Minister plans hub network to drive rural reboot

Michael Ring says he has ensured policies approved at Cabinet are ‘rural proofed’

Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring says there is a “feelgood factor out there” in rural Ireland. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring says there is a “feelgood factor out there” in rural Ireland. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Harry McGee

Political Correspondent

Minister for Rural Affairs Michael Ring is to focus on a countrywide network of community-based digital and enterprise “hubs” as one of the central planks of his plans to revive Ireland’s 600 small to medium rural towns.

Ahead of the publication this Friday of the National Planning Framework, Ring has been lobbying within Cabinet to ensure the plan will not be received by the public as “unbalanced” or urban-focused.

As Minister for Rural Affairs, he seeks to ensure all Government policies are “rural proofed”. The draft plan has already been criticised by a coalition comprising of all Opposition parties and Independents which claims it is unbalanced and will be detrimental to rural Ireland. There was specific criticism that the North-West was being neglected in the framework.

In an interview with The Irish Times in advance of the furore over the planning framework, Ring set out his own views on how rural Ireland could be protected.

He has put a lot of his political capital into the development of innovation centres or hubs. Some have been established in rural towns and have already shown an impact in terms of employment, and in reversing population decline in those areas. 

In Skibbereen, the Ludgate Digital Hub offers superfast broadband to individuals and businesses, who can use its space for office work, research, networking, conferencing and meetings. Over 70 people are employed across five or six businesses in the Food Hub in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. A similar innovation and enterprise hub is due to open in Longford town in 2018, with over €600,000 in funding from Ring’s town and village renewal fund. 

Ring visited Drumshanbo recently and outlined his plan for hubs to be established across the State when visiting the Food Hub there. 

He also officially opened the first barrel of Drumshanbo Whiskey, the first whiskey to be distilled in Connacht for over a century. The whiskey is made at PJ Rigney’s ‘Shed’ Distillery in the town, which has already had notable success with its Gunpowder Gin. 

Referring to the €21 million funding he has secured for the town and village scheme, Ring said he would be “concentrating on hubs all over the country”. 

“Dublin is at full capacity. We have the workforce, the team, the people, the vision and the capacity in rural Ireland. 

“We are telling companies to look at rural Ireland. There are many Drumshanbos around the country and I’m telling you one thing, they will not let you down. Jobs are what keep communities alive.”

The new Department has had teething problems. Over six months after its establishment, it is still housed in temporary offices.

The Minister’s role is relatively limited compared to other departments. He has responsibility for implementing the Action Plan for Rural Ireland, with its aim of creating 135,000 jobs; and reviving 600 small- to medium- sized towns.

Its aims are to increase visitor numbers by 12 per cent; create an Atlantic Economic Corridor; and to address issues such as rural transport, country schools and the retention of post offices, banks, GPs and rural businesses.

By the very act of creating a senior Ministry, he said, the Government has elevated the status of rural affairs. 

Nor is he worried about opposition claims about paltry resources. He points to the Wild Atlantic Way. “It was already there. All it required was some resources, a clever marketing campaign, signage and viewing points along the way. 

“Look at the important things like the rural recreation schemes. Go down to Waterford and its greenway, or the walkway at Drumshanbo (a route along the Shannon linking it to Leitrim Village) which did not cost a huge amount.

Ring says he has ensured that all policies being approved at Cabinet are “rural proofed”.

Ring points to a pilot scheme in the north west, that has brought 500 patients to hospital, through subsidising local drivers to the tune of 20 cent a mile. He wants that scheme available everywhere. He says it could have other applications like making trips to the local pub possible, or bringing elderly people into the local village to go to the post office, go to bingo, or to do shopping. 

He wants more motorways and high quality national routes, and multi-disciplinary primary care health-centres. All of these he argues, will play a part to bring back life into to towns that were moribund during the recessions. 

“I really sense there is a feel good factor out there again. 

Last year the first quarter, CSO figures showed that four out of five jobs were being created in rural Ireland. There were more people with salaries in to their pockets. There is more confidence than there was. 

“Yes, we had five years of very severe misery. Now they now see more jobs are being created. They actually see their sons and daughters getting jobs again.”