Coming from a Coalition that has presided over the dismantling of vital building blocks in the social fabric of rural Ireland, the Government’s plan to appoint a junior minister for rural affairs smacks of cynicism and may come too late to save a dying population.
Nowhere is the sense of disillusion with politics more obvious than in the towns and villages of rural Ireland where people feel they have been abandoned. A concept originally proposed last April by a commission chaired by former Kerry footballer Pat Spillane, the aim is to find ways of revitalising the economy outside major urban centres.
Unfortunately, the plan has all the signs of being cobbled together as a last-minute afterthought just before the Cabinet reshuffle. Expected to go to a Labour deputy, the appointment will be seen as a sop to appease Tánaiste Joan Burton whose party did poorly enough in the reshuffle. It reflects the kind of token action that gives Irish politics a bad name.
With an election barely 18 months away — provided the Fine Gael-Labour marriage doesn’t break up sooner — it is hard to see what impact, if any, the new junior minister can have. Whoever gets the job will be responsible for co-ordinating rural development and setting annual targets for state agencies responsible for job creation. Two questions — what rural development? And what happens if agencies fail to hit their targets?
A jaundiced public has grown tired of politicians making promises which are never delivered. Thus, people will turn a cold eye on Finance Minister Michael Noonan’s Budget 2015 following broad hints of a less punitive budget than anticipated. It will also be the first real test of a raft of economic promises unveiled last Friday with the aim of putting a more positive gloss on the reshuffle.
Just one of 34 recommendations from the Spillane Commission, the Coalition is hoping it will assuage the justifiable anger of people living in the countryside who have already delivered what the Taoiseach called a walloping in the local and European elections.
Admittedly, the flight from the land has been going on for years as generations of young people moved to urban centres in search of work and a better lifestyle. But the frightening result of today’s withering exodus of emigrants seeking jobs in Australia, Canada, and other countries, means that in some parishes, the GAA cannot field a football or hurling team, and a threat is hanging over small national schools and post offices.
Regrettably, the plight of rural areas has accelerated under this administration. With large swathes of the country suffering from a generational haemorrhage of people who may never return, the Government has presided over the closure of hundreds of Garda stations, banks, pubs, and what looks like the start of an avalanche of rural post offices. In the course of a single day, the closure of 95 Garda stations was ordered by former justice minister Alan Shatter.
The heart is literally being torn out of large areas of the countryside, where some villages no longer have the essential elements of a community’s lifeline. With Ireland fast becoming a two-tier nation, the swingeing cutbacks and closures dictated by policies of austerity are creating a population vacuum that brings to mind a vast rural graveyard.
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