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1 April 1999 Edition

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Government policies are destroying rural Ireland

There are 800 empty villages in Connaught and 45,000 on housing lists but rural resettlement has ground to a halt


     
It is not so much the lack of government policy to save rural Ireland but government policy itself which is bringing about the decline
Native Americans spoke of the soul of civilisation, of culture, and the other soul, the soul of the bush. It's the soul of the earth, of the mountains, of the sea, of the trees, of hailstones in your face.

Whatever about the soul of civilisation, it is perhaps the search for the soul of the bush, as much as the length of housing lists, whrry and Madeleine Malone and their five children are one of the 356 families who have moved to the West in the Rural Resettlement Ireland (RRI) scheme since its inception eight years ago. They moved from Ballinteer in Dublin, first to Carin in County Galway and then, nearest stop to America, the Loop Head Peninsula, where they are renting a small cottage while they wait for the house that is to be built for them a mile away.

What's it like? ``I just couldn't have managed this back in Dublin,'' says Madeleine, as their five kids play out in the brilliant sunshine. ``Rain or fine, they are safe. They have a childhood here.'' Danny, the youngest of their three boys, an advertisment for children, snuffles the dog and says it's his. James, the eldest, plays football with the dog.

``It's not the drugs, the robbed cars, or all the dangers for children in Dublin. It's the whole quality of life here. It's the education, the small school, the community - there is everything here. And then the place itself, the Shannon Estuary on one side, the Atlantic on the other. It's a great place to bring up kids. That's why we came here. It gives them a real chance.''

     
  The lack of government action to arrest the decline of the small farmers of the West of Ireland has to be seen in the context of the EU policies on fishing, which robbed us of our fishing grounds, the lack of development of agricultural and fishing processing capacities, and the policy of afforestation. Trees for the hills means people for the road.  
- Gort, County Galway, Sinn Féin Councillor Michael Loughrey

For the few who have resettled, the figures are impressive. Four out of five of the families who joined the scheme have stayed. When they didn't stay it was often because families who had no means of transport felt isolated. There is no provision for funding in RRI (a voluntary body, financed by the government and donations) to provide cars for people who move to isolated spots.

Over half of the resettled families have at least one member in full or part-time employment. Nearly a third of the families have become homeowners. The families who moved have surrendered over 180 houses to local authorities, which would represent a value of at least £11 million if they were to be replaced by new houses.

Do they fit into a small rural community? ``Sure we had only been here hours before a man from Finglas came over the hill and asked if we needed anything,'' said Gerry.

``Local people are long past the stage of worrying about `outsiders','' says Paul Murphy, an RRI administrator based down the road from Gerry and Madeleine in a Portacabin office.

``They know that the very survival of their community depends on families coming to live here. Without families, the local school has to close, local services, the shops, the post office, buses, even the church, and the pubs, they have to close down. Jobs go. People move away. It means the community dying.''

The story of rural development has become the story of the development of `Foxrock-sur-mer' and Lahinch 4 alongside the depopulation and desolation of rural Ireland.
 
There is nothing new about this. Five years ago, figures showed that there were 800 deserted townlands in Connaught. An NESC Report last year showed a 20% fall in the populations of Leitrim, Cavan, Roscommon and Mayo over the previous 45 years. But what has been done to arrest the decline over the last decade?

Jimmy Connolly, a sculptor from Clare, started Rural Resettlement Ireland in 1991 because he saw the decline of the rural communities, local villages shrinking leaving dozens of empty homes while housing shortages were growing in the cities. Since then, these twin problems have got worse. Four years later, by which time RRI had rehoused 167 famillies under the scheme, Jimmy Connolly said that ``there are a lot of forces ranged against the survival of rural Ireland, but the main problem is the lack of government policy to save it''.

Four years on, it might be said that it is not so much the lack of government policy to save it, but government policy itself which is bringing about the decline. Michael Loughrey, a Sinn Féin Councillor in Gort, County Galway, who has worked for the survival of the local community, through local athletics clubs and many FAS and CE scheme projects to save monuments of historical interest, points out that ``first and foremost you have to look at the government approach to rural communities through its administration of EU funding and the effect that the CAP has had on farming in the whole of this area.''

``The lack of government action to arrest the decline of the small farmers of the West of Ireland has to be seen in the context of the EU policies on fishing, which robbed us of our fishing grounds, the lack of development of agricultural and fishing processing capacities, and the policy of afforestation. Trees for the hills means people for the road.''

Standing in front of a two-teacher school with 18 pupils, Michael says: ``The backbone of rural development has to be agriculture, and EU policy is in the process of eliminating the small farmer. The government has done nothing to arrest this decline.''

