What 40 communities feel

At a time when many of the institutions we depend on have been shown to be vacuous, self-serving clubs I reserve my highest respect for the genuineness, selflessness and courage of voluntary community activists in Ireland.

Over this past two years and since leaving my job leading the management at Ireland West Airport Knock I have returned to my role in coaching local communities in the mainly rural west of Ireland. I would like to briefly share here what I have learned from interacting with about 40 different communities in the past three years.

Community volunteers are over-stretched and exhausted

The level of commitment to community action in the rural west of Ireland is at epic proportions.  It has not been unusual for me to find over 12 different voluntary organisations operating in an area with a population of less than 500 people. This tells me that people are trying every way possible to maintain the services that any community of people aspire to, youth services, sport, culture, elder care, entertainment and so on.  What I also find is that these volunteers are over stretched and exhausted, providing services, applying for funding and managing an increasingly complex set of rules and regulations for voluntary bodies.

Communities are now being asked to shoulder a sizable proportion of the running costs of a whole swathe of projects which have normally been run by government: health services where community staff are not paid, tourism development where information points are run by volunteers, language training for refugees, financial services for hard pressed families provided by Credit Union volunteers, rural bus services managed free of charge by local people and so. Health and welfare, economic, educational, financial, transport and other services are being increasingly provided at local rural level as more and more public and privately run services are being withdrawn.

The lottery that is competitive funding

The increasing number of calls to apply for competitive funding for various schemes makes it look like communities are awash with opportunities to develop. Very often the time given to apply is so short that bids often do not do justice to the merits of the community project in question and funding is not guaranteed, given the competitive nature of many of the calls.

Meanwhile key rural services such as post offices continue to be withdrawn and lack of jobs and services are causing continued rural depopulation. The decline in the population of rural hinterlands in counties with population losses of as much as 30% in the 30 years up to the Census 2016. Dramatic as they are, the numbers still do not convey the cultural and social dereliction and abandonment that is happening these areas, where whole communities are disappearing. Small towns though not losing population to the same degree have nonetheless undergone a staggering decline in vitality and commerce in the last 10 years and this trend is set to continue.

There is a futility about the person who, having lost sight of his goal redoubles his efforts.  Communities can equally engage in lots of activities without sight of a shared overall goal. There is a danger that communities in the west of Ireland are being drawn into a “project  application fest” without any overall vision or intent from central government to really address the question –  How do we revitalise rural Ireland? The absence of such a clear vision for rural Ireland leaves yet another vacuum which local communities increasingly try to address. Local communities deserve to be treated as far more than luck chancers in a national lottery for funding.

Regaining community independence

How do communities themselves develop the vision so lacking in public policy but so vital to their very existence? How do they make sure they don’t just win projects but lose the vital building blocks of their own community – population, jobs, culture and so on?

In a series of blogs which will follow for the next few weeks I will address these issues. To be continued