‘The best solution is encouraging the population to grow in the rural areas’

What's best for the west

LOOK THIS WAY  Éamon Ó Cuív, when he was Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, pictured with then CEO of the Western Development Commission, Gillian Buckley,  at the launch of the LookWest.ie campaign some years ago. Ó Cuív feels never has it been more timely to encourage people to live in rural Ireland.

Interview

Edwin McGreal

As Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs from 2002 to 2010, Éamon Ó Cuív has a better appreciation than most of the challenges and opportunities facing the west of Ireland.
Based in Corr na Mona in Connemara and also representing parts of South Mayo, Ó Cuív has a deep understanding of the west of Ireland perhaps because, not in spite of, the fact he is not from here.
Born, as he says himself, into ‘a middle class lifestyle in Dublin’, he moved to Connemara in 1974, where he spent the next 18 years as the manager of a Gaeltacht development co-operative before being elected to Dáil Éireann in 1992 for Galway West and has been elected in every election since.
His 46-years here both in a development role and then in politics have him well placed to assess the past and the future for rural Ireland, particularly in this region.
In a lengthy interview, an extended version of which is published here, he argues passionately that there should be a focus on moving people from the cities to rural Ireland and not the other way around as a means of addressing many of the issues we are exploring in this series.

EMG: What do you see as the main challenges and opportunities facing the west of Ireland?
É Ó C: The big ticket item is physical infrastructure. Basic services like education, health, transport, public transport. Obviously nowadays top of your list is broadband. I have been shouting that for a long, long time. In 2011/12, I said put fibre in every house.
And then … public policy, spatial policy and planning policy, the clear intent of which currently is, first of all, not to allow development, economic or housing wise, in rural areas as far as they can try and stop [it] and they also do not want any economic development in factories, business etc outside of towns and villages.
The big policy is the economy kind of worked on concentrating into the big cities and towns.
The final one is then by the nature of agricultural and fishing still being relatively important in rural Ireland. The social welfare code is a big dampener, means testing is a killer.
What are the opportunities? Why develop rural Ireland? Why am I so passionate about developing strong, integrated rural communities?
I would say when we look at cities, the people who mainly look at cities and talk about planning, from an academic point of view, are living in upper middle class areas, who live in the more advantaged, socially segregated parts of those cities. But they never really want to know about the areas of high deprivation that exist in nearly every city I was in, all major towns and cities in Ireland.
When we did our analysis of the socio economic indicators, all of the poorest, all of the most deprived areas were in towns and cities, including, by the way, Ballina in County Mayo.
Nowhere in rural Ireland do you get the socio economic problems of the equivalent of these highly disadvantaged communities in cities.
When my kids were growing up in Corr na Mona, all parents had the same objectives and desires for the kids in terms of education and getting on in the world and so on. What I am saying is for [rural Ireland as] a place to grow up in, that’s safe, that’s cohesive and integrated in terms of everyone in the local area being able to seek the same opportunities. If you look at rural Ireland as a whole and compare it to the whole of Dublin, there is much higher educational attainment in rural Ireland than in the whole of Dublin when you put the good parts and the bad parts. So opportunity is certainly higher in the rural areas than in the aggregated urban areas.
The economy is driven strongly by rural kids, even though lots of them find themselves in cities. In the future, were we ever to stop the supply of rural kids to cities, you’d find the supply of some of the best talent in the country would begin to dry up.
You have a very high level of education from children in rural Ireland and it seems not to be dependent on the half as much in rural areas on the education of the parents and their achievements in life. It seems to permeate across the whole community. Much, much more than in urban areas.
If we’re looking for the good of people, we should say, if people want to be there, it’s not a bad idea because it gives very, very good outcomes, lifetime outcomes.
Sports participation tends to be high in rural communities. And you’d often see the very small rural communities totally outperform. And when you go to an All Ireland and start seeing the clubs that players represent, they’re often very small clubs. And what I mean by small is they might be strong, but clubs have a small aggregate population without any size of a town like Castlebar, Westport or Ballina. So in Galway, we would find much more players from the Corofin club on the county team than we would in all of Galway City.
You have to say to yourself this is a great thing, kids involved in sport. I don’t care what sport but there seems to be a collective thing there that is quite positive.
In rural Ireland we tend to tell everybody about the problems and don’t tell them about the opportunities.
Coronavirus has shown us two things. We have found that rural areas are much safer.
We know that things like virus in the future are much more likely to thrive unfortunately in urban areas and centrally populated urban areas and we have to think that one out properly.
What Coronavirus has also told us is something I have been preaching for the last seven or eight years is – give us the broadband. For a lot of people nowadays there is no need to be located in an office in a city five days per week, from nine to five, you could actually tailor your life to do your office days in two or three days per week.
And what we’re going to see is a lot of people who will go into the cities and they won’t go in at peak traffic hours. They will go into the cities or a couple of days a week and work remotely for the rest of the week.
And the only impediment to that is fibre broadband in every property in the country, which will happen thankfully in the next five to seven years, I would hope it will be five years rather than seven.

