Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 12 May 1988

Vol. 119 No. 11

Adjournment Matter. - Integrated Rural Development.

Since we joined the EC in 1973 it would be fair to say that we have been reasonably well treated as regards the allocation of regional funds. However, the internal distribution of those funds has been neither fair nor equitable. It can be said that certain areas of the country did fairly well while others were extremely badly treated. I refer in particular to the north west.

It may be argued that the west in general has been designated as a deprived area, and has been allocated higher headage and forestry grants than other regions. However, on closer examination of the facts reveal that larger grants have meant that people have merely kept their heads above water and their lot has not been improved to any appreciable extent. The reason for this is clear. Lack of political will and bureaucratic centralisation have been the culprits. EC moneys have been retained in central funds and were doled out, not on the grounds of need and equity, but on the basis of ministerial and political clout. They were not used to alleviate deprivation but to purchase votes. This may be unpalatable but it must be said. However, at least there would appear to be light at the end of the tunnel.

Under the terms of the Programme for National Recovery, the Government are committed to introducing integrated rural development pilot schemes. This is not a new development in the EC, as the Community has already funded various IRD schemes in other European areas. The scheme nearest to us and most comparable to our conditions was introduced in West Lothian in Scotland.

First, we must define integrated rural development. The main tenets of IRD involve the granting of aid to all structures in a rural community — agriculture, industry, tourism, infrastructure and services. The key word is "integrated". This will avoid the old piecemeal approach. Decisions on the programme to be followed will come from within the areas themselves. Decision-making administration will be decentralised leaving the operation of the scheme in the hands of those on the ground. Co-ordination of policy making will mean that all initiatives will be harmonised, cohesively and mutually re-enforcing. The key word here is "cohesion". Central to all decisions will be the global problems of the region. Selectivity of integration will not be tolerated.

The question now arises as to which areas will be selected for the pilot scheme. There is a wide choice and every area will be able to put up a strong case for itself. I suppose it is inevitable that I shall make a case for the north west region, or failing that for an entire county, Leitrim. I know I will be immediately accused of parochialism but if fighting for a county which has been shamefully treated for many years results in my being called parochial then I will gladly accept the tag. In any case, I am sure the House will see that my case is justified.

County Leitrim fits into every set of criteria laid down by the EC for inclusion in the Delors Plan. The county is 93 per cent rural and 7 per cent urban. Its youth population is being eroded daily because of emigration, as there is no alternative. There is a grave danger that there may not be a new viable generation and we would end up with an almost totally ageing and dependent population. There are regional disparities within the county also. The better land, the larger population and the greater number of industries are in the south. In the north of the county the population is disappearing at an alarming rate.

When one contemplates disintegration of an entire county one's first reaction is incomprehension, then disbelief and finally anger. For those of us who know the situation and are daily confronted with the bald statistics the final stage of anger is not difficult to understand. Perhaps the most galling fact of all is that the situation can be reversed by a simple act of political will. Leitrim's population of 27,000 people, the diversity of small scale activity in the county and the fact that there is a disincentive geographically makes it ideal for this scheme, it is small enough to be easily monitored, yet large and diverse enough to be a useful test of the philosophy of integrated development. The county is blessed with wonderful and committed county development team. Also, almost every parish has a development organisation funded by people who, despite fighting odds, still fight, hope and plan.

I refer to two recent reports. The 1987 report of An Foras Talúntais states that: The core problem in rural areas is a high dependence on farming and a lack of non-farm occupational opportunities. I also refer to the Irish Farmers' Association report of January 1988 entitled "Proposals for Re-assessment and Reforms of Policy on Regional Development". The report calls for: (1) the establishment of a regional authority; and (2) financial autonomy and direct access to funds. Both of these authoritative and comprehensive reports make an unanswerable case. My only difference with them would be on the question of scale at this stage. A region might be a bit unwieldy for a pilot scheme and hence my proposal for an area of manageable proportions and unquestionable need, namely, Leitrim.

I referred earlier to the West Lothian region of Scotland as an example of the IRD at work on a pilot basis. Reading the interim report on their progress, one is immediately struck by a similarity to the north west and areas like Leitrim. Their aims are: the provision of increased employment by attracting new industry; the encouragement of indigenous potential; the development of tourism industry; the updating of the infrastructure; and the removal of all forms of environmental dereliction, thereby making their area more attractive to tourists and industry. Above all, they will provide an integrated and competent marketing structure for the entire region. One might easily be talking of an area like County Leitrim. That is the case I would like to make for the inclusion of Leitrim in a pilot scheme for the integrated development programme.

I congratulate Senator Reynolds on the very strong case he has made for the inclusion of County Leitrim in the pilot programme for integrated rural development. It would please me greatly if it were possible to accept his plea for the inclusion of the entire county in the pilot programme but, unfortunately, that is not possible.

The proposals for the pilot programme were drawn up in consultation with the EC Commission. One vital criterion which was laid down was the size of the pilot areas which participate in the pilot programme. The target population was 5,000, or thereabouts, which for many areas corresponds broadly with administrative rural districts.

The selection process involved the elimination of major urban areas and their hinterlands. The programme is genuinely geared to the problems of rural development and the selection process reflected this objective. That done, the aim of the selection process was to come up with as wide a representative mixture of rural areas as possible. We were limited in our choice to a relatively small number of areas. The funding arrangement discussed with the EC was based on around ten such sub-regions. While some of the areas chosen span the border between two counties, being limited to this number has meant that half the counties of Ireland, with perfectly valid claims for a pilot area, could not be included in this particular programme. I am extremely pleased, however, that Manorhamilton district in County Leitrim has been included as that county has particular problems so forcefully presented by the Senator.

The Manorhamilton area is a reasonably good example of the economic and social difficulties that obtain in County Leitrim. The experiences gained from the operation of the pilot programme in the Manorhamilton area will serve as a very good example for the needs of County Leitrim as a whole. It may be reassuring for Senator Reynolds to know that the Government have placed a definitive time limit of two years on this pilot study. It is the intention that the experience gained from this programme be applied on a nationwide basis so that all rural areas can be facilitated to improve their economic and social developments. I imagine the experience gained in Manorhamilton will be a key input in future developments in the Leitrim area as, indeed, will the experience gained in the other pilot areas that have been selected around the country.

When the IRD is applicable nationwide, it is obviously intended that the experience gained from the operation of the pilot schemes which have been selected will form the basis for the thrust and for the approach of the application of the integrated rural development programme. In the context of the social and economic difficulties that apply in rural Ireland, the introduction of this programme will be of very considerable benefit. Quite obviously it will take some time to get the co-ordination that will be so necessary for the different groupings to get together. In time they will, and it will herald a bright future for rural Ireland as a whole.

The Seanad adjourned at 2.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 17 May 1988.