Dáil debates

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

7:00 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann notes the failure of the current Government to fulfil the commitments made in the White Paper on Rural Development:

—to maintain vibrant sustainable rural communities;

—to ensure sufficient employment and income opportunities;

—to improve access to education and training;

—to encourage participation in the decision-making process;

—to ensure gender balance on rural development bodies such as Leader and CLÁR;

—to provide adequate housing and to address the problem of planning permission;

—to promote all-Ireland integration and co-operation;

—to ensure balanced regional development;

—to maintain public services;

—to provide adequate health care provision;

—to provide broadband communications for all parts of the State;

—to ensure the safety of people living in rural communities by providing adequate levels of policing; and

that these failures require a radical new approach to the question of rural development on the whole island of Ireland that will guarantee an equal level of provision of public services for all citizens and will ensure that there is real decentralisation of both the public and private sectors and that local and regional authorities with community representatives are given a greater say in the manner in which local programmes are administered.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Morgan, Twomey, Connolly and Boyle.

I commend the motion to the House and welcome the opportunity to debate the future of rural Ireland. Some of these issues have been addressed many times in the Dáil but the crucial focus in the motion presented by the Sinn Féin Deputies is that communities in rural Ireland must be given the capacity to address the problems they face and plan their future development.

It is appropriate that, as we prepare to elect new local authorities, we call for real decentralisation of governmental power as an essential means of empowering rural communities. This does not just mean the relocation of Government offices from Dublin, it also means the real empowerment of local government. This is especially important for many of our marginalised and neglected rural communities, particularly in the Border, midlands and western region.

According to the Central Statistics Office, farm incomes in real terms have fallen by almost 25% since 1995. This, in combination with current debt levels of €1.1 billion, has made it increasingly difficult for many family farms to survive. More than 30,000 people have left farming since the beginning of the 1990s. The majority of these have been smaller producers and this has had a malign and, in some cases, devastating effect on rural communities. It has made it more difficult for local businesses to survive and it has not been compensated for by an increase in other jobs in sufficient numbers to offset the recent increases in unemployment.

The main reason for the real fall in farm incomes has been the declining share that farmers receive from the products they sell. While input prices have risen considerably in recent years, output prices have fallen by almost 10%. Of the food that farmers produce, a greater share of the price paid by consumers goes to the retailer, with the market now dominated by the multiples. It is not unusual for farmers to receive 30%, 25% or even 20% of the price the consumer pays.

With this market domination has come increased demands on producers by the multiples and processors, including farmers having to deliver their produce, often long distances. This is an argument for a return to real co-operativism to enable farmers to secure the best price for their produce and to limit the power of the multiples. Sinn Féin has proposed that there be a revival of farmers' markets for the same reason and to ensure better value for both farmer and consumer. We need to support and encourage the promotion of Irish agricultural produce and to see country of origin labelling on all imported beef, poultry, pork and vegetables.

Of course, rural communities are not exclusively based on farming, as the Minister is aware, but it is important that agriculture remains strong and vibrant and provides employment and the basis for other rural jobs, such as processing. If the EU is committed, as it claims, to maintaining the European model of agriculture based on family farming, measures must be taken to ensure that the current drift from the land is halted. In the context of the current reform of the CAP, that must mean that decoupling provides farmers with a guaranteed income and that the Irish Government develops new strategies to take best advantage of the new situation facing farmers.

It must also mean that the funds taken away from direct payments through modulation are ring-fenced within the country from which they originate and that they are made to directly benefit the farmers from whom the funds are taken. These funds should be used here in Ireland for rural development. It is also important that the EU expand its programme of rural development programmes beyond the measures currently designated and that more funding goes to support programmes such as Leader which have a community based approach.

Sinn Fein's argument is that every person, no matter where they live, ought to be entitled to an equal level of access to and provision of public services, be they health, transport, education, post offices or banking. The reality for many rural communities is very different. Many of these services are either non-existent or have been withdrawn from these communities. That is clearly illustrated by the health crisis within the regions. The loss of services at local hospitals must be seen as part of the avoidable decline of rural Ireland, a decline for which the Government is responsible. Monaghan and Louth hospitals have been targeted. Under the Hanly report further hospitals will go under the knife. The reference to health in the Government amendment cannot hide that reality. In the area of health there are relatively minor administrative measures that could be taken to integrate ambulance services so that people could be taken to the nearest available hospital rather than having to travel longer distances that might place them in greater danger.

There has been some progress under the PEACE I and II programmes towards integrating and developing Border communities. One of the main defects was that there was no linkage between the two. PEACE I and II have been over-centralised, which contradicts the EU's commitment to bottom-up development with local delivery and local communities taking charge. There were also numerous problems regarding the slow rate at which applications were processed and the difficulties that many groups had in navigating their way through that before being able to access resources. It was felt that this favoured business oriented rather than community projects. The Minister spoke about this in the past.

That is the reason Sinn Féin has argued for a PEACE III programme and for it to address the defects that were identified in PEACE I and PEACE II. It should be expanded from five to seven years to allow for a more strategic approach and to be directed from community level with a more direct input from local representatives. Other practical ways in which the cross-Border development of rural communities can be enhanced is through promoting a common approach to service provision and to initiatives designed to boost the economic and social aspects.

We have also been pressing for the introduction of free travel on an all-Ireland basis for the elderly. While the Department on this side of the Border has indicated that it is favourable to this and has discussed the issue with those responsible in the Six Counties now that the institutions have been suspended, its British counterpart has informed one of my colleagues in Fermanagh that no such discussions took place. Perhaps the Minister will address this matter. Unfortunately, it appears to be indicative of an attitude towards the development of cross-Border initiatives that is all too common.

The closure of several Teagasc research facilities is another way in which the current Government has impacted negatively on rural development. Apart from the immediate job losses that these closures entail, they also affect the prospects of promoting agricultural production where specific local research is brought to an end. A prime example of this is the current situation regarding the dairy centre at Ballinamore in County Leitrim. Not only will the closure of the facility affect local jobs in a county where there is above average unemployment but it will also bring to an end important research into local production systems in the north-west. This could have had major benefits to farmers on both sides of the Border who share the same soil type as in that part of Leitrim. The same has taken place at other Teagasc centres and this calls into question the Government's commitment to developing improved production methods, especially in disadvantaged parts of the country.

The Government is also abandoning its commitments in the area of community based policing. Only last week the Minister, Deputy McDowell, spoke about closing more Garda stations in rural and urban areas. This often has a particularly marked impact on rural communities where people see the withdrawal of local gardaí as another form of abandonment by the State. People, especially the elderly, in isolated rural areas feel vulnerable in the absence of a visible and known Garda presence. Unfortunately, there have been instances where people have been attacked in their homes and they found it difficult to get assistance and felt that the often long distances to the nearest Garda station increased the likelihood of crime in the locality.

