In my role as Minister for Rural and Community Development I am absolutely clear on the importance of ensuring that rural communities can access the services they need so that they remain vibrant places in which to live and work.
As the Deputy is aware, the Minister for Finance has responsibility for banking.
However, I am acutely aware of the value placed by rural communities on services such as those provided by banks. Ensuring access to services for rural communities is an issue that cuts across almost all Government Departments. It also relates to services provided by the private sector.
The Deputy will no doubt appreciate that the provision of services by banks, including the location of branches, is a commercial decision for the boards and management of those institutions.
That said, I expect that any bank closing branches will do everything that it can to mitigate the impacts of the branch closures on local communities, including the use of technology and the use of alternative means of service delivery to address the potential impacts on individuals and communities.
I have had direct and constructive engagement on these matters with the Bank of Ireland which has recently taken the operational decision to close 88 branches nationwide in response to the changing nature of banking in this country. In this particular case, I have been given reassurance that measures are being taken to avoid a service gap emerging, including through the partnership Bank of Ireland has secured with An Post for cash services as well as the plans to retain ATM facilities in those places where such facilities currently exist. It is important that rural communities do not lose access to critical services in rural areas, so I welcome innovative and proactive alternatives such as these being put in place.
Rural and regional development is at the heart of the Programme for Government. My Department is currently finalising an ambitious new five year rural development policy. This policy will recognise that strong rural economies and communities are vital in supporting and safeguarding the sustainability of vibrant towns and villages across the country. It also recognises that rural areas are critical to our national economic, social and environmental well-being.
Significant investment in rural Ireland is taking place across Government and my Department will continue to support communities across rural Ireland through a range of funding schemes and supports.
Budget 2021 has allocated a total of €341 million to my Department. Much of this funding will support the economic and social development of rural areas under my Department’s Rural Development, Regional Affairs and Islands Programme.
Funding is available for rural areas in my Department through: the €1 billion allocated to the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund, the CLÁR Programme, the Community Enhancement Programme, the Town and Village Renewal Scheme and funding for our Public Libraries.
Funding is also delivered through the Community Services Programme, LEADER Programme and the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme where supports are tailored to the specific needs of individual areas.