A new start is within the grasp of Rural Ireland

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a renewed focus on the issues affecting our nation that can no longer be ignored; healthcare, housing, education, food security, partition and the climate crisis.

Putting balanced regional development and unprecedented investment in infrastructure and services in rural Ireland will deliver rural solutions to national problems. During this pandemic, focus has been put on the fact that 40% of the population live in the Dublin area and 44% work there. This has not happened by accident. It has been driven by decades of government policies mitigating against rural Ireland. Only a fool would consider this imbalance to be sustainable or even safe. 

We must halt a government investment policy driven solely by population numbers. This practice has led us to the severe regional imbalance we experience in all areas of our lives. The deep disparities in our healthcare set ups for hospitals and patients alike lay bare some of the dysfunctions and inequalities in our health care system. The trickle-down economics and the policy of ‘a rising tide will lift all boats’ is, I believe, a lazy and unsustainable approach which does an injustice to rural and city dwellers alike.

• Galway University Hospital

This is no more so evident than in counties like Mayo along the Western seaboard. Former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, described Galway University Hospital (GUH) as ‘not fit for purpose’. Yet, there is a reluctance on behalf of Government to build a new hospital in the grounds of Merlin Park to meet the healthcare of the region. It just doesn’t seem that important when it’s in the West.

I have known people who have spent the final weeks of their lives sitting on chairs for hours in GUH waiting for vital treatment for aggressive cancers. The only way they had a hope of getting a bed was to sit in the Emergency Department until one eventually became available.

• Mayo University Hospital 

Covid-19 has highlighted the lack of isolation facilities available in Mayo University Hospital (MUH). Mayo has one of the highest rates of infection in the country per head of population with clusters being identified in MUH and some Nursing Homes. Eight years ago we were promised a modular unit to alleviate overcrowding in the Emergency Department. We are rich on announcements but poor on delivery.

We now have a chance to reshape and bring balance to the whole of our Island. Partition is not just relevant to North and South. The divide between economic development east and west is detrimental to all citizens regardless of where they live. It impacts on impossibly high class sizes in schools in Dublin as much as it impacts on schools closing in rural areas. We all lose out.

Equality of access to broadband and telecommunications to facilitate remote working and learning opens up the possibility of being able to run a business or enjoy a progressive career for a global company while living and raising children in a rural environment. High speed broadband and mobile phone coverage needs to take on a new urgency.

• The Strategic Development Zone at Knock Airport must be advanced

Targeting investment in services, supports, education and social enterprises for children and adults with autism and those living with disabilities is not only morally right it makes absolute economic sense. Society can no longer afford to forgo the exceptional skills and talents that never get realised just because Governments fail to make the right choices. 

The EU financial support pledged, the suspension of the Stability & Growth Pact, the temporary relaxing of state aid rules and the agri-sector supports have to be used to invigorate the regions with the highest COVID-19 exposure ratios as identified by the regional assemblies.

• We have opportunities to bring the Western Rail Corridor to fruition and upgrade existing rail services

The economic recovery must include fast tracking of critical physical and telecommunications infrastructure. We must actively use our natural resources and environment to drive economic growth in tourism, farming and fishing. We must ensure that we pro-actively pursue all monetary opportunities as well as using all fiscal tools to encourage industry and job creation.

The long promised Strategic Development Zone at Knock Airport must be advanced as a matter of urgency and the airport itself must be enabled to reach its full potential as a catalyst for growth and connectivity. The EU Commission’s proposal to make 2021 the ‘EU Year of Rail’ presents us with opportunities to bring the Western Rail Corridor to fruition and upgrade existing rail services.

The vision of the Atlantic Economic Corridor (AEC) is to “Become the best location in the world for people to create their own future”. We have the strategies, the natural resources, the human capital, the spirit of entrepreneurship to develop a low carbon high value economy in the nine counties of the AEC – Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Roscommon, Mayo, Galway, Clare, Limerick and Kerry. All we need is targeted multi-annual investment. 

The difference this time is that Sinn Féin has legislators in all of these counties. We represent the progressive change voted for in the recent election. We are individually and collectively aware of our responsibility to work collaboratively, intelligently and progressively to deliver for all who call Ireland home regardless of where they live.