In this article I argue that rural Ireland needs a whole new movement a whole new mechanism by which ordinary people can work in solidarity to build society and a sustainable economy. We must challenge the belief that rural society faces inevitable decline, begin to imagine how it could be very different and put the means in place to achieve that for ourselves.
Implacable resistance to change
Back in 1997 I returned from emigration to the UK to take up a position as CEO of the Western Development Commission, a body set up as a statutory agency to come up with policies and investment for change in that particular part of rural Ireland. I found an implacable resistance to change on the part of senior Government officials. In Government politicians there was and is a very bad habit of not really challenging the thinking of the country’s most senior civil servants, economists and policy makers. In my 4.5 year time with the Commission we devised literally 100s of carefully argued, technically robust arguments for rural development, inward investment in small towns, tourism promotion, broadband roll out, agriculture and food processing, indigenous enterprise, infrastructure and so on. It was extremely difficult to get any Government Department to change even modestly and all this at a time when the country had a wealth of finances to respond.
The implacable resistance to change by our public policy makers has continued. In the past ten years there has been an 18% increase in agency assisted employment in Dublin while there has been an 18% drop in agency assisted employment in the Western Region. I acknowledge here the data and analysis of the Western Development Commission which continues to carry out excellent analysis focussed on its region of operation.
In this year of 2016 it is fitting to take the long lens and look back 100 years. In 100 years the population of Leinster and mainly Dublin more than doubled (+116%) while the population of the mainly rural Western Region fell by 11%. A predominantly rural county such as Leitrim saw its population halved in 100 years, falling by 50%. The fundamental measure of success is people’s genuine feeling of wellbeing. The Irish State had many wins but fundamentally it has failed rural Ireland over the 100 years. I think that the courageous people 100 years ago imagined something different. Those who founded the co-operative movement, the great rural organisations from the GAA to Muintir na Tíre to the ICA all imagined a better Ireland, saw the barriers to overcoming it and set up vehicles for positive action and progress that survive over 100 years later.
We face a similar challenge now to put new means in place to take powerful, positive action.
Thwarting imagination and initiative
One profound shortcoming we have in this country now is a failure of imagination in public policy. Society has lost some of the founding spirit that created the great co-operative and rural society building organisations in the early part of the 1900s. Mark Twain said “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus” There are now huge barriers getting in the way of imagination in rural policy in Ireland.
I will give three practical examples:
Barriers to local development
I took a close look at some Mayo towns in the past year. In some small towns there the percentage of closed premises varied from 25% to as high as 50%. At a time when we need every incentive to enable local people to come up with fresh ideas for local development we have a throttling of local initiative. Local Leader companies have been subsumed under local government control, their bureaucracy doubled and their budgets halved.
Barriers to town renewal
Another example comes from the Credit union movement. The potential of this brilliant community movement could be vastly expanded and instead we see constraints being put on their ability to work to their full potential. Whole trenches of finances could be routed through Credit Unions, enabling them to become social investors on a grand scale, taking part in development of new co-operatives and trusts revitalising rural Ireland. However, recent Central Bank controls on their activity mean that their ability to invest in social enterprise is greatly hampered as any spare credit is used to shore up the large corporate banks, the very entities that are cutting back on services across rural Ireland.
It is important to see what is happening here. The very bulwarks that build community and positive civic action are being eroded with no adequate replacement.
Barriers to community education
A third example of this the library service. Ireland has one of the lowest rates of informal education outside of schools in Europe. Ireland’s lifelong learning rate, at 7.2% in quarter 4 2015, is less than half the benchmark set by the EU under its Education & Training framework which aims to have 15% of adults aged 25-64 engaging in lifelong learning by 2021 . Libraries are a key source of such education and such education is at the root of civic action and strong democracies. And yet this month (September 2016) I attended a rally of local people campaigning to reverse the proposed closure of Sligo Library
Action speaks louder than words – but not often enough
We need to re-imagine this country, re-imagine how we can expand libraries, expand credit unions, expand towns, and achieve double digit growth in indigenous industry such as food. I know of places in other countries where towns have taken it upon themselves to create full employment, adequate housing for everyone and almost zero levels of crime. I have previously quoted the case of a town called Marinaleda in Spain which has done just that, creating industries and jobs based on local agriculture and doing so with its own resources.
