Irish Examiner view: Rural future plan will stand or fall on broadband

High-speed broadband at the heart of a rejuvenated rural economy but swathes of country struggle with connectivity
Irish Examiner view: Rural future plan will stand or fall on broadband

An Taoiseach Micheál Martin with Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphreys at the launch of ‘Our Rural Future'. Picture: Julien Behal

It’s 18 years since minister for finance Charlie McCreevy told the Dáil that the Government could have spent 100 years consulting various interests about decentralisation even though it had flagged its intentions four years earlier. 

Reminding us that Ireland was a very small country and the Government was not trying to put a man on the moon, he told TDs that it was time to “get away from the Dublin mindset and arrogance towards the people of the country”. 

He declared that the Government had made a decision and would deliver rural rejuvenation. Less than two years later he became a European Commissioner. 

Historians may argue about any connection between decentralisation and his elevation but it is far easier to reach a conclusion about the policy, one dropped by the Fine Gael-Labour government in 2011.

It had, at best, a very modest impact in rural Ireland and did little or nothing to slow the concentration in greater Dublin. 

Indeed, the gulf may have widened as vibrancy ebbs away from rural communities and Dublin seems trapped in a vicious cycle of relentless expansion. 

Much of the potential enthusiastically described by Mr McCreevy remains unrealised. 

So much so that another decentralisation programme — Our Rural Future — was launched on Monday.

Worker-led decentralisation

Minister for Rural Development Heather Humphreys promised a “worker-led” decentralisation that will allow pandemic work practices to continue.

The strategy includes consideration of incentives to entice workers to rural areas and proposals for revitalising towns. It offers proposals on a dark skies strategy to facilitate stargazing for tourists. 

The blueprint envisages 20% of the public sector working from home this year. That ratio is to increase each year for five years. 

It is not necessary to be one of the naysayers so excoriated by Mr McCreevy’s 2003 boss to imagine that ambition would win wider support if it was matched by accountability.

The plan will be underpinned by funding which will be outlined in an updated National Development Plan. This may help resolve issues around a shortage of school places like that in East Cork.

Progressive proposals that might help communities to take over at-risk amenities are included. 

Under the scheme, the Government may match local funding to buy a pub, theatre, or post office as has been done in Britain.

Elephant in the room

At a moment when optimism is priceless, these proposals must be welcomed even if there is an elephant in the room — a white elephant in too many cases. 

The plan recognises that high-speed broadband will be the heartbeat of a rejuvenated rural economy, yet swathes of the country struggle to sustain connections the 20% of public servants will need this year. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that most of this plan would not be necessary as its promises would naturally fall into place if all of Ireland had the kind of broadband that makes the modern world click. 

That the proposals come from the administration that tolerates arrangements that mean some people will still, according to National Broadband Ireland schedules issued just last week, wait for years for a high-speed connection puts it in a sobering context and points to the stasis that confounded Mr McCreevy all those years ago. What a pity.

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