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Communities at a crossroads


The felling of the Bellacorick cooling tower in 2007, is symbolic of the decline of rural Ireland
?The felling of the Bellacorick cooling tower in 2007, is symbolic of the decline of rural Ireland

Communities at a crossroads

Who is really shouting stop in the battle for rural Ireland?

Áine Ryan

THE French terms ‘déjà vu’ and ‘plus ca change’ pretty much sum up the political bulls**t that poses as sincere concern for the demise of rural Ireland. Back in the 1988 edition of the late John Healy’s seminal book on the grim realities of rural life, ‘No One Shouted Stop’, he acerbically refers to the euphoria surrounding Ireland’s joining the EEC (European Economic Community.
Writing in the Epilogue, he observes that all we had to do was to learn a new Euro-language which was designed basically to inhibit us from too much questioning when ‘a new supra-gravy train began to roll’.
Healy was referring to the new super cash-cow of ‘Intervention’ selling. It ensured guaranteed prices for milk and meat and, with all that rain and green grass here in the Emerald Isle, sure weren’t we on the pigs back, begorrah and bedad!
Well, for a whileen anyway, until the wheels of capitalism cranked up and mainland European business men became jealous of the guaranteed income and built ‘concrete farms’. Of course, they ultimately created such surpluses that there were milk lakes and beef mountains and the whole EEC project nearly collapsed. It was back to the drawing board for the big capitalists and ivory-tower bureaucrats and the concept of the ‘Quota’ was born while eventually Reps (Rural Environment Protection Scheme) replaced all those subsidies for the number of cattle and sheep each farmer had in his herd.  
Get the déjà vu? (The words troika, bailouts, banks and bondholders should help.)

Agricultural opportunities?
IRONICALLY, three decades later, our Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, is now excitedly announcing to the public, at every opportunity, that Irish farming – and therefore rural Ireland – is on the cusp of being saved because EU quotas limiting milk production are about to be lifted after 30 years. (Ahem! No mention why they were imposed in the first place.)
Speaking at a National Dairy Conference in Dublin before Christmas, Coveney said: “The shackles come off next April and following that we will have an exciting mix of opportunity and challenge for all stakeholders.”
After the airing of Richard Curran’s documentary, ‘The Battle for Rural Ireland’, on RTÉ last week,  Minister Coveney was pitted in a political sparring match against Fianna Fáil’s Deputy Éamon Ó Cuiv on Claire Byrne Live. Notwithstanding, both politicians reputations for sincerity, the debate was mind-numbing in its pre-General Election posturing predictability.
But, then, Curran’s documentary had asked hard questions that the short-term, self-serving nature of parish-pump politics is not equipped to answer.
Among the most poignant scenes in ‘The Battle for Rural Ireland’ was when Curran drives to Bellacorrick village, once landmarked by its iconic Bord na Móna cooling towers, with local historian, Liam Heffron. Heffron explains that the Bellacorrick  towers – demolished in October 2007 -  once symbolised a healthy and vibrant hinterland with its workforce of 600 people.

AS the gateway to remote Erris, it was a celebration of rural enterprise and all the contiguous demographic dividends. But now it was nothing more than a windswept crossroads with an abandoned village.
Walking past the closed shop, pub, garda station and post office, Curran remarked it was ‘a bit like passing over into a village in the nineteenth century except it isn’t the nineteenth century’.
The real insidious aspect of this decline was that there was no one to protest at the slow death and suddenly a whole village had simply closed down, Heffron explained. He said it would be better for the Government to have the balls to admit they have no interest in rural Ireland than continue to claim otherwise.   A review of the documentary in The Irish Times by Jim Carroll the following day states: “There were no new findings on the show simply because there are no new findings to be had. We’ve done this kind of forensic examination so much that the reasons for rural Ireland’s decline are well chronicled by now: a lack of jobs, a lopsided focus on Dublin as an economic growth generator and the slow, steady movement of people from rural towns and villages to the capital and abroad in search of employment opportunities.
“If you’ve grown up in rural Ireland, you’ll recognise this situation because it’s the same situation which your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and older brothers and sisters have faced over the decades. Rural Ireland has always had this problem to some extent or other and has dealt with it in the only way it knew how and got the bus or train or car to the big smoke.”
Carroll concedes that there have been ‘many well-meaning attempts made and solutions produced over the years about how to correct this situation, from employment to planning’.
He highlights the pointlessness of Charlie McCreevey’s big (electioneering) decentralisation programme of 2003.
Jim Carroll concludes that all the reports and policy documents in the world will not make a damn bit of difference – unless the complexity and fundamental subtleties of the issues are addressed.    
“This is about what we as a society really think about rural Ireland. Is it just somewhere that’s nice to visit to go for a walk at the weekend and that’s about the height of it?”
Tiger in chains
Coincidentally that  key question was addressed in an interview about the Corrib gas controversy, with Erris community campaigner and scholar, Micheál Ó Seighin in The Mayo News last week: “Erris, like rural Ireland in general, is losing population, losing life, coming nearer to a great wild park. This parish (Kilcommon) lost 14 percent of its population from 1996 to 2011 while Mayo gained 18 percent: but then the [Celtic] Tiger was chained for Mayo.”
There has to be a sense of irony (and déjà vu), then, in the fact that Fianna Fáil published a new plan and policy document earlier this month which proposes to help save rural Ireland. Included in the document, “Streets Ahead: Fighting for the Future of Irish Towns” is a proposal for ‘the establishment of a new specialist unit within the IDA and Enterprise Ireland for rural town foreign direct investment, revamping the commercial rates system, changing planning laws to encourage town centre developments and an ‘Empty Shops Initiative’ which would examine building usage strategy’.
Ballina-based Deputy Dara Calleary says: “Towns across Mayo have suffered extensively at the hands of this Government over the past four years, and it is only now as the election race begins to ramp up that the Taoiseach and the other Government TDs are making any effort to bring investment into the county. This is not the sustainable footing that tangible economic growth is based on. Fianna Fáil has devised a comprehensive and cohesive plan to address the imbalance and to regenerate the towns and communities which have suffered at the hands of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition.
“I believe in the future of Irish towns and the positive role they can play in bringing about balanced, sustainable job creation and investment. This document recognises their absolute centrality to sustainable regional development. Fianna Fáil wants to see a strong, vibrant network of towns at the heart of our communities, learning from each other and competing for new business.”

Calleary, rightly, says that towns across Mayo are ‘at a crossroads’. They were  ‘at a crossroads’ too when the Fianna Fáil Government decided to bailout the bankers. They were also ‘at a crossroads’ when that Government filleted rural communities by closing garda stations, post offices and small schools.

Dara Calleary was elected a Government TD in 2007, the year the Bellacorrick cooling towers were demolished. Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minster for State Michael Ring were on the Opposition benches then. Did any of them shout stop?