Sunday 25 September 2016

Rural Ireland is slowly dying and the Government must act now to save it

Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30

Did you know that the Kilkenny Labour TD Ann Phelan is the Minister of State with special responsibility for rural economic development? No, me neither.

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I'm sure Ann Phelan does a perfectly competent job.

But her name and profile does not exactly leap to mind when we are discussing this currently very important area.

And one wonders exactly how much influence or resources she and her department have in spearheading this crucial part of our national recovery.

Many Fine Gael TDs certainly appear to wonder the same.

At a recent parliamentary meeting of the party, where rural and urban regeneration was the dominant topic, nobody felt compelled to point anxious TDs in the direction of Minister Phelan, or barely mention her name.

Apparently, Fine Gael TDs want action in government from their own party on the matter, and not Labour.

Perhaps they feel that Labour is not exactly your traditional rural party.

But this would be a strange reservation, since Finance Minister Michael Noonan at the meeting pointed anxious TDs to Environment Minister Alan Kelly, who is also Labour and very rural.

The whole thing makes you wonder about how such responsibilities break down and indeed how seriously the concerns of TDs (or junior ministers) are taken in the shaping and development of actual policy.

And this is a real pity, for the proposal by the TDs and Senators was a good one.

They suggested tax relief for those refurbishing vacant buildings in towns for either business or living purposes, along the lines of the Living City initiative.

A motion, tabled by Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin, called for tax breaks for businesses, first-time buyers and owner-occupiers who revive dormant properties in market towns.

However, the response of the Finance Minister was, to say the least, underwhelming and even dismissive, even if not meant to be (he is a busy man, in fairness).

His basic response was that we already have the home improvement grant, but this entirely missed the point of the interesting proposal.

Michael Noonan then referred the TDs to Alan Kelly, but Mr Kelly too is a busy man, with Irish Water and with the homeless crisis - he can hardly have the time to address this as well.

Also missing the point was Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan, who suggested that the matter should be 'examined by an internal working group' which would 'consider the matter for inclusion in the party's general election manifesto.'

But what good will that do, a few airy promises? And must we wait a whole year to the next election, just to think about what we should do? Why not do something now?

Mr Noonan and the other Government brass don't seem to get it.

We need a special czar for rural/urban regeneration.

There is a crisis in our country towns and villages. They are not feeling the trickle-down of the economic recovery, which is overly focused on Dublin and on foreign direct investment, and they are in danger of being wiped out.

No disrespect to Minister of State Phelan, but perhaps the Government should appoint a full minister for this area, with a high profile and major resources so that we can get the recovery into our towns, where it is so desperately needed.

Rural Ireland needs help.

Retail outlets and small businesses are closing and along with other factors, such as the closure of cost-inefficient Garda stations, post offices and pubs, it is a perfect storm of rural decline which may unfortunately be irreversible.

Meanwhile, the arrival of big, foreign shopping chains, often at 'out of town' locations, has decimated the smaller shops and businesses.

And it is the same in urban areas.

At the meeting, Mary Mitchell O'Connor spoke about Dun Laoghaire and Glasthule where, although a minor recovery is underway, there has been a major retail erosion in the past few years.

Help for start-ups has improved but small businesses around the country continue to be hit by an ever-increasing list of taxes, charges and regulations.

New calls for a rise in the minimum wage, already one of the highest in Europe, will only sound the death knell of yet more businesses.

By contrast, it seems the Government and political culture cannot do enough for the big foreign multinationals (MNCs). Granted, these are the saviour of Irish industry and employment, but they are not the only measure of economic success.

These foreign MNCs avail of a very low corporate tax, making it harder for smaller business to compete for labour.

But our over-reliance on MNCs has been likened to the Saudis and oil - with the implication that the Saudis didn't do much to create other forms of industry.

Meanwhile, you really have to wonder how Government policy is created and shaped, given the way this serious and interesting proposal was apparently treated at the Fine Gael parliamentary party.

One would have hoped that such meetings would be used as crucial opportunities for Government TDs to shape policy, but it seems that they are no more effective and meaningful than Leinster House outings for this purpose, and that can't be a good thing.

Irish Independent

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