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Opinion: 'Rural Ireland is not dead. It’s on the verge of great things.'

We are a country renowned for our innovation and problem solving. Let’s fix Rural Ireland, writes David Minton.

David Minton David Minton is Director isCEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly.

IRELAND NEEDS ‘RURAL Ireland’. There’s no getting around it. We need its people, its energy, its resources, its space and its creativity. Ushering in its demise is misguided.

Rural Ireland in the future could be a net exporter of energy, water, services, global technology products and ideas. It can become an economic powerhouse in its own right.

We need to stop analysing our issues in isolation – rural broadband, rural transport, rural jobs – we all live in one country where our families are dispersed across urban and rural communities.

Progress for some is about growth and development. For me it’s about resilience and sustainability. Rural Ireland is testament to both of these things.

The label ‘Rural Ireland’

To some it’s a byword for depressing economic decay, a compartment of the mind that conjures the ghosts of emigration, unemployment and the loss of hope.

But, despite the impression you may get from media reporting of cutbacks to services and transport, lack of broadband penetration and a flight to the cities, my vision for Rural Ireland is somewhat brighter, more optimistic and entirely achievable.

As a region, Rural Ireland is changing. It has responded to international trends and is surviving by embracing the shifts in global technology. In fact, people of rural Ireland are the leaders of this global technology change.

How can we improve the countryside?

Rural Ireland wants to be the one of the best places to live and work in continental Europe. It is perfectly positioned to lead development if we connect our strengths as a low carbon, green and natural economy.

Like many others, I believe in Rural Ireland. I understand its capacity and it is latent. It’s not hidden — it just hasn’t been unlocked.

I spoke recently to a counterpart in Norway who deals with equally peripheral issues as we do in the west and northwest of Ireland. In the late 1990s and 2000s they too witnessed an increasing trend towards urban areas.

This now has reversed with their adoption of gigabit fibre to rural homes and villages. This investment has seen a stabilisation of population, growth in employment and increasing demand for property and housing.

His final comment resonated with me: “We were so far behind that we ended up in front.” Norway’s western region had a blank canvas to craft a vision which it then executed. It is now time to craft our own vision.

Adopt Norway’s strategy to make our countryside smart

The same principles must be adopted now to make our rural areas smart. The language of urban versus rural needs to stop and we need to grow together. Too often in Ireland the media has been of an urban centric view of growth. But are they right?

Yes, figures show rural depopulation, disparity between rural and urban unemployment levels while rural areas contribute significantly less. But does that mean we should we maintain this slide? I think the answer is no and I think a turning point is coming.

International trends and statistics illustrate the movement to urban and city living. But what kind of cities are we creating?

In many urban centres, it is difficult to afford rents, even for the smallest apartments. It is impossible for many to own a family home. For many people, quality of life is poor. They dream of something else, something affordable and more fulfilling.

We are a nation with international recognition for our innovation, and problem solving. These traits are steeped in our rural and agricultural background. One only has to look at our agri-technology sector to see our global impression.

All this means Rural Ireland is at a distinct advantage. Due to our historical and dispersed settlement patterns, our rural communities are relatively well serviced.

shutterstock_362815688 There are great schools, affordable housing and an unbeatable, clean environment. Source: Shutterstock/Federica Violin

Yes, there is poor broadband and mobile connectivity, and patchy transport services that further exacerbate the distance between rural communities and markets. But there are great schools, affordable housing and an unbeatable, clean environment.

Steps are underway that will fix a lot of problems and obstacles in this area. We have initiatives such as SIRO providing 100% fibre broadband to rural towns such as Sligo, Castlebar and Letterkenny.

The government has committed to the National Broadband Plan to deliver 30mbps to every rural household. Electrification was not without its delays; we will get there but we need to be ready for its delivery.

Rural Ireland 2.0 is possible

I look around rural economies and I see our companies and businesses moving online, trading internationally and growing their business globally. We have tech development companies trading from Gaeltacht islands.

I want to be part of a future that celebrates urban life. I want our economy to welcome Google and Apple and other industry giants. But I also want to see their workers and the self-employed living next door to me in a vibrant Rural Ireland 2.0.

The time to show we were smart enough to shape that future, when we had the chance, is now.

David Minton is Director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. The One Region: One Vision Conference is being held at The Model, Sligo on December 8 from 1pm to 5pm.

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About the author:

David Minton  / David Minton is Director isCEO of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly.

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