Rural Ireland: can she fix it?

The appointment of a Minister for Rural Affairs should mark a turning point in Irish country life. But fixing the problems of undrinkable water, inadequate services and low employment – to name just a few – is a tall order for Ann Phelan


Ann Phelan made a little bit of history when she was appointed the first Minister for Rural Affairs, last month. But she has a major job to do if she wants to make another piece of history by helping to halt rural decline.

With a full title of Minister of State at the Departments of Agriculture, Food and Marine and Transport, Tourism and Sport with Special Responsibility for Rural Economic Development (implementation of the Cedra Report) and Rural Transport, the Labour politician has between now and March 2016 – if the Government sees out its term of office – to put her stamp on a plan to revive rural areas. She’s not the first to make the attempt, and the chances are that she won’t be the last.

Plans to rescue rural Ireland have been produced for as long as people have called for the draining of the Shannon. But she is adamant that this time is different. “This is the first time that there has been a Minister for Rural Affairs,” she says. “I’m so excited that I have been given the opportunity to perhaps make a difference.”

She will have her work cut out as people continue to deal with the fallout from the closure of rural Garda stations and the loss of local shops and services that can no longer compete with large shopping centres.

But the politician from Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, says she is ideally placed to tackle these issues. “It’s what I’ve been about all my public-representative days,” she says. “Large urban areas like Dublin sometimes have the ability to drive their own economies. And now Dublin has moved ahead of everywhere else at a speed while parts of rural Ireland are still decimated by the downturn in the economy. They are languishing because of high unemployment and emigration.”

Teagasc, the agriculture and food authority, says that nobody is in employment in a third of working-age households in small and medium-sized towns, and that poverty rates in small towns are twice those of cities. And, according to the Cedra report that Phelan’s job involves implementing – Cedra is the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas – country areas outside the State’s five biggest cities have been hit hardest by job losses, with a rise in unemployment of 192 per cent, compared with 114 per cent in urban areas.

Rural revival

Phelan’s main role will be to oversee the implementation of Cedra’s 34 recommendations for encouraging a rural revival. Happily for her, appointing a Minister for Rural Affairs was one of them. But what of the other 33? Will they be implemented before the Government leaves office?

She says she doesn’t want to raise expectations, as time is against her. “I probably have a maximum of 18-21 months to do something.” Nor does she have a pot of money to draw on. The Department of Agriculture says the issue of funding the recommendations will be addressed by the relevant departments in the budgetary process. Phelan says that a lot of supports are already in place from agencies involved in job creation and enterprise but that they are not being used because people don’t know about them.

Late last month she held her first meeting of an interdepartmental group tasked with implementing the Cedra report recommendations and co-ordinating these supports. Her main focus will be on job creation. “In some cases it might only be three jobs, but as long as they are sustainable they do make a difference in a rural economy. Everything can follow on if you create the jobs. We will be talking to the IDA and Enterprise Ireland about how we can entice companies into smaller areas of population. They need to get a remit for rural areas.”

But if foreign companies don’t want to operate in a rural area, how can she change that? “It has to be in the strategic plans of IDA and Enterprise Ireland to bring something to rural Ireland. We don’t expect the Intels and other big companies to come to rural Ireland, but there are pockets of 30 to 50 jobs that might fit in well to a rural setting.”

Small enterprises are always complaining about unreliable broadband in parts of the country, so how can we expect to attract foreign companies? “Broadband is a big issue, and a lot of people do contact me from the business sector saying, ‘We can’t expand because we don’t have broadband.’ But I do think there is a big commitment from the Government to address that.”

She says communities such as her own, in Co Kilkenny, never saw the Celtic Tiger. “I’ve often spent sleepless nights wondering how we could end unemployment for people. How do we deal with generational unemployment and get people to third-level education? For instance, if you are 30km from the nearest institute of technology, that can be a huge challenge, because you mightn’t be able to afford to put a car on the road, and possibly there’s no rural transport. So when you leave secondary school there’s nowhere for you to go.”

The loss of Garda stations, post offices and local shops are big bugbears for people living in the countryside. Phelan says she doesn’t see the closure of Garda stations being reversed, “but we certainly have done all we can to protect the post-office network, and I will be fighting tooth and nail to continue to protect that.”

“We should protect what is there”

But is it too late for the shops that have closed their shutters as discounters continue to increase their profits? “Our planners have to look seriously at the effect of putting these large supermarkets on the edge of town, sucking the life out of the centre,” she says. “They certainly have done damage. Can we undo that? There are still some villages and towns that don’t have them, so we should protect what is there. Our local-development plans should be protecting the high street.”

And what of the argument from some city dwellers that their rural cousins have opted to live in the countryside so should put up with the downside that accompanies it? “If you live in rural Ireland you certainly don’t see it that way. A large swathe of the population lives in rural Ireland, and that has to count for something. Not everyone can live in the cities, and they can’t support the entire population. We’re not looking for anything over and above what people in cities are getting.”

The Cedra report recommends the creation of rural economic-development zones and a small-town stimulus programme. Thirty towns have been identified as doing particularly badly in recent years, and Phelan says a pilot scheme will be set up to target these. She also says tourism will be vital in getting rural Ireland back on its feet. “You don’t need huge capital projects, because the landscape is already there. You don’t need huge hotels.”

And she is looking at ways of supporting agri-food and artisan businesses. “There are significant challenges in trying to get rural economies up and running again, but what we have to do first is keep what’s there already. If we at least stop the decline that would be a success of sorts.”

Phelan was involved with Kilkenny County Enterprise Board when it set up an initiative with St Canice’s Credit Union to give small loans to local businesses; she says this idea could be replicated elsewhere.

These all sound like well-meaning intentions. Will anything really change? “I am 100 per cent committed to this. Now is an opportune time, because things are beginning to happen,” she says. “Giving confidence back to the people is one of the critical things we must do. I think we will have done a good job if every Government department accepts that they have a remit for rural Ireland.”

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