"What kind of rural society do we want?" asks Bishop
Last months census figures citing the return of emigration brought back with it a feeling of dread for a return to those days which we had thought were behind us. Not many people realise that 2002, was when the population of Co. Leitrim grew for the very first time since the recording of the census started in 1841. After over a century and a half of persistent emigration, 2002, for so many reasons this was the turning point for this region. Then, after so long, there was hope for a future, a West of Ireland contributing to the national economy, a region that retains its people and welcomes home those who left.
For decades, emigration ravaged the rural communities and small towns of the West of Ireland. It separated families and broke down the delicate fabric of communities and life. It left older people alone, lonely, with declining state support services, as the remaining population was not of a scale to justify economically many essential services. Of the younger people uprooted, many struggled to create new lives without the support structures of family and community. Many of those who emigrated were among the brightest and best educated, went on to be referred to as the brain drain. The declining services, the peripheral location and the loss of its talent left the West unattractive to investors. By the 90’s, struggling with the changes in agriculture, few of the small farms in the West were viable and incomes fell. As the decades passed so too did the disparity between the West and the rest of the country, as the West slipped further behind and the people kept leaving.
In 1991, we as the Western Bishops held a major conference ‘Developing the West Together’ where we highlighted the increasing tendency towards centralisation and concentration not only in industrial policy but also in social services. We felt we needed to facilitate a process which would lead to constructive changes in the lives of the people of the West of Ireland because of the growing sense of fatalism at that time. We spoke then of the opportunities which could only be grasped if appropriate policies were put in place.
We knew then for the West to be an attractive area for investment, it was going to take significant investment in infrastructure and exploitation of the region’s strengths. John Hume addressed that conference in 1991 and called for the West of Ireland to be identified as a flagship for other peripheral areas within Europe. Following this conference in 1991, the Western Development Commission was set up in 1997 by Government to ensure the development of the region economically and socially.
2002 was a turning point. I saw the positive changes in parishes throughout my own diocese of Elphin, which were symbolic of hope for the future generations of the families of the West of Ireland. In 2002, a national school in Croghan, in rural Roscommon had 42 pupils. This year there are 96 pupils. These young people re-populating rural parishes bring joy, hope, families, economic and social activity and services to all, young and old. We can only hope now that they never know the pain and devastation of emigration.
Observing over the years, the loss of its people has been the saddest part of the history of the West of Ireland. In these times when jobs are being lost, I have begun to witness people leaving again in search of work. Among them are once again our young people, our graduates, and those with experience who we need now more than ever to be part of our economic recovery. Unless the West gets the special intervention it needs, there is a very real danger that emigration will once again be allowed to take over. I hear talk of City Regions and phrases like ‘smart people like smart cities’. The West of Ireland is different, it is made of up of many small towns and rural areas. North of Galway we don’t have big cities so I don’t relate to the concept of ‘City Regions’. This centralised thinking and associated national polices will not accelerate the development of the West in the way in which it will retain its people, attract others and grow enterprise exploiting its natural strengths. The recent Bord Snip report has recommended the discontinuation of the Western Development Commission along with cuts or elimination of many services to rural areas. The West of Ireland is a region of stunning natural beauty but without its people, it is a region devastated.
Ireland is currently experiencing a very serious financial crisis with government revenues falling, increasing unemployment, and the threat of increased social deprivation. In trying to meet these challenges, the Government must undertake to protect the vulnerable whilst simultaneously creating the conditions for economic progress. Underlying all of these daunting challenges, there has to be a vision of where we want our society to be. Do we want a society where the gravitational pull will be to the city regions from rural Ireland or do we want a society where the natural attributes of the rural landscape are exploited in a sustainable manner to offer the prospect of more Balanced Regional Development. These are the questions that we as a society must address. The answers to these questions will form the basis of government policy. In the absence of this debate, there is a serious danger that the very fabric of our society may be undermined by a thinking that might not necessarily be aligned to the ideals of our rural communities that represent 40% of the national population or in the case of the Western Region, 70% of its population.
Note to Editors:
The Council for the West is a voluntary, independent, non-political body which monitors and reports on the socio-economic state of the West and acts as a lobby group promoting the development of the West. The Council for the West was set up by the Western Bishops and has successfully campaigned for retention of Objective 1 Status for the region. It continues to campaign for balanced regional development and highlights issues of major concern for the region.
Chairman: Sean Hannick: 087 2564824
Administrator: Caroline Wilson, Tel: 096 32975 / email: email@example.com
Spokesperson: Bishop Jones: 087 2206657