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Monday 16 July 2018

Kevin Doyle: Leo has to realise that rural Ireland is not dead and gone

The economic recovery has reached beyond the M50, but a rebellion is coming if services aren't put in place, writes Kevin Doyle

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar
D4 MINISTER: Eoghan Murphy. Photo: RollingNews.ie
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

It's exactly two years ago since Enda Kenny called the General Election and set off to tell the country he would "Keep The Recovery Going".

The Mayo man travelled the length and breath of Ireland - but his message was all wrong for those who live beyond the M50.

So what has changed in the time since? Well, the recovery has indeed worked its way past the Red Cow Roundabout.

Without exception, unemployment is down in every county. Dairy farm incomes hit a phenomenal average record high of more than €90,000 last year. And a weekend trip to Galway or Tullamore will leave you in no doubt that people are spending again.

But that's not enough - because for all the improvements outside of Dublin, it's still far from boom time.

Basic services are not up to scratch, long commutes have become the norm and family life is not what it was.

Another thing that has changed since February 2016 is the Taoiseach. Gone is the west of Ireland lilt, replaced by what some see as a "posh boy" from Castleknock.

That perception in itself is enough of a reason for Leo Varadkar to pay extra attention to what happens beyond the pale - and his TDs know it.

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For several weeks now, a "rural uprising" has been brewing in Fine Gael. Ministers and TDs are deeply worried about the forthcoming National Planning Framework (NPF) and have not been shy about letting "D4 Minister" Eoghan Murphy know.

The Taoiseach has been warned by some of his senior colleagues that the plan, which sets out the vision for Ireland up to 2040, is not to be launched in Dublin by himself, Mr Murphy and Paschal Donohoe.

Sources say Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring and Business Minister Heather Humphreys are not happy.

And a recent meeting, Fine Gael TDs and senators heard gripes from junior ministers Patrick O'Donovan, Sean Kyne, Andrew Doyle and David Stanton along with party chairman Martin Heydon and a long list of backbenchers.

Sources say that behind the scenes there have been some pretty abrasive rows.

The shortlist of problems included the idea that Shane Ross cares more about buying buses for Dublin than rural roads and Brexit will crucify the agri-food sector.

The withdrawal of Eir from the process aimed at bringing high-speed broadband down every laneway has sent shockwaves through ranks.

"It's a massive problem. Simon Coveney called it an 'emotive issue'. It's not only that it's an election issue that will cost us dearly," said one TD. Beyond that, the fears run deep. TDs are concerned that one-off housing is becoming a thing of the past.

Just 192 primary schools have access to ultra-fast broadband and most of them are in Dublin. Almost 100 schools have no high-speed internet at all. And there is the perennial problem of rural post offices and garda stations.

Fine Gael TDs want the Taoiseach to understand that modern-day problems aren't just defined by owning a negative equity apartment in a city suburb or having to deal with traffic congestion.

They won't have been overly encouraged by his contribution to the Seanad last week when he warned that more post offices and garda stations would close.

He said: "The number of post offices is going down everywhere, including in the cities, because people now have bank cards and use the internet... The number of post offices will go down in rural and urban Ireland and the number of garda stations will go down as well, because the garda stations were built before there were garda cars."

Varadkar did make a valid point that if we judge the success of rural Ireland based on post offices and garda stations, "we're making an enormous mistake".

But that's why the soon-to-be-published NPF is such a big moment for him and the party.

By 2040, the population will have grown by another million people. We'll need at least an extra 600,000 jobs and half-a-million additional homes. It is even suggested in the plan that half the jobs people will work in by then may not even exist today.

The number of people over 65 will more than double and we are likely to be facing increased climate pressures. The challenges are huge - which means there is little room for error.

The report sets out how the Government should target to have 50pc of overall national growth spread between Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford.

That focus on the cities has scared TDs to the point that it's understood Mr Murphy's officials have been doing a massive redesign to ensure the document is seen to equally prioritise rural towns.

They are trying to balance how best to protect an economy with how best to ensure a decent quality of life outside or urban centres.

The existing draft has a foreword from Mr Ring in which he says it "reflects rural Ireland and our regions as key elements in the development of our country for the next two decades and beyond".

That's a statement he needs to be able to stand over when Eamon O Cuiv, Alan Kelly, Eoin O Broin and Michael Fitzmaurice come after him in the next few weeks.

Already, Mr Kelly says the NPF is "singularly the most important document for the future of the county" - but added that the North West "might as well be somewhere in outer space".

"This document will kill rural Ireland," he claims.

Tomorrow, the Cabinet will meet to "politically proof" the NPF. Based on it, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe will then sign-off on a 10-year capital plan that see investment spread to every part of the country.

There will be no pleasing all of the people - but they must try to stop the narrative of a country versus city divide.

Otherwise, there's a rebellion coming over the hill.


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