I was delighted to contribute to the Statements on Rural and Community Development with Minister Michael Ring in the Seanad.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Is deas é a fheiceál. I am delighted that he has responsibility for this portfolio. I have a lot of respect for the Minister. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he gives everything 100%, and God knows we need that for rural Ireland. As mentioned by Senator Gallagher, the Minister is from Westport, which is in rural Ireland. Westport has been one of the leading lights in regard to small towns in Ireland from a tourism perspective and the people working together. Two and two makes a lot more than four in Westport and in terms of what the Minister has achieved. This year’s Entrepreneur of the Year is from Westport and he will be representing Ireland in the World Entrepreneur of the Year next May, another significant achievement on which I congratulate the Minister.
I am very positive about rural Ireland, not least because the Minister understands what it is about. That said, I have a number of concerns. The Minister faces significant challenges. In regard to employment, in the past seven years, 27% of households in rural Ireland have lost more than one person to emigration. The percentage in this regard for urban Ireland is less than half that rate. Between 2016 and 2011, rural unemployment increased by 192%. As Senator Gallagher stated, we have a two-tiered economy. The Minister effectively acknowledged this in his opening statement. If anybody is going to do anything to re-align that trend, it will be the Minister, Deputy Ring, and he will have my support and, I am sure, the support of everybody else in this House, in doing so.
In regard to small and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs, four out of every five, or 80%, of all of the SMEs that closed between 2006 and 2011 were in rural Ireland. There have been lots of plans and lots of strategies, and I note the new strategy contains 227 key objectives. From my perspective, which I admit is a limited perspective, there are a couple of fundamental issues. First, there is no joined-up thinking. This was referenced seven or eight years ago in a CEDRA report. Also, various Departments appear to be working in a silo effect. The Minister mentioned in his opening remarks that he will make a sincere effort to bring about joined-up thinking and to rid us of this silo effect. If we do what we always did, we will get what we will always got: a two-tier society in rural Ireland.
In my view, we need effective balanced investment and by this I mean a greater emphasis on the return to communities and Ireland Inc. from investment. For example, IDA Ireland spends four times, or 400%, more of its allocation on job creation than the amount given to Údarás na Gaeltachta, which directly and indirectly, through its support to communities and businesses in the Gaeltachta area, employs 7,500 people. Another key area referred to, including by the Minister, is housing. We need to address the housing crisis. The housing problem in Dublin and some of the other major cities in Ireland has been well highlighted but there are also significant housing problems in rural Ireland. People are finding it almost impossible to get planning permission on sites owned by their parents, grandparents and other relatives. There is need for focus on how people from rural Ireland can be supported to build a house or extend the house in which they live. People have to be number one. I accept there is a need for balance between people and the environment but this issue needs to be challenged. I know that the Minister has the passion, ability and motivation to do that.
I mentioned jobs and one of our greatest successes is the Wild Atlantic Way, in which I know the Minister was actively involved a number of years ago. It was his inspiration, and the inspiration of others, that helped create the Wild Atlantic Way. It works well in the west of Ireland from a tourism perspective, but what about the rest of rural Ireland? We need to look at what type of industries fit particular regions and at how we can develop clusters in those regions. In this regard, we need similar initiatives to the Wild Atlantic Way, which, as I said, the Minister was instrumental in developing and creating. What works in Connemara will not necessarily work in Monaghan, Donegal or Clare.
The Minister mentioned innovation hubs. Last January, I brought together in the AV Room representatives of four innovation hubs, including Ludgate, the purpose of which was to show Deputies and Senators what innovation can achieve such that they would be encouraged to work with Ludgate, Portershed and others on how to go about creating hubs in places like Westport, Castleblaney, Ennis and so on. We can be leaders in our communities to help support the Minister in creating a better rural Ireland. I hope to repeat that exercise next January or February, for which I will be seeking support across the House in terms of attendance and so on. In 2016, some 44% of all the start-ups in Ireland were in Dublin. This is the trend continually despite the fact that 40% of the population is in rural Ireland.
The Minister mentioned broadband, in respect of which there are two factors at play, availability, and connected to that, speed. In my own county, Galway, 53% of the population has broadband. In Dublin, 99% of the population has it. Galway is the third largest city in Ireland. There is a lot of work to be done in this area and it needs the motivation, drive and initiative that I know the Minister, Deputy Ring, has and we will support him in that regard. Other speakers have spoken about schools. In regard to nursing homes, the National Treatment Purchase Fund, NTPF, rate for a nursing home in Dublin is in the region of €1,300 but the NTPF rate for Mayo, which is where the Minister comes from, is in the region of €800. I cannot understand why there is an approximately 70% gap in this regard. This is one of the issues on which we need joined-up thinking.
I wholeheartedly support the Minister and am absolutely delighted that he is in this role because I am passionate about it. If any person can achieve results, he will.