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Opinion: Banner County dissident will keep battling for the community

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Dr Michael Harty. Pic Tom Burke

Dr Michael Harty. Pic Tom Burke

Dr Michael Harty. Pic Tom Burke

The only place in Dr Michael Harty's house which has a half-decent mobile phone signal is the upstairs bathroom. On this day last year the Independent TD for Clare was only on his second day of his election canvass.

He ran a short, sharp, shock campaign which succeeded. In short order he had decided on January 10 to stand for election; on January 19 he launched his campaign; on January 30 he went canvassing for the first time; and on February 26 he was elected to the second of Clare's four Dáil seats. The "No Doctor - No Village" message resonated with voters.

At Leinster House he sits with six other like-minded Independent TDs, the Healy-Rae brothers, Mattie McGrath, Michael Collins, Michael Lowry and Noel Grealish, all of whom have a rural focus. They have finally chosen the name Rural Alliance to distinguish them from other Independent groupings.

"We thought of 'Rural Independent Group'. But then Danny Healy-Rae pointed out that we could be called 'RIGs' and that is also a term for a bull that does not work in that department," he jokes.

Accessible medical care is among challenges facing rural Ireland. One third of rural GPs are over 55, and many rural people must travel to multi-doctor practices in the larger towns because the single-doctor rural model is deemed out-dated.

But the loss of the local doctor goes along with the loss of the post office, garda station, pharmacy, school and other facilities. "It undermines village life and unravels the fabric of rural society," he argues.

Since his election, he has handed over the medical work in Kilmihil, west Clare, to a locum doctor. His wife, Geraldine, continues as the practice nurse. He decided "you either do one or the other".

On May 6 last he voted for Enda Kenny as Taoiseach because he believed government was required and nobody wanted another election. He insists his support is largely "case by case" but he will, for the foreseeable future, support the minority coalition on votes of confidence and money matters to allow it continue.

But he is not happy with the failure to deliver a promised full minister for regional and rural development and believes the unbalanced development is largely unchanged.

He cites the poor mobile phone coverage, the lack of broadband for up to half the nation's population, and the poor state of roads. These are all hindering development and sending job creation to the big cities.

"I accept the bulk of high-tech jobs will go to cities. But the bigger towns, like Ennis or Kilrush, could take a lot of them if we had properly-planned development and resources like broadband," he argues.

The case of Shannon Airport, with many large empty sites in its adjoining industrial area, really wrankles. Dublin Airport is to get another runway which could boost yearly passenger numbers from almost 30 million to some 50 million.

"Shannon Airport currently carries 1.4 million passengers per year. Surely it could do far more than that," he insists.

For now he is going to continue arguing the case for Clare and the western seaboard generally. He is reassured by the recent appointment of a liaison officer to improve communications with government.

Finally, he is keen to dispel one myth. Last summer there was recurring speculation that he was being "groomed" for a government post if battling Waterford Independent TD, John Halligan, was to quit. "That was just speculation in the media. There were no approaches - it never happened," he says.

He also notes that in politics Clare likes dissidents generally and doctors specifically.

John Downing is an Irish Independent political correspondent

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