It only seems like yesterday that rural Ireland was standing up to the Dublin 4 diktat. Luke 'Ming' Flanagan was in the Dáil and the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association was waging a crusade which took rural areas by storm. Ming and Michael Fitzmaurice, backed by an able backroom team, were uniting people against the over-centralised Irish State and its masters in Brussels and Berlin.
And then it fell apart. Ming departed to the oblivion of the European Parliament. Fitzmaurice moved into the "Dáil bubble" and virtually overnight became stuck to the coattails of Shane Ross TD, the very personification of Dublin 4. All his great talk turned out to be blether.
Bad times, but something more positive may be on the horizon. In recent weeks Insider has noted a distant rumbling to the west of Galway city that may soon get very much louder and bolder. It originates from both north and south Connemara. What is uniting the people of the Gaeltacht with their English-speaking neighbours is the need for an upgrading of the N59.
The lack of one decent road in and out of Connemara has begun to symbolise wanton indifference to the needs of this area by successive governments and the Brussels bureaucracy. It would appear they both are more interested in the welfare of bog cotton in the special areas of conservation than the future of the people of Connemara.
The preliminary census figures point to these failures: Clifden and its hinterland has lost almost 18 per cent of its population since the 2011 census. Letterfrack is down an enormous 28 per cent; Ballyconneely down by 15.4 per cent; the Leenane area down by 15.2 per cent; the Renvyle area is down by 8.9 per cent.
Roundstone too has lost a sizable percentage of its population, although you would think differently if you visit it in the summer. There, prominent politicians have holiday homes and enjoy a round of golf. Come the winter it is a different reality. Insider has heard it said by many an astute observer that the parish is dying.
And in the Gaeltacht it is the same story. School intake is a true indicator of the health of a community: Cill Chiaráin’s local school took in one child this year. The next school to the west in An Aird Mhóir took in one child as well. Two children will start there next year, but none the two following years.
Raidió na Gaeltachta recently reported that Scoil Leitir Mucú in the parish of Ros Muc has closed forever. Perhaps the most poignant fact in this the centenary year of the 1916 Rising is that no child joined Scoil an Turlaigh Bhig in Ros Muc in 2016. It was in that school - or in the old Scoil an Turlaigh Bhig to be precise - in which Patrick Pearse organised a concert for the children. He based a short story on that night entitled Na Bóithre. So much for Irish freedom!
'Supplying broadband to rural areas is clearly not profitable, hence no broadband in Connemara'
Insider was recently reading comments by NUIG’s Dr Maura Farrell – an expert on “rural sustainability” – where she argued that broadband today is as important as electricity was 50 or 60 years ago. If that is so, then having one decent road for the communities of Connemara must be of even greater importance, you would think.
Strangely, the source of both these problems can be traced directly back to the EU. We are forbidden to turn the N59 into a real national road because the EU forbids any improvement of the road in an SAC. It is worth noting, such formalities have not stopped the German state building motorways through its SACs.
As for the lack of broadband in rural areas, the EU’s insistence on the privatisation of state enterprises lies at the root of this problem. The successful semi-state company Eircom was privatised, but private companies work on the basis of profit and supplying broadband to rural areas is clearly not profitable, hence no broadband in Connemara and many more rural areas. If Eircom had remained in State hands this would not have happened.
Of course, it is not just west of Galway city that rural decline is evident – Galway county as a whole suffered a net outflow of people (-3,168 ), as did Limerick (-3,375 ), and Mayo (-3,246 ). However you do not need statistics to know something is rotten in rural Ireland. Just take a drive from Galway to Roscommon – passing through small towns such as Ahascragh, Ballyforan, Dysart, Four Roads, Athleague - and you will see the decay. Or look at the Irish Examiner from August 4, read the headline, 'Census 2016 shows increase in deserted villages in rural Ireland', and you equally get the message.
The minutes of a recent County Galway Joint Policing Committee also tells a story: cutbacks – courtesy of the EU - have meant that 16 rural stations, staffed part-time by the Gardaí, have no Garda car to use! Garda Chief Superintendent Tom Curley told the meeting: "Cars are the most basic tools that we need in a county the size of Galway."
Back in 2014 the Government set up the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA ) under Pat Spillane. Not too long ago he hit out at the “very slow progress” in the implementation of its recommendations. It all sounds very familiar. The 1974 Kenny Report, which would have ended land speculation by developers and builders, had the same fate. Even the Irish Greens, who had called for its implementation on the eve of joining government, dropped the proposal when leader John Gormley became Minister for the Environment.
Insider also recalls the much-heralded 1980 Telesis Report (named after the US consultancy firm that carried it out ). It proposed State investment in indigenous industries to help the Irish economy grow on a solid, sustainable, level. That report too is gathering dust.
After February’s election things could have been very different. Rural Ireland could have had a united voice in the Dáil with 12 TDs and automatic speaking rights to raise rural concerns. But that chance was thrown away by Fitzmaurice, Seán Canney, Noel Grealish, Denis Naughten, et al. Instead from far off Norway, Arthur Reynolds, the old sea-dog and editor of The Skipper, writes to the papers: “Now the EU concessions to us are drying up, but the intruders fish on.”
Indeed, the Republic is now a net contributor to the EU budget, so the CAP payouts to farmers are just our recycled taxes coming back from Brussels. Meanwhile, the real jobs that could be created by an Irish fishing industry are prohibited by the EU’s fish quotas. They favour the large foreign fishing fleets. And the development of the natural deep-sea harbour at Ros á Mhíl is shortsightedly ignored by the usual suspects.
The demand for an improved N59 road between Galway city and Connemara could become a catalyst for demands for greater investment in rural areas. Not simply the re-opening of post offices and Garda stations, but the creation of real local government, where the local authorities not only have power, but have the finance to help resuscitate rural Ireland.