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A little less conversation

Comment & Opinion

IN THE WEST An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the press in Westport Town Hall Theatre last Friday, flanked by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed and Minister for Rural and Community Development, Michael Ring TD.  Pic:

Accusations of neglecting the west have been thrown at pretty much every Government since the formation of the State.
There’s merit in many of the arguments when you see the level of depopulation in rural areas of Connacht. Many emigrate, more have migrated to the east coast.
Some, it must be said, by choice. Not every departure is a reluctant one but the fundamental reality is that many parents in the west of Ireland know their area will not be able to sustain all of their children.
Areas on the periphery of the county like Belmullet and Achill are full of football teams that have the majority of their players based on the east coast. They return home to play football for many reasons, but underlining it is a love of place and a sense of identity. But the sad reality is the same place is not somewhere that they can make a life.
They will most likely rear their children on the east coast, and trips west will eventually grow fewer and fewer.
There are many problems holding the west back. Among them a lack of sufficient job opportunities, poor infrastructure relative to the east of the country and a lack of real political will down through the decades to change things. All these are interwoven, creating a vicious cycle.
Project Ireland 2040 is the current government’s plan to ‘achieve balanced regional development, to regenerate and develop rural Ireland so that our growth and prosperity is shared across the whole country’.
Those were the words of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Friday last when he addressed a forum in Westport Town Hall Theatre on ‘Creating Stronger Rural Economies and Communities’. It was a Project Ireland-themed event. The Taoiseach spoke about decades of neglect of rural Ireland.
It is clear that he and his Government are of the belief that they can arrest that with Project Ireland 2040.
Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring has been handed a kitty that has already helped countless of rural, community projects throughout rural Ireland. Many more will follow. These projects are, of course, to be welcomed.
More fundamental is the need for infrastructure to open up ease of access to all of Ireland. The Gort-to-Tuam motorway has been a huge boost to the west region. The sorely needed new road from Turlough to Westport, the construction of which is set to start shortly, is another great boost.
And the current Government deserves credit for committing to these projects. But there is, literally, a long road to travel. Decades of neglect mean there is a very substandard main road to Ballina, with plans for a new road still on ice.
The main Castlebar to Belmullet road has been described by councillors as ‘a dirt track’ and there’s no doubt it is a road that belongs to another era.
Broadband is hit and miss in the county, something that proves a barrier to start-ups and prevents people who wish to work from home from being able to do so.
A protest outside Westport Town Hall by the Murrisk water group, who are still waiting for basic, safe drinking water in their homes, might have given The Taoiseach some sense of the frustrations that many rural people have.
Speaking later in the Town Hall, the Taoiseach said the Dáil’s summer recess afforded him the chance to get out of Dublin. It’s not his fault that he is Dublin-based, but it does present an issue.
He went on to talk off-script about a painting in his office. It’s a Paul Henry landscape, entitled In the West of Ireland. It was put in the Taoiseach’s office by his predecessor, Enda Kenny.
Mr Kenny, the Taoiseach said, probably had it there to remind him of his native county.
“I have it there for a different reason, to remind me that I am Taoiseach for the whole country, and every time I walk into my office and sit at my desk, I see that painting,” the Taoiseach told the large gathering in Westport Town Hall Theatre.
On one level it is a nice anecdote, but on another it is revealing that he would need a painting to force him out of a Dublin-centric mindset.
Hopefully his visit west last weekend might do more to show him that he is Taoiseach of the entire land.  
He spoke well about the need for change. “I believe Ireland will only be strong and prosperous when the entire country is strong and prosperous. Rural Ireland is an integral part of our identity and culture,” he said.
We’ve heard words like that before though. In the fullness of time, we will see whether the Government backs up those words with meaningful, transformative actions for the west of Ireland.