Monday 23 October 2017

Time for us all to shout 'stop' the decline of rural Ireland

Jack Roche, former CEO, IRD Duhallow

AS a long time advocate of rural Ireland, I am deeply concerned for its future.

Rural Ireland is suffering more from the austerity measures than other parts of the country, despite the fact that the benefits of the Celtic Tiger did not reach large areas of our countryside.

Today we have many villages without a shop, many post offices are closed and many more under threat, many Garda stations are gone, and patrol cars are scarce, ambulance services are curtailed and the availability of doctors at night-time is restricted. Many of our small towns have lost their banks.

All this does not augur well for the future, nor does it encourage young people to live in rural areas, and those who do find it difficult to get planning permission to build a home.

The septic tank registrations is another example of pressure on rural dwellers, and the property tax, some of which we are told will be used to improve services from local authorities. It is unlikely many improved services will come to rural areas, that have no public lighting, no footpaths, no sewerage services.

Many areas do not have public water supplies or refuse collection, and some have extremely poor roads. Indeed some rural dwellers have been asked by their local authorities, who have a statutory obligation to maintain public roads, to contribute to the repair of public roads leading to their homes.

Lack of quality broadband service is another example of the neglect of rural areas. Indeed, the government failed to spend €19m received from Europe through adjustments to modulation funds to improve broadband.

Some of our rural schools are closed and many more are under severe pressure, with many of the austerity cuts aimed at schools with under four teachers, which is a direct attack on small rural schools.

I believe much of rural Ireland would have disappeared under a blanket of conifer trees only for the European Union and the arrival of the LEADER programme 20 years ago.

Under this programme local voluntary boards were able to organise local communities and businesses to do things for themselves and their communities.

The results of their efforts can be seen throughout rural Ireland today.

It has helped to start up enterprises that are creating employment, it has improved facilities for communities, it has improved villages and made them more attractive places to live in.

It has levered other programmes which help local communities, in the areas of health, education, training and, above all, it has restored confidence. In view of all this it is difficult to understand why the government even considered changing these structures that have been so successful and have this service delivered by a new experimental, untried quango under the auspices of local authorities.

The LEADER funding for Ireland for the 2007 to 2013 programme period was €423m. Indications from the government are that the funding for the 2014-20 period will be in the region of €200m. This does not compare well with other European countries.

For example, in the Czech Republic the budget for the local action groups for the 2014/20 programme will be €2 billion.

Over a number of years I and others from Ireland explained to the Czechs how our LEADER model worked and had been recognised by the European Court Of Auditors as the best model. The Czech Republic are modeling their 2014/20 programme on the Irish model, recognising that the local action groups are the most efficent way to deliver a wide range of services to their communities.

Rural transport has also improved the quality of life for rural communities.

Again, this is being butchered, with control being taken from the local committed, experienced voluntary boards [Cork will now have one controlling group, based in Bantry]. These changes are as a result of the Dept of Transport having to reduce their budget, so they raid the rural transport programme that receives less than 2% of the national transport budget.

All this [and more] indicates a lack of commitment and understanding of rural Ireland at all levels and particularly at government level. It is time the people of rural Ireland shouted "stop" to our politicians and our government.

This government are in danger of being remembered as the most anti-rural government in the history of the state.

In his book on rural decline in the West Of Ireland, John Healy made the famous quote 'nobody shouted stop. Let us all now shout 'stop'.