In Andalucía, in southern Spain, there is a village called Marinaleda with a population of 2,700 people. It has virtually no crime, full employment and everyone can build their house regardless of income level. The surrounding Andalucía region has 37 per cent unemployment and 670,000 empty houses due to bank foreclosures.
The Marinaleda project began in the 1990s when the local town managed to buy 1,200 hectares of land, formed a co-operative, concentrated on employment, developed intensive crops for production and then created factories to package, process and can the produce. Out of this grew practices for fair and equal employment, housing and other social policies. The key to this was leadership, a local Mayor, brave enough to break the tethers of national bureaucracy and cut through needless administration to deliver what local people needed.
Marinaleda might be Mallow, Ballyhaunis, Clones, Roscrea, a rural town in a farming neighbourhood in an economy that has failed the people who live there.
Like all examples from abroad it is never a simple question of copying the practices here simply because of big differences in circumstances and history. However, every town and its rural hinterland anywhere in Ireland can create a society where everyone who wants to can participate fully in the economic, social and cultural life of the area.
Why? Because we share the exact same human spirit to survive, innovate, create and reach out to our neighbour.
Creative spirit in rural towns
Some years ago I watched a sheer farce in Tubbercurry, County Sligo. A young man trying to get off with a girl in a remote holiday cottage mistakenly ended up getting her wealthy father locked to a pole for tethering cows, thus ruining any chance he had. It was an amateur dramatic production in St Brigid’s Community Hall in the town as part of the packed-out weeklong Western Drama Festival.
If we need any reminder of the wealth of creative spirit in Irish rural towns and villages we need look no further than towns such as Tubbercurry. Events like the Drama Festival, the long-established Credit Union and the many promotional events for the town, are all clear evidence of the wealth of creative spirit in countless small towns throughout Ireland.
But such creative talent seems tethered to a pole and has not been able to shape the destinies of local towns in recent years.
Making room for idealism
The political system itself is mostly a graveyard for the idealism of those who enter it with integrity, good ideas and leadership potential. We have to change all that, change it from the ground up until we create communities that nurture good leadership and create the basis of true democracy. Positive change comes from the messy, creative, unpredictable efforts of people freer to shape the society they live in.
Governments publicise announcements that will change statistics and tempt voters but wil not communities. Announcement declare that rural communities will receive €220m in grants, a strategic investment fund of €7.1 billion will be rolled out, NAMA will invest €600m every year until 2020, rural broadband will be rolled out to everywhere by 2020, the IDA will target the attraction of 80,000 jobs and a 30 per cent increase in roll-out for each region over the next five years.
Will these targets transform the lives of the people of Killala, Longford, Ballyjamesduff and the areas that surround them? No. Why? Because we have no real empowerment of collective effort at local or regional level, no targets aimed at transforming the things that matter locally ands no system that encourages the emergence of true social leaders. We have to change all that.
Old values, new questions
Marinaleda touched the heart of millions of people. Its Mayor is quoted as saying: “We need to rethink our values, the consumer society, the value we place on money, selfishness and individualism. Marinaleda is a small example, and we want this experience to extend throughout the world.”
I am particularly interested Ireland’s rural areas not just because I was born in rural Leitrim but because they represent the soul and image of Ireland; they define what we are as a country. They are not some exotic outreach from Dublin, they represent Ireland’s cultural, economic and natural diversity.
Can the issues of decline, social and economic breakdown and isolation facing rural areas be resolved without facing up to radical change at national level?
Can we talk of independent rural communities in a state that is over reliant on multi-nationals, not in control of its own exchange rate that is wedded to economies outside our key trading partners (UK and USA)?
Can we trust or not trust the permanent civil and public service leadership at secretary general, principal officer and chief executive level to represent our interests as long as they remain largely unaccountable to the people they serve.
Are we happy that our key strategic natural resources of oil and gas, energy, water, telecommunications and waste are owned by corporations we have little direct control over and who are not being asked to honour their privileged position with obligations to assist in the construction of a fair and equal society?
Do we believe that we can build coherent successful and balanced communities in rural areas if decision-making across all its services from health, safety, social care, enterprise, building, planning finance and infrastructure are completely fragmented and run by people unknown and unaccountable to most people that live there?
Have we lost something? Is it desirable or necessary to fill the vacuum left by the decline in traditional religions with a wider, more inclusive approach to nurturing the spirit of people in all its diversity?
Can we really create a new and fair political system if the people in this country at the grassroots have not set about fundamentally questioning the values we have, the goals we have as a nation and the type of leaders we desire to get us there.
How do we transform our rural communities?
These are some of the questions I explore in these blogs.