EMG:  Why so do you feel rural Ireland has failed to thrive as much as you feel it can?
É Ó C: There is a clear policy decision, and it only gets ameliorated from when people kick up from a political role.
If the town planners had no political oversight, they would have closed down rural Ireland. And I can say this absolutely, categorically because I was a minister and the cabinet tried to change the strategy. But for that the planners would have closed down the rural Ireland that we know to any new development many, many years ago.

EMG:  In planning terms you’re talking about one-off housing as opposed to more central settlement patterns?
É Ó C: I never talk about one off housing and I don’t know what one off housing is, it’s a pejorative term. I am talking to allowing people to build houses in the traditional, dispersed communities of rural Ireland. So, yes, I am talking about that.
Can I give you an example? Garrymore is a very typical rural community with a very strong GAA club. The country is full of Garrymores. Garrymore is not built around a town, it’s built around the parish, there’s a dispersed settlement pattern in that parish based on townlands.
If we don’t allow regeneration of the generations, the only people that will be left there are old people.
I’m going to destroy the nature of the GAA club in Garrymore and multiply by hundreds and hundreds for every GAA club in rural Ireland. These are successful parishes.
I would have always argued that planners think of a hierarchy of cities and towns and villages and then the rest and as far as they’re concerned the rest should be for looking at.
A lot of Irish geography is based on the townland and the parish, the civil parish, the county and the province. Try change the county boundary in this country and you will know all about it.
So that’s a different geography than what the planners look at so you have two conflicting geographies in this country, the other being the more European geography which is being imposed on us which I disagree with.
When people say to me, it’s a European norm I say I don’t live in Europe. I live in Ireland. I don’t care what they do in France. I’m not going to be dictated to because their social history is totally different than ours.

EMG:  Europe in general appears to have models of regions which are more autonomous than in Ireland. Is that something we need to consider?
É Ó C: I don’t really agree with that. Ireland is so intimate and small and because of the nature of our politics and multi seat constituencies. There’s a little bit of a contradiction there. Most people don’t like this layer that we have at the moment of the national plan and then you’ve got the regional plans that are totally opaque because there’s county councils there nodding and winking stuff through at the behest of officials without ever reading the stuff. Then you have the county plan and when the thing is a mess, the people say who decided that? The councillors say it was the regional planners and the regional planners say it was directed from Dublin. People want it simple and they’ll go to you as minister in Ireland and just ring you because you can do that.
I have to say devolved decision making will not work unless you have devolved taxes. And whenever we have tried devolved taxes in Ireland, Irish people kick against us.
You can never have devolved decision making with somebody else’s money.
What you will find, whether it’s the broadband, whether it’s roads, whether it is railway lines or whatever the hell it is we never seem to be able to rise, even when there is considerable populations, we never seem to be able to rise serious money.
And there’s always the endless begrudgery from Dublin and some rural people seem to fall into the trap of backing the rural begrudgery whereas when 10 times or 20 times the money is spent in a city, there seems to be a shrug of the shoulders and saying that’s what the city needs.
I’ll give you a very clear example. The four extra Luas stations that they were talking about this week, out to Finglas.
They are gonna cost as much as it will cost to reopen the railway line from Athenry to Claremorris, connecting with Castlebar, Westport and Ballina so you could run commuter trains that would be in Galway from Castlebar and Ballina in an hour and a half which is a lot, lot better than you’d do it in the morning in the car.
The population of that little corner of Dublin that’s going to benefit from that would be nothing like the population of Mayo that would benefit from the railway or the part of Galway with Tuam and so on.
But in one case, they will take the whole population of Dublin even though it’s not affected 90 percent of the people of Dublin. I have been in Finglas a few times, but I haven’t been in the rest of the places along that line. And I’m a Dubliner and I doubt too many of my siblings have been either and I am one of a big family.
Cities tend to be villages, so you stay in your own village. There are huge parts of Dublin we would have no familiarity with growing up. So there’s no point in saying for the it’s for the whole city. It is important but so is the railway line in Mayo for anyone who chooses to live in Mayo. There’s a long battle to get the railway line reopened. But the other one is not in question.
The broadband was about €6,000 a house and that was the outer limit of what it was going to cost. It will be a lot less because the pickup, because of Covid, will be absolutely phenomenal. So a lot of the contingency money will never arise and down that price is going to come.
A lot of the cost is along repairing rotten telephone poles which would would have to be replaced anyway.
That was €6,000 a house but in rural Ireland, we all provide our own wastewater and we have to empty the tanks when we have to empty the tanks whereas in urban Ireland the provision of sewerage by the public authorities and the maintenance and upgrading of the sewerage systems … for example one sewerage system in the north of Dublin to augment the existing sewerage system has a cost of half a billion. So these costs are multiples of what it will cost to put broadband into every house in rural Ireland but there’s no talk about it.

