thehighhorse
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thehighhorse

It’s a Long Long Way from Clare to Wherever

Image by KWHacbc from Pixabay

The Irish Times journalist, Lara Marlowe, began reporting on Lebanon in the 1980s and, though deployed elsewhere in the meantime — currently in Paris, she continues to monitor events there.

Shortly after the recent massive explosion in the port of Beirut, she reflected on one aspect of the Lebanese “system” that has fostered corruption in that country and probably contributed at least indirectly to the explosion.

France ruled Lebanon under a League of Nations Mandate from 1923 until 1943. Its parting gift, the so-called National Pact, was in reality a curse.

Under the National Pact, high-level offices in Lebanon are attributed by religious affiliation. This has created fierce loyalty to family and community, but no sense of the common good. Institutionalised sectarianism breeds corruption, because the Lebanese turn to leaders of their own groups to settle disputes and to obtain permits, scholarships and employment.

Citizens look not to the government but to their za’im or chieftains for services the state ought to provide. The system infects everything. In May, the Lebanese learned that their president’s son-in-law demanded a “Christian” power plant near his home town of Batroun, to balance “Sunni” and “Shia” power plants in other regions. The Siemens company said the “Christian” plant was not needed. Lebanon has spent US$40 billion on electrification since the 1975–1990 civil war, and still cannot provide continuous current

A rumour in Beirut says the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that exploded on Tuesday were stored in unsafe conditions in Beirut port, while corrupt officials haggled with potential clients over a sale. I have no evidence this is true, but the fact that it is believed is significant.

Ireland suffers from a version of this kind of “virus”, possibly less malign, but certainly as real. The sense of the common good or national interest is diluted, occasionally supplanted, by a strong sense of the priority of local affiliation, whether to a region or a more specific place within the country.

There is a deep-rooted public perception that the distribution of resources and opportunities from a highly centralised government system is determined less by disinterested adjudication of the national interest than by a self-interested competitive struggle between local chieftains seated around the Cabinet table. If running the country is nominally Ministers’ first duty, delivering for their locality certainly runs it close.

The “controversy” following the appointment of the current Cabinet and the alleged deprivation of Ministerial representation west of the Shannon is evidence of that perception. Appreciation of having a Government Minister within hail is less a matter of pride than practicality. If you don’t have somebody in the room when the rations are being doled out, you will be lucky to be left even the crumbs.

Ambiguity over whether government is about identifying and implementing a national interest or reconciling local ones facilitates “keeping up with the Jones’s” benchmarking of the “status” of towns and regions. If Limerick has a university, then surely Waterford is “entitled” to one too? Hence the proliferation of Regional Technical Colleges as an additional, but less expensive, layer of third level institutions sitting under or alongside (depending on your point of view) what are already too many universities. And the preservation of peat fuelled power stations long after they made economic or environmental sense.

But probably the root cause of the aggressive protection and pursuit of local interests is the sense that the “natural” flow of resources and opportunities is centripetal rather than centrifugal; towards rather than away from the “centre”, from almost everywhere else to the east and especially to Dublin and its hinterland. So it is important for “everywhere else” to have strong ministerial representation to establish some level of contraflow. Dublin, as such, doesn’t need Ministers at all, though it gets a lot of them. In this government, urban Cork South Central hit the jackpot with no less than three, including the Taoiseach.

“Balanced Regional Development” is one of 12 headline “missions” specified in the current Programme for Government. There is unstated but implied recognition that this “mission” is less about preserving a situation that is currently in balance but under threat, than about redressing an imbalance that is already established and intensifying; that some regions and places are leading and others are lagging.

The opening paragraph of the plan for regional development is bravely unequivocal in its endorsement of motherhood and apple pie.

We have a vision of a vibrant, inclusive and thriving Ireland where no one is left behind. As the economy recovers from COVID-19, the Government will enact measures to revitalise and reboot the economy across our cities, towns, villages and rural areas. The Government is committed to ensuring equal opportunities for all our citizens, regardless of where they live.

Among the specific commitments (although not terribly specific) was this:

We believe progressive actions should be taken to support livelihoods and enhance the rural environment. We will ensure our regional towns and villages act as hubs of sustainable development to serve a thriving hinterland.

One Saturday in June of last year, The Irish Times dedicated its Weekend supplement to the “Challenges facing rural Ireland” with a particular focus on the circumstances of small towns. The series of articles was divided into two categories; first some general analyses of the problems and the scope for alleviating them; second, snapshots of specific small towns across the country including Kilrush in my own county of Clare and Gort, just over the Galway border with Clare, both with populations below 3,000.

Our intuitive feeling of how such towns should be is as vibrant, free-standing, self-sustaining, economically autonomous centres of commercial, administrative, social and cultural exchange serving a largely agricultural hinterland and, more recently, supported by some level of industry, mainly small scale of local origin or, if they are very lucky, a multi-national — all these features combining to provide a acceptable cradle to grave existence to all born and reared within their shadows. These are towns without sufficient “critical mass” to support either a significant hospital or third level educational facility.

