Opinion: The west needs a plan - and it has to be sustainable

Clare Island is located in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, four miles from the mainland
Clare Island is located in Clew Bay, Co Mayo, four miles from the mainland
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

Many of us may have already broken the New Year’s resolutions we made just a few weeks ago — but it’s interesting to look at these resolutions for the purpose of exploring the whole notion of planning.

Resolutions are a form of planning and generally their intended outcomes mean a better life or a better quality of life.

What has prompted me to come back to this notion was the publication of figures from the CSO and the Western Development Commission in relation to the huge decline of farmers in the west. The 20 years since 1996 has seen a 40pc decrease in people working in agriculture and fishing in the west, which includes Connacht along with the counties Clare and Donegal.

There is a national gasp of “oops” when figures like this are produced, as if nobody anywhere had an idea that such a thing could or would happen.

It reminds me of a story my father used to tell about agricultural improvement classes that were held in the local library in my own home parish during the 1950s and 60s. During one particular course, the tutor had spent two nights sharing his wisdom on the establishment and maintenance of a good kitchen garden. He finished his presentation with a warning to the gathered mixture of eager, seasoned and cynical farmers that decent fencing and a good gate were vital, else all the hard work preparing and sowing the vegetables could come to naught under the hooves of wandering cattle, loose horses or marauding donkeys.

One man put up his hand with a question, “And who told you the crows around here will come walking?” The expert had ignored the most persistent raider and destroyer when it came to kitchen gardens.

When we look at the situation of farmers, and indeed people trying to eke out a range of livelihoods in the west, we have no excuse for being shocked and horrified at the consistent decline. What has happened and what continues to happen is a never-ending cycle caused by a major failure — the failure to plan.

One of the weaknesses in the form of democracy we practice in this country is that it breeds reactors and discourages planners. The short-term nature of programmes for government and the need to please most of the people most of the time in order to protect one’s seat in a multi-seat constituency means that leadership, courage and vision are in short supply. Funerals, grants and schemes are the order of the day.

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One of the successes to hit the west coast in recent years has been the Wild Atlantic Way, an imaginative and creative initiative that has put the western seaboard on the ‘must-do’ tourist maps of the world.

It hasn’t brought unbounded prosperity to all coastal communities — but it has brought more people.

The decent, long-term thinking and planning that went into it has laid the basis for a sustainable generator of jobs and income. Some would claim it brought more buses and fewer bus stops but at least the numbers are going in the right direction.

There needs to be a considered and long-term approach to tackle western decline, especially in farming. There will be no sustainable communities in the west without some form or forms of sustainable agriculture that are sensitive and responsive to the peculiarities of the place.

It continues to be a struggle for farmers in these areas to have their needs recognised as the wealthier counties and the more profitable agricultural sectors power ahead. Talk to the hill farmers in the region, they feel they have trouble getting anyone to listen to them.

The west is tired of reactive policies, ad-hoc reactions to flooding, fodder shortages and infrastructural degradation.

The region needs a sort of a Marshall Plan that is immune to the hazards and vicissitudes of political fortunes, a plan that will stand firm and ensure that Castlebar doesn’t get pneumonia every time Castleknock sneezes.

The expertise exists in the country to draw up such a plan, there is a wealth of policy and funding at EU level to support such a plan and there are examples of initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way that have worked. All that is needed is a dollop of leadership and political will.

Otherwise, the crows will come walking, because there will be neither woman, man nor beast to halt their progress and force them into the sky.


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