Sinn Féin proposes that this problem can be addressed through the establishment of community policing partnerships. These would comprise elected representatives, appointees of local statutory agencies and representatives of the community and voluntary sector. The partnerships would meet regularly with the Garda and ensure that a greater level of accountability, confidence and, above all, trust is nurtured and guaranteed into the future.

I have addressed some of the issues covered by tonight's motion. My colleagues, during the rest of the debate this evening and again tomorrow, will address further elements of the motion. I commend to the House the motion and the individual proposals contained therein.

Photo of Arthur MorganArthur Morgan (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin has brought this motion before the House because the Government has completely failed to fulfil the commitments it made in the White Paper on Rural Development. Current Government policies based on laissez-faire economics are bringing about the destruction of rural Ireland. The Government is failing to ensure sufficient employment and income opportunities and balanced regional development and failing to maintain public services in rural areas. The fact that the commitments in the White Paper were not supported by the necessary funding and development of sufficiently wide-ranging programmes makes a mockery of the Government's claims that it is committed to maintaining the maximum number of people in rural areas and strengthening rural communities economically, socially and culturally.

Statistics have consistently shown that the Border, midlands and western, BMW, region has levels of unemployment above the average for the State. The Border region is among the worst in terms of unemployment. Recent census figures released by the CSO found that Carndonagh, Castleblayney and Dundalk have a rate of unemployment of a least 19% compared with a national rate of 4.5%. This is an indictment of the coalition Government, particularly in light of the economic boom of recent years.

The national spatial strategy, which was supposed to address the imbalance in employment, was strong on commitment but weak on delivery. The three main gateway centres into rural Ireland in the national development plan are Galway, Waterford and Limerick. The importance of these was re-emphasised with the launch of the national spatial strategy in November 2002. They were seen as the key to increasing the economic attractiveness of the regions in which they are situated. In each of these cities, unemployment has risen since 2002. Of the nine hub centres — Castlebar and Ballina, Tuam, Ennis, Tralee and Killarney, Mallow, Kilkenny, Monaghan, and Cavan, seven have seen the numbers of jobless rise, some by alarming levels. This makes nonsense of the Government's claim that the national spatial strategy is a success. Publishing it may have been a success, but it is clearly not being implemented.

We need to see increased investment in infrastructure, with Government support for the development of indigenous industries in rural areas. Without the investment in infrastructure, areas will not be able to compete or attract outside investment. Despite loud announcements from the Government about the decentralisation of Departments, very little has been done to advance decentralised job creation. We need to recognise that encouraging entrepreneurship, indigenous industry and the social economy provides the best opportunities for job creation in rural areas. We must move away from our over-dependence on multinationals which, after receiving large grants to set up, pull out after a number of years, leaving an area devastated. We must recognise that a small community that becomes dependent on one large industry is in a precarious position.

There should be encouragement for small and large-scale indigenous companies across the State, particularly in rural Ireland, with a research and development anchor. We must also recognise that 80% of employment stems from small and medium-sized enterprises. Investment in indigenous companies offers the best possibility of long-term sustainable job creation and economic development in rural areas. The same quantity and quality of resources made available to inward investors should be made available to indigenous enterprises. That is currently not the case.

The internationalisation of many industries, particularly the food processing industry, has led to the shutting down of many smaller plants, often with dire consequences for the small towns and villages in which they are sited. Local communities have found themselves powerless to prevent this. We need to support small businesses which, although they often generate small profit, are responsible for much local employment. These are often overlooked by the industrial development agencies. The Government also needs to encourage the development and marketing of new local brands in rural areas, as many businesses are not large enough to enter export markets. The Fuchsia brand developed in west Cork is a good example of the development of a regional brand encompassing a number of small companies.

Sinn Féin envisages a rural society in which everyone can have dignified, productive employment, a fair income and better quality of life. The Government's failure to fulfil its commitments in terms of access to employment and income opportunities confirms that it does not have the same ambition. It is worth noting that disempowerment of local government has meant that communities have little control over their own affairs. This is totally contrary to the White Paper's commitment to encourage participation in decision making. Women have also remained disempowered in rural Ireland because of the Government's failure to ensure gender balance on rural development bodies such as Leader and CLÁR. It has disgracefully failed to meet the target of 40% representation of women on the management boards of rural development programmes. It has admitted its failure in this regard by refusing to accept the amendments of Sinn Féin and other parties to recent legislation, such as An Bord Bia (Amendment) Bill 2003, to ensure that targets of at least 40% are met.

As I have explained, the Government has failed to fulfil its commitments in the area of access to employment. This is directly connected to its failure to fulfil its commitment to balanced regional development and the fact that it has not maintained public services in rural areas. Despite the publication of the national spatial strategy, we are arguably even further from a spatially balanced state than we were when the White Paper was published.

Public services in rural areas are under siege as the privatisation agenda is implemented. Government promises to "rural-proof" all national policies are worthless as rural post offices and Garda stations are closed, rural areas continue to be bereft of access to public transport and class 3 and even class 2 roads are allowed to fall into disrepair. For example, two Garda stations in north Louth have been closed or at least downgraded to part-time in the past year. In the growing town of Clonakilty in west Cork, advanced plans to downgrade the town's post office have met with a justifiable outcry from the people of the town. Failure to invest in infrastructure and communities means that these areas have not diversified and people have continued to drift to Dublin and other cities in search of employment.

The national spatial strategy suggests particular towns for special development status without proper basis or adequate spatial considerations. The effect, characteristically, is to drive one town, one community, one neighbour against another in the hopeless cause of developing a region by duplicating the mistakes of spatial planning that allowed all resources to veer to one centre with uneven development and marginalisation of surrounding rural areas. Currently, resources and investment are magnetically drawn to the greater Dublin area, or other relatively rich and prosperous areas, to the detriment of rural areas.

Industry locates near other industry. It tends to develop in clusters. This draws people, services and better transport into a centre, and because these resources are drawn to Dublin and other large urban centres and away from rural areas and smaller towns, more and more resources tend to be concentrated in the metropolis. Almost all factors of production in larger urban areas are cheaper and more easily accessed than in the rural areas. We need to ensure that plans are based on equality of outcome, not simply equality of opportunity. Plans need to be sustainable with regard not only to economic issues and long-term profitability but also in terms of the environment, natural resources, culture, social values and the provision of social services to provide an acceptable standard of living.

