The long-awaited arrival of broadband and a trebling of LEADER grant aid can help to bring about Minister Éamon Ó Cuív’s vision of an end to rural population loss, says Stephen Cadogan.
THE only possible long-term approach to rural development and halting the rural decline which is pervasive throughout the developed and developing world is to develop diverse multi-sectoral local rural economies, says Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Minister Éamon Ó Cuív.
He also sees a key role for decentralisation of public jobs, but is adamant that agriculture, although still important to the local economy, is no longer its mainstay.
Much of his thinking stems from his experience as manager of a small farmers’ co-op on the west coast.
Brought up and educated in Dublin, having completed university, and having an interest in the Irish language, at the age of 23 he became manager and the first employee of a remote Connemara co-op formed to develop and improve farming services, particularly through intensive fattening of hill lambs.
However, the minister says the difficulty of operating in very poor quality land led to the realisation, very early on, that no matter how much was invested agriculture would not sustain the local population, and economic diversification and off-farm jobs were needed.
“I am glad to say that through the efforts of the co-operative, there are now 200 industrial jobs in the region, and that the population decline has at last been stemmed.”
He sees “incredible” rural business opportunities.
“We have so many opportunities, but we need enough time, effort and energy to get them all operating.
“We need to return to a more “can do” approach,” he told senators recently.
“In everything I do I encounter difficulties when I bring groups of people together to do something that makes good sense, and should not require much convincing to get an agreement.
“However, people have an infinite ability to get lost in the small print.
“I believe in cutting a deal and getting on with the matter at hand. One could argue forever and a day.
“Voluntary groups can be as bad as statutory agencies in this regard, over small issues rather than seeing the big picture.”
“We should admit failure when it happens, but failure is not a reason to do nothing.”
Responsible in the Government for urban deprivation as well as rural development, Mr Ó Cuiv sees cultural difference as the main reason why no rural area has the social, economic or quality-of-life deprivation found in Ireland’s worst off urban communities.”
“I puzzle about the huge challenges we face in deprived urban communities, challenges that break my heart because so many of the young people there have no future.”
“They do not get education in large numbers and, unfortunately, the most likely place some of them will end up is in prison. Many of the deprived areas are located in a ring around the M50 in Dublin. I puzzle as to why that is the case, given the proximity of people to all of the jobs that are located around the M50 and the fact that access to university is no problem.”
“Universities and jobs are on those people’s doorstep, so why do they not avail of all the opportunities?”
“In rural areas where the parents have had only a primary education, large numbers of their children are getting not only secondary but tertiary and fourth level education.”
“The conclusion I have come to is that the difference is culture. I refer to culture in the wide sense where it relates to values. Rural people believe in education.”
“Culture is hugely important.”
“In the context of rural Ireland, we are lucky that there has been a strong tradition of community, culture and togetherness. There are much better opportunities per capita for children in rural Ireland.”
“That is not to blame anybody. That is to state a fact.”
The Government believes rural development is important for ensuring balanced development. But the rural population is still stagnant or in many cases, in decline.
“Until this is reversed, our policies will not have achieved their goals,” he says.
“It is easier to provide services and to stimulate diversification of the rural economy when there is a stable or growing population. That is something to which our planners will have to face up.”
“I spoke to every county manager in the country on the matter.”
“I said to them that there is no point in the State investing €425 million in rural development, which means that we will have to build structures, and then find that no matter how sensible, cogent or good for a community it is, one cannot get planning to go ahead with an enterprise.”
“When I travel around rural Ireland, I see some of the major dairy industries located in Ballyragget, in Kilkenny, or in Listowel, marvellous places which were built 30 or 40 years ago. If they wanted to build them today, I know where they would be told to go.”
He also rejects “the myth” that urban dwellers leave a smaller carbon footprint, pointing out that use of timber for fuel, or solar panels for energy, are more suitable in rural areas.
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