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Miriam Donohoe: Government must act to save rural Ireland...before it's too late

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Charlie McCreevy

Charlie McCreevy

Paul O'Driscoll

Charlie McCreevy

Hands up who remembers Charlie McCreevy's controversial decentralisation plan unveiled on budget day back in December 2003, one of the most disastrous and badly thought-out government programmes of recent times?

I was part of the press pack at the briefing in Government Buildings on the night the single-minded Finance Minister announced details of the radical scheme to relocate 10,300 civil and public servants from Dublin to 53 locations in 25 counties around Ireland.

The core idea was brilliant - unburden Dublin of its creaking infrastructure and breathe new life into towns and centres around Ireland that were dying on their feet. But the lack of planning and thought and the ad hoc manner in which the plan was put together without consultation ensured it was always going to a disaster.

Indeed, McCreevy only told his Fianna Fáil/PD cabinet colleagues hours before he unveiled the programme. The sceptics and unions were quick out of the traps pointing out pitfalls. But a gung-ho Mr McCreevy insisted the notion was "not rocket science" and that the Government would ensure it worked. He said staff relocation would be on a voluntary basis, and without payment of removal expenses or incentives.

Millions were spent on buying up buildings around Ireland to relocate government offices - but the vast majority were never used. In 2011, the current Government officially declared the McCreevy plan a dead duck.

Fast forward 12 years and rural Ireland is even further on its knees than it was when the bullish McCreevy plan was unveiled. The heart and soul is being ripped out of the country - but no one is taking action. Does anybody care? We have protest groups mobilising against water charges, property taxes and homelessness - but I don't hear the regeneration of rural Ireland being flagged as an election issue.

The decimation of rural Ireland has been slowly happening over the last decade, with the closure of garda stations, post offices, banks, libraries, and local shops that have no hope of competing with the Tescos and the Lidls of this world.

The rural doctor is also becoming a thing of the past, replaced by group practices that work on a rota basis. You don't know from one visit to another what doctor you will see.

A serious shortage of priests - always integral to Irish communities - is also adding to the demise. Just this week it, was confirmed that Ballymore parish in Westmeath is to be left without a full-time priest - and will share a priest with neighbouring Drumraney.

Bus Éireann's decision to axe many rural loss-making services is also isolating a lot of small towns. Recently, it dropped eight services a day on the Limerick to Dublin route.

And the backbone of rural Ireland, the GAA, has also suffered hugely. Unemployment has led to thousands of young men emigrating, which has in turn resulted in GAA clubs not being able to field teams.

A drive through rural Ireland and once-thriving towns is a depressing experience. I come from a small village in Co Kilkenny, Goresbridge, beautifully situated on the River Barrow on the border with Carlow.

Growing up, the village had a post office, a Garda station, a butcher, five pubs, a draper's shop, a chemist, a fast food take away, a cobblers, two corner 'sweet' shops and a garage shop and a grocery - and, significantly, a secondary school.

I was home recently and it was sad to see that practically every small business premises along one side of main street was empty. The butcher, two pubs and the post office are gone, as is the Garda station.

This Government, to its credit, did appoint a Minister of State for Rural Affairs, Kilkenny Labour TD Ann Phelan.

And the Commission for Rural Development of Economic Areas (CEDRA) report published last year made 34 recommendations. Both positive steps - but not enough. It's all window-dressing. The last Budget allocated only €1m to implementing aspects of the CEDRA report - a paltry amount.

Ann Phelan has been doing her best with limited resources. She did launch a pilot initiative at the end of May for the Rural Economic Development Zones, as outlined in the CEDRA report. The deadline for submissions to participate was this week. But this is just scratching the surface.

A charter for rural Ireland is needed as a matter of urgency to drive a balanced economic recovery. It cannot all be focused on the major urban centres.

Top of the list should be delivery on the commitment to provide a high quality fibre broadband network across rural Ireland to support homes and businesses, job creation, investment and development.

Special incentives are needed to encourage businesses to locate in villages and towns.

Developing and maintaining a vibrant rural economy is of national importance - and it is the job of Government to secure the recovery for all the people of Ireland.

To his credit, Charlie McCreevy (left) did give it a go, and he deserves some credit for that.

More big thinking is needed now - before it is too late.

Irish Independent