Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

It is a mistake to meddle with LEADER says Walsh

Ken Whelan

When the LEADER companies first heard Environment Minister Phil Hogan's plans to 'realign' rural development structures to give county councils and county managers a key role in policy development and implementation, there was a nervous response from within the sector.

It was a case of "negative at worst or here we go again at best", Maura Walsh remembers.

And this reaction has been echoed by more than 5,000 people who attended a series of local meetings in rural Ireland on the 'alignment' issue recently.

For a while the promise from Minister Hogan for a consultation process on the proposed changes calmed matters but this, in Walsh's words, turned out to be "a mere promise".

She says the consultation launched by Minister Hogan was a "sham" because the plan was a "done deal" from the start.

"All we got was spin and more spin. In football terms the minister played the man not the ball," she maintains.

"There was no consultation. Things were going to be centralised as per the minister's plan and instead of LEADER being a bottom up programme it is to change into a top down programme. And it will not work," she stressed.

"Rural development does not work like that. It is a community based thing not a politics-based thing. Having abolished so much of local government it was probably thought it was better get something for the county councils to do," she says.

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The central argument which runs through opposition to Minister Hogan's proposals is simple: Why replace efficient and cost effective LEADER staff and their development experience with more expensive local government officials – with all the contractual and employment law consequences which that will involve?

The second question those in the rural development sector ask is why vest European Union money and Exchequer co-funding in what is a more expensively run arm of government?

"The minister could be looking at another Irish Water here," Walsh claimed.

In a statement to the Farming Independent last week, Minister Hogan insisted the proposed changes to the administrative structures for rural development would result in the programme being delivered in a more efficient manner, reduce overhead costs and result in a larger proportion of LEADER funding going to support development programmes.

He also insisted that local authorities would not take over delivery of the programme but would provide both technical and administrative support for the community development projects.

However, Maura Walsh argues that the changes being proposed are not necessary.

She also maintains that the releasing of the salaries of the LEADER chief executives and dismissing the LEADER companies as rural quangos, were "simply appalling".

Walsh is chief executive officer of Duhallow IRD and her salary was quoted correctly at €93,000 .

She maintains that some of the salaries quoted were incorrect. The release of the CEO salaries has now been brought to the attention of the Data Commissioner and, in some cases, legal actions are being considered, Walsh claims.

"The use of incorrect salary rates in such a way shocked and horrified people.

"It was using voyeuristic tactics. People were taken aback. Where was the sense of public service and the old noblesse oblige maxim in that?" she asks.

"But when the issue raised its head at the various LEADER meetings all the chief executives got the resounding backing of their communities. The feeling was you are worth every cent of it," she comments.

She says it would be a mistake for the authorities to meddle with a successful programme such as LEADER.

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