Friday 30 September 2016

The day the rural heartland revolted and cried: 'Where is our recovery?'

For the mother whose four sons had emigrated, Fine Gael's mantra was an insult

Claire McCormack

Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30

Presiding Officer Carmel McBride and Garda Sergeant Paul McGee carry a ballot box away from a polling station after voting concluded on the island of Inishbofin, Co Galway, on February 25. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Presiding Officer Carmel McBride and Garda Sergeant Paul McGee carry a ballot box away from a polling station after voting concluded on the island of Inishbofin, Co Galway, on February 25. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Enda Kenny and Joan Burton got the kicking they deserved in provincial Ireland.

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For rural voters, the Fine Gael election mantra of "keeping the recovery going" was an insult, a sick joke.

And so, nine days ago, in polling stations from Cahir to Caherlistrane, Bunclody to Belturbet, rural Ireland shouted 'STOP.'

The man forced to close down the family hardware business after 60 years, the woman whose home was raided by thugs with no garda available to her within 30 miles, and the cattle and sheep farmers struggling to make ends meet, looked down the ballot paper and delivered their answer.

On Saturday night, Enda Kenny remarked that "democracy is merciless".

He was right, but both Government parties did so little for vast swathes of the Irish countryside in the past few years that they hardly deserved clemency from the electorate.

Talk of "keeping the recovery going" was a cruel joke to the old-age pensioner, worried about affording turf for next winter and who was the recipient of the insulting €3 pension increase.

And the mother who has watched four of her college- educated children emigrate with no sign of them coming home doesn't see the country being "on the up". She can't even Skype because there is no broadband in the area.

Nor the father still supporting his 30-year-old son, now living at home because of sky-high rents where the work is.

The unemployed nurse, the underpaid teacher, the young professional who can't get a loan to buy a car, the student facing a future of low-paid internships and graduate schemes haven't seen a "recovery" either.

The same goes for the homeowner still pumping flood water away from his property along the River Shannon. He had to travel to the local polling station by tractor. The ageing widow who lives down a narrow country lane struggling to get home help - she, too, can't see any green shoots.

Now the blame game has begun with D4, Fine Gael strategists bearing the brunt of criticism. It's an argument that doesn't hold much water. The party's seasoned, elected leadership signed off on the "recovery message" and the rural TDs fell over themselves to deliver the motto on local radio and in the provincial papers.

It was hubris writ large - pride before a fall. Bustling coffee shops and heavily booked restaurants in the Google bosom of Dublin's south city enclave does not a recovery make.

For the past five years, political writers from The New York Times to Time Magazine have questioned the term 'the fighting Irish'.

From the beginning of the recession, they've asked why we weren't up in arms protesting against crippling austerity cuts like our neighbours in Greece and Spain? Why hundreds of thousands of our young people collectively accepted that emigration was the only way forward? Why our smaller towns stood by as business after business shut up shop? Why communities didn't march against the closure of Garda stations, post offices, banks and local GP practices?

Although the introduction of controversial water charges finally pushed people onto the streets of Dublin, down the country people bided their time, waiting for the one day when their voice would really be heard.

That moment finally arrived on February 26. It was time for the people to have their say on the broken promises and constant whipping of a Government that had lost touch with the heartland.

Yes, Fine Gael and Labour inherited a hot mess of enormous debt and rising unemployment when they took over from Fianna Fail in 2011, but the hard truth is, half a decade later, the people of rural Ireland feel no better off.

(People are still angry that Fine Gael didn't do more to prevent the crash in the first place).

They may not have been holding placards, but the people's message was loud and clear : "Enough is enough, we want change". And now, the rural cannonball is bouncing off the walls of Leinster House.

Last week, the Sunday Independent caught up with Michael Fitzmaurice, the newly re-elected Independent TD for Roscommon-Galway, on his drive home from Government Buildings to the rural parish of Glinsk along the county border.

The Independent Alliance TD is one of many like-minded provincial heavyweights spearheading a rural revolution. These include the newly elected Dr Michael Harty, Independent TD and 'No Doctor, No Village' in County Clare, Michael Collins, Independent TD for Cork South West and Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, of Longford Westmeath.

When asked why middle Ireland rejected the possibility of returning a Fine Gael- Labour-led coalition, Mr Fitzmaurice said: "They didn't buy into the slogan, simple as that. It's no good telling people something that's not happening; that really vexes people," he said.

"People are trying to keep going, but they are at their wits' end and then you have the Government telling them to keep the recovery going," he said. "It's no good when you're not in touch with the people, the Government went and got a bit arrogant and they got a kick in the backside," he said.

Although Mr Fitzmaurice said some of the electorate in Roscommon, Leitrim and Galway acknowledged "a slight stabilisation" on the doorsteps, he repeatedly faced frustrations over high unemployment, lack of broadband and a drop-off in mental health and transport services.

"Everywhere we go, people are struggling with broadband. The reality is a lot of people in rural areas can't even get one bar of coverage, it's absolutely brutal," he said.

Currently, Mr Fitzmaurice, can't do radio interviews in his own home because the mobile phone reception is so bad.

"These are all simple problems, if you can't get a bit of phone coverage and internet connection, how can you say that places are viable for businesses and farmers," he said.

During his canvass of Connacht, he also noticed that elderly voters living in remote areas refused to answer the door after 7.30pm.

"People now have a fear of opening the door in hours of darkness in case they'll be robbed," he said. He says the impact of emigration has left many families with a sense of hopelessness about the future.

In one townland, he met two families just yards apart, one family had four of five children in Australia and the other had a father and all but one daughter working abroad.

"Everyday someone told us they had lost hope, they told us that they don't believe things will change, that they see no future for their loved ones here in Ireland. That worries me," he said.

At the same time, they've remained resilient. Locals are working to keep the social fabric alive through community groups, community spirit and neighbourly goodness.

Mr Fitzmaurice has spent many months developing a Rural Recovery and Reinvestment Plan.

"It will not solve all of rural Ireland's problems. It may not bring back those who have gone to start a new life abroad, but it may bring back the recently emigrated and prevent future generations having to set sail.

"It doesn't seek to give rural Ireland greater rights or privileges than cities but to put us on a level playing field and give families, communities and businesses the hand-up they need to thrive," he said. He stressed that hope must be restored.

"We must, and will, continue to fight on and work to bring the recovery to rural Ireland, and bring our children home. We do this because we have to, and I do it because I personally believe rural recovery can be achieved," he said.

After a marathon election battle in Longford-Westmeath, newly elected Independent TD Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, intends to champion rural issues in the Dail.

"We canvassed in parts of Keenagh, Ballymahon, Kinnegad, right down into Milltownpass, and they didn't feel any recovery at all. When you see people coming to the doors in their pyjamas and they've nothing to do, they feel let down," he said.

He believed the Taoiseach's controversial description of some Castlebar people as "All-Ireland whingers" had a major impact on the heave against Fine Gael.

Mr Moran, who has worked in rural politics for 17 years, said youth unemployment, and the quality of rural jobs needs to be addressed.

"Jobs are plain buttons in terms of money. Getting €380 a week might keep them out of the breadline and off the dole but it won't entitle them to borrow money to buy a car, get married or get a mortgage; that element of rural life has to be looked at," he said.

He said the time for promises is over.

"Fianna Fail and Fine Gael warned that electing Independents would lead to an unstable government, but people didn't heed them. They elected us because they know who we are and where we're from. They've given us the mandate for change, now we must work together to ensure a recovery is felt by all," he said.

Sunday Independent

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