Thursday, 1 April 2021
Project Ireland 2040: Motion [Private Members]
Carol Nolan (Laois-Offally, Independent)
Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an rún seo anocht. I will begin by acknowledging a few positives and being as constructive as I can. However, I must also be honest and point out the failures in this plan, which I voted against in 2018 because of my concern for rural communities. I acknowledge there is some scope and ambition in the plan but we need a sustained focus on the roll-out of national, regional and local infrastructure, not least the national broadband plan. Only a few weeks ago, I was contacted by a company in a rural village in County Laois which employs 30 people. It was told it would have to pay a company thousands of euro if it wanted high-speed broadband or wait until 2024. That is shameful and needs to be called out. The Government claimed it was trying to advocate for rural communities for investment and job creation but how are we to do that if the bare basics are not in place and we punish small businesses and companies by telling them to pay thousands to get high-speed broadband which everyone in the city gets as part of an essential and basic service? There must be action on the lack of broadband to rural communities. There are many black spots. It is not acceptable that we have to wait much longer than everywhere else. We should be treated the same and there should be balance and fairness.
Policies need to be rural-proofed. I do not believe Project Ireland was rural-proofed. Some time ago, I introduced a motion on the importance of rural-proofing any policy or Government agenda. That is where we often fall down. We need fairness for rural communities. Rural planning and zoning is of great concern. It is shameful that people who were brought up in rural areas and want their children to go to school in the area cannot get planning. The programme for Government refers to depopulation. Depopulation would be easily solved if the Government was fair to families in rural Ireland and supported them in their efforts to build homes in rural communities.
I welcome the desire that there be a more equal balance of investment and growth between the three regions but the objective is that the three regions would grow at a broadly comparable rate, which is not happening. If we take the so-called just transition in the midlands, as I have said time and again, it is not a just transition. No alternative employment was provided in the midlands. We were fooled with the whole transition plan. It is taking place over a few months rather than a ten-year period, which would have been fair. The Government's decision to steamroll the plan through without providing alternative employment means many people have been left high and dry. That will have a devastating effect on rural communities and local economies. Coming as it did during a pandemic and following Brexit, it was shameful that the Government chose not to delay to ensure alternative employment was available for the many people in the midlands who face job losses. County Offaly is facing the brunt of those job losses. I am very concerned and would like meaningful action from the Government on job creation because not enough is being done. A model such as the Western Development Commission should have been adopted under which policy would be matched by investment. We are in serious trouble with regard to employment opportunities, thanks to the grand vision of Green Party policy which Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were happy to go along with.
Project Ireland must focus on rural broadband and planning for families who wish to live in rural Ireland. Zoning is an issue. Many businesses would dearly love to set up in rural towns but cannot do so because of zoning laws. I ask the Government to examine those issues and take meaningful action because rural Ireland has been left behind. We need to see meaningful action from the Government if we are to believe it is genuine about achieving balance between the regions.