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Western problems much more complex than portrayed

Comment & Opinion

MISSING THE POINT Historian Diarmaid Ferriter, pictured here delivering a lecture on the impact of emigration at the Rolling Sun Book Festival in Westport in 2018, wrote a scathing response to The Western People’s recent editorial on ministerial appointments. Pic Conor McKeown

Ever since Dara Calleary was shafted by Micheál Martin a little over a week ago, there has been talk of little else at local or national level. Quite an achievement in the middle of a pandemic.
We’ve been struck, though, by the lack of cogent analysis of the wider issues. The analysis at national level of an extremely complex and deep-rooted issue has been far too simple and has missed the point.
This is not just about one political appointment, the shunning of a politician from Mayo – even if that is a huge story in of itself because Calleary was and is the Fianna Fáil Deputy Leader and seemed assured of a senior post.
It is much deeper than that, and is the latest line of setbacks for the west. Deaths by a thousand cuts or the straw that broke the camel’s back, choose the metaphor of your choice.
If there were grounds for confidence in the Government delivering for the west, the level of anger would not be the same. Indeed, we’re not exactly sure how much Calleary could have achieved on his own anyway. The ironic thing is that had Martin appointed him to, say, Agriculture there would be none of the frenzy we’ve seen in recent days (the appointment there hasn’t exactly gotten off to the most auspicious start, has it?). But how different would things be? How much could one minister achieve in solitude?
And to look at the shafting of a good and capable politician in isolation is to neglect the underlying problems that have faced the west for generations.
Indeed, responding to a very forceful editorial in last week’s Western People, it was telling that two writers in The Irish Times, Kathy Sheridan and Professor Diarmaid Ferriter, both chose to attack the piece rather than consider for a moment that the thoughts it contained  are widely held in the west and might, just maybe, be worthy of deeper analysis and consideration.
Both pieces did little to rid many people in the region of the opinion that many in Dublin are out of touch with reality on the ground in the west of Ireland.
It really does appear that there is a huge disconnect between Irish urban dwellers and those of us who are rural residers.
In too many areas, the population figures are haemorrhaging; in others social welfare assistance is keeping many people going. Schools, post offices and businesses are closing with alarming frequency. Those who try to be proactive and self starters face a quagmire of red tape and hurdles. So much is stacked against us.  
Two infrastructural projects spring to mind to illustrate how out in the cold we feel here, Knock Airport and the Western Rail Corridor.
Knock is one of the great success stories of the west of Ireland but it would not be there now if official Ireland had its way. Instead, it was the intransigence and ingenuity of Monsignor James Horan that made it a reality.
Meanwhile, a concerted campaign for the reopening of the Western Rail Corridor has been waged for 40 years. It would not cost a king’s ransom but it has been subject to continual half promises. Commitments to its realisation in the new programme for government are halfhearted once again.
It is a project with huge potential to represent a new direction for the west of Ireland – if that’s what official Ireland wants. But still we wait.
It was interesting to hear Michael Ring speak at the opening of a playground in Achill Sound on Saturday. Now no longer in cabinet, he’s speaking very plainly these days. He told those gathered in Achill that cabinet was a ‘lonely place’ when fighting for rural Ireland.
One only has to look at the make-up of the new cabinet to see that only three of the 15 can be described as representing rural Ireland – Norma Foley, Barry Cowan and Heather Humphries.
Anger over the omission of a cabinet minister from the west, midwest and northwest has been used in the past week as a stick with which to beat people from the the region, intimating that they only want a local minister to scratch their back for them.
Perhaps it is more instructive to look at how many senior ministers are from rural Ireland and ask how well is the voice of rural Ireland, roughly half of the country, represented by just 20 percent of seats at cabinet? It goes without saying the west is neglected then by extension.
Cooperation across rural Ireland among politicians of all hues is, sadly, absent – a point well explored by Dr John Bradley in our News section.
The problems are multifaceted and complex. We will examine them more in the coming weeks.  
But back to the shafting of Dara Calleary. It is instructive to ask, why were the people of the west so clinging to the hope of a ministerial appointment? Why did the decision anger so many, across all party lines?
It all comes back to wishful thinking.
We’ve been starved of meaningful investment, we lack strong regional governance and meaningful clout at national level and we have been written out of the key EU infrastructural fund that is the Ten-T Core Network.
We’ve been waiting for generations for meaningful front-loaded investment, having to beg for everything and expected to be grateful for whatever crumbs we get from the table, while watching generations of our children being educated for export.
All this has the effect that we have become so desperate, so put down, that we put all our eggs in one basket, hoping that a cabinet appointment might just solve it all. It is, of course, wishful thinking – if a taoiseach and a minister could not solve it in the last decade, why would we expect it to be any different this time? The problems are much more endemic.
But don’t try to imply that there’s no problem, that people have no right to be angry.