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Services closing, lack of transport and young people leaving - the causes and cost of rural isolation

Many local businesses are being forced to shut their doors and vital services are diminishing at a fast pace.

GARDA STATIONS AND post offices closing, banks becoming cashless, and now publicans saying potential stricter drink driving laws could close pubs across the country – rural Ireland says it’s becoming isolated.

In 1968, the late John Healy wrote Death of an Irish Town, later republished in 1988 under the title No One Shouted Stop.

At that time, people were emigrating from the Mayo town of Charlestown with no plan to return as there were no opportunities for the people there.

Today, nearly 50 years on, many people in rural Ireland say their towns and villages are being decimated all over again. Many local businesses are being forced to shut their doors and vital services are diminishing at a fast pace.

Some 139 garda stations were shut between 2012 and 2013.

In the past 25 years, 777 post offices have closed across the country.

Earlier this year, reports emerged that An Post was considering the winding down of 80 branches in an effort to plug its €12 million annual losses.

Rural Post Offices Will Be Closed Down A closed post office in the town of Ballybay, Co Monaghan. Source: Laura Hutton via RollingNews.ie

Some banks have withdrawn over-the-counter services and moved towards ‘cashless’ models. Over the summer, Bank of Ireland went cash free in 100 branches across the country, while Ulster Bank went cashless in five locations at the end of June. Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Regional, Rural, Gaeltacht and Island Affairs Éamon Ó Cuív described the move as a huge insult to rural residents.

Just this week, there were calls for the government to save the Valentia Ferry, which carried more than 100,000 cars to the island over the summer season.

Speaking to The Kerryman, ferry manager Richard Foran said saving the ferry was an “acid test” for the government’s commitment to rural Ireland and if it isn’t saved, it proves there is little interest or appetite to help in Leinster House.

No heart 

Justin Gleeson, director of All-Island Research Observatory, says there has been a trend in the past 15-20 years to build on the periphery of towns and there has been a certain amount of core decay in the smaller towns across the country.

Many people who live in towns close to Dublin spend multiple hours a day commuting. The latest figures from the Census show that almost 200,000 commuters spent an hour or more commuting to work last year, which represents an increase of almost 50,000 on 2011 (that’s 31%).

The census area of Laytown-Bettystown-Mornington, three towns in Meath, had the highest percentage of commuters with 28% of its 4,565 workers travelling during the week. The local town for those three areas is Drogheda.

Last year during a visit to Drogheda, locals told this website that it was “a town without a heart” -  many were convinced that a lack of parking and accessibility was what pushed shoppers out to nearby retail parks, leaving the town searching for its lifeblood.

shop-st-2 Drogheda Source: Cliodhna Russell via TheJournal.ie

That sentiment can be echoed in towns and villages across the country. In Manorhamilton in Co Leitrim, the last newsagent on the main street of the town closed down in the past few weeks.

It was one of several businesses that closed on the street in recent years.

Employment is high in the town as there are several factories located around it but the owner of Bredin’s Newsagents, Arthur Bredin told Brian O’Connell from the Sean O’Rourke Show on RTÉ Radio 1, “We’ve tried everything we could to keep it going.

People want to be able to pull up at the door and run in and run out, there’s no support for small shops anymore.

“The bigger supermarkets have done away with little shops … We’re going to take a bad hit but a decision had to be made, it has been hemorrhaging money or the past 14 months.

“It was death by a thousand cuts but probably the last 100 cuts were the parking and the introduction of the traffic lights. Everyday the traffic is backed up the full length of the main street and no one can pull up and pop in.”

Joanna Keenan has operated the butcher shop in Manorhamilton for 30 years and she says 2017 has been the hardest year of all.

“Our business has dropped 30%, nobody can pull in the car to run to the shop anymore, the traffic lights have caused tailbacks all over the town.”

Transport

As residents in rural communities cry out for more services, Minister for Transport Shane Ross says he is currently looking at “creative solutions” for transport needs in those areas.

It comes as the minister has proposed a Bill that will see people automatically disqualified from driving if caught over the alcohol limit.

The Cabinet has endorsed the changes to drink-driving laws, but a decision has not yet been made on whether non-Cabinet members of the party will get a free vote on the issue.

Speaking about the impact this Bill may have on rural Ireland, Ross admitted that there are real issues to do with rural isolation which need to be examined.

“A number of people have raised the issue of social life – particularly getting to and from the pub – in rural Ireland.

