NOTWITHSTANDING the fact that an implementation group was set up recently to put some of the recommendations of the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) into action, a new organisation was launched in Dublin earlier this month to press the case for rural Ireland as its members feel the government is simply not doing enough.
Save Rural Ireland is a combination of a number of groups representing various facets of rural life, including Muintir na Tíre, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association, the Irish Postmasters’ Union, Macra na Feirme and the Irish National Flood Forum. They want the government to devise a policy for rural Ireland in order to correct imbalances in service provision, which the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP) recently described as ‘a lack of respect for communities’.
Given that 40% of the population lives in rural areas, SVP wants all service providers in rural Ireland, particularly State services, to seriously explore and take full account of the needs of rural communities when the curtailment or abandonment of services are being considered. Post offices, Garda stations, schools and bank branches have closed and there have been recent threats to bus routes in various parts of the country also.
They make the point that it is usually the poorer, weaker sections of society that bear the brunt of decisions to curtail or shut down services. Their members report that, while visiting homes throughout rural areas, they witness the isolation, loneliness and difficulty caused by the relentless curtailment of services of recent years.
Another big contributor to the urban-rural imbalance is that the quality of broadband is poor in most rural areas, militating against businesses being set up and jobs created. Most big jobs announcements are for urban areas.
Rural Ireland’s main dividend from the Celtic Tiger era was in the form of plenty of construction jobs which kept the domestic economy ticking over, but the sudden loss of them when the downturn came saw workers becoming unemployed with many being forced to either stay here on the dole or leave the country as there were no jobs for them. While there is a slight upturn in construction, employment in the sector is unlikely to ever reach the level of the boom times again and, as well as that, there is a skills shortage because there were so few apprentices taken on in recent years.
The downturn has also seen the closure of so many shops and pubs and some small villages are in danger of losing what few of them are left as they are being squeezed by big supermarkets chains in nearby towns as people seek out the best value they can get for their hard-earned money. It is getting to the stage in some places that community shops, run by volunteers, to provide for the basic everyday needs of people – especially those without their own transport – are being set up in the wake of businesses closing down.
Unfortunately, while things seem to be improving in urban areas, the rot seems to be continuing in rural Ireland. Some welcome jobs have been created in tourist areas, especially along the route of the Wild Atlantic Way, but the decline in services that people in urban areas take for granted is still ongoing and rural areas are missing a generation of young people who would probably like to return home from abroad, but the jobs are just not here for them.
To correct the imbalances between urban and rural areas, there will have to be some form of positive discrimination in favour of the latter when it comes to the distribution of services and by way of extra employment incentives. The government has made commendable progress with its Action Plan for Jobs, especially attracting foreign direct investment in the export sector and this is likely to be further boosted by the weakness of the euro against the US dollar, as long as our corporation tax rate for the multinationals involved remains at 12.5%.
More of these jobs need to be brought to rural areas and the required infrastructure to make this happen needs to be put in place before it is too late to take advantage of it. Realistically, most enterprises in rural areas tend to be small to medium-sized and these need to be encouraged and helped more – ten jobs in a small rural community are as big a boost as a few hundred to a big urban centre.
The badly-needed government policy for rural Ireland must provide for bottom-up solutions and take its lead from communities who know what is needed to ensure their survival and are willing to work towards it with the appropriate agencies.