Thousands protest against against plan to change Leader schemes

Crowd urged not to ‘allow Phil Hogan to tear the heart out of our communities’

A rally outside the Dáil  protests about the proposed  changes to the Leader scheme, centralising control of rural development in new local government structures. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

A rally outside the Dáil protests about the proposed changes to the Leader scheme, centralising control of rural development in new local government structures. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Wed, Jul 9, 2014, 20:39

Up to 2,500 people from across the State protested outside Leinster House today at plans to change the way a key rural development fund is managed. The long-running battle for control of the €250 million Leader programme saw a number of Oireachtas members, MEPs, trade unionists and farming leaders urge the crowd not to “allow [Minister for the Environment] Phil Hogan to tear the heart out of our communities”.

The EU Leader (Liaisons Entre Actions de Developpement de l’Economie Rurale) programme was established by the European Commission in 1991 to bridge the gap between local community initiatives and central EU rural development funds. Modelled on a bottom-up approach, it has been operating in Ireland since 1992, with 36 rural and 14 urban local development companies (LDCs) overseeing funds.

Mr Hogan is proposing “enhanced alignment” between the LDCs and local authorities. This would entail the establishment of a socio-economic committee in each local authority to take over management of the local Leader funds. Protesters see this as a move to take control from local communities.

Gloria Callinan, co-ordinator of a Leader LDC in Co Clare, said the Minister’s plan would remove the input of local communities into decisions about how the fund should be spent. “We have no problem with oversight by local authorities and we work with them all the time, but the model we have in Ireland is recognised throughout Europe as one of the best and what we are asking is why change it if it’s been working well for over 20 years.

“It will increase bureaucracy and remove control from the people on the ground, who know their communities, over decisions that affect them.”

Among the slogans on placards were “Hands off Rural Ireland” and “We Want Partnership, not Dictatorship”.

There were banners from towns and villages including Monaghan, Ballyhoura, Co Limerick, and Upperchurch, Co Tipperary, as well as from Co Kerry, Co Galway, Co Sligo, Co Leitrim and Co Donegal.

TDs and councillors from Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Independents were among those in the crowd, which was addressed by MEPs Marian Harkin (Independent) and Liadh Ní Riada (Sinn Féin), TD Michael Healy Rae (Independent), Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú (Fianna Fáil), Ictu president John Douglas, ICMSA president John Comer, chair of the Irish Leader Development Network John Walsh, IFA rural development officer Flor McCarthy and Radim Srsen, president of Elard, the European representative body for Leader organisations across the EU.

Mr Healy-Rae said there had never been a more “anti-rural and pro-centralise-everything Government in the history of the State”.

“We don’t know who is going to be the next Minister for the Environment after Phil Hogan goes but we can be certain of one thing – he couldn’t be worse than the one we have now,” he said to huge applause and cheering.

A spokesman for the Minister said Mr Hogan had assured the current LDCs they would be “key partners in the proposed new architecture” and he anticipated they would “participate fully in the upcoming local development strategy selection process”.