By Juno McEnroe
Fighting rural migration and worrying levels of unemployment in towns and villages around the country must be a priority, newly promoted Rural Affairs Minister Michael Ring has been told.
Mr Ring released a progress report on the Government’s action plan for rural Ireland, but is facing a backlash over broadband problems, local funding debacles, and high unemployment figures outside of urban areas.
His progress report claims that 195 of 202 parts of the Government’s rural action plan have been completed, are on schedule, or are in progress. Progress has been made on town and village schemes, the CLÁR programme, rural transport links, as well as outdoor recreation infrastructure, says the report.
Launching the report and insisting there is still “no room for complacency”, Mr Ring faced strong criticism from rural campaign groups and opposition party TDs who said the Government had “hollowed out communities” outside of the M50.
Irish Rural Link chief executive Seamus Boland said that six months since the action plan’s launch, there is still high unemployment in rural areas, a strong need for broadband, and concern about the sustainability of rural communities. There are still some 300,000 homes without broadband, he said.
He said there is a need to put a stop to migration and emigration of young people from towns, with youth employment impacting on areas.
“The types of jobs available are less well paid and won’t keep a family going. Young people are leaving, the unemployment level in some rural areas is up to 25%,” said Mr Boland.
Better broadband in rural areas could stop this, argued Mr Boland, noting that the plan to improve internet access nationwide was delayed by a year, contributing to the emptying of towns. “[Towns] are looking at a drain of people leaving, rather than coming back,” he said.
Mr Ring, speaking to RTÉ, agreed there is a need to progress the National Broadband Plan, being overseen by Denis Naughten, the communications minister.
“Broadband is a very important infrastructure for rural Ireland, it is important that we roll it out,” he said.
Mr Ring also wants to see more money spent. “We are hoping to get more money for rural Ireland, we need the infrastructure.”
Fianna Fáil accused Mr Ring of being the “go-to minister for bluster and fudging for this Government”.
“Every number of months, he is trooped out on national radio to talk about the Government’s commitment to rural Ireland,” Clare TD Timmy Dooley.
“He has supported a Government for the past six years that has systematically hollowed out communities outside of the M50 motorway.
“If he is so committed to rural Ireland, why has he done nothing about the projected closure of nearly 300 post offices up and down the country?”
This article first appeared on the Irish Examiner.