The unsurprising overall conclusion of The Irish Times’ analysts was that most small towns are ailing if not dying. They can no longer take prosperity, survival even, for granted, but are going to have work hard to remain afloat.

The best single word explanation is “mobility”.

First, for those who continue to live within the town or its environs, they are no longer captive as their forebears were to product and service providers within the town itself. The ubiquity of cars, more than the quality of public transport, has enabled us to forage further and wider, mainly to larger towns. Internet access has intensified the trend by allowing us to hunt from our armchair and wait for the stuff to come to us from all over the world.

Second, the global trend pre-COVID was of people preferring to settle in larger urban centres. In Ireland’s case, this is reflected in the gravitational pull towards larger cities and their environs, especially Dublin, but also to places abroad.

Third, the hinterland of small towns; the “land”, supports an ever diminishing number of viable livelihoods anyway, so sometimes migration is a simple necessity. More often, migration is a choice rather than an imperative, for a “job” that fits skills and experience and in a location that aligns on lifestyle aspirations rather than just putting bread on the table.

The rapid expansion of the proportion of Ireland’s youth going through third level education has been good for them, probably also good for Ireland as a whole, possibly even beneficial overall to rural Ireland including its small towns, but with severe downsides as well.

A specific example. My son completed his degree in Economics in UCD this year. We live near the small village of Quin in East Clare within easy reach of Ennis, within reasonable commuting distance from Limerick but more awkward commuting range of Galway. Relevant careers are thin on the ground in either of those “cities”, and there are certainly none to be found in Ennis or Quin. If we were living in the extremities of West Clare; Kilrush, Kilkee or Miltown Malbay, commuting daily to anywhere relevant would be well nigh impossible.

Within Ireland, Dublin is the only reliably prolific hunting ground. The odds are that he will develop his career and live his life either in the capital or outside Ireland altogether.

We are educating most of our children to fly their local nest and, unlike the swallows, many will make their own nests elsewhere. They might prefer, in principle, to roost in the place of their birth, but how they live their lives is increasingly prioritised over where. Overall quality of life trumps the homing instinct.

The results we all know. Small towns are increasingly denuded of shops and services, as custom migrates to larger towns and on-line and, because of a sparser rural hinterland to support them, with a consequent reduction in local economic “health”, the visible symptoms of ill-health being the high rates of vacancy and dilapidation and the general “sleepiness” that accompanies lower street footfall. The older age profile resulting from youth migration heightens the impression of malaise.

In The Irish Times supplement last year, one expert described government supports to counter decline as like sprinkling a watering can on a hot day, evaporating before it penetrates the ground, transactional and sporadic rather than sustained and strategic. But the state can’t provide generic silver bullet “solutions”, like the proverbial IDA advance factory of old, only soothing, palliative words in programmes for government.

The newspaper’s correspondents identified three thin strands of hope, not universal or even typical, but widespread enough to offer some example.

First, complacency is evaporating. Locals have woken up to the need to save their own towns rather than rely on government to save them or on the presumption of their permanence.

Second, “traditional” businesses are going, but new ones are springing up, even if there aren’t enough “tourists” to go round and towns can sustain only so many cafés.

Third and most important, broadband, accessible in most towns now, offers more scope for living remotely from one’s workplace. And that brings us back to present day realities entirely unforeseen 14 months ago. I spent a few days in Dublin last week and the city is still a muted ghost town, the lines of shiny, new, large office buildings along both Liffey quays and the so-called Silicon Docks area largely dark and empty, as they have been for several months.

That is bad news now for the various businesses and vendors who depend on those offices being open and fully populated and will likely be bad news later for the rental expectations of their landlord owners. I suspect that it is not such bad news today for many of the workers who normally occupy them or later for their employers who can expect their rents to fall at the next reset.

It is precisely because large urban centres are already seen as a generally more congenial professional “habitat” that the economic costs and hassle factors associated with establishing a personal “habitat” in or around them have also mounted. Demand for a decent urban lifestyle is greater than the availability of the jigsaw pieces needed to provide it.

For desk-based workers, COVID has undermined the notion that satisfactory performance and productivity in one’s job can be assured only by herding staff together at the same time every working day under the same urban-based roof. It has proved possible to loosen, in some cases uncouple altogether, the link between personal accountability and physical presence, without the world even stuttering in its spin.

The pandemic has given rural Ireland a chance to fight back. There is now more optionality to think of aligning one’s workspace on one’s desired personal space rather than having to do things the other way around. Broadband as ubiquitous and reliable as electricity is crucial, but small towns will need to scrub up and brush up well to draw the best dates. First up will be best dressed.

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Daire O'Criodain

Daire O'Criodain

Former diplomat and aviation finance executive, active now mainly in not-for-profit sector. Living in rural Clare. Weekly posts on Wednesdays.