Wednesday 20 November 2019

It's not just the West that's awake and angry - rural Ireland is ready to rumble in an election showdown

An emotional Michael Keane speaking of his experience with wind turbines
An emotional Michael Keane speaking of his experience with wind turbines

Lise Hand

Ireland is justifiably proud of its large swathes of lush, verdant grassland. And right now, in the rising wind of a General Election, the longer bits of that grass are all a-rustle.

For while much attention has been focused on the new political parties, pacts and alliances which are proliferating on the lawn of Leinster House, rural Ireland is quietly gearing up for battle. And it's not just the West that's awake, but the other points of the country's compass too.

All over the land, groups are mobilising politically to protest against policies or to highlight areas of grievance. The issues may be disparate (the closure of post offices, the roll-out of wind farms, rural crime) but a common theme runs strongly throughout them all - that the political classes are not paying heed to the concerns of rural Ireland.

Last Tuesday saw the launch of Protect Rural Ireland, an alliance of community groups protesting against wind turbines, who plan to target TDs who don't oppose them with a 'Vote Them Out' campaign, starting with a canvass in Portlaoise today.

"The over-riding feeling among people in the countryside is that the politicians have chosen to see us as a commodity, a resource only, for the benefit of an economy," said the group's chairman, Henry Fingleton.

"And we'll have the numbers on the ground, because people whose houses are under threat from turbines are highly engaged."

But it isn't the only protest launched in recent days. Rural doctors are on the march also and the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) last week unveiled a campaign to highlight the threat to rural GPs.

Cuts to rural practice allowances, which compensated for the long distances that doctors have to travel to patients in more remote rural areas, have created vacancies. They can't be filled, despite repeated advertising.

"It's called RING - Rural Ireland Needs GPs," explained Co Longford-based doctor and chairman of the IMO's GP committee, Pádraig McGarry. "We have posters and cards we can give out to our patients, advising them to ring their local TDs to highlight the problem that at some stage there'll be quite significant swathes of rural Ireland with no GP cover."

He added: "The problems of general practitioners in rural Ireland just reflect essentially the way that rural Ireland has been dealt with across the board.

"If you denude a village of certain key supports, you'll kill that village."

Other groups are going toe to toe with politicians by putting themselves forward for election - including the Irish Postmasters' Union (IPU), with three general election candidates and more expected to be added.

Seona O'Fegan is the postmistress running in Galway West, amid concerns over post office closures.

"The IPU spent a long, long time lobbying in the background, talking to politicians, ministers, civil servants, trying to get the point of view across that the network is a genuine resource in Irish life, but all to no real avail," she said.

"So we feel the time has come to take this step, to get across the point of view of our customers."

And of course, rural crime has dominated headlines recently, particularly since August, when 62-year old John O'Donoghue died of a heart attack in his home in Doon, Limerick as he disturbed burglars. A Save Our Local Community rally in Thurles this month was attended by 3,000 people, with four more rallies planned in the near future.

"We felt there was no one doing anything about rural crime, so a few people decided to pull together, and it became bigger than we expected," said one of the organisers, farmer Robert O'Shea. "A lot more people were in the same boat as ourselves and felt the same way. From what people are saying to me, TDs will get some wake-up call when they call to the doors."

Feelings are running high, as rural Ireland inarguably suffered greatly in the recession, with mass emigration, closure of garda stations, post offices and businesses.

Herein lies a big problem for the Coalition - for alongside the real privations in rural areas, a narrative is taking hold that any recovery will not benefit rural communities.

Laois TD and Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan acknowledged that the rising tide hasn't yet reached many rural boats.

"We're just coming out of an economic and social catastrophe and the more that people talk up the recovery, the more people in parts of rural Ireland feel that they may well be in a different place.

"I would very much accept that as a rural TD there are still large parts of my constituency where economic recovery is a stranger. We pinned our hopes on economic growth and that happened to very good effect, a direct consequence was a growth in jobs.

"But the story is far from complete and anybody going into an election expecting the plaudits of the electorate will hear nothing until everybody feels the recovery."

There are signs that the Government finally perceives the anger, with a flurry of shapes being thrown in the Department of Justice in relation to garda resources.

But unless they can allay the discontent in rural Ireland, if Fine Gael and Labour candidates go down to the woods in search of votes, they may be in for a big surprise come election time.

Irish Independent

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