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Dublin won't save rural Ireland, it needs to grow up and be allowed to save itself

We need to decentralise control of the purse strings, rather than government departments, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

IF YOU WANT to encapsulate the “why” behind rural decline in Ireland, one comparative statistic stands out above all others: We have a population density of 68 people per square kilometre. Denmark, a country to whom we’re often compared on grounds of population size and other demography, has a density of 133 people per square kilometre.

Why we have rural depopulation is not difficult to comprehend when everything is so spread out. Jobs and opportunities exist in towns and cities, which have been sucking in populations from their hinterlands since time began.

The more spread out people are, the more pronounced the decline for the small places on the map that you drive through in twenty seconds on your way to somewhere else.

Abandoned villages 

It is an emotive thing. The decline into abandoned ruins of places that were so vibrant and that hold so many memories in the relatively recent past is wrenching. No panacea solution exists to stem the tide, however, and many of the remedies we apply are more rooted in populist politics than realistic appraisal. Some of the solutions are downright counterproductive. But nor is rural decline in all places inevitable.

Richard Curran’s excellent documentary, “The Battle”, which aired on RTÉ this week vividly set out ravages of rural decline. We visited some of the drive-thru villages that have been completely abandoned, or near enough as, and heard from many people lamenting the decline of their birthplaces.

We also, as is inevitable, heard a lot of “some solution is needed,” or “the government should do something about that.” People often know what they’re against, but from that does not follow clear ideas for an alternative or a solution. If they have anything in mind, it’s usually as broad as wanting more subsidies, investment or jobs sent from Dublin in neat packages with bows on them.

Endless requirements for money from government, as distinct from once-off capital investments, is counterproductive. People and communities that become reliant on cash from government are often incapable of breaking free of it. Then governments or national priorities change, or Fianna Fáil collapse the economy, and the money goes away. With it goes the levee that is keeping back the tide of inevitability.

Unnecessary deaths 

We also have a political culture of delivering for the constituency that has saddled us with white elephants and downright dangerous service provisions. Two of the first defections suffered by the current government related to the closing of facilities in their constituencies.

We have got a dangerous healthcare system because we are obsessed with having acute hospitals everywhere. A lot of people equate quantity of hospitals to quality, which is proven to be quite the opposite in healthcare provision. We need fewer, bigger hospitals with a more substantial concentration of skills and experience.

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Poor emergency department standards has led to 350 unnecessary deaths in Ireland last year, estimates the association for emergency medicine. In the UK, the whole of the UK, poor standards led to about 500 unnecessary deaths. If Ireland Inc got the contract to run the NHS we’d probably kill about 4,900 people a year in the UK if we operated the way we do at home.

This is an example of an area where delivering on the optics beats delivering a real solution. Culling the local hospital will lead to further decline, goes the thinking. But what if we had an alternative solution, like a substantial air ambulance service?

Some forward thinking and canny minister could make a name for themselves by investing in a substantial fleet of helicopters and have them do tours of the country before they ever take one patient on board. Have them land in random villages and take the locals, kids and all, on a flight to the nearest hospital we’d keep open. Rural people are right to be sceptical, but there are better solutions. It is the job of government to sell them.

Decentralise control

But big government in Dublin is not appropriate to solving all problems for rural Ireland. People in politics often mistake stated intent for a job done. So, the IDA will deliver 50% of investment outside of the cities. Has anyone told Google that their next investment will be next door to the Burren rather than their current offices on Barrow Street?

Big sledgehammers of policy and money aren’t going to keep sustainable communities alive in rural Ireland forever. We need to decentralise control of the purse strings, rather than government departments. Regions in Ireland should be given strong executive councils or elected mayors – at the discretion of the local voters I would say – and devolved budgets from Dublin.

We can’t wrap our heads around billions and hundreds of millions for this and that. It makes it easy for politicians to say there’s always a few quid more to be had from Merrion Square. What we need to do is give the locals both control of their budgets, and insight into where their cash is coming from and going to.

Let local regions compete for investment with tax breaks and subsidies, or by supporting local entrepreneurs. On the other side, show the local people what revenues they raise from their own taxes and what comes to them from central government transfers. (And let Dubliners go spare when they realise how much cash the city ships out beyond the pale.) Folks will have to figure out from their own funds how to keep a barracks or an acute hospital open if central government wants to pool the resources somewhere down the road. But they’ll have the choice to make it happen if they really want it, as distinct from the easy option today of simply asking for the funds to be pulled from a big hat or the heartbreak of feeling helpless to prevent it.

Rural Ireland is worth saving. But policymakers in Dublin aren’t up to the task. Perhaps, for many areas, nobody will really be able to stop it completely. But for some I think there can be hope, if they were to be given the control to manage their own budgets and invest where they feel they need to. After all, who knows better than the locals what needs to and can be saved?

On the other hand, we do need to grow up a little and stop looking for walls of cash and to hang on to prized totems like army barracks’ at any expense.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

READ: Unless you can magic up a few houses, welfare recipients will need to move away from Dublin>

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