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Sunday 25 February 2018

New minister is keen to ensure rural Ireland gets its due

The pressure to reclaim lost ground for Fine Gael now falls to Heather Humphreys. Photo: Mark Condren
The pressure to reclaim lost ground for Fine Gael now falls to Heather Humphreys. Photo: Mark Condren
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The word 'rural' appears in the new Programme for Government 71 times compared with 'economy', which makes it in only 50 times.

On a very basic level that is an easy way of explaining how Fine Gael has changed its outlook on Ireland since the General Election.

Their 'Keep the Recovery Going' slogan was devoured outside the Pale but, in the 70 days it took to form a government, rural Ireland found its way to the top of the agenda.

The pressure to reclaim lost ground for Fine Gael now falls to Heather Humphreys, a relatively unknown minister who is about to be cast into the spotlight.

"You'll think I set this up but the cow out the back is calving," she roars with laughter, as I arrive at her kitchen table for her first interview since her appointment as Minister for Regional Development, Rural Affairs, Arts and the Gaeltacht.

More than anything, the mother-of-two is keen to prove her rural credentials. Ms Humphreys grew up on a farm in the village of Drum and her husband Eric breeds pedigree cattle near the village of Newbliss, in Co Monaghan.

Her 'ministerial transport' around here is a well-worn Isuzu pick-up.

With visitors arriving she has the good Denby mugs out and fresh scones. And if it weren't for the newly printed Programme for Government and stacks of briefing notes spread across the table, she could play the part of a traditional farmer's wife.

But she is quick to admit she is under no illusions that rural affairs is now edging close to health and housing on the list of priority ministries. Her brief is vast and much of the Programme for Government is hugely aspirational, but she insists one thing will change during her tenure: "When you hear about rural Ireland now, it's all about it being in decline. We can turn that around and be positive."

She claims to "understand the issues" and wants to be "an enabler for rural Ireland".

"I want to hear about rural Ireland being a place that young people want to go and it's a place where people want to live. I want to generate an excitement around rural Ireland because I certainly wouldn't like to live anywhere else."

Broadband, transport, post offices, credit unions, indigenous business, town regeneration and schools are all topics now on her agenda, as well as her existing brief that takes in Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

Her early days as a minister was rocked by the 'McNulty affair' which saw her engulfed in a cronyism row that was largely constructed by the Fine Gael hierarchy. But in more recent times she has been widely praised for overseeing the hugely successful 1916 commemorations.

"We pulled that together. I think rural Ireland needs that same collaborative approach. It's about bringing all of the different stakeholders together and working with them. If people have good ideas I want to hear them."

Irish Independent

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