Photo of Liam TwomeyLiam Twomey (Wexford, Independent)
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I am delighted to speak on tonight's motion. County Wexford is a rural constituency and has been neglected not only since the last election but also the previous election. Decentralisation, health, education and jobs will again be the dominant issues in the next general election unless the Government focuses on rural Ireland.

Last Wednesday, Fianna Fáil members of the Oireachtas Committee on Finance and the Public Service voted against a discussion on decentralisation, which was due to take place after the local elections, so that it would not be considered an election issue. This is of great concern to members of the committee like myself who come from rural constituencies because we support decentralisation. It is a bad omen for support of the issue at local level.

There have been a number of public meetings in regard to post-primary schools in my constituency in County Wexford. At least five schools in the constituency need major capital investment. The last enrolment figures in a school in Gorey, which was built to accommodate 900 pupils, stood at 1,600 pupils. An area 15 miles away has been promised a new secondary school for the past ten years. The same lack of investment in post-primary schools is taking place across the county, and we have not even begun to have a discussion on primary schools. Such schools have insufficient space, poor services and do not come up to scratch in this modern era to educate our young people for the future.

The Minister for Health and Children has no commitment to rural Ireland. The lack of investment in the health service in the south-east, and County Wexford in particular, bears this out. The way the people of that county have been treated is a disgrace. If this remains the case for the next three years, the Government will pay the price at the next general election. The Hanly report is mocking the people of rural Ireland given that the Minister for Health and Children is spending more than €100 million on Cork University Hospital in his constituency and there are plans to spend more than €400 million on services in the Mater Hospital in the Taoiseach's constituency. There are plans to spend €500 million in both the Taoiseach's and Minister for Health and Children's constituencies. This is the same Minister who insults people like me who try to highlight the weaknesses in the Hanly report by saying we are being parochial and self-serving. In fact, we are the people who have a rational idea of the direction the health service should take.

Much of the spending on major infrastructural projects is still focused around Dublin. It is not being spread out across the country as envisaged when the plans were being drawn up. Rosslare Europort in my constituency is probably one of the few profitable ports in the country. This port has suffered from severe neglect. The investment it receives every 15 or 20 years is just enough to prevent it from being washed into the sea. Even though it is an important port and has many green sites that could be developed for both distribution purposes and for light industry, there has been no investment in the port. We have no idea what will happen to the port in the future. It is owned by CIE which is just interested in taking the profit. This money gets gobbled up and squandered in another part of that monopoly. I would like to see the Rosslare ferry port being taken away from CIE and put under the control of a Department that would take seriously development and investment in County Wexford.

There is a perception that rural voters are being taken for granted because they remain loyal to the political parties. Urban voters have a higher percentage of floaters who are courted much more dramatically by the Government. Rural voters are getting fed up with being ignored. The Government has had three years to show its commitment to the country as a whole. As decentralisation will not be a smooth transition, we want to be part of the process from the beginning so that we can ensure it will work.

More than one million patients living outside major urban areas are entitled to a proper health service. The Government should implement a fair school programme because there is a huge difference even between Wicklow and County Wexford.

Paudge Connolly (Cavan-Monaghan, Independent)
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The Government's White Paper on Rural Development in 1999 committed itself to a long-term vision of rural society and drew up various strategies to ensure the maintenance of vibrant and sustainable rural communities. The White Paper was widely welcomed at the time in that it provided the outline of a vision to guide rural development policy.

While there is no common definition of the term "rural" within Europe, in Ireland the census of population defines "rural" as all areas outside towns of more than 1,500 people. Using this yardstick, Ireland has 43% of its population classified as rural, which amounts to a great many votes. Farm numbers have continued to decline between the 1996 and 2002 census, as rural Ireland continues to change. This shift in the patterns of agriculture continues to have major consequences for rural society generally. A sea change in current development policies which are mainly urban-led is also essential. Crucial issues, for which the current policies are woefully inadequate, include infrastructure development, national spatial imbalance, public transport and local input in core decision-making. On practically each test, the Government has failed miserably.

The much vaunted national spatial strategy, with its aim of promoting balanced regional development, appears to be a dead duck. It appeared to give some hope to less developed regions and rural communities that economic growth would be distributed in a balanced way. The Government gave a commitment to addressing in the national spatial strategy the problem of rural poverty. In the budget for 2004, we were treated to decentralisation mark two which appeared to dole out relocation "goodies" to a raft of communities throughout the country. These communities were at variance with the spatial strategy areas whose citizens must now be wondering what exactly the terms "gateway" and "hub" mean. It appears that both the national spatial strategy and decentralisation fall into the category of kites flown without any consultation. These kites have now fallen to earth in tatters. It appears they will be milked in the upcoming elections for maximum political capital.

While rural development is ultimately about people, a central element is sustainability. The term "sustainable development" originated in the 1970s and has been defined as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

Education is a major concern for each community. Many of the nation's schools are being allowed to run down, have a litany of structural defects and have been used as election fodder by the Government at appropriate times. We recall the separate lists being bandied about prior to the general election in 2002, and the utter cynicism of rural parents for Department promises. Substandard accommodation in rural schools should be upgraded as a priority. All rural schools should have a minimum staff of two teachers. It is an almost impossible task for a lone teacher in a school. There is the example of Knocknagrave national school where it is proposed to get rid of one of the two teachers while student numbers are increasing on an annual basis, and will continue to increase in the future. Pre-school services in rural areas are almost non-existent. Many parents must drive very young children long distances from home to attend pre-school in towns.

Many of the proposals in the White Paper are desirable and could make a major difference to the lives of people living in rural Ireland. In the provision of health care services, the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness favours the opposite of centralising these services À la Hanly. The people of County Monaghan and rural Border communities are being deprived of basic medical services through the downgrading of Monaghan General Hospital.

County Monaghan has been poorly served by the Government in the area of tourism. In its 2004 tourism brochure, the north-west tourism body makes barely a passing reference to the tourism attractions of County Monaghan. In eco-tourism, a number of worthy projects in County Monaghan have been passed over for sports capital fund grant aid. These include the Derryvalley Wetlands project at Ballybay, the Concra Wood lakeshore and heritage development at Castleblayney, and Monaghan swimming pool.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Cork South Central, Green Party)
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One of the many ironies of Irish political life is that the political party that received most votes in rural communities and spent the longest period in Government since the foundation of the State has been the party that presided over and produced policies that directly contributed to the decline in rural life. The myth has been perpetrated in election after election that the blame for the decline in rural life is somehow to be found elsewhere, among people who cannot make decisions and among political parties that have never held political office. Somehow, the decline in rural life is everyone else's fault but the party that has been most consistently in office since the foundation of this State.

