Rural Equality Bill 2021: First Stage

I move:

That leave be granted to introduce a Bill entitled an Act to provide that regard be had by public bodies to the desirability of reducing socio-economic and other inequalities suffered by those in rural Ireland, to provide for the carrying out of rural impact assessments in respect of measures that are likely to have a significant socio-economic impact or effect on rural Ireland and to provide for related matters.

I am delighted to introduce this Bill as a Member who is lucky enough to live in rural County Roscommon and to represent rural towns and villages right across counties Roscommon and Galway. The Bill is especially timely as, certainly for the first time in my lifetime, we are seeing a move from urban to rural. People are leaving cities and moving to rural areas. With that, we need to ensure that investment and services are put in place to support those people moving into rural areas and to sustain those communities. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity post Covid to get this right and that means a united approach with all key stakeholders on board to make this happen. The Bill is about fair play and equality for rural areas. It would ensure that all public bodies, including every Department, have due regard for rural areas by obliging them to detail and produce rural impact assessments on their measures and actions.

No Member of this House can deny that rural Ireland has been disadvantaged for many decades. Many towns and villages never recovered from the 2008 crash. Services were taken away, businesses were closed, jobs were lost and never replaced and towns became derelict. The consequences of this neglect were highlighted by the EU Commission when it downgraded the west and north-west region from a developed region to a region in transition because, when it comes to investment in education, jobs and infrastructure, the region is at the bottom of the table. That is not good enough. It is not something that has happened by accident. The region is in decline and that decline is set to worsen. However, there has never been a better opportunity to address it. Co-financing now available from Europe means that the EU will contribute €60 for every €100 we can pump into the west and north-west region. I ask for support from all parties. This is an opportunity for us all to show support for rural towns and villages. The Bill is just one step along the way.

I wish to support and add my voice to the Bill. Sinn Féin tabled a similar Bill in the previous Dáil but it was voted down by the two main parties - Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. As my colleague, Deputy Kerrane, stated, this is an opportunity to recognise that rural Ireland is developing and changing. That is not happening because of Government policy. Rather, it is happening in spite of it. We need a co-ordinated approach to ensure we get a level of investment in place across rural Ireland such that it can be made sustainable for people to live and prosper there. In the context of every aspect of Government policy, the agents of Government and the measures they put in place, we need a measure of the impact they will have on rural Ireland and those living in rural areas.

School buses are a prime example in this regard. Children who live in rural Ireland cannot get the same access to transport to go to school, which is the most basic need and right they have as citizens. I recently dealt with a situation involving people who were looking for health services in rural Ireland. A woman who had moved to Dublin six months beforehand told me how her son had looked for child and adolescent mental health services, CAMHS. She said that if her child had got sick while she was living in County Leitrim, she would not have been able to get services for him.

That is one of the issues we have across all parts of rural Ireland. We do not have the services in place to the same level. It is a mishmash of services and investment. Investment is key to keeping our regions going and to getting people back living in rural Ireland. I implore the Government to support this Bill and the principle of ensuring that everything is measured and rural Ireland gets a fair crack of the whip.

I congratulate Deputy Kerrane on this Bill. Rural Ireland is largely seen as an afterthought when it comes to investment but it is first in line when it comes to the withdrawal of services. People in my constituency are sick and tired of being left without and told it is in their own interests. The communities of Carrick-on-Suir and Roscrea in Tipperary have been told that long-stay convalescent beds are being torn away from their communities and their loved ones are to be looked after further from those localities at a time when the ability to travel around our county is virtually non-existent. Those people are left without care in their communities or the available public transport to deal with the relocation of services. This has happened at the same time as the X12 Expressway service has been discontinued. A three-month guarantee is in place for the X8 Expressway route. It is also the case that train timetables are not designed for the needs of towns in rural Ireland.

Our young people are also left isolated and for years have been denied the services they need to get on with their lives. An example of that is the fact that Jigsaw has again been delayed in Tipperary. Despite our continued appeals, all citizens in every community in rural Ireland have been continually ignored.

I again thank Deputy Kerrane for introducing this Bill which seeks to address the unequal treatment of rural Ireland. Rural Ireland must no longer be left behind and we ask the House to support the Bill.

Is the Bill being opposed?

Question put and agreed to.

Since this is a Private Members' Bill, Second Stage must, under Standing Orders, be taken in Private Members' time.

I move: "That the Bill be taken in Private Members' time."

Question put and agreed to.