Government will pay price for neglect of rural Ireland
Issues such as lack of broadband and post office closures will shape next government
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten: under pressure on two fronts over the lack of rural broadband and the closure of post offices. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Last weekend at the Voices of Impact conference in the RDS 11-year-old digital prodigy Aoibheann Mangan told how, when she needs to work on one of her websites or do a school project, one of her parents has to drive her to the Tesco car park in the local town. It is the only place where they can get good broadband. Sometimes she sits there for hours “borrowing” the free wifi.
Aoibheann, who has already built several websites aimed primarily at public information provision to young users, is currently the EU Digital Girl of Year. She lives in the village of Hollymount on the R331 rural road about halfway between Ballinrode and Claremorris in south county Mayo.
The village has a small petrol station, a community centre, a mini mart and a population of about 60 in the village itself and a few hundred more in the surrounding area.
In a witty presentation Aoibheann delivered a passionate critique of the digital divide which currently compounds the difficulties faced by rural Ireland. In her area, not only do they not have access to broadband but also don’t even have 3G. Whenever her mother has to send an email with an attachment of any size she goes out on the trampoline in the back garden hoping to bounce high enough to catch a sufficient signal.
The chronic delays in rolling out a national rural broadband strategy mean that real access to broadband for such communities is still some way off, and with the tender process for a provider now down to one bidder, it seems further delays are likely.
There is every possibility that Aoibheann and her classmates will have most of their Leaving Cert course completed before they will have access to anything approaching adequate broadband. For them and their families the digital discrimination against rural Ireland will continue to be a lived reality.
Aoibheann’s account of her internet woes came the same week as details were announced about the closure of 159 local post offices. Hollymount still has a post office. There was local media speculation earlier this month that it might close but it is not included in the list recently announced by An Post.
It is worth remembering that the neglect of rural Ireland featured prominently as an issue in the last general election
This week in a context where much of rural Ireland still lacks broadband and where very many rural villages face post office closures, it is worth remembering that the neglect of rural Ireland featured prominently as an issue in the last general election.
It contributed significantly to the re-election of several Independents and to the election of new ones. It played a role also in shaping the current Government and gave rise to one of those Independents, Denis Naughten, becoming Minister with responsibility for, among other things, communications, including the postal services.
When the second Enda Kenny-led government was finally formed in May 2016 Kenny appointed Mayo colleague Michael Ring as minister of state for regional economic development to head up a special section in the newly, and awkward, titled Department of Arts, Heritage, Rural, Regional and Gaeltacht Affairs.
In January 2017 Kenny, minister Heather Humphreys and junior minister Ring launched a glossy 70 page document entitled “Realising our Rural Potential” which described itself as an “action plan” for rural Ireland. It identified “key deliverables” such as the “protection of vital local services” and ensuring “ALL” houses and businesses are connected to broadband. The emphasis by means of capitalisation on “ALL houses” is in the text of the action plan itself.
The Government’s determination to suggest a commitment to saving rural Ireland took on a new form after Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach in June 2017. He promoted Ring to a full Cabinet post in a newly created Department of Rural and Community Affairs “to provide a renewed and consolidated focus on rural and community development in Ireland”.
This is very much the poor sister of departments, however. It has an annual budget in 2018 of just €220 million and a staff of about 200 “across locations in Dublin, Ballina and other regional centres”. A number of these, however, are working on the policy area of charity regulation which somewhat curiously is also under this department’s remit.
It is fair to say that the big issues affecting rural development rest with other departments. Two of the most prominent, namely broadband and rural post offices sit in Naughten’s department and he is under pressure on both fronts this week.
He and his department are about to preside over the largest ever single closure scheme of rural post offices. He argues this spate of closures are necessary to save the network. Meanwhile, he and his department have also missed several of their own deadlines for the roll out of rural broadband.
Notwithstanding the various Cabinet reconfigurations designed to suggest that tackling rural disadvantage is a Government priority its “key deliverables” for rural Ireland remain undelivered.