It is a decline for which the word "decimate" is inadequate, because "decimate" in its literal term means the loss of population by 10%. We have seen many rural communities disappear and many whose populations decreased by far more than 10%. No one has been to blame for this. No one has been to blame for the removal of population, which has often been to other urban areas to the extent where the demographic ratio has completely reversed. It was 60% rural and 40% urban at the time of the foundation of the State and it is now 60% urban and 40% rural. No one takes responsibility for the removal of services from rural communities, such as the removal of railway lines, the closure of railway stations, the closure of schools, post offices, and Garda stations. This is somehow a demographic blip. Those who were and are in Government could have put in place the necessary resources, could have produced the appropriate policies and rural Ireland could still be thriving. That it exists at all and still has life is a tribute to those who have chosen to live and economically exist in rural Ireland. Where Government should be giving a lead, where the fine words in the White Paper on rural development could become reality, we find instead that it is those who work in the voluntary sector who take the lead. The recent AGM of Irish Rural Link had very interesting motions and debates. It points a way to a more vibrant rural Ireland. It is a challenge to everyone involved in political life to listen to what such organisations are saying.

I spent three very enjoyable years of my working life with Muintir na Tíre in north and east County Cork. As someone whose volunteer activity in community development up to that time had been strictly urban based, I learned many valuable lessons. The whole definition of commitment in rural communities exists at a different level than can be found in urban communities. Yet the degree of support that should come from State agencies, from the political system and from the Governments that have resources to implement proper policies, still remains lacking. Although it was founded in the 1930s, Muintir na Tíre has been an organisation that has not been allowed to develop. While it has been doing viable work continuously, funding from other sources such as the European Regional Development Fund has been given to new bodies like Leader and the CLÁR programme. Instead of engaging directly with rural communities, the Government has chosen to create parallel structures. This means rural Ireland will be weighed down in bureaucracy rather than the vibrancy that naturally exists there. The challenge for the Minister is to respond for the Government tonight.

Rural Ireland is in need of a different definition. It is no longer the rural Ireland of small farm holdings. Agri-business is now on a larger scale and is of an international dimension. Yet, instead of encouragement, the best that can be hoped for are policies that will force people involved in those enterprises to stand still. The Government is badly falling down on the economies of scale. For vibrant rural communities to exist, there has to be an understanding that appropriate levels of support need to be given on a long term basis. Unfortunately we have a Government with a philosophy of a "kill or be killed" attitude to economics. It is all about making the largest possible amount of money in the quickest possible time and forming the largest possible structures that will allow one to do that. We see that all too clearly in our financial services industry at the moment. Instead of encouraging viable alternatives to give people a choice in that area, such as the credit union movement which is one of the successes of rural life, we find ourselves embedded in the mire that is the Irish financial services industry in 2004.

I would like to hear an admission from the Government on where things have gone wrong. The Government recently announced the re-opening of rail infrastructure for the first time in the history of the State. A decision has been made to extend the Cork to Midleton railway line. That is a very good decision. However, it is a decision that will add to the suburban development of the greater Cork area. If the Government was serious about implementing an infrastructure policy that will develop rural communities, it would give a strong signal on the western rail corridor. There was a time at the turn of the 20th century when Ireland had the most railway lines per square mile in the world. Yet the major party of this Government claimed with glee in the 1960s that progress was being made by closing these lines. That very act was the death knell of many rural communities. The railway station was followed by the schools, followed by the Garda station and the post office.

Instead of taking responsibility for these failed policies, the Government looks for bogeymen. It blames my party, a party that has never been in Government but believes in rural repopulation, rural development and in restoring services that should not have been taken away. Yet it never takes any responsibility for the services that were removed under its own remit. It blames voluntary bodies which occasionally might get it wrong in their emphasis, but have no decision making remit on what happens in rural communities. Those decisions are made by local Government, those decisions are informed by policies and legislation put forward by national Government. Until we have a political party dominating the political system that is prepared to take responsibility for how rural life has diminished over the past 80 years, we will not see real rural development. We will unfortunately see more of the same and the Ireland of the 21st century will be more urbanised and suburbanised and we will be the poorer for it.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "Dáil Éireann" and substitute the following:

"notes the commitment of the Government to the development of rural Ireland through implementation of the White Paper on Rural Development and in particular through key initiatives to enhance services, infrastructure and employment in rural areas by:

—the setting up of a separate Department with special responsibility for rural development, island and Gaeltacht regions;

—the launch of a major programme of decentralisation, designed to bring public services and employment closer to communities across the country;

—the record investment in non-national roads, the arteries of local communities, by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, and through the 'CLÁR' programme;

—the publication of the National Spatial Strategy with its particular emphasis on rural development and rural planning;

—the publication of the draft rural housing guidelines;

—the setting up of the CLÁR programme with a wide range of actions to tackle the problems of rural disadvantage and depopulation;

—the setting up of the Rural Social Scheme to provide employment to underemployed farmers and services in rural areas;

—the setting up of Comhairle na Tuaithe to deal with the issue of sustainable development of the recreational amenities of the countryside;

—the continued commitment to both Leader+ and Leader national programme;

—the progress being made towards achieving 40% female representation on Leader boards by the programmes conclusion in 2006;

—the record investment by this Government in rural water and sewerage services, and through the CLÁR programme;

—the commissioning by the Government of a rural enterprise review;

—the continued support for the Western Development Commission and Údarás na Gaeltachta;

—the record investment in educational facilities and personnel in rural Ireland by the Department of Education and Science and through the CLÁR programme;

—the provision of a second teacher in all primary schools with more than 12 pupils;

—the regular consultation with farm bodies and rural organisations, particularly through the National Rural Development Forum;

—the continued efforts by the Government to foster All-Ireland co-operation in the absence of a functioning devolved executive in Northern Ireland;

—the provision of improved public transport services to rural Ireland through the rural transport initiative and improved island, air and boat services;

—the record investment in health services in rural Ireland by both the Department of Health and Children and through the CLÁR programme;

—the provision of broadband services through a broad range of measures taken by the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and under the CLÁR programme;

and that these measures demonstrate that this Government has committed itself totally to ensuring a better quality of life for all people in rural Ireland and will continue to do so co-ordinated by the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, the first dedicated Department of Rural Development in the European Union."

Ba mhaith liom an leasú atá curtha ar aghaidh ag an Rialtas a mholadh. Ba mhaith liom buíochas mo chroí a glacadh leis na Teachtaí ar fad a labhair anseo anocht go dtí seo. Tá mé ag éisteacht go cúramach leis an díospóireacht anseo go ceann cúpla lá. Creidim gur díospóireacht thábhactach é. Ba mhaith liom freisin a rá gur éist mé go cúramach leis na rudaí a dúradh anocht.

