Will it be a €60 million injection or boondoggle?

Patricia Feehily

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Patricia Feehily

Will it be a €60 million injection or boondoggle?

Last throw of the dice or a great reawakening: Only time will tell if the €60m Realising our Rural Potential programme fullfils its promises

RURAL Ireland has been in trouble for as long as any of us can remember. As far as I can make out, it all started when Brian Boru decided to centralise power, so there’s no use now in trying to point the finger at either our colonial conquerors or our native rulers. Nevertheless, a plan to save rural Ireland is always welcome.

I’d even go so far as to say that saving rural Ireland is one of our sacred cows- if it weren’t for the fact that cows were never really part of the salvation agenda and anyway sanctity is no longer encouraged. If cows had been given due respect in time, the place might still be flowing with milk and honey and we wouldn’t be up to our eyes in slurry now. And every modern Irish kid who has never heard of God would at least know where his milk came from.

Anyway, even though every generation has felt obliged to tinker with it, the final nail in the coffin of rural Ireland has thankfully never really been driven home. Resuscitating it, as Heather Humphreys set out to do this week with a €60 million three year plan of action, is a different kettle of fish altogether. But I wish it well, and fervently hope that this latest plan to save rural Ireland is what it says it is, and that it isn’t just part of a bigger plan to save the Government.

Back in the heady days of the Celtic Tiger, when we all lived in la la land, our consciousness was constantly being assailed by nightmare visions of massive golf courses mushrooming all over a land that Cromwell was reputed to have said was ‘a land worth fighting for’. I presume he never actually intended to play golf himself. Anyway, those were the days when the powers-that-were tried to corral all rural dwellers into villages and small towns thereby devaluating the benefits of road frontage for landowners and giving speculators the green light to grab a hammer and nail and subordinate, sorry, suburbanise rural Ireland.

So you can see why I’m suspicions of plans for rural Ireland.

It was all in the interests of proper planning, they said. The countryside would be protected and there would be no room anywhere for unruly farmers who were supposed to be the back bone of rural Ireland. But who needed a back bone when there was a golf course everywhere you looked?

Then came the recession, and only for it, I don’t know where we’d be now – living on top of each other in housing estates attached like carbuncles to small villages that had lost their charm after quadrupling in size and had nothing only the tidy towns competition left to live for. Those of us foolish enough to resist suburbanisation would be living on reservations – caddying for a living if we were lucky enough and taking endless ‘selfies’ to reassure ourselves of our continuing existence.

But at least we’d have broadband in our respective communes. Connectivity, Heather stresses, is the key to saving rural Ireland.

Now, funny enough that is the only thing that makes me slightly apprehensive about the new plan ‘Realising our Rural Potential’ – a blanket roll-out of broadband services all over the country, starting in the autumn and facilitated by the Local Authorities. Most reasonable people, I suppose, would regard this as the only lifeline left to rural Ireland if we’re not to go the way of romantic Ireland and join O’Leary in the grave. Heather says that it is akin to rural electrification in terms of economic and social importance. I, however, am probably the only rural dweller who still believes that one of the charms of rural living is disconnectivity and isolation of varying degrees, and when broadband finally invades every remote corner of the land, I’m going to feel like the hen harrier, deprived of my natural habitat. I don’t know where I’m going to go to be out of reach or to switch off.

For all that, the plan does offer hope. The development of a ‘rural banking system’ for instance would be a blessing, particularly if it included a hole in the wall at the nearest crossroads. The pledge to ensure that no small school in rural Ireland will close in future against the wishes of the parents is, however, a bit like closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. There were dozens of small schools in this locality when I was young and I don’t know if there are any of them still open, although there is no room for four year olds now in the amalgamated schools. Maybe they ought to re-open some of the schools they closed in recent years and divert a fair share of the funds currently being channelled into new urban gaelscoileanna.

I also like the sound of 125,000 new jobs in rural Ireland and the 50,000 apprenticeships promised. I won’t even mind if they interfere with my habitat.

I am particularly impressed, however, by Heather’s positivity. She doesn’t want any more negativity about rural Ireland. Comments like ‘rural Ireland is dying’ are to be regarded as politically incorrect in future because they’re not true, she declared. But surely something must be up with rural Ireland for it to require a €60 million injection to keep the place alive?

At the end of the day, all I know for sure is that, for me, rural Ireland was never a place. It was a time and a way of life that was wonderful on occasions and dreadful at times. But it’s gone and I miss it sorely, because I know that nothing will ever restore it.