Stephen Collins: Death of rural Ireland is a myth
Painting changes in lifestyle as rural neglect could lead to wrong policy decisions
Far from demonstrating the poverty of rural Ireland, the decline in the use of post offices in villages and small towns reflects the fact that so many people living in the countryside are affluent enough to travel to big urban centres or modern supermarkets on the outskirts of towns to do their shopping. File photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
Rural Ireland is suffering from neglect and decay according to a widely accepted narrative which has shaped public debate and politics at local and national level for some time. The only problem is that it’s a myth.
Not only does the evidence not bear out the story of rural decline it flatly contradicts it. As with many other issues when the facts expose the hollowness of conventional wisdom they are simply ignored.
The population of rural Ireland has been growing steadily for decades. According to the census carried out in 2016 there are now 1.75 million people living in rural areas, up from 1.5 million 20 years ago.
When it comes to living standards, people in rural Ireland are not doing too badly either, according to the detailed information compiled by the Central Statistics Office for the National Household Survey.
The most recent survey, for the period 2015-2016, found that rural households spend €847.35 a week compared with urban households, which spend an average of €833.43 a week.
The difference is quite small but what is striking is that urban and rural families spent almost exactly the same amount of money largely on the same things. While there are some obvious disparities, such as rural families spending more on transport and less obvious ones such as urban families spending more on alcohol and tobacco, the overall spend is almost identical.
The statistics confirm what can be seen across rural Ireland. People living there have the same standard of living as their counterparts in urban areas, with all of the household appliances and consumer goods that sustain modern living.
Rural post offices
The refrain about rural neglect and deprivation has been given new impetus by the decision of An Post to close a relatively small number of rural post offices which no longer have enough customers to sustain them.
The notion that An Post should subsidise the continued provision of a service where there is no longer a demand for it makes no sense
Far from demonstrating the poverty of rural Ireland, the decline in the use of post offices in villages and small towns reflects the fact that so many people living in the countryside are affluent enough to travel to big urban centres or modern supermarkets on the outskirts of towns to do their shopping.
Minister for Communications Denis Naughten hit the nail on the head when he pointed out that some rural post offices were closing because the people of rural Ireland were choosing to do their shopping in Aldi or Lidl and bypassing local shops and post offices.
The notion that An Post should subsidise the continued provision of a service where there is no longer a demand for it makes no sense. If politics makes it impossible for the State-owned company to make rational decisions about its future the end result will be the destruction of An Post itself.
We have had enough experience down the years of politicians who tried like King Canute to hold back the wave of progress with disastrous results for the economy and the long-term interests of the people they are supposed to represent.
Think of the campaign to preserve the Shannon stopover long after it had outlived its usefulness or the State’s policy of blocking competition with Aer Lingus and in the process keeping air fares ludicrously high.
Another example was the campaign to preserve the Irish Sugar plants when they were no longer economically viable. Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy, who is a native of Tuam, recalls how the closure of the sugar plant there is still regularly cited as being a disaster for the town. Yet at its height the plant employed about 250 people, while technology factories which have since opened in the town, now employ more than 1,000 people.
There is no doubt that rural life has changed dramatically over the past few decades but the dire predictions of population collapse that were made in the 1980s have not come to pass. While many are no longer full-time farmers, they are supplementing their farm incomes by working in nearby towns.
It is true to say that a good number of small towns and villages have suffered a serious decline, with the closure of shops and pubs that had been there for generations, but this is a result of changing social habits, including internet shopping, which have hurt small retailers across the country.
This has had its impact on towns such as Dún Laoghaire and Balbriggan in the greater Dublin area as well as on small towns in rural Ireland and it does provide a challenge to communities about how to respond. Some have adapted better than others but bemoaning the loss of post offices is not the solution.
The danger of painting the changes in lifestyle as a story of rural neglect is that the wrong policy decisions will be taken yet again with attempts to subsidise outdated practices rather than responding in a coherent fashion to the world as it is today.
There are certainly issues such as the provision of broadband to rural areas which have not been addressed with the urgency required but the focus needs to be kept on what needs to be done to ensure rural life is sustained rather than indulging in nostalgia for a way of life that is no more.