In my own region we have a co-operative movement, named Aurivo to-day that started in the early 1900s and continues to-day with a turnover of €250m. This is what investment in indigenous natural resources brings.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us needing to take action. In my time with the Western Development Commission I learned how futile it is to believe that Government Departments will heed good advice from the grassroots. When I left the Western Commission and eventually joined Knock Airport and I saw how more productive our efforts can be when you have a more independent vehicle to work with. Flights, business, jobs, turnover were all quadrupled, progress happened. One of the reasons for that was that the airport was owed by an independent social trust. It was not hamstrung by officialdom and was able to get on and take action to grow.
As Mark Twain said action speaks louder than words but not often enough. How do we get action, like the action at Knock more often?
It seems that in this country we write reports but don’t implement them. Our system is petrified of change. There is a mistaken belief that maybe if we cling to old formulas things will gradually get better. There is a century of evidence that old formulas haven’t worked. Loyalty to petrified opinion never broke a chain, never freed a human soul.
Vehicles for action
We have to find our own way. When we look back 100 years ago it was not so much the fight against closure but the creation of new forms of social action and social economy that made the big difference such as for example in the co-operative movement. I am currently working on a number of projects whereby we will model how we do things differently in the growing number of areas where the public services are failing. That is one thing we can do as citizens. We can form more powerful groups organised around progressive thinking and action in almost any area of public policy from homelessness, to town and rural regeneration to unemployment. We need organisations that have the membership, legal power and backing that can make them powerful agents of grassroots change.
We need to hack into a system that is not working and take our own action. Let me give you one example, one recommendation.
An Example: Shouting START for a small town
I referred earlier to the road blocks thrown in the way of local development. We need to do something urgently about revitalising our dying rural towns. No amount of half-hearted urban renewal schemes will do this; no amount of small grants for new foot paths and tidying up shop fronts will do this. We need an altogether different approach.
Let us take a town currently in decline, one perhaps you are familiar with. It is only busy on one or two days a week perhaps on mart day or on a Friday shopping evening. Now let us imagine that we have created in this formerly dying town a thriving centre in its busiest place. It is now busy every day and lots of evenings. People can come there to have a drink, have a coffee, do business with a credit union, be entertained by a performance of the local drama group, get advice on anything, network for business, meet others around the area and many other services while tourists can drop in get information and want to hang around in this lively quarter.
To achieve this I recommend the creation of a Social Trust whose task in a particular town is to transform it at all levels socially, culturally economically. It would incorporate the services of credit unions and other community initiatives in one place together with privately run services such as cafes. I recommend the creation of one vibrant town centre meeting place owned and controlled by resourceful leaders in social, cultural and economic fields locally.
We need to start to create whole new ways in other fields too where people are enabled to work far more effectively together, to work as teams with far greater energy and focus on growing society and the jobs that come with that.
Time to start modelling new ways
The system is broken and so it is time start modelling new ways in which we provide public services and rebuild our country.
In the financial scandals that too often happen in this country we hear of all the clever “Special Purpose Vehicles” created to hide the money of fraudsters. It is time we began, in the form of social Trusts” to create special purpose vehicles for citizens, that enable ordinary people to rebuild Ireland.
It is time we regained some of the founding spirit that led to the great co-operative movement, a movement that not just created jobs but built society. Let us not be petrified of change, let us embrace the sort of action that breaks the spiral chain of rural decline and the poverty of thinking and courage that is stifling this country and let us begin to build from the grassroots again a rural Ireland worthy of our potential.