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Saturday 18 November 2017

Villages without pubs. Garda stations and post offices closed. Is it too late to save rural Ireland?

The story of the regions is one of business closures, isolation and a growing reliance on the State

Ireland's rural communities are struggling to retain their populations
Ireland's rural communities are struggling to retain their populations

Paul Melia and Greg Harkin

THE flight of young people from rural areas to large urban centres at home and abroad is changing the very fabric of Irish society.

A two-tier nation is developing, where young, vibrant cities sit uneasily beside aging, rural communities increasingly reliant on state supports to survive.

The loss of population and the drive to reduce costs has resulted in fewer essential services being provided in many small areas, with severe impacts on local economies.

The figures tell the story – 100 garda stations, more than 200 banks and almost 1,300 pubs have all closed in recent years.

Parishes are struggling to find priests.

Some GAA clubs cannot field teams. Businesses are going to the wall and small schools and post offices are under threat.

With increased levels of emigration and the migration to our cities, the rural population has become dominated by those who are more reliant on public services, including the elderly, children and people with disabilities, NUI Maynooth geography professor Mary Gilmartin says.

"We've always had people returning, often in their late 20s or 30s with children. They want to come back to Ireland and set up their home here but we believe the number doing that is declining."

This, in turn, deprives rural areas and elderly relatives of necessary family supports. Without those, the State will eventually be expected to step in. It's the elderly who face an uncertain future in this rapidly changing Ireland, says Eamonn Timmins from Age Action.

"Older people, especially those living alone, who were dependent on adult sons and daughters for social support are struggling in the wake of the latest wave of emigration.

"Key supports such as providing lifts, helping with shopping or other household tasks are gone.

"Just 40pc of men over 80, and 15pc of women, hold a driver's licence, meaning the majority of older people are dependent on public transport which is, at best, patchy."

Research from Social Justice Ireland (SJI) indicates that those in rural areas have up to 25pc less disposable income than their city cousins, spend more on fuel and struggle with a lack of high-speed broadband – considered essential to operating a successful business.

A lack of a co-ordinated response and the failure of successive governments to appoint a communities minister has left a muddled picture of where rural Ireland now stands, SJI says.

Its research shows the 'risk of poverty' rate in rural areas is 4.6pc higher than urban places, with a decided lack of full-time job opportunities, despite people being available to work.

"We are now reaching a crucial juncture that requires key decisions on social infrastructure, governance and sustainability to ensure that rural communities survive and flourish," SJI policy analyst Michelle Murphy warns.

This hardship leads to deep-rooted social problems, with suicide rates higher in rural counties, particularly among men.

The 'Pain and Distress in Rural Ireland' study of suicidal behaviour from UCD and Teagasc noted suicide rates tended to escalate with "levels of rural remoteness".

"Lower socio-economic groups were over represented . . . and a lack of economic resources was importantly linked to suicidal decisions," it noted. "Economic circumstances were related to low educational attainment, limited job opportunities, multiple job histories, marginal farming and dependency on social welfare payments."

But there's other pressures, too.

Rural communities are concerned about post offices closing. The loss of 100 garda stations means that information gleaned from communities is in danger of being lost.

"A local garda station is a place where the community can visit the garda to get assistance with state administration; but on many occasions they will seize such an opportunity to keep the garda informed of any suspicious activity they may be aware of," Garda Representative Association president John Parker says.

There's also a concern about the future of smaller, local schools, with a value-for-money report on primary schools expected later this year which could result in some being closed due to a lack of numbers.

The closure and re-structuring of health services adds to the sense that services are being downgraded.

A focus on drink driving and lack of disposable income means pubs have closed.

Bank branches have been shut, while a lack of vocations means some rural parishes may have no priests.

"Even when everything else was gone, at least there was the local priest, but that is slowly going now too and I fear we are seeing the end of a piece of our history," Fr Brendan Hoban from Ballina, Co Mayo, says.

"Parish amalgamations are inevitable, and most dioceses are looking at this. We're managing now but in 10 or 20 years we won't."

But it's not all doom and gloom and some communities are fighting back.

A livestock mart, dormant for almost two years in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare, re-opened following an injection of capital from local farmers. Dairy co-ops are investing in new milk-processing plants and machinery, which has also helped boost the construction sector.

Some 2,433 homeowners – almost 1,400 of which are outside Dublin – have also listed rooms and properties available to let to tourists on online accommodation website – a 100pc increase in just a year.

In addition, there's EU LEADER funding for local enterprises, which has seen investment of more than €250m since 2009, with an additional €153m to be delivered up to 2020.

Some 1,300 communities have benefited, with some 2,920 jobs created since 2009. But state supports won't save rural Ireland.

Two strategies are key to its survival.

The first is the report and recommendations of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas, which is expected to be published in April.

Based on this, the Government will develop an economic strategy up to 2025, which is likely to include more broadband, better roads, additional funding and a single body or government department with responsibility for rural development.

A new National Spatial Strategy is also expected later this year.

This will plan balanced regional development, where the focus will be on both the regions and urban areas.

Getting those two strategies right will be an important first step.

Implementing them will be the difference.

Irish Independent

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