HAVING earlier this year dumped Kerry football legend and RTÉ Gaelic football pundit Pat Spillane, the Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring is keen to show the world that he is getting on fine without him as he tells us that the government’s Action Plan for Rural Development continues to deliver. The fourth progress report on the Action Plan confirms that investment across government is strengthening and building resilience in our rural economies and communities, as of course it needs to, given the salutary lesson Fine Gael were taught at the last general election in 2016.
The party’s ill-advised slogan, ‘Let’s keep the recovery going,’ went down like a lead balloon across most of rural Ireland which had not felt much of the effect of the economic recovery at that stage with its benefits most obvious on the east coast, in the greater Dublin area especially, and in some of our other cities. Swathes of voters concluded that Fine Gael were out of touch with the economic realities of rural Ireland and the party’s candidates suffered accordingly in the ballot boxes with a loss of 26 seats.
With Michael Ring’s constituency colleague Enda Kenny just about becoming the first Fine Gael Taoiseach ever to be re-elected for a second term, having had to form a minority government propped up by the party’s tribal nemesis, Fianna Fáil, they set about restoring the good reputation they had previously enjoyed in rural areas. Before then, the responsibilities for rural affairs were spread across ministers of state in several departments, but Ring was made Minister of State for Rural Economic Development in the aftermath of the 2016 election.
The following year, when Leo Varadkar took over as Taoiseach, Michael Ring was upgraded to a full ministry, Rural and Community Development, which was a better-late-than-never acknowledgement of one of the key recommendations of the landmark Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) report, ‘Energising Ireland’s Rural Economy,’ delivered in 2014 under the chairmanship of rural ambassador Pat Spillane after his widespread consultations with people and community groups throughout the country about what they thought was needed to revitalise their areas in a bid to reverse rural decline.
This eventually led to the ‘Realising Our Rural Potential’ Action Plan for Rural Development in January 2017, which action man Ring wrested control and oversight of from Spillane earlier this year in an unseemly squabble over the termination of the latter’s role as ‘Ambassador for Rural Ireland.’ The Minister wants to hog all the limelight when it comes to talking up the boxes ticked in the Action Plan and it’s difficult to blame him for that with the very real possibility of a general election looming.
As with Richard Bruton’s 2012 Action Plan for Jobs, the one for rural Ireland involves a whole-of-government approach with Minister Ring co-ordinating the various actions to be carried out by all departments to feed into the hoped-for regeneration of rural Ireland. Of the 277 actions reported on, 268 have been completed or are substantially advanced, the Minister claims.
It is a worthwhile and methodical way of going about it, however there are a number of over-arching big ticket objectives that some of the plans are dependent on in order to be achieved – high-speed rural broadband being the biggest of these with the contract for carrying out the National Broadband Plan not even signed yet. While it is not a cure-all prescription, high-speed broadband would help rural job retention and creation, enabling young families to stay in or move back to rural Ireland, which would boost the regeneration of areas.
The Project Ireland 2040 national planning framework promises additional expenditure across the board, but massive cost over-runs on projects, such as the new National Children’s Hospital and the aforementioned National Broadband Plan, could see budgets for others being trimmed back as a result.
On the positive side, it is good to note that 60% of the new jobs created by Enterprise Ireland’s client companies in 2018 were outside of the Dublin region, while 58% of jobs in IDA client companies are now based outside of the capital. Programmes such as LEADER, the Town & Village Renewal Scheme and CLÁR are available to boost rural areas, and Local Link rural bus routes to address rural isolation are being trialled countrywide with some success.
However, many rural roads are still in a terrible condition, there are still boarded-up shops in several towns and villages as a legacy of the last recession and we’ve been warned that another one is on the way. Much and all as we would like to be able to say otherwise, not all boats are being lifted by the economic recovery, especially here in rural Ireland.