I have to confess that I am a townie. I have the distinction of coming from Dublin 4, I was educated here and lived all my formative years here. I went to rural Ireland with the express intention of getting involved in a co-operative to create jobs in a very depopulated part of the country. I spent nearly 18 years employed in that occupation. I am glad to say that what was a bog on the top of a hill, with no jobs, is now host to well over 200 jobs that were created through hard work and enormous difficulties by people who were committed to doing something for their area and who realised that not everything was solved by easy rhetoric.

I, too, have been very critical of rural development policies because I have suffered under the problems created by the lack of rural development policies, lack of understanding and resistance shown every time a Government proposed to allocate money to rural Ireland from the urban area in terms of rural spend. That was one of the motivating reasons I entered politics. However, I also learned during the 20 years working at the top of that hill that there are no magic wands to solve problems and that hard work and long hours achieve much more than talk.

The second point I want to make by way of background is that we have to be honest in politics and realise that we cannot forever give out about lack of spending. Every time an extra tax is imposed we hear talk of stealth taxes and other complaints about taxation, but the reality is that we can only spend what we get from the taxpayer. If we want to increase spending, that is fine but we must tell the taxpayer that, ultimately, they will have to pay. If we borrow the money now, some taxpayer in the future will have to pay it because we do not have any other handy source of long-term funds.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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One income.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The other reality we should face up to is that there has been a decline in rural Ireland but that decline and the haemorrhage from rural areas is a worldwide phenomenon with which we are all trying to grapple. I came here today from a European conference on rural development which I hosted in Westport over the past two days. In relative terms they accept that we are way ahead of most other European countries. Admittedly, only 43% of people are living in what are defined as rural areas but the European average is 30%, and they tell us that figure is decreasing rapidly to 20%. That is a huge challenge, and no other country has cracked it. It is my dream that this country will crack that problem ahead of others, however to change what I do not accept is an inevitability but which has been a fairly consistent trend will take patience, persistence and commitment.

One of the problems that has faced rural development since I became involved in it in 1974 is the easy equation between agriculture and rural development because rural life is about much more than agriculture, just as urban life is about much more than the industries that sustained urban areas 100 years ago. Agriculture is incredibly important to this country economically and from an employment point of view but it is a minority employer, even in the most rural areas. For that reason, the setting up of a separate Ministry for rural development, taking it out of the Department of Agriculture and Food, was a major statement that we recognised the multi-faceted nature of rural development. We are the only country in the European Union — this has been remarked upon — where the Department of rural development is not a junior adjunct of the Department of Agriculture and Food but is seen as a full Ministry in its own right. This Government made that decision.

The national spatial strategy was adopted within the lifetime of this Government. One would not expect to see the long-term effects of a 20 year plan on the ground at this stage but it sets out where we want to go in that regard. The spatial strategy is radically different because the Government changed it from the proposals made by the experts who could see nothing beyond the towns and those made by the academics who could not see any economic generation beyond the towns and cities.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Does the Minister have a script?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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No, I am using the motion for reference. I wanted to listen to what Members were saying and address those issues rather than do what Ministers usually do when they stand up here. Perhaps we would all be better off posting our scripts on to the Internet because there is no point in coming in here, not listening to each other and just addressing the issues as outlined in a prepared script.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I will praise the Minister of State when I get up to speak.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I regret that my colleague from the Green Party has left the Chamber because I would like to engage in a detailed debate about rural settlement patterns. I have read the Labour Party and the Green Party policies, and they are entitled to their view, but they should be clear about what they want. They want the people of rural Ireland who are not involved in agriculture to live in towns or villages. Perhaps they are right, but I do not agree with them. I believe the townlands of Ireland are the towns of Ireland, and that most people in rural Ireland associate with those townlands.

My colleague, Deputy McCormack, will know what I am talking about because he is familiar with what we are doing in terms of canvassing, but we do not canvass by towns, we canvass by townland. We organise our station masses by townland. We divide everything by the townlands and then we are told to forget them, that they do not exist. I do not agree with that view, but other parties are entitled to hold it, although I am a little curious which view will dominate when Fine Gael, Labour and the Green Party get into power. We will leave that to another day.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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We will manage that.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I am surprised that nobody has mentioned the CLÁR programme. I accept that the funding is modest.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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It is in the motion.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The CLÁR programme is mentioned in the motion in respect of gender equality but I cannot understand how gender equality comes into the controlling board of CLÁR because there is no such structure. However, we will ignore that aspect. The CLÁR programme is based on the principle of not creating new bureaucracies, however, some might say it is creating parallel structures. CLÁR uses every existing structure, much to the criticism of the programme. If it concerns a road, I get the county council to do the work. If it concerns a water scheme, it is either the communities through the group schemes or the county council through the county council schemes that do it. The total staff involved in administering the scheme is five. All the money in CLÁR goes to activities on the ground and it tracks other moneys from other Departments that would not be spent in those areas. For example, every time we put in place one of the high cost group water schemes, which are not being set up in the most rural areas, we track €6 or €7 for every euro we put in. Areas are getting water now that could never have dreamt of getting water if it had not been for the CLÁR programme.

CLÁR has done something much more fundamental, however. When the debate started about setting up CLÁR, it was meant to come under RAPID in respect of rural areas. I was advised by my civil servants to follow what had happened previously — they did that in good faith and I am not criticising them — and that was to use some poverty indices to pick the areas. That was understandable because that was the way it was negotiated with the social partners, but I kicked over the traces. I objected on two bases. I asked how I would explain to anybody I picked that out of 57 poverty indices, numbers 1 and 2, rural poverty, is always exported. The young person without a job goes to the city. The young person without a house goes to the local town.

The problem continues to be pushed away and when we look at what remains, we believe the people are not too badly off. I coined a phrase at the time to the effect that when one person is left in west Mayo, that person will be very rich. He or she will own all the land but he or she will be very lonely. It is not a simple poverty issue. It is a community issue. I therefore chose as a criterion the constant haemorrhage of population out of rural areas. I set the bar at 50% decline since 1926. If I did nothing else by that programme, I put the issue of rural depopulation on the map. I claim some credit for that.

Deputy Ó Caoláin raised a farming issue. On a recent television programme, "An Tuath Nua", a television interview done with me in 1976 or 1977 was played. My hair was a little longer but the colour has not changed much.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Unlike some of us.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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God bless the bottle.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It shows the Tír na n-Óg properties of the hills of Connemara.

