'Lads got very sophisticated after moving up to Dublin'
Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring hits back at critics who say he invests too much in his own seat, writes Philip Ryan
The State car pulls up outside the Castlecourt Hotel in Westport, Co Mayo, shortly after 8am. Michael 'the ringer' Ring comes bounding into reception and beckons: "Are you right? We need to get going." Gerard Murphy sits at the wheel of the black Audi A4, as he does most days.
Ring, the recently appointed Rural Affairs Minister, wants to show off his West of Ireland kingdom. Over the course of seven hours, Gerard chauffeurs us around the coastal towns and villages that make up Ring's North West Mayo constituency.
Soon after his appointment, Ring told a private Fine Gael gathering in Mayo: "I love money and I love spending it." And he loves spending it in his constituency. He is unashamed about what some would brand 'parish pump politics'.
As junior minister in the Department of Transport, Sport and Tourism, he ensured his home town received its share of the Government funding spoils because he believed Mayo had been forgotten during years of Fianna Fail administrations.
From the front seat of the Audi, he points to sports clubs, community centres and playgrounds which he says would not have been built without his support. "A lot of that investment was got during the bad times too," he says proudly.
He is dismissive of detractors who criticise him for fighting for his constituency and insists every scheme he ran has been transparent and the grants "spread evenly".
"If I get funding, my job is to spend that funding and to make sure it is spent wisely and where it is needed," he says. "Just because Mayo got some funding, I don't know why there was criticism. I make no apologies for putting money into rural Ireland." The minister adds that his critics are "lads that got awful sophisticated" when they moved to Dublin and "forgot their roots".
He notes that there are people in his constituency, which stretches from Westport to Achill and beyond, who are 50km away from the nearest hospital in Castlebar and more than an hour and half away from the closest major hospital in Galway. "If you had someone going for an appointment from Dublin to Athlone, they would be on the Joe Duffy show complaining every day," he adds.
Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny's Castlebar is an industrial town which has struggled to bounce back from the economic downturn. Kenny was criticised for the lack of investment. "If he did invest, he would be criticised for being parochial and if I do, I get criticised for doing it. You can't win," Ring says.
The minister's motto is: "You satisfy some, dissatisfy others but you represent all."
One of Ring's proudest achievements is the Great Western Greenway - a cycle and walking track that winds along Mayo's coastline.
Westport and beyond have seen substantial investment in tourism to make up for the lack of business. Towns such as Mulranny and Newport look brand new after a lick of paint and a few new footpaths.
Tourists can be seen cycling and strolling along the picturesque pathway against the Atlantic coast. Old railway stations have been converted into bathroom and shower facilities for travellers.
Ring's coastal tour of Mayo can at times feel like you are travelling around North Korea with Kim Jong-un. There's no dissent, no protesters. No one has anything negative to say about the new minister.
The ladies in Ballinglen Arts Foundation thank him for the funding he secured for their centre and reward him with tea and carrot cake. He's introduced to a rapturous round of applause at the opening of a new greenway route in Killala.
Local Fianna Fail TD Annie May Reape is glowing in her admiration of a political rival who taught her a "few tricks" when they served on Mayo County Council together. He's even applauded at a pyrite meeting with Junior Housing Minister Damien English in Geesala by people who are losing their homes to shoddy building practices.
These towns are fighting back against recession which crippled their communities and led to mass emigration.
Ring believes the west is still being treated like Dublin's ugly sister. He says there is an impression that rural Ireland is still stuck in the 1930s and can't be pulled back from the depths of recession.
"There is a perception out there that rural Ireland is a hindrance. That it is not contributing to the State and not contributing to the economy. That's not true," he says.
"We have very bright and articulate young business people working in multinational companies in rural Ireland and we have many small companies employing 20 or 30 people who are making a major contribution to the economy and to the country."
Ring wants to see more rural hubs established around the country. He believes Knock Airport could be developed into one such industrial centre which might attract international business.
The minister also believes that rural communities would be better served by the reopening of town councils that were closed during Fine Gael's last term in office. He has asked Local Government Minister John Paul Phelan to review the situation and is anxious to see some town councils, especially Westport's, reopened.
"I said it was something that should be looked at and reviewed. They are talking about bringing back councils for only over 20,000 people and I don't agree with that," he said.
Back in Westport, Ring insists that climate change reforms must be "balanced" and not unduly impact on rural communities. "We don't want to see the poor or the farmers paying for climate change. Everyone has to play their part," he says.
"My job is to make sure every minister is accountable to rural Ireland and 'rural- proof' every bit of legislation that comes in, whether it is climate change, enterprise or justice.
"If it is going to have a negative effect on rural Ireland, I will be expressing that view."
Ring also thinks Dublin hoteliers who ramp up prices during All Ireland weekends should be forced to pay a bedroom tax rather than increase the universal 9pc tourism tax rate, which he says is "vital" for rural Ireland. "Maybe you could have a Dublin bed night tax for the amount of rooms they have. Other cities do that," he says.
He concludes by insisting that Leo Varadkar does care about rural Ireland despite being a "Dublin Taoiseach" and says he will remain party leader even if Fine Gael is not back in power after the next election.