Owen Carron, in Ballinamore, Leitrim, is the sole teacher in a one-teacher school of 17 pupils. He needs just one extra child for another teacher. There are empty houses which could be lived in, but it doesn't happen,'' he laments.

``Its only a matter of time before we lose our second teacher at Lurga School,'' says Michael Loughrey, ``yet within a mile of the school there are secven houses lying empty.''

What is holding up people resettling into these houses? ``The problem is the price of houses. The RRI scheme offers a £6,000 to £9,000 non repayable loan to families in the scheme. The Bank of Ireland offers a mortgage on a low rate of interest of 5%, up to a maximum of £14,000, and the Department of Environment (DoE) offers an advance of £17,000. But that is only £40,000 towards buying a house. Ten years ago this might have been enough. Now it goes nowhere.

Amazingly, the price of some rural housing is higher than the 26-County average. In a report by Kevin Heanue for CEA, a firm of Galway consultants, given to a conference in Roscommon last year, the average price of housing across the 26 Counties was £68,000, but the average price of houses in Connemara was £78,784. It is people buying holiday homes, which they may visit for a month in the summer, that largely accounts for the exorbitant prices on rural dwellings.

``What is needed,'' says Vincent Ford, a Sinn Féin candidate in Galway, ``is for the government or local authorities to CPO (compulsary purchase order) empty houses after a period of lying empty and make these dwellings available for resettlement of families who would like to move to the West under the RRI scheme. And as Michael Loughrey says: ``An average of £7,000 to £10,000 needs to be funded from the DoE, through the local authority, to do the houses up and provide the necessary services. It is cheap at the price.''

As it is, the government has made provision for the allocation of funding for the development of a further 80 houses in 13 counties, but only 10 of these have been taken up. Clare, for example, was allocated 20 of these houses, but so far none have been taken up. Galway, Mayo and Roscommon were allocated 11 each, with 2 each to the remaining 8 Western counties. These additional housing provisions seem to be little more than window dressing to prove a commitment to rural development if the offers cannot be taken up.

Over 70% of the families on the RRI waiting list are in local authority dwellings, 64% in Dublin local authority housing, and as these families are resettled in the West, so they leave behind an addition to the available housing stock in the cities, at no cost to the local authority. Yet, as Michael says, ``it is the lack of £10,000 funding to do up a vacant rural property that accounts for it remaining empty and becoming derelict.''

These figures would seem ridiculously small in relation to the cost of providing new urban housing in Dublin, where there are 8,100 alone on the city housing list and a further 5,000 looking for transfer, usually due to desperate overcrowding.

But the figures expose a real disgrace when set against the £110 million which the controversial Seaside Resort Renewal Scheme has cost the exchequer to date. This is the scheme, launched in 1995, which offers tax reliefs to investors in holiday homes, hotels, restaurants and leisure facilities in 15 designated resorts around the country's seaboard, including Clonakilty, Youghal, Ballybunion, Kilkee, Salthill, Achill, Westport, Lahinch, Enniscrone, and Bundoran, encouraging holiday home, Toblerone, developments, often in the face of strong local opposition.

As the Friends of the Irish Environment point out: ``Not only has this scheme violated every principle of sustainable tourism, turning some towns into acres of dark and empty houses, but it has also had the effect of driving local residents out of the property market.''

The whole concept of `designated areas' has been a disaster. It came in for severe criticism at last year's Merriman Summer School in Ennistymon, Co. Clare, especially from Fidelma Mullane, a part-time lecturer at UCC. ``Designation of development areas has largely meant development and `progress' where urban dwellers live, and no development where they play.''

The story of rural development has become the story of the development of `Foxrock-sur-mer' and Lahinch 4 alongside the depopulation and desolation of rural Ireland.

Paul Murphy says the problem is at crisis level. He says there is a lack of an overall policy or plan, a lack of someone accountable for rural resettlement at government level and at local levels and a lack of funding to overcome the log-jam in local authorities' ability to make the houses available. Paul suggests that the West needs a housing executive directly and solely responsible for housing. Councils and Managers have too many other concerns.

He welcomes the recent EU pilot project to appoint six resettlement officers to the Partnerships in Kerry, Leitrim, Mayo, Connemara, Limerick and Roscommon. The EU is funding this pilot scheme to the tune of £300,000. It has to be asked where this pilot scheme can go if the resources are not available, the legislation is not in place to enable the provision of local housing. and the government's priorities remain geared toward tourist `development' of beauty spots dotted with the derelict villages of one time living communities.

Must the soul of their `civilisation' destroy the soul of the bush? You've only to ask the native American Indians.
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