What I said in that interview stands the test of time. I had been living in rural Ireland and involved in development for only three years at the time. Connemara is not noted for the quality of its land, and in that short time I had reckoned that it was not possible for the land of the area to provide family lifestyle incomes to an increasing or even the existing population. I said that unless we provided alternative employment, agriculture alone would not sustain the existing number of family farms. How right I was and how right we were to create those jobs. There are very few full-time farmers in Dúiche Seoighe but there is a vibrant community there of people who farm part-time and do other work part-time also. They have a very good standard of living. In fact, having visited the Golden Vale recently I would say that, because they are part-time farmers, the farmers in Connemara often have a better standard of living than people living in some of the best landed parts of the country.

There is nothing we can do about this. If we want farmers and country people to enjoy the same standard of living and if we accept that we cannot control world prices or change the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, at will, something must give. Let us realise that. We cannot give more land to the farmers because they are not creating it anymore. For a number of farmers, the only answer is that farming will be a part-time occupation in the future. That is not what people want to hear. It is not what I want to hear but I am not willing to say to farmers that I can create circumstances in which the existing number of farmers will be employed at the same standard of living as the rest of the community given existing world prices and the CAP. It cannot be done.

I recognise the huge pressures in that situation. In dry stock areas, like my own, it is relatively easy to combine farming with off-farm work, but it is more difficult for small dairy farmers. It was for that reason that I proposed, before the previous general election, the establishment of a rural social scheme which would combine a practical approach to dealing with the income issue with the provision of top class services to the people within the communities by the communities themselves. The skills of the farmers and farm families of Ireland are huge. They are all little entrepreneurs. The know how to buy, sell, build, maintain and care.

This is not a training scheme; it is a work scheme. It involves a swap of work for income. The scheme is tailor-made to fit in with the farming pattern. It extends across rural Ireland into rural County Dublin. As long as members of a community are happy and are doing the required number of hours of work every week, they get paid. If that is tailor-made to suit seasons or milking patterns, that is fine so long as the hours of work are done. Members have seen the fantastic work done by participants in community employment training schemes in maintaining community facilities and sports fields. CE participants are willing to work at weekends because it suits them to tie CE work around their farm work. I want to institutionalise that. The caring services, for example, can be up-graded in a way that benefits local communities on the double.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The Minister will have his work cut out with his partners in Government.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We have already set it up. The advertisements are in the newspapers this week.

The issue of the recreational use of land is to the fore and must be resolved. Comhairle na Tuaithe is making good progress and all the players are working together to resolve that issue. In my view, land issues in Ireland will not be solved by law. With our history of land, unless solutions are arrived at by agreement, we will not achieve results. Those who say farmers and rural people are not willing, given the right conditions, to see the advantages for them in recreational use of places such as open mountains, underestimate the resourcefulness and generosity of rural communities and their view of the greater good of the community.

The motion refers to female representation and gender balance in Leader companies. Since the beginning of the current Leader round, female representation on boards has gone from 25% to 29% and we are confident that we will achieve 40% by 2006. There are difficulties on the way because members of Leader boards are not chosen by the Minister but are nominated by groups such as the IFA, ICMSA and various community groups. It is not a simple matter of nominating a board en bloc. We are committed to achieving that percentage. I note with interest and satisfaction that 42% of the managers of Leader companies are female.

Decentralisation will do much for rural Ireland. It will happen and quickly. We are working on the programme in my Department and we have picked the CLÁR area of Knock Airport for decentralisation of my Department. It will happen, be successful, have a major effect and change the mindset. I remind those who doubt that I have been doubted before.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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We want to see it happen.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with the Deputy. However, I am reminded of an Údarás na Gaeltachta election campaign when a stone wall was being built and a piece in the middle had not been completed. A sign was put on the gap in the wall saying, "Éamon, cá bhfuil an balla?" I said we would get there. The person who put up the sign came to me before the general election to say that he did not trust you but I did get there. We will get there on this.

I am surprised the issue of rural schools was not referred to in the motion. One of the best decisions made in the past seven years was to put a second teacher in every school that had more than 12 pupils. When the previous Labour and Fine Gael coalition left office, the required number for a second teacher was 22 pupils.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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What was the figure when Labour and Fine Gael came to power?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I think the figure was 22. The previous coalition Government did nothing about it. Our action was crucial to the really small rural areas.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The rule is too rigid. The ratio is set on 30 September each year.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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A ratio of one teacher to 12 pupils is very different from one teacher to 22 pupils.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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We need greater flexibility.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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How many schools are involved?

8:00 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It was one of the most progressive decisions made in the interest of declining, rather than growing, rural areas. When a rural school loses its second teacher, it is inevitable that numbers will decline even further because, unless the school is on an island, parents are inclined to choose a larger school for their children and closure of the school becomes inevitable. Once an area loses its school, people do not want to settle there.

Many people are mistaken about what is being done in the health services. I do not intend turning this into a health debate. I do not expect that heart operations will be carried out in Cornamona or Clifden. However, I welcome that we will no longer have to travel to Dublin for radiotherapy services and heart operations. In that regard, there is a need for major regional centres. People do not understand a great deal of what is happening in terms of health services. The health authorities have directly funded the provision of X-ray facilities in Clifden, some 60 miles from Galway. We are now proceeding in conjunction with the CLÁR programme to put in place a similar facility in Belmullet. This will mean that those who fracture a bone will no longer have to travel to Castlebar for an X-ray. They will be able to have the bone X-rayed in Clifden, the results of which the staff will send to the hospital who in turn will contact the person regarding the prescribed treatment.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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Will it be possible to have the broken bone fixed?

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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No. Many people require further X-rays during the healing process. If I had a pound for every time I attended the hospital in Galway with children who might have had a fracture, I would have a great deal of money in my pocket.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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If the Minister's local hospital lost the services on which he depended, he might appreciate how our constituents feel.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Ó Caoláin had an opportunity to make a contribution. He should allow the Minister to continue without interruption.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I did not interrupt Deputies when they spoke. Another matter not yet raised — I presume it will be referred to later but I will not have an opportunity to speak again — is the issue of broadband. While enterprise was referred to, nobody mentioned broadband. It is the most fundamental tool of modern enterprise. We are encountering difficulties with the system but we are dealing with them.

We have recently entered a new arrangement with the ESB regarding the roll-out of fibre-optic cable. We are putting broadband into every town with a population of more than 1,500 people. I recently announced, by way of experiment, 12 new radio operated broadband systems for the most rural and isolated areas of CLÁR. Given the good value for money available, I intend expanding that programme dramatically. It is now possible to ensure the people of rural Ireland enjoy the benefits of broadband experienced by those in urban Ireland.

