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Government still dancing with stars in Dublin as it ignores the primal scream of rural Ireland


Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives in a Model T Ford for the launch of the Action Plan for Regional Development in Ballymahon, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren

Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives in a Model T Ford for the launch of the Action Plan for Regional Development in Ballymahon, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren

Taoiseach Enda Kenny arrives in a Model T Ford for the launch of the Action Plan for Regional Development in Ballymahon, Co Longford. Photo: Mark Condren

One year on, "keep the recovery going" has become "keep the Government going" and it seems that our two main political parties have learned little or nothing from last year's General Election.

Distracted by political crises and point-scoring, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have missed a fundamental opportunity to address the one main issue thrown up in last year's campaign. That is the vexed question of the inequality between our rural and urban divide in terms of economic and social recovery.

While the debate surrounding the great urban-rural divide may have abated for now, the angry expression of neglect is latent. It lurks beneath a thin surface that is likely to surge up once more as soon as the first political mugshot poster hits a pole.

Incongruities that lie at the heart of policymaking are glaring. Instead of discussing ways to improve and expand our national bus network, we face the threat of closure.

Instead of discussing how we will reopen rural garda stations, we are discussing smear campaigns, and spending millions on a tribunal. Instead of talking about improving our regional hospitals, we are facing a nursing work stoppage. The list of anomalies is endless.

The latest opinion poll may have well done us all some service by quelling any appetite for a general election - but it also indicates that the Irish public has not changed its opinion on political parties in any substantive way since last year.

Small wonder, as policymakers have done little or nothing to convince rural voters of any fundamental change within the body politic that might redress the confined and sporadic nature of Ireland's tentative economic recovery.

Exchequer figures are moving in the right direction for now, but economics is first and foremost a social and moral science, worthless to society unless everyone is benefiting.

If the spectacular failure of its own election campaign (and slogan) was not enough to convince Fine Gael that rural renewal is one of its major challenges, then losing 26 seats in the General Election last year should have equated to a primal scream from rural communities.

To its credit, the Government's Action Plan for Regional Development, launched in Ballymahon, Co Longford, by Taoiseach Enda Kenny in January, was a step in the right direction. But it offers no profound transformation and prescribes no real remedy to the underlying problems associated with rural decline.

The overarching plan set out a number of measures to rejuvenate towns and regional cities, through investment in jobs, health, services and capital investment.

Packaged together, the €60m investment plan seems impressive, and there is no reason to doubt the validity of these proposals.

However, they scream sticking plaster, not major surgery, and demonstrate no major shift in national priorities in favour of rural ones.

While the Government teeters around the brink of power, local leaders are unconvinced and impatient for change.

As the Government was launching its plans in Ballymahon, a few miles up the road, in Longford, local leaders and the voting public, it seems, continue to be sceptical about politicians' capacity to solve the imbalance in the urban-rural divide. Local volunteers set up a group called the Longford Business Forum, which aims to entice inward investment, attract and assist start-up companies and promote local businesses.

Longford people, and those from many other towns like it around Ireland, are taking matters into their own hands by adopting a much more practical approach to solving pressing local issues.

Political parties who are digging around in demographics aiming to increase their support might do well to consider rural Ireland as one individual voter and address it directly when formulating policy.

Outside of Dublin 4, there are lots of voters who are on the margins of the middle - these are the voters who last year called for change. The influence of rural voters should not be discounted. They haven't gone away you know.

Amid the noise of national difficulties like Brexit, water charges and the hospitals crisis, rural consideration has again been lost.

Recent housing figures suggest that urbanisation is growing and there may come a time when rural voters will be less significant to the national picture.

That time is not now. Political parties from all persuasions would do well to pay attention if they are to attract support in the next election, an election which looks increasingly likely to be held sooner rather than later.

In the last election, the two main parties secured under 50pc of the national vote. Opinion polls now suggest that figure has increased to 60pc, with a further 20pc going to largely left-leaning parties and Independent candidates.

A Dublin-centric national debate fails to realise that within the remaining figures lies a demographic that can be forgotten in small towns and villages throughout Ireland - reducing campaigns to auctions about what local politicians can deliver for their area, with no grand plan for real regeneration and rejuvenation.

Classifying areas based on population density is a crude evaluation and the concept of 'rural' is multidimensional.

The problem lies in capturing the diversity of types of rural areas that exist - therefore, blanket policies can rarely be applied successfully. Bespoke plans are required for small villages on the fringes of towns and cities, for agricultural areas, for tourist regions.

In that respect, local leaders might well have a greater role to play in not just affecting the necessary changes but in also drafting the solutions to the problems in the first place.

While we are in the business of setting up national forums on Brexit and another tribunal of inquiry, why not establish a national forum for a discussion on what is best for rural Ireland?

The people in towns and villages will have their say one way or another - if not through public debate, then through the ballot boxes.

It may appear somewhat trite to introduce 'Dancing with the Stars' at this juncture, but beyond the sequins and the spray tan, it demonstrates clearly a divide which exists in our living rooms every Sunday night.

The Strictly-inspired series is a ratings winner for RTÉ, which recorded its highest viewing figures in over a year - attracting 1.2 million viewers.

Some of us scoff on Twitter and hide behind our sofas at the naffness of it all while lamenting its failure to deliver the high-octane glamour and sophistication that we have come to associate with the BBC version.

It has, however, got a charming innocence which endears it to many. There is another Ireland outside Montrose.

It provides salutary lessons for the Dublin luvvies, that perhaps we here in Ireland are just not as chic as our nearest neighbours in the UK. Similarly, perhaps urban areas do not hold all of the voting power.

And so Des 'Dancing Dessie' Cahill might win the glitter ball trophy after all. If he does, the votes will not come from the D4 set, but from his county cousins who have votes-a-plenty too.

Irish Independent