Rural Ireland plan is so ambitious it is hard to take seriously

New three-year plan contains too many commitments and not enough priorities

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for  Rural  Affairs Heather Humphreys  and Minister Dennis Naughton at the launch of the Action Plan for Regional Development : would the Government not be better with a more compact, and so more realistic, plan?  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Minister for Rural Affairs Heather Humphreys and Minister Dennis Naughton at the launch of the Action Plan for Regional Development : would the Government not be better with a more compact, and so more realistic, plan? Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Reading the action plan for rural development launched during the week under the title Realising Our Rural Potential, I was reminded of the Mayo journalist John Healy, who died in 1991. In his heyday, Healy caused quite a stir with his books Death of an Irish Town (1968) first published in The Irish Times as a series of articles about his native Charlestown under the title “No One Shouted Stop” in October and November 1967, and his follow-up Nineteen Acres (1978).

In his 1967 series Healy referred disdainfully to the “the 50 glorious years” since the declaration of the Irish Republic. He captioned a photograph of the railway station in Charlestown, where the first train steamed on to the platform to cheering crowds in 1895, yet where the last passenger train had come through in June 1963.

It was, lamented Healy, “once the focal point of a thriving town and now something of a monument to our failures”. He went on, “The crime of our day will be our failure to recognise the vacuum in rural Ireland – the vacuum in values and achievements, of old and new heroes, the disintegration of a culture and a way of life and how we fill it, shape it and give it a healthy growth and future”.

Asset to be valued

Fifty years on and rural decline is in the frame once more with the same insistence that we need to think differently and give it a future. In her introduction to the report Minister Heather Humphreys stresses, “Rural Ireland should never be seen as a challenge to be overcome; rather it is an asset that should be valued and nurtured. In fact, it’s time to change the narrative around rural Ireland. Rural Ireland in the 21st century is modern, dynamic and creative, and is an integral part of our identity and economy. For too long, policy approaches to rural Ireland have lacked co-ordination or have focused on specific thematic issues such as agriculture or social inclusion. This approach has failed to address the wider and inter dependent economic and social needs of rural communities in a cohesive way. This action plan, the first of its kind, takes a coordinated approach to rural development right across the remit of Government policy to 2020.”

What is not to like in that? A bit of reverse psychology, the acknowledgement of previous failures and a robust assertion of current, coordinated ambitions? There is much in the plan to be positive about, including a definition of rural that incorporates towns, promises of improved access to broadband and the arts, conversion of derelict and disused properties, tourist activity trails, and a doubling of investment in flood relief.

All well and good, but this plan is so ambitious it is difficult to take its headlines seriously; the headlines that trumpet 135,000 jobs, revitalisation of 600 towns and villages, investment in infrastructure and a range of 270 actions involving several agencies and existing plans. More than that, it is asserted that a key feature of the plan is that it will be a “living document”, with the capacity “to add further actions over its life time.”

Packed with commitments

But its lifetime is only three years and already the report is beyond packed with commitments. Can coherence really be brought to all this? Would the Government not be better with a more compact, and so more realistic, plan which sets a modest number of key objectives that are realisable in three years and against which progress can be measured effectively? The report promises a monitoring committee and an ambassador for the plan, but just what are the practical priorities amid the relentless list of ambitions? When everything is supposedly a priority – all 270 actions – the danger is that nothing will be properly focused on.

On that point, the conclusion to the report contains warning bells: “Measuring the economic and social impact of the plan on rural communities will be an important part of the monitoring process. Identifying these impacts is challenging due to the breadth of the plan and the range of issues it addresses in the economic, social, and cultural spheres. However, appropriate output and impact indicators for the action plan will be developed in 2017 by the Secretariat in the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and with the input of the Monitoring Committee”.

What this means is that after 60 pages of plans, we are told that “output” and “impact” indicators have not yet been developed to fit an overall vision. Rural development experts, including Prof Jim Walsh at NUI Maynooth, have identified this as a signal weakness. In Walsh’s words “someone here needs to be lifting the horizon”. It appears it was decided to fill the report with commitment upon commitment rather than providing sufficient detail or evidence of thought about clear priorities and measures of success or otherwise. Clearly, in the compilation of this plan, No One Shouted Stop.

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