The Constant Questioning On Future Of Rural Ireland Must Stop

Mairead McGuinness359 views

CAP reform an opportunity to address land use issue – Mairead McGuinness Tells Leitrim Summer School

The constant questioning about the future of rural Ireland needs to stop and the country needs to look beyond the here and now and plan for the big societal challenges that impact the whole of our island, Mairead McGuinness MEP and first Vice-President of the European Parliament told the Seán Mac Diarmada Summer School in Kiltyclogher, Co. Leitrim on Saturday.

Speaking to the theme, Can Rural Ireland Survive? Rural Ireland’s Place in Europe she said: “While there are real issues today such as broadband connectivity – there are plans to address these. We can be critical of the rate of progress, but it is a certainty that broadband connectivity will reach all parts of rural Ireland and rural Europe – just as electricity did in the past.”

The MEP said there are many other challenges that we have yet to tackle and resolve – including climate change and environmental pressures – and a land use policy which is consistent with both.

“Ireland has one of the highest proportions of people living in rural areas among EU states, with 41pc of the population living in rural areas compared with an average of 27pc in the EU.

“Societies around the world are becoming more urban with 2007 the turning point when city dwellers formed the majority of the global population for the first time in history.

“The world’s population in urban areas is expected to increase from 55pc in 2018 to 60pc in 2030.

“Even with these global trends, it is safe to say that rural Ireland will survive – the question is will it thrive and how can we ensure that it does.

  • Big data will be an issue for society to deal with, including rural societies.
  • How we use information will shape businesses and farms of the future.
  • Autonomous cars are coming – what role will they play in rural Ireland?
  • E-health may address some of the challenges of serving rural communities.
  • Energy efficient housing built for our life cycle needs will address issues of climate, comfort and home living in our older years – the research is already taking place with colleges like the Dundalk Institute of Technology leading the way.
  • The changing role of religion and churches in society must also be taken into account
  • Increasing housing and other costs in Dublin is impacting on where people live.

“EU policies, including research and innovation, agriculture, climate and environment will continue to shape our rural regions and we must use these policies and funding to add resilience to our rural regions,” she said.

“We are at the start of a big debate about agriculture policy post 2020. It may well be a time to discuss in more detail our land use policy. Dairy expansion has been possible with the abolition of milk quotas – but the expansion comes with concerns about emissions from agriculture.

“In areas like Leitrim there are debates about how best the landscape can contribute to a vibrant region.

“There are concerns about the extent of non-farmer investment in forestry, with farmers wishing to expand unable to compete because of the attraction of forestry.”

In 2016 in Leitrim, 55pc of the area under trees is planted by farmers and in the non-farmer category, family members or recently retired farmers, are included. Over €2.4 million in forest premiums was paid in 2016 to 374 farmers.

Nationally, some 0.5pc of national planting is in institutional hands – with 95pc in farm/family hands, resulting in the vast bulk of forestry payments paid to and remaining in Rural Ireland.

£Yet the fear is that institutions, like pension funds, are buying up and forcing our family farms.  Unless we address those fears, the divisions in communities and society about forestry will deepen.

“There are important debates about the type of trees being planted and where they are being planted.”

Agriculture and land use

“Changes to the Common Agriculture Policy are expected post 2020. This is an opportunity to look at the diversity and range of our farming systems – from dairy enterprises, to drystock production to low intensive agriculture in regions such as Leitrim and forestry.”

However, preceding that debate is a battle for the agriculture budget in the post Brexit era.

“Already cuts to the single farm payment of 4pc are proposed with deeper cuts to rural development of 15pc. Rural development payments are important and the Government will need to address the shortfall so that these schemes can continue.

“The distribution of payments between member states and between farmers in member states will intensify.

“A growing awareness of the ‘public goods value’ of specific regions from an environmental perspective needs to be taken into account when we look at how people who farm in these regions are supported.

“These debates are necessary even if they are difficult,” she said.

In addition, as societies urbanise there is a strong desire for people to link back to rural places. The development of greenways for walkers and cyclists is part of that evolution. These developments open up our countryside and bring fresh opportunities. Yet, they present challenges because they bring about change.

Turning to Brexit, Ms McGuinness said rural Ireland and the border region is alarmed at the slow progress of the negotiations, not least on the border issue.

“The latest paper from the UK on a proposed temporary customs arrangement is  insufficient and incomplete but it is an important step in the negotiations. We expect the UK to follow up with further details on regulatory compliance.

“The slow progress on the withdrawal agreement gives rise to concerns about how and when a new trading partnership will be agreed with the UK. We need that future to protect our access to the UK market for our food, but we also need to prepare for some change,” she warned.