While I do not for a moment accept that my proposal will be damaging to rural Ireland, I do agree that there is an issue of social isolation in rural areas and a need for creative thinking to help people get out and about, meet friends and have a drink, and get home safely.

He said transport is a major factor.

1124 Road Traffic Bill_90518139 Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

“We all know that there are more alternatives to using one’s own car in urban than in rural areas.

“Some possible solutions are car-sharing, vintner-provided transport, or wider rural transport solutions, but there are challenges for all of these options. If solving the problem was easy it would have been done long ago.”

Vintners Federation of Ireland (VFI) Chief Executive Padraig Cribben said, “The minister and his department have no proposals or solutions to the problems his legislation will cause.

The minister appears to think it is the responsibility of other organisations to solve transport infrastructure problems.

“The issue of publicans driving customers home was raised but for most pub owners this is not a practical solution.”

‘Discriminate against rural Ireland’

Mike Power, who runs The Cat’s Bar in Cappoquin in Waterford, says Ross’s plans will “drive people into further isolation, close community outlets across the country and cost a lot of jobs”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie earlier this year when the Bill was first announced, Power asked: “Is it safe to drive after a glass of wine? I suppose if we had equal transport there would be no excuse but we just don’t have that.”

This point was also made by a spokesperson from Irish Rural Link, the national network representing rural communities.

Its spokesperson said that while the organisation has a zero tolerance towards drink driving “it has grave reservations with the measures being proposed for first time offenders who are assessed with minimum levels of alcohol in their system”.

They added that the measures “unfairly discriminate against rural Ireland where families are reliant on their car, in the absence of alternative transport”.

There are little or no alternative transport for people and families living in rural Ireland and a suite of transport measures for rural areas need to be explored.

Irish Rural Link said it would be in favour of increasing the fine and/or penalty points for those found with the minimum level of alcohol on a first offence.

Ageing population

Gleeson told TheJournal.ie that while the population of Ireland has grown 3.7% in the last five years, the All-Island Research Observatory has noted a decline in many rural areas.

The last Census showed a 20% increase in the population of people over the age of 65 who will have “entire new needs for services”.

There are big issues down the line as to how the country is going to deal with this, especially as many of the elderly live in rural areas with limited services.

He said the latest Census figures also showed that emigration is lower than expected but he added that now we have a lot of internal migration, where people are moving from rural to urban areas for work.

shutterstock_405855937 File Photo Source: LMspencer via Shutterstock

Speaking about the economy, he added that employment has increased everywhere, but Dublin and Eastern areas are doing the best, adding, “A lot of rural areas are still suffering quite a lot.

The population in many rural areas is getting older and isn’t being revitalised as no young people are moving into these areas and there’s a risk of continuous decline.

Gleeson said that public transport and broadband, things urban dwellers can take for granted, are still major issues for rural Ireland.

He added that while it can be difficult to build these services in areas with a scattered population, broadband could be key to encouraging people to move back to rural areas.

“People are willing to live in non-urban areas, some people are moving west.

Broadband would revitalise these towns, people don’t need to be in big offices in cities to do a lot of their work, but they do need to be able to work online. The broadband strategy could deliver that.

This month Clare became the first county to launch a rural development strategy, which has a 4,000-jobs target, following the Government’s Action Plan for Rural Development.

Digital hubs will be established throughout the county to support rural enterprise by facilitating e-working, small-scale training and conferencing.

Rural transport initiatives, such as a type of ‘rural Uber’, community car pooling and community bus services are also earmarked under the strategy.

‘Cinderella department’

The Department of Rural and Community Development was established this summer “to provide a renewed and consolidated focus on rural and community development in Ireland”.

However, Fianna Fáil’s Ó Cuív has described Michael Ring’s team as the “Cinderella Department” in terms of budget and functions.

He said it is by far the smallest government department with a limited remit and a budget of around €16 million.

“Despite the miniscule funding allocation being transferred to the new department, it now also looks unlikely that the Minister will be able to spend the funding this year – which could result in the department carrying money into next year, or handing it back to the Exchequer at the end of the year.

“This new department will pay the price for the other departments’ failure to manage their budgets directly, and communities in rural Ireland will be at a disadvantage as a result.”

Read: ’Only a Dub would bring this in’: Rural Ireland angry with plan for drink drivers to get automatic ban>

Read: ’Desperately unfair’: Bank of Ireland accused of leaving elderly behind as 100 branches go cash free>

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