The Fine Gael-Labour coalition and Fianna Fáil have begun an open war for rural votes in the next general election, after launching separate policy documents promising a series of long-delayed measures within hours of each other.
The main opposition party joined the Government in zoning in on the vital electoral heartland after a weekend in which Labour’s annual conference heard repeated plans to rejuvenate the struggling regions and hours before Rural Affairs Minister Ann Phelan unexpectedly announced a new group to oversee reforms.
In a pre-arranged launch yesterday morning, Fianna Fáil’s environment spokesperson Barry Cowen published a “revamped” version of his party’s plan to address the “crisis in Irish towns”.
The report has called for a new “specialist unit” within the IDA Ireland to bring jobs to struggling areas, commercial rate system changes to help “small and town centre retailers” and the creation of “town leadership teams” similar to the recently culled town councils to help revitalise communities.
Just three hours later, Ms Phelan announced members of a new group to implement the delayed 34 recommendations of the Government’s Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) report.
The advisory group, which will be chaired by Kerry All- Ireland winner Pat Spillane, will provide monthly updates on issues including job creation, broadband development and transport.
The launches followed repeated promises at the Labour conference to help rural Ireland. They included Kerry North TD Arthur Spring’s belief the party is “obsessed” with the matter and Ms Phelan insisting no more post offices, schools or garda stations will be closed.
All sides last night accused each other of “cheap PR stunts”, with Irish Rural Link chief executive Seamus Boland saying it will withhold full support of promises until something is “actually done”.
Meanwhile, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin’s claim last May’s decision to abolish 80 town councils should be reexamined has been contradicted by Farm Minister Simon Coveney, who said it is “far too early to say that”.
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