A minister for rural affairs is needed — but only if they are willing to face up to responsibilities far beyond the next election, writes Michael Clifford

Will there be a grand tour for the prospective minister for rural affairs?

Will he — there’s no she in the frame as of yet — be paraded through towns and villages on the back of a lorry, greeted like a liberator, a saviour, a human bulwark against decline and death.

It now looks like there will be a minister with a rural affairs portfolio. The recent talks between Independent deputies with large rural tracts in their constituencies, and both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, have put the prospect on the table of the next government.

The rural alliance is taking a step back in formation talks, but irrespective of whom exactly answers the call to government, it will be difficult to retreat from the idea that rural Ireland is getting a minister.

Both the moral and the strategic case for a minister for rural affairs is unimpeachable. This was illustrated most recently with the publication of Social Justice Ireland’s (SJI) socio-economic review on Tuesday.

SJI director Seán Healy said the publication illustrated how poverty was more likely to occur in rural Ireland.

“The poverty rate in rural Ireland is 4.5 per centage points higher than in urban Ireland,” he said.

“The border, midlands and western region has the highest poverty rate and lowest median income in the State.” The report shows how this region has seen one of the greatest reductions in employment since 2008. It also has one of the lowest levels of IDA-supported employment.

The signs of decline are all around, from bordered-up shops to the heavy pall that hangs over a town struggling for air. There has been some speculation on which individual might fill the portfolio. One name that is constantly suggested is Michael Fitzmaurice, who appears to have a grasp on what exactly is wrong, and how it might be putright.

 Maura Healy-Rae: Planning laws forcing rural dwellers to ‘go underground like hobbits.’
Maura Healy-Rae: Planning laws forcing rural dwellers to ‘go underground like hobbits.’

Whomever lands the job, the task will not be easy. There are short-term problems that will attract the required urgency to fix them.

The absence of proper broadband is a shocking deficiency. Attracting and keeping GPs in rural Ireland has become a major problem. Farm incomes are falling. The future of rural transport has to be secured. A sustainable post office network has to be secured. Health services are deteriorating.

The biggest challenge, however, will be to attract investment, the lifeblood of a rural community today. Without that, all else is just a support structure doing little to reverse the decline.

There are plenty of ideas out there. Bodies like SJI, Teagasc and in particular, the Commission for Economic Development in Rural Areas (CEDRA). The chair of CEDRA, Pat Spillane has been vocal about the lack of progress being made in implementing the main recommendations of the report.

All of the reports have blueprints for kick-starting indigenous industry, and for making adjustments to existing business.

Some, like the economic red zones to attract investment, are getting off the ground. There has also been some success in developing tourism.

But serious political will is required to fully invest time and resources to reshape rural economies.

All of that will be of serious concern to a minister for rural affairs.

Resources will be made available to address the most immediate worries. Never enough, but a lot more because there will be a voice for rural affairs at the cabinet table. Much tougher than all that will be securing the future, because that will introduce the bugbear of ministerial seals — having to make decisions.

Should every school in the country remain open? What if a case is made that some should close in order for others to remain open in the long term?

The same applies to hospitals. The health service is frequently thrust at the mercy of politics. Would a minister be equipped to take difficult decisions if he believes it’s in the longer-term interest? Sustainability will mean discommoding some, and possible division.

One issue welded to the long term is planning. Planning is a staple of the local politician. The latest rural planning incident to make the national media came from Maura Healy-Rae last week at a Kerry County Council meeting. Maura was co-opted onto her father Danny’s seat after his election to the Dáil.

Ms Healy-Rae suggested that the planning restrictions on high ground would soon have all new dwellings beneath the soil.

“Are they going to have to go underground like hobbits?” she said.

The restrictions in question are mainly there to preserve an asset for the future, and tourism for the present.

Will a new voice at cabinet use the ear of his colleague in the Department of the Environment to plan for today’s votes rather than a brighter tomorrow?

It won’t be an easy gig if the incumbent takes the job as seriously as the portfolio requires. Making decisions will be new territory for a minister from the ranks of Independent TDs.

Heretofore the life of an Independent TD was uncomplicated. Good work is often done on the opposition benches by the growing number of Independents, but none ever have to make unpopular decisions.

For those lucky enough to be invited to support a government in the past, there has been the jackpot of resources and services for their own constituency. Now and then, a difficult vote might have to be swallowed, but it provided an opportunity to lie back and think of the goodies.

A minister won’t have access to such comforts. Instead, he would have to face up to responsibilities that go beyond the next election.

Rural Ireland has been in decline for more than 40 years. The trend is one way. Now there may well be an opportunity for a minister — assisted by like-minded deputies — to make a serious difference.

Let’s hope the opportunity isn’t missed.

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