EMG:  If balanced regional development is the target, what needs to change?
É Ó C: When it comes to commercial industry, it’s not grants you need but basic infrastructure – roads, broadband services and planning. You cannot develop infrastructure without planning.
The other thing is a lot of rural industry is better outside the towns than in in them because they don’t need all the services. Take the timber mill in Corr na Móna, the neighbors won’t complain about it being beside them because there’s a lot of space. If you had it in a town or village, there would be complaints about noise. So we shouldn’t be shy about locating industry in rural areas.

EMG:  What you are suggesting in terms of spatial strategy requires a drastic change in approach. Do you feel this simply comes back to political will?
É Ó C:The biggest problem is official and academic thinking is based on research and ideas based on all manner of society’s different histories. And it has been imposed on us. Some belief system from outside that doesn’t take into account realities of Irish settlement patterns. Going back, as Professor Seamus Caulfield was able to prove, not hundreds of years, but thousands of years in Mayo. The houses are all over the country. The electricity poles go all over the country. So nobody is building a house in a wilderness. Everyone is building a house where there already are basic services.
When you get into government, I spent years fighting a rearguard action. The way it works is when you go to develop spatial strategies, the academics and the officials get out first and do the draft. And whoever does the draft before the politicians get to see it, whoever does the drafting probably gets in the normal course of events 80 or 90 percent of what they want in the final document.
Twice with spatial strategies I had to radically overhaul and I’m rewriting sentence by sentence. I bring in my case to cabinet and get the changes accepted. I think I did a fairly good job. But I would have done a better job if I had been asked to write the original document. But that was left to officials and academics. So unless we change the official, academic narrative, as well as the political narrative of the documents, we’ll keep coming up with the same things again and again and again.

EMG:  Criticisms of what could be termed the permanent government or the civil service have come up regularly in this series. Does this not come back to political will again?
É Ó C: It goes back into the universities and colleges and planning too. You have a lot of people who are part of what I would call the officials/permanent government.
It goes a lot deeper. Also, we have for example, the cheerleaders in the likes of the Greens.
Let’s talk about cars for a minute. Motor cars. The first thing we have to say is congestion is not a problem in rural Ireland. It is a massive urban problem. The congestion element of the motorcar is not your problem in rural Ireland.
The emissions are a problem. If I want to sort that out how I do it is by a change in technology. In the past that is how we solved those kind of problems if you had a pollutant.
So what we need to do is eliminate fossil fuel driven cars, no doubt about it.
The irony is that most of the electricity that will fuel cars in the future directly or indirectly is going to be generated in rural Ireland. That’s where the windmills are going to be. They’re not going to be in downtown Dublin or downtown Castlebar.
So when you look at parts of rural Ireland that are contributing much more renewable electricity than the people that are living there are consuming.
We can easily eliminate the need for fossil fuels in rural Ireland.