As a person who worked for many years with the co-operatives, I agree with what Deputies had to say in that regard. However, I regret the demise of the real co-operative, not the farmers' plc, but the co-operatives whose raison d'être was the good of the community. Unfortunately, the farmers sold them out. Farmers were offered money and in many cases chose to take it. A few co-operatives such as the small Gaeltacht ones remain. Connacht Gold Co-op provides a firm business base in our region and has been willing to diversify and make long-term commitments to the development of industry there. It has branched out into milk, mushrooms and timber milling. Together with an experienced timber miller, it has made the timber milling industry in my area what it is today. I wish the old co-operative spirit still existed and that we could once again create the feeling that none of us is an island, that we are all inter-dependent. I would not like the sense of belonging to a community to disappear.

I was interested to hear what was said about small food production and the Fuschia brand and so on. The brand has, to the best of my knowledge, been partly funded by Leader. I have done a great deal of work on farmers' markets and small foods. My Department has funded the appointment of a co-ordinator to drive this agenda forward. I agree there is enormous potential for the development of small food production. It is an area on which my Department will focus a great deal of attention.

There is a need to debate modulated funds. I do not necessarily believe it is in farmers' best interests that all these be retained within the purely agricultural sector. There is only so much one can do to raise incomes in a fixed price situation. We should openly debate this issue in terms of how best to use these funds and what is best for farmers' children. A farmer with two or three children must consider whether some of the money should be invested in agriculture and the rest in broader rural development if he or she wishes them to get employment. Which will provide them and the farming member of the family with an adequate income? Should a farmer try to increase his income by continually investing in the farm or should he or she provide other ways of earning an income? I hope we can have an open debate on this issue. I hope Members will encourage people to consider openly the issue and that it is not so hyped up they cannot look it straight in the eye.

I was surprised by the reference to parallel structures. I have consistently tried not to create duplicate structures. I have used Leader to deliver the rural social scheme. I have used all existing structures to deliver the CLÁR programme. I have a record for not creating new structures, an approach with which I am glad people agree. Too many bodies are delivering different programmes. Fewer bodies, streamlined and clearly identifiable by the people, would be much better.

When it comes to the credit union movement, my record is where my mouth is. I encouraged the extension of the credit union movement into my area. As chairman of the local co-operative, I encouraged and made arrangements for the local credit union to set up a branch within the co-operative. When the Bank of Ireland decided to withdraw its travelling bank from the west, rather than go on my knees to it — we have done that for far too long — I approached the credit union movement and suggested it should avail of the opportunity, as it was people-based, to fill the gap which existed. It was a much better answer to the large plc which makes commercial decisions. When one shows one's independence of them, one has power. If one gives them to understand that they control everything, then they are in control. I thank the credit union movement for being proactive in having detailed discussions with the various credit unions in the areas affected. The credit unions may, over time, have to change and widen their services. The salvation of rural Ireland is from within.

Enterprise development was also mentioned, an area in which there is an ongoing review. I have strong views regarding enterprise development, in particular regarding new technology, and how it can be developed in clusters of 40 or 50 kilometres around the university and institute of technology towns. We need to examine this further, the old systems no longer work. It is crazy in a world which requires that people in rural and urban areas are paid the same salaries that rural areas have low technology industry.

I thank Deputies for tabling this motion. I hope the debate on where we are going in this regard will be open and frank. The discussion to date has been good. I will listen carefully to what is said tonight and tomorrow night.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I wish to share time with Deputy Paul McGrath. Tá an-áthas orm cúpla focal a rá ar an rún seo. An fáth go bhfuil an rún ar Riar na hOibre is the failure of the Government to fulfil its commitment in the White Paper. This motion was tabled by the Sinn Féin Members because of the Government's failure to fulfil its commitment in the White Paper. I am pleased to support it and I welcome the Minister to the Chamber to discuss it. He stated he came from Dublin 4 to work in a co-op in Cornamona and I compliment him on his involvement in this area. It certainly did not do him any harm when he put his name on a ballot paper.

Photo of John CartyJohn Carty (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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They all got a good vote.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I, too, was involved in the co-operative movement, but in a different way from the Minister. I was also involved in rural development in Connemara, as he is well aware. There is a monument to my involvement around Maam Cross and anybody who wants to look at it may do so on any Saturday they choose. I was pleased to be involved with the community in Connemara in trying to improve the marketing facilities for livestock in the area. We have been successful. This is one aspect of my life that I regretted having to give up, but which I chose to do, when I became a Member of this House. I enjoyed my involvement with the rural communities.

The Minister correctly stated there is more to rural life than agriculture. He praised the Government for appointing a Minister with responsibility for rural development. He was lucky to get that portfolio because it has given him an opportunity to allocate funds through CLÁR and other programmes for which he has responsibility. He certainly does not neglect his constituency, which I am privileged to share with him.

Any time I had the opportunity to listen to local radio, particularly in recent weeks, I heard announcements of allocations of so many thousands of euro for various parishes in Connemara. I hope this is not just because of the upcoming elections. I am now canvassing for votes in rural areas of Galway and people sometimes draw my attention to such announcements. Although it is announced that the Minister has allocated money for Cornamona, Clonbur, Carraroe or aon áit eile, one should not be deceived into believing it is his money that is being given out. He is allocating the people's money, the taxpayers' money. Of course I welcome the allocation of taxpayers' money for all the projects within the area both of us represent.

The Minister mentioned how community employment schemes benefit rural areas, and I agree with him. They have benefited tremendously both the participants on the schemes and the rural communities in which the work was carried out. Does the Minister agree with the Government's decision to make it obligatory for those who have served three years on a community employment scheme to leave that scheme? The Minister would be aware of instances of this because, despite his coming from Dublin 4, he is very familiar with what takes place in the rural area he now represents. He has lived and worked there for the greater part of the past 20 years, as he said.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Thirty years.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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That is nearly as long as the period I have spent there. I have been there only 40 years.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Renmore is in Galway, I am in the country.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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That is correct. If the Minister wants to talk about the country, we will do so at length.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I thought that was what we were talking about.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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As the Minister stated, skills have been accumulated by those on community employment schemes in rural areas which are not easily replaced. The participants are doing very beneficial work in these areas. Some people on community employment schemes are personal assistants to people with disabilities who are living independently. It takes great skill, determination, enthusiasm and patience to be a personal assistant to somebody with a disability, yet, according to the Government, at the end of three years assistants are no longer eligible to be employed in this capacity. Will the Minister seek to redress this at the Cabinet table? It is a drawback to rural areas.

