An alliance of organisations has vowed to make rural Ireland an election issue as their Save Rural Ireland campaign gets off the ground.
Muintir na Tíre president Paddy Byrne said the campaign launch marked "a very important day for the future of rural Ireland".
His organisation represents more than 1,200 community groups and he said it was inundated with questions from members asking when the decimation of essential services would stop. “Today is the beginning of a fight back for those groups,” he said.
Muintir na Tíre chief executive Niall Garvey said it was amazing that there was no national policy for rural Ireland.
“There have been white papers, strategies and so on, but there is no national policy as to where we see rural Ireland, what we think it should be like, how we get there and what are the services needed to support that,” he said.
“Where is the line in the sand beyond which we are not going to cut any more of those services?”
He said the alliance was calling on all political parties to outline their policies on rural Ireland and how they would be implemented.
As well as Muintir na Tíre, the alliance includes the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ISCFA), the Irish Countrywomen's Association, the Irish Postmasters' Union, Macra na Feirme, the Post Office Users' Group and the Irish National Flood Forum. "And we have other bodies interested in joining us," Mr Garvey said.
The alliance will initially focus on five issues: post office viability, control of scrap metal, insurance in flood areas, GP cover and rural broadband.
ISCFA president Patrick Kent said the lack of reliable broadband was a major issue for farmers because the Department of Agriculture wanted farmers to complete applications online. "It's also important to keep young people in rural Ireland. The brain drain...can be as a result of the lack of broadband in a rural area."
Irish Postmasters’ Union general secretary Ned O’Hara said there was strong community support to keep struggling post offices open “and it will be a major election issue”.
He said the number of post offices had gone from 2,300 in 1984 to about 1,100 now, he said, adding “rural post offices are being closed routinely”.
No joined-up thinking
Postmaster Paddy McCann from Fairymount, Co Roscommon, said there was no joined-up thinking when the Department of Social Affairs was encouraging the payment of benefits through banks instead of post offices.
The closure of a post office was usually followed by the closure of the local shop, said Irish Countrywomen's Association president Liz Wall.
“And when your shop went, your chemist went and all your local services went. And now we are hit with our bus service going.
“That’s a great concern for a lot of our members who need to get to Dublin for cancer treatment. Our members feel that rural Ireland is being totally destroyed,” she said.
Meanwhile, Jer Buckley of the Irish National Flood Forum asked why insurance companies were allowed to refuse cover to businesses in areas where flood relief works had been carried out. He said €500 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent remedying these problems.
“This isn’t tolerated in any other European country, this cherry-picking that’s going on,” he said. “All the risk is being taken by the taxpayer and the community, and the insurance companies are walking away scot-free.”
Five key proposals from the Save Rural Ireland campaign
1. Restore the rural practice allowance to GPs to allow them to carry out more house visits.
2. Deny licences to insurance companies if they refuse to provide insurance cover in areas that have had flood relief works carried out.
3. Regulate the scrap metal industry so that criminal gangs will no longer be able to use it as a pretext for gaining access to farms and homes.
4. Payments for all Government services such as motor tax and hospital charges should be made through the post office network.
5. Give technical advice to community groups who want to introduce broadband schemes.