EMG:  With that in mind do you think Project Ireland 2040 is a step in the right direction or not?
É Ó C: Put it in its most simple terms, it wants to drive at an accelerated rate huge numbers of people into cities. It wants to drive 40,000 people into Galway City. And as someone who represents Galway City and as someone who has surgeries there and listens to constituents, would it not be better off to house the people that are there looking for houses before pushing another 40,000 people on top of them? Really, that’s a bigger problem. Especially with the traffic chaos that has not gone away. Would we not be better off dealing with the existing population?
The lack of recreational facilities there for the existing population, services like health facilities, schools, the whole lot. Should we not focus on addressing those issues before we try to grow the population?
And then you have the rural parish. Where we are [in Corr na Móna], if we had another 20 or 30 children in our schools, in our little three teacher school, it can become a four teacher school. We won’t be struggling as much with the football team. We need them in the parish. We have the health centre. Rural areas have all the facilities. They have capacity.
I think if I went around every rural parish in Mayo, I’d find the same thing and therefore the cheapest socio economic and the best solution, actually, is encouraging the population to grow in the rural areas because it has the capacity and the social ability in the cohesive communities to cope. My view is I don’t want to force anyone that doesn’t want to be in rural Ireland to be in rural Ireland, but I also want don’t want to see what we have been doing or what we have been seeing [which is] is forcing people to the cities as the only place where there will be opportunities.
Our spatial strategies need to be totally rewritten in light of Coronavirus.

EMG:  Would you be hopeful? 
É Ó C: Ah sure it will be the usual mountain like Croagh Patrick to climb, but let’s climb it. I’ve been at this for a lifetime. I ain’t giving up now. I think I have had more successes than people would know because people wouldn’t have seen two drafts of documents that I altered when I was in government. I don’t mind that, I don’t mind doing the work behind the scenes. Yes, we must keep the fight going.
Instead of fighting these bushfires all the time, we need to be more positive about rural Ireland. Instead of talking about the challenges of rural Ireland, let’s talk about the opportunities. And let’s talk about what needs to change to make this dream come true in terms of planning laws, etc. We must accept that vibrant rural communities are a fantastic place to live in. During lockdown, I could go out my front door and go for a walk on the hillside without interfering with anybody.

EMG:  Do you feel the Atlantic Economic Corridor has potential to drive greater job creation?
É Ó C: The Atlantic Economic Corridor will only work if it is inclusive of all the rural and urban areas. The second thing is if based on the Atlantic Economic Corridor governments are willing to make the big decision to give us the backbone infrastructure of roads and railway lines, to give us the broadband into every property, which means that the most remote place in Achill is now on the highway.
All these fancy plans are no good unless somebody comes and starts pouring the money.

EMG:  Do west of Ireland politicians need to co-operate more?
É Ó C: No, there is a need for political war! What I mean by that is why do football teams train? Because the next parish is ready to beat them.
To drive you forward in politics you actually need very strong opposition, who will say that ‘if you don’t do it, we will go to the people, and we will do it’. And when, when they get in, you’re gonna say, ‘well, you promised to do it, and you’re not going to do it’. Consensus can sometimes lead to everybody agreeing what should be done and doing nothing.
So constructive criticism and constructive opposition is important.
So if I’m constructively saying, ‘if you don’t do, I’ll do it’, is an absolute necessary part of life. Just as very few football teams would train too hard if they were guaranteed to win the championship. If everyone was guaranteed to get a medal, rivalry and competition would go and rivalry and competition drives change. We shouldn’t ignore that. The tribal element.

EMG:  Is that tribal rivalry a problem where people are only worried about their own patch and not the greater good?
É Ó C: I think rivalry, competition, between communities is really good. And a community looking to be better than the next community and so on. I think that’s all very constructive, as long as it is constructive. Because it is begrudgery we have to kill. And secondly, we have to recognise that some things are bigger than one small community, and we need to be collaborative.
Again, we can revert back to the GAA system, clubs go out to kill each other but when the county is at stake, they all set aside the differences, they’re all for Mayo, they’re all for Galway. So you have that combination of healthy competition on one hand, and then I think a bigger goal in mind.
Maybe Knock Airport symbolises in economic terms that great coming together of Mayo led by Monsignor Horan to defy the rest of the country where Mayo people from all around the world backed it, that it could only be in one place. He had it psychologically right, he understood the people. Nowadays, he would probably have wound up in prison or else before the Public Accounts Committee!
I come from that period of development where, get the job done and you were forgiven afterwards. There were two rules. No personal aggrandisement, obviously.
He was very much from a time that people involved on the ground in development work weren’t so excited about corporate governance, as they would be today.
He actually lived a very simple life, but he was no simple parish priest.
He had no more permission to spend half that money but he figured it would never happen if he did it the other way around.

This is an unabridged version of an interview which appeared in Tuesday’s Mayo News as part of our ongoing What’s Best for the West series.