A viable rural community, be it agricultural or otherwise, is essential to maintaining viability in our towns and cities. If the income of those in rural areas declines or does not keep pace with the incomes in urban areas, the first places that will suffer will be rural areas. Not long afterwards, the small towns and villages will suffer, and the cities will suffer eventually. If there is no spending power in the agricultural community, for example, the farmer will postpone replacing machinery and buying a new tractor. He will postpone everything that is possible to postpone if he does not have the disposable income to purchase new machines. It will not be long until the tractor salesman will be out of a job, as will the man manufacturing tractors in a bigger town or city. Therefore, it is essential for the viability of urban areas that there be a viable rural community. This is what this motion is about.

In his opening address, Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to matters that could be tackled at Government level. It is essential that this is done. One point made by the Deputy that caught my imagination concerned the correct labelling of imported pork, chicken and beef. When one orders a steak for one's meal in a restaurant in Dublin city or a rural area, one invariably assumes that one is supporting an Irish industry, but that is not the case. One might be eating imported beef three quarters or half of the time. Therefore, the correct labelling of products, such as beef, in a restaurant is important in promoting and supporting markets for Irish produce. Nothing could be simpler than this, yet it is not always done. Will the Minister take up this challenge also?

I am surprised the Minister did not mention Objective One status. We had to push vigorously to make the Government fight for it for the Border, midlands and western counties. It came on board very late in the day when it was obvious that we qualified for it. The rest of the country did not qualify because the relevant figure was over 7.5% of GNP. The BMW region received Objective One status but the money received as a result is not being spent in that region. The balance is still being spent in counties along the east coast. As much of the European funds are being spent in Dublin, Meath and Wicklow as are being spent in the BMW region. It is entirely the responsibility of the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs to fight his corner to ensure the extra funds our region has received as a result of its being granted Objective One status are spent in that region.

The Minister mentioned broadband. I welcome its introduction yesterday in Galway city. However, it will serve as a further draw to the city from the rural areas. Until broadband is introduced in the rural towns — there are not many towns in west Galway with populations greater than 1,500 apart from Galway city——

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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CLÁR is providing it for Clifden and Carna. I trust the Deputy did not miss that.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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I am aware it is coming.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It has been announced and the contracts are signed.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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It would be great for Carna and Clifden if we had an election every year.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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It has been worked on for nine months. It is coming and the contracts are signed.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Unfortunately, my time is up and I want to allow my colleague to speak. However, I will continue the debate on Galway Bay FM with the Minister some day if Keith Finnegan allows both of us on.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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I look forward to it.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy McCormack for allowing me to share time with him. This debate revolves around the kind of Ireland we want in the future, our plans for the future and the opportunities we will create for our young people. Will the trend of recent years continue with more people moving from rural areas to the towns? One third of the population now live on the eastern seaboard, and small towns and rural communities are to a great extent being wiped out. Is that what we want or do we want rural communities that are vibrant? The secret to keeping rural communities alive is that they be vibrant and self-sufficient so that they have a quality of life that can attract people to live there. In that context we must consider what has happened over a long period to our rural communities.

The Minister rightly talked about how farming has changed. Forty years ago many families were brought up on farms of 40 acres, which provided a reasonable living to a family. How can a family survive now with a 40-acre or even an 80-acre farm? The whole scene has changed and farmers now need very big farms if the income from the farm is their only income. As the Minister mentioned, farmers must become part-time farmers, which has happened gradually over the years.

Cattle marts gradually declined, with marts taking place in the evening and now a variety of marts have closed. This is a sad blow to the farming community. Coupled with the part-time work that might be available to farmers, agricultural colleges have closed. Over the years, why did we not see the need for farmers to have part-time jobs to keep them working in the community? Why did we not introduce them to skills and train agricultural college students as mechanics, carpenters, plumbers etc. so that they could remain in their rural communities and continue farming?

In recent years the community employment and FÁS schemes kept many farmers going. As the Minister said, in rural communities fantastic work was done by many from the farming community in maintaining the local sports areas, community halls, around churches, graveyards etc. However, the Government wiped out most of those employment schemes, which was a huge blow to small farmers in rural areas who were able to supplement their income in that way. They no longer have that opportunity.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy missed the announcement of the rural social scheme, which is tailor made for the need.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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Nobody is employed yet.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The advertisements are in the newspapers this week.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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That is news to me. I did not get the Minister's press release. He is normally good at publicity.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy obviously does not listen to Galway Bay FM.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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We launched it in Mountbellew and every Deputy was invited. That the Deputy did not accept the invitation is his problem, not mine.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for holding it in Mountbellew. To keep rural communities vibrant we must also provide the level of services that would be expected. For example, what is happening with Garda stations? The green man system is now operating in most rural Garda stations. People in those areas do not feel they have the same level of security as those living in towns.

In recent days, I am glad to see the Government has taken up a scheme I suggested for rural Garda stations. For a long time I tried to persuade the Minister to introduce a scheme to get rid of old Garda stations and provide new ones in their place. The Minister has now done this for many Garda stations in Tipperary and Limerick at the stroke of a pen, which is a good idea. For a number of years I fought to get the Minister to sell off the local rural Garda station in the area in which I was brought up and have a custom-built one provided in its place. Eventually he half conceded to the request. He has learnt from that and is now moving on.

Rural post offices are now virtually non-existent. In rural areas schools are winding down and in some rural areas where there is an increase in numbers they cannot get the extra resources in terms of teachers and classrooms.

The Minister speaks entirely about what is happening in rural areas around Connemara. We sometimes forget that the midlands is one of the poorest areas of the country because of the downgrading and almost winding down of Bord na Móna. In huge tracts of land across the midlands where Bord na Móna was very vibrant its workforce was wound down from thousands to very small numbers. Coole in north Westmeath was once a very vibrant community and now has little local employment. As Bord na Móna pulled out, we failed to find a replacement industry. Perhaps we should have considered horticulture or something else that would suit the area.

At one stage the Minister majored on rural planning to such an extent that first the Taoiseach and then the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government jumped on the bandwagon. While they claimed they would make changes, nothing has happened. There has been much publicity and expectation that people would have the opportunity to live and work in their local communities, but it did not work.

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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It was an election stunt.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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In County Westmeath, for example, the Minister's proposals were identical to or worse than those in the county development plan. If the Minister had moved from Dublin 4 to a rural community 30 years ago, he would not get planning permission now.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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Yes, I would. The rural guidelines——

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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Based on most of the county development plans that I know of, the Minister would not get permission to build in a rural area.

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Minister, Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs; Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy is incorrect.

Paul McGrath (Westmeath, Fine Gael)
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Five years after getting married and having bought a house in a housing estate in a town such as Mullingar, someone with a rural background who wants to move back to their rural roots would be unable to get planning permission in their home area because they already own a house. They will be excluded as there is not a need and it is seen as speculative, which is unfair. That is not the way to look after rural communities and it must be changed.

Debate adjourned.