Rural Ireland is suffering more from austerity measures than other part of the country. I am deeply concerned for its future.
Today we have many villages without a shop, many post offices closed and many more under threat, many Garda stations gone, patrol cars scarce, ambulance services curtailed, and the availability of doctors at night-time restricted. Many of our small towns have lost their banks. All this does not augur well for the future, nor does it encourage young people to live in rural areas. Those who do find it difficult to get planning permission to build a home.
Septic tank registrations are another example of pressure on rural dwellers, as is the property tax, some of which, we are told, will be used to improve services from local authorities. It is unlikely many improved services will come to rural areas that have no public lighting, no footpaths, no sewerage services.
Many areas do not have public water supplies or refuse collection and some have extremely poor roads. Indeed some rural dwellers have been asked by their local authorities, which have a statutory obligation to maintain roads, to contribute to the repair of public roads leading to their homes.
Lack of quality broadband is another example of the neglect of rural areas. Indeed the Government failed to spend €19m from Europe to improve broadband.
Some rural schools are closed and many more are under severe pressure, with many of the austerity cuts aimed at schools with fewer than four teachers.
Much of rural Ireland would have disappeared under a blanket of conifer trees only for the EU and the arrival of the Leader programme 20 years ago. It helped to start enterprises, it improved facilities for villages and made them more attractive places to live in, even if some must commute to work.
The Leader funding for Ireland for the 2007 to 2013 programme period was €423m. Indications from the Government are that the funding for the 2014-20 period will be about €200m. This does not compare well with other European countries. For example, in the Czech Republic the budget for the local action groups for the 2014/20 programme will be €2bn.
Over a number of years I and others from Ireland explained to the Czechs how our Leader model worked and had been recognised by the European Court Of Auditors as the best model. The Czech Republic is modelling its 2014/20 programme on the Irish model.
The dwindling number of small farmers who have been the backbone of our rural communities for generations are under extreme pressure to stay in business, yet our Government has decided not to avail of the flexibility that is available in the CAP agreement, which gives the option of front-loading payments on first acres and has a viability scheme for vulnerable farmers.
It is time the people of rural Ireland shouted “stop” to our politicians and our Government, which is in danger of being remembered as the most anti-rural government ever.
In his book on rural decline in the West Of Ireland, John Healy made the famous quote “nobody shouted stop”. Let us all now shout “stop”.
* Jack Roche is a commentator on rural isolation and a former chairman of IRD Duhallow.
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