Saturday 7 December 2019

Ailish O'Hora: Action needed as rural Ireland faces serious Brexit threat

TK Whitaker
TK Whitaker

Ailish O'Hora

Ireland West Airport Knock, or Knock Airport to most of us, recorded record passenger numbers last year, new figures show. There was a 7pc increase in passenger traffic, with 734,031 people using it in 2016, up 48,563 on the year.

That's good news for the region, of course.

The Co Mayo airport employs 175 people directly and an estimated 900 indirectly, contributing millions to the local economy.

But the figures belie another story and one that will only become more relevant once Brexit is triggered later this year.

It's the curse of the urban/rural divide.

Just around the corner from Knock Airport is the N5 Charlestown bypass.

It was named after Charlestown journalist John Healy - a champion for rural Ireland from the 1960s onwards.

His book No One Shouted Stop (The Death of an Irish Town), was published in 1968 and most people of my generation grew up in his shadow in the sense that he chronicled the decline of rural life in the west of Ireland during a time of mass emigration. I grew up nearby - in Kiltimagh, Co Mayo and a big chunk of my classmates either emigrated to the UK or the US.

What the recent Knock Airport figures don't include is a breakdown of the number of those leaving the airport every Sunday/Monday to and returning, mainly from the UK, on Thursday or Friday to spend precious time with their families.

It is estimated that between 5pc and 10pc of the UK traffic to and from the airport is made up of these commuters.

And while the figures may have decreased since we were in the throes of the last recession, they still represent an ongoing blight on rural Ireland, with the more recent recovery only highlighting the divide between the capital and bigger cities and the rest of the country.

According to CSO figures for the second quarter of 2016, employment in Dublin was just 4pc below its pre-financial crisis peak.

In the Border, South West and West regions employment is still over 10pc below the pre-crisis peak. And in the Midlands and Mid West the figures are over 9pc lower than the pre crisis peak.

Enterprise Ireland was quick to point out earlier this week that two-thirds of the 19,000 jobs created by companies backed by the agency were outside of Dublin.

However, figures from IDA Ireland revealed a different story - 48pc of jobs created by its client companies were based in Dublin.

Multinationals will always go to the areas with the best telecommunications, housing and transport infrastructure - so that rules out large swathes of the country.

Brexit, unfortunately, is likely to worsen this divide.

And while it is becoming increasingly obvious that this country's economic policy is too focused on the multinational sector, two other key sectors of potential growth, farming/food and tourism, are very vulnerable to Brexit.

It is not just sectoral, we get the same results when we look at the picture spatially and ultimately it's rural Ireland that will suffer the most.

The EU pretty much spends more on agriculture than it does on anything else and Irish farmers receive about €1.5bn in payments annually.

Depending who you talk to, the EU budget would have to be slashed by between 10pc and 12pc when the UK leaves because its contribution would be gone and unless - and it is doubtful - other member states pony up to make the difference, we're looking at cuts to EU payments and supports.

In addition, Teagasc's National Farm Survey shows that 59,000 out of 79,000 would make absolutely no money without EU subsidies.

There are equally solemn warnings from Fáilte Ireland in terms of the tourism industry, although it is upbeat about new markets and those outside of Britain.

The tourism body said Brexit dominated as a concern for tourism businesses going into 2017, and was mentioned as an issue for 64pc of respondents to its Tourism Barometer.

Given the weakness of sterling, Fáilte Ireland research showed that value for money ratings amongst British visitors dipped from 58pc to 50pc in the third quarter of 2016.

The Charter for Rural Ireland was launched at the end of last year amid much fanfare and little has been seen, or heard, of it since.

It was designed to improve coordination and co-operation not just between Government departments and agencies but also between these bodies and rural communities.

Maybe it's time to dust it down and start swotting.

TK Whitaker's wise words remain timely

I had the honour of meeting and interviewing the late, great, TK Whitaker in the depths of the recession back in 2010.

It was a horrible wet evening and I remember thinking the weather reflected the mood of the country at the time.

I really didn't know what to expect, given his achievements, and was a bit awestruck.

But he was charming, disarming and funny.

We swapped stories about Mayo - a keen fisherman, he had a holiday home north of the county.

We eventually got onto discussing the economy.

The ECB/IMF/EU troika already had their feet under the table at the Merrion Hotel and economic fear gripped the country.

But the man credited with the creation of modern Ireland was in no mood for apportioning blame, despite my encouragement.

"I am not going to go into the blame game - I still have a few years to live," he said - and he did.

He was celebrating his 94th birthday that week.

He was equally upbeat about Ireland's ability to recover.

"Of course I think we will get out of it," he added.

"But I'm very unhappy there is such mess - a boom sets you into the wrong psychology - you think it's going to last forever."

Thankfully it didn't. But given the headwinds facing us, from Brexit to political uncertainty within the EU and outside, another opinion of his is equally timely.

"I do think we have to moderate our pride when taking advice." His wise words are as timely now as they were back in 2010.

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