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Sunday 17 February 2019

Muintir na Tíre on the frontline of rural battle

From rural electrification to the fights for broadband and against rural crime, Muintir has been a key ally to many for generations

Mike Sweeney, President of Muintir na Tíre at the Educational Remembrance Gardens set up following the closure of Kilross National School in Tipperary. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22
Mike Sweeney, President of Muintir na Tíre at the Educational Remembrance Gardens set up following the closure of Kilross National School in Tipperary. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22
Mike Sweeney, Patsy McLean, Niall Garvey and Sean Finn at a Muintir na Tíre regional meeting in Mitchelstown, Co Cork
Claire Fox

Claire Fox

In Michael Shiel's book A Quiet Revolution, he calls the electrification of Ireland's countryside "the greatest social and economic revolution in rural Ireland since the Land War."

In 1947 Muintir na Tíre, an up-and-coming rural empowerment organisation, was a key driver in encouraging communities to take part in the new rural electrification scheme.

Now over 70 years later, Muintír na Tire CEO Niall Garvey says he won't accept the popular opinion that rural Ireland is dead or dying and feels that the organisation can play a huge part leading another social revolution in the region.

Muintir na Tíre has been in existence since 1937 and has over 200 community councils operating in virtually every parish in the country. These councils are involved in setting up community crèches and playgrounds and work in conjunction with the Gardaí in sending vital community text alerts.

Mike Sweeney, Patsy McLean, Niall Garvey and Sean Finn at a Muintir na Tíre regional meeting in Mitchelstown, Co Cork
Mike Sweeney, Patsy McLean, Niall Garvey and Sean Finn at a Muintir na Tíre regional meeting in Mitchelstown, Co Cork

Neil says that these text alerts offer a lifeline to those who are vulnerable or fearful of rural crime.

"The community text reduces fear for elderly people or those who are vulnerable, even if they are on their own they will be aware of what is happening," says Neil.

"At times I think there is a fear of crime in rural Ireland rather than a fear of actual crime. In reality crime in rural areas here is much less than in other countries, but if someone doesn't have a neighbour when they read about high-profile violent crimes of someone being tied up or beaten, they often think: 'that could be me'.

"Some people in communities do sleep with bolts on the door and with a shotgun by their bed because if intruders get in to their house, at least they won't get them in their room."

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In October, Muintir na Tíre president Mike Sweeney, an agricultural consultant based in Kilross, Co Tipperary, told the Oireachtas Justice Committee that crime gangs use drones to target rural areas.

He told the Farming Independent that crime gangs are "better financed and are better equipped" than the Gardaí and that's why they outsmart them.

"Communities are in constant fear of professional criminals who are targeting rural areas. These criminals are better financed and better equipped than the Gardaí and have the latest technology," he points out.

In an effort to reduce the fear of crime that is felt by many in rural Ireland and to help give isolated people a sense of belonging, Muintir na Tíre have developed an app called Cairde which is running in three pilot areas in Wexford, Cork and Kildare.

The app involves every member having a cairde on their phones which is a group of people who have agreed to come to your aid if there is an emergency.

The app also allows unlimited messages to be sent to your cairde or community group. A panic button feature can also be pressed to alert the cairde or Gardaí when a person is in danger and needs help.

Suckler farmer and poultry producer Paddy Byrne is a Muintir na Tíre member in Askamore, Co Wexford where Cairde is being trialled. He says the app is making people feel safer in their own homes and feels that it could be rolled out to other areas in the future.

Askamore member Helen Kearney adds that since the recent trial began: "We have been able to use Cairde to post about social events, upcoming trips, electrical outages, fallen trees, classes and courses, and new transport services within our area.

"This has been a great way for us to ensure that everyone in our area knows what's happening and that we have more people informed on a daily/weekly basis. It is also hugely successful in reaching people who would otherwise not be aware of these community alerts."

Paddy says it's easy for the doom and gloom of suckler prices to get you down but feels its organisations like Muintir na Tíre that help bring rural Ireland together during tough times.

Battering

"With Brexit and everything in farming, organisations like Muintir na Tíre are more important than ever. Rural areas really took a battering since the last recession with Garda station closures and post offices shutting down," he says.

"Local TDs make so many promises at local meetings but nothing ever changes and there seems to be no urgency around broadband or rural services either."

President Mike, who works with pig farmers, agrees that his work with the Muintir na Tíre branch in Lisvernane, tucked in the Glen of Aherlow in Co Tipperary, provides moments of reprieve from the difficult situation the Irish pig industry is facing at the moment.

"Prices of pigs are very difficult at the moment. Numbers of pig farmers are dropping at a frightening rate. It will all depend on the outcome of Brexit but everyone has an opinion on that and nothing is being done. Pig farmers are survivors."

Mike says that revamping GAA pitches and Tidy Towns projects are just some of the initiatives that the Liservane group has undertaken. He feels that all of these activities help reduce rural isolation but that the government has to do more to help.

"There's a lack of transport and this adds to isolation. Local pubs and shops are finding it difficult to stay open. Rural Ireland has so much potential but the government has to play its part."

Education

Neil adds that the organisation would be more than willing to give education programmes on broadband to rural people if a National Scheme were to be rolled out, just like it did for rural electrification and for the switch to Saorview television in 2011.

"Broadband is a big issue in rural Ireland and if we had better broadband it would solve a lot of issues such as employment. Muintir na Tíre is all about empowering communities so if there was any way we could help with broadband, we would be more than willing," says Neil.

"Obviously if it was a State broadband service that was rolled out we would be able to help but that would be more difficult if it was a commercial process."

Neil, who is from Co Clare, is able to work remotely from home some days of the week due to good broadband access and feels if it was better in other parts of rural Ireland it would lead to an increase in remote workers.

"My working week is an example of what could be achieved in rural Ireland if better broadband was widespread. It would lead to better certainty for people to work from home and increase the number of young people living in the countryside."

Neil points out that access to basic services is a must if the gap between development in Dublin and development in rural Ireland is ever going to be filled.

"If rural Ireland is going to be a viable place to live hospitals are needed within a reasonable distance and long waiting times for ambulances aren't acceptable. It can be achieved with imaginative thinking."

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