Proposals to award grant-aid to hackneys that operate in rural areas have been described by members of the Oireachtas Transport committee as an effort to make amends for unpopular driving laws that have come too late for country areas.
The National Transport Authority told the committee that it proposes piloting schemes that would award aid to hackney and community transport services that will operate in areas lacking taxi coverage in an effort to improve connectivity in rural areas.
Cork East Fianna Fail TD said politicians were long aware “of the damage Minister [Shane] Ross was going to impose on rural Ireland” through the tightening of drink-driving laws.
“We had evidence of that at Christmas, and since Christmas, rural Ireland is in lockdown. Fact.
"And we haven’t even come to the Lenten period yet, so you can imagine after next week what the pubs in rural Ireland will be like, there’ll be no one out at all.
“Now when the horse has bolted and the damage is done we seem to be seeking a resolution and initiatives put in place, which I do welcome, but I have to ask the question why is it only now the alarm bells are ringing in the NTA offices?” he asked.
Cork West Independent TD Michael Collins said such proposals as suggested by the NTA should have been brought forward two years ago before changes to drink-driving and provisional driving laws were made.
“We would have at least been able to try to counteract the huge damage that has been done to rural Ireland. In my own area, several pubs closed and businesses closed in the last few months thanks to this bill,” he said.
While Fine Gael Senator Frank Feighan advocated technology-based solutions such as ride-sharing app Uber, a body representing private taxi drivers came down heavily against the idea, arguing it would lower standards and “would be detrimental and dangerous to both rural communities as well as taxi drivers”.
“We read almost daily about confrontation assaults, rapes and even murders by so-called uber drivers or what we would class as unregulated taxi services,” James Waldron of the National Private Hire Taxi Association said.
Gerard Macken of the Taxi Alliance of Ireland warned that the past experience of strangers sharing lifts has led to ‘punch-ups’ between passengers over who owes what to the driver.
Galway West TD Eamon O’Cuiv (FF) said rural Ireland has been ‘totally discriminated against’ in terms of transport subsidies received per head of population.
“The amount of money spent on urban bus services is way higher per head of population. I don’t begrudge it, you can get buses, trains, all sorts of ways getting around.
"So to level up the playing field, and I don’t think anything should be taken from the cities, we’re going to have to spend money,” he said.
Anne Graham, chief executive officer of the NTA rejected Mr O’Cuiv’s claims, though admitted there are ‘gaps’ and that there are limits to what they can provide.