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Column It's time to tackle decline in rural Ireland

Rural Ireland is experiencing a demise, with empty shop buildings, damaged roads and a lack of essential services. Action needs to be taken now or we could see whole parts of the country uninhabited, writes John Verling.

RURAL PARTS OF Ireland are facing big problems, ones that could have devastating long term effects on the country. Have you walked round the streets of any Irish rural town or village lately? They all look the same or at least have one particular trait in common: they are full of empty buildings. Empty shops, pubs or restaurants, they are all two-a-penny in rural Ireland at the moment. No doubt it’s the same in every county.

Rural Ireland is in decline once more and nobody seems willing or able to do anything about it. Where once we had construction booming, we now have people fighting for whatever small job becomes available. Agriculture may be growing at the moment, which is great to see, but farming has become a lot less labour intensive; most farms only employ the farmer and a part-time labourer. Fishing is on its knees with quotas, fuel costs and poor pricing for the product. The fact is that most ports don’t have a fleet as such anymore. Tourism is just too seasonal for full time sustainable employment.

Who cares?

The problem here is that the big boys don’t care about rural Ireland any more, not that they ever did much before the recession either. It’s great for family holidays and weekends away but don’t think of setting up business there. That lack of caring for the rural community comes from the top down.

Government traditionally left rural communities to fend for themselves. This was either because they couldn’t afford to look after them or not enough people voted in these places. Major long term investment in rural Ireland has been absent since the founding of the State. The State traditionally mistrusted rural Ireland and thought it best to keep a central control on the country. This has left a top-heavy government, by which I mean the civil service mainly, that hasn’t a great knowledge of the country as a whole.

Ninety years on and we’re still living the legacy of the Civil War. Sure there was grant-aid, much welcomed, to build piers, schools and fill potholes. But very little was done to make sustainable business possible. Private sector is well capable of building business – I’m not advocating soviet style collectives here – but they can’t do it without the public sector providing the infrastructure.

Broadband is still below a standard acceptable to operate a business. We saw this recently when Kerry Group decided to situate a major new site in Kildare as opposed to Kerry because the infrastructure was below par in its home county. Ironic isn’t it that Kerry Group, a great advertisement for what rural communities can produce, can’t now place new business in Kerry.

Communications investment

High speed broadband should be a right now, as it is in all parts of Norway, a country similar to Ireland. Pressure was not put on the then state-owned Eircom to roll out broadband access; now the commercial, profit-only organisations won’t do it. Yes, you have rural broadband schemes but not at a quality for business to be carried out. You’d imagine this would be relatively cheap to do, compared to the employment opportunities created. More and more business is done online, it is becoming boring even to say so, but you can’t do a thing if the speed of connection is as it is at the moment.

Roads are still way below a standard acceptable for regular travel. YouTube is full of videos of potholes, one big enough for a guy to swim in, while another I saw had a couple fishing from it. If you can’t move your goods or staff safely and quickly, it is very difficult to justify setting up a business. Money is tight but investment in infrastructure is never wasted and a great way to stimulate the economy. Yesterday I drove past a road widening scheme and it appeared that most of the work was being done by Irish companies, judging by the names on the plant machinery. It is possible for local companies to do these big jobs, keeping the money invested in the country.

Spreading industry

This week I was at a seminar highlighting the skills gap, the lack of particular talents that are hindering Irish companies, or companies based here, when competing internationally. There wasn’t any mention of spreading industry throughout the country or building the infrastructure to allow business to expand. There may well be the people able to do those jobs they spoke of in the country but don’t live in an urban area. Should we grant aid to the companies to fly in suitable people from abroad or could we invest a bit, not that much, and give the country as a whole a fair crack of the whip?

There are many areas of the country that could benefit from a little investment. No doubt there are plenty of people with good ideas for a sustainable rural economy, people who need to be listened to today. The time for action is now, while there still are communities there to save, no point in regretting it all in 10 year’s time. If proper investment doesn’t happen whole parts of the country may become uninhabited. That may be great for the holiday-home owner looking for a peaceful couple of weeks in the summer but it’s a terrible outlook for beautiful, isolated rural Ireland.

John Verling is a father of three children and is from County Cork. He writes a blog called Verlingsweek. To read more from John for click here.

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