoming more and more evident south of the border. As the pace of recovery east of the Shannon increases and we begin to creep back towards a tentative confidence, there is a myopia to the understandable concern enveloping rural Ireland.

Manifestly silent until now, it may yet make itself heard through the ballot box in the General Election - a quiet threat hanging over every political party.

By default or by design, societies change. Unless there is a direction driving the change, the road is precarious and unpredictable. While the very survival of some towns and villages hangs in the balance, we look to civic leaders for guidance. Indifference is a guarantee of social decline. The wilful blindness that seems to have taken hold of the political establishment regarding the slow death of our small towns could be a serious issue for the Government parties come the election. Realistic and achievable policies are urgently needed.

Serious strategic attention has never really been paid to the long-term consequences of disappearing high streets in our towns. A Post Office, a Garda Station, a credit union, a church, a school, the pub, the local grocery shop, a hotel and a GP were all given fixtures in every town in Ireland - even in the dismal period of the 1980s. What were missing then were jobs and employment prospects, and we saw entire families emigrate with every factory closure.

Throughout that period, however, the basic infrastructure of society remained intact - the amenities which afford a lifestyle. This time around, those amenities have also been dismantled and services closed. In a cloud of depression, businesses became punch-drunk trying to cope with the onslaught of mounting bills and silent tills. Left unchecked for so long, the revival of our vibrant high streets seems too misty a memory to grasp - a development not conducive to the longer-term social health of rural Ireland.

This country has a unique history in relation to rural development and how our society is structured. Attachment to parish, club and county is enduring - and sometimes even paramount. It's a cherished bond that should not be ignored in national policies.

It's understandable that, as each community looks to its own, vocal Independent candidates who are prepared to stick up for their own areas become very appealing. During the epic social and economic whirlwind we have lived through, people have come to realise that communities are important. Local support is important. Local business is important. Once considered outdated and old-fashioned, communities and community leaders have delivered what was needed in a time of national flux.

Those local leaders have gained credibility and political traction. Communities are cool again. Whatever the reason, this willingness to 'look local' is going to have a huge bearing on the make-up of the next government. People have slightly selfishly, but perhaps understandably, begun to look again to themselves and to what can be delivered by politicians for them locally.

Lying beneath the surface of those community leaders in rural Ireland are people from the voluntary sector, an altruistic army that has been vital in economic, cultural, social and infrastructural development.

A lot of our economic recovery has taken place due to the voluntary efforts of thousands of selfless people. Perhaps enhancing the role of voluntary effort in rural Ireland should be looked at as a way to assist progress in a more structured and embracing way?

If we were to compare the demise of our economic and social fortunes between urban and rural Ireland, and look at them as two sick patients who presented themselves to hospital at the same time and with the same symptoms, the results would be very different indeed. Why it is that one patient is sitting up in the bed drinking their tea and preparing to leave hospital while the other lies flatlining on life support? The answer is simple - they have received different treatment.

It's almost as if cities enjoy private healthcare while our towns languish in the waiting area of a public A&E unit - their destinies down to luck as much as any actual plan. Government investment and attention has been centred on the large urban cities, with multinational and capital investment being steered in a very deliberate way.

For years, the commentariat scoffed at the late Jackie Healy-Rae for his unashamed 'parish pump politics'. Perhaps he was ahead of his time.

The body politic has done all it can to convince us that we have moved beyond local concerns, but they are all at it now. If opinion polls are borne out, the next government may make the efforts of Jackie Healy-Rae appear demure. In this election, if you cannot think of a question to ask a politician who knocks on your door, try this - ask them not what they will do for you, but what they will do for your community.

Irish Independent

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