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Independent.ie

Monday 22 January 2018

Opinion: What we wouldn't give in the country for a small bit of congestion

A country road in Co Kerry
A country road in Co Kerry
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Last week, the Taoiseach launched 'Ireland 2040', variously described as a report, consultation or plan.

I turned on the live link to the launch. No matter how I moved the volume sliders, I couldn't raise Enda's voice above a murmur. Undeterred, I logged on to the website ireland2040.ie.

There, a number of documents revealed the start of a process whereby individuals, groups and agencies can make suggestions about how Ireland might deal with present and emerging social, economic and environmental challenges. The intention is that they will feed into a plan.

I live in rural Ireland and could make no connection with many of the challenges: things like urban sprawl, congestion and the housing crisis.

That is not to dismiss these, because I know they are a reality for a great many people.

But it really is ironic.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of 'Ireland 2040 Our Plan' Photo: Damien Eagers
Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of 'Ireland 2040 Our Plan' Photo: Damien Eagers

Dublin is feeling the problems of having too many people, while many rural areas are feeling those associated with having too few. Both are bearing the brunt of infrastructural shortcomings. What wouldn't we give for a bit of congestion!

What did make a connection with me last week is news of the imminent closure of our local shop, in Ballacolla. It's a traditional village grocery, selling newspapers to locals, ice creams to kids, the odd ham sandwich to a passing tourist.

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When I came to Ballacolla some 15 years ago, there were three pubs, a farm co-op, the shop, a Garda station and a post office.

The Garda station closure in 2013 made us feel less safe, less important. A year later, the post office closed on the retirement of its postmistress. Then, in 2015, a new service station opened a couple of miles away, at M8 junction 3.

When the post office went, local man Michael G Phelan said it would "close the shop across the road". "The G" is not a prophet but that is what's coming to pass.

East of here, Durrow village is doing fairly well, thanks to a couple of vibrant committees and the luck of having some natural and built attractions. Closer to Portlaoise, the heritage town of Abbeyleix is also tipping along, but head off in any other direction and there is a pattern of decay.

People are sick of plans, sick of talk. If politicians really want to know what rural people want, why do they not listen to what they are already saying?

Post offices are at the heart of rural Ireland. Mail volumes have dropped by 40pc since their peak in 2007.

I accept post offices shouldn't be kept open just for the sake of it. But surely there are ways to make them more relevant.

If something isn't done, when those who are alive now die out, there won't be others to replace them because they will have left. Many of those with the drive necessary to set up a business and sustain a vibrant society are already gone.

I also recognise that communities need to help themselves. But morale is low and, on the ground, there is no real sense of support for turning things around.

The other issue that rural dwellers have long been agitating about is broadband, but it barely gets a mention in the report. Rather, there is aspirational talk about things like 're-energising'.

Still, at least this is a start. Notwithstanding some echoes of FF's 2002 election slogan, 'A Lot Done - More to Do', it shows a certain maturity to acknowledge that all is not well. Hopefully, it is a foundation stone on which to build a good Ireland for the next generation.

The closing date for submissions is March 16.


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