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Adjournment Debate. - Population Decline.

Tuesday, 26 November 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 558 No. 1

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Dr. Cowley: Information on Jerry Cowley Zoom on Jerry Cowley I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important matter on the Adjournment. I doubt that I will raise many matters in this House that are more important to County Mayo than this serious situation. An area of County Mayo, which is twice as large as County Dublin but which has a population smaller than that of County Leitrim, is dying. The area to which I refer constitutes 40% of County Mayo, but contains less than 20% of the county's population. The depopulation trend is set to continue and it is inevitable that it will do so if something drastic is not done. If the current level of decline continues, north and west Mayo, from Killala to Newport, will be entirely deserted by the end of the century. I thank Dr. Seamus Caulfield, a well respected and much admired community activist, archaeologist and instigator and promoter of the visitor centre and research unit at the Céide Fields in Ballycastle for his work in this area. His analysis of the preliminary results of the 2002 census are most revealing, but they are also troubling.

In light of the positive results of the census at national, provincial, regional and county level, it was shattering for me to discover that the part of the country facing the biggest crisis is in County Mayo. It is true that many rural electoral divisions show a decline, but they are interspersed with electoral divisions showing growth. Parts of north-west Cork, north Kerry, north Roscommon, south-west Clare and south-west Donegal fall into this category, but nothing compares to the almost total decline recorded in north and west Mayo. Some 39 of 42 electoral districts north of a line from south of Killala to south of Newport show a decline. Increases in population are recorded in only three districts in this area: Glencastle, which increased by eight, Newport West, which includes St. Brendan's village in Mulranny, which increased by 67, and Corraun Achill, which increased by 25. The other 39 districts record a total loss of 1,209 people and the net loss between 1996 to 2002, therefore, is 1,109 people. The population of this part of County Mayo has decreased from 22,765 to 21,656.

[141]Two distinct County Mayos are emerging – a south and east Mayo, which recorded an increase in population of over 7,000 since 1996 and a north and west Mayo, the population of which has declined by over 1,100 in the same time. Action is urgently needed. Balanced regional development has been promised as part of the national development plan, but the figures emerging give the lie to any such notion. The development of the south and east of Ireland is being copper-fastened, but the west is suffering.

After generations of party politics in County Mayo, we do not have the road, rail, telecommunications and broadband infrastructure we need. If broken promises were infrastructure, County Mayo would have all the infrastructure it needs. It would be a competitive area, rather than having third class roads and no broadband technology. There is no mobile telephone reception and a lack of ISDN lines in parts of my county. The western investment fund has been cut by an incredible 68%. The CLÁR programme, administered by the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, which caters for 16 counties, has been cut by 25% from an inadequate €12 million. Funding for the REP scheme has decreased by 19%. There has been an increase in rural destocking and thousands of sheep farmers have been driven off the land. Young people do not have the chance to build a house; they have no future.

Politicians from certain parties are still shouting about what they will do for County Mayo. A typical example of this was found last week when the Dáil debated the abolition of the first-time house buyer's grant. A Fianna Fáil Deputy, who said that he felt the decision was unfair, voted with the Government when the acid test came. For generations public representatives have been saying they will do one thing but doing another. The centralised form of government favoured by party politicians means that the west will suffer.

Regardless of whether the country has money or not, the west of Ireland receives very little, but I am appealing for change. I am asking for north-west Mayo to benefit from special designation for tax purposes, in a similar scheme to that in the Shannon region. As Dr. Caulfield has said, no other part of the State comes as close to having a case for development aid as the north and west of County Mayo. I ask the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, to extend the town renewal scheme to Killala, Crossmolina and other towns in my county. The Government has a public service obligation to give County Mayo a gas pipeline and high capacity broadband telecommunications. How can the people of my constituency continue to live there if these needs are not met? County Mayo should be a competitive area and, to that end, the Government should consider a Shannon-type scheme for the north and west of the county. [142] If such a move is not made, the people of the region have no future.

Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Éamon Ó Cuív): Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Teachta as ucht na deise a thabhairt dom labhairt ar an ábhar seo. Dar ndóigh, táimíd ag caint mar gheall ar cheantair i gContae Maigh Eo thiar thuaidh, Gaeltacht Iorras agus Acla san áireamh. Is ceantair iad seo a bhfuil eolas agam orthu go pearsanta agus, go deimhin, tá mé ag dul síos ann Dé hAoine seo chugainn. Tá áthas orm go bhfuil figiúirí Mhaigh Eo thuas, 5,904 san iomlán. Is meadú suntasach é sin i gcomhthéacs stair na himirce sa gcondae. Is cúis imní dom, áfach, an difir atá le feiceáil idir an cheantar thoir-theas, atá ag fás, agus an ceantar thiar-thuaidh, atá ag dul siar agus a thit 1,109. Tá impleachtaí móra i gceist do thodhchaí an cheantair sin má leanann an patrún seo ar aghaidh.

The Deputy is aware that on setting up CLÁR, I highlighted rural depopulation as the main challenge facing rural Ireland. At the time many people wanted me to use other indices which were totally inappropriate for rural Ireland. I am delighted that depopulation is now seen as a national yardstick for rural development. However, population trends will take time to turn around. It will not happen overnight. Even in counties such as Leitrim, where Carrick-on-Shannon is growing, we still face major challenges in the rural areas. Population trends will not change dramatically over a short period of years. I am aware of the preliminary results from the 2002 census which reports a population decline of 1,109 in the north-west Mayo area, including the Gaeltacht areas of Erris and Achill. Last week I was working on these figures in connection with the CLÁR programme and depopulation in the CLÁR areas is static. North Mayo is worse – its population is declining.

This is not an isolated phenomenon and many rural areas, particularly in the west of Ireland, are trying to come to grips with similar problems. There is a need for clearly focused policies and actions in order to sustain viable and vibrant rural communities. Opportunity of employment and the provision of high quality infrastructure, both physical and social, are the critical factors for maintaining sustainable communities. The employment difficulties experienced in recent years in Erris, especially the closure of the Warner factory, are common knowledge and this was the reason I established the Belmullet task force in 2000. It reported to me in February 2001 and a plan of action was put in place on the basis of its 37 recommendations. An ongoing review of developments in the area since then is almost complete and indicates that good progress has been made, particularly in regard to infrastructural improvements and employment creation.

[143]A sum of more than €4 million has been provided for road improvements in north-west Mayo through a variety of funding sources including Mayo County Council, the Department of the Environment and Local Government, CLÁR and the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Significant road improvements have also been carried out to roads in the Achill area under my Department's scéim na mbóithre stráitéiseacha. It is a key objective of my Department to continue to invest in roads and other improvements over the coming years. Plans for a major extension to Blacksod pier are well advanced and will be dealt with as quickly as possible. The CLÁR programme I introduced two years ago has had a very positive impact in County Mayo generally. To date, a total of €3.76 million has been approved for various schemes in north-west Mayo, including roads, water, village enhancement, islands and telecommunications.

Comhar lorrais Teoranta has implemented the Leader programme in the north-west Mayo Gaeltacht for a number of years and has recently been allocated €1.88 million under the current programme. In addition, the Meitheal Mhaigh Eo partnership has been allocated €3.3 million to assist in the implementation of a number of actions across the three sub-measures of the local development social inclusion programme. This programme, together with CLÁR and Leader, is now part of the remit of my Department and this will result in more integrated delivery mechanisms.

In terms of employment creation, Údarás na Gaeltachta has had considerable success. Following a major refurbishment of the former Warner premises, a new venture in the ICT sector with the potential to create 200 jobs has been established, with 29 people already employed in phase one of the project. Overall, in the Erris and Achill area, Údarás na Gaeltachta achieved a modest increase in employment in Údarás-assisted industries between 1999 and 2001, from 554 to 561 people. The interagency working group on employment creation in the Gaeltacht was established by my predecessor, Deputy Coughlan, last May to make recommendations on the policy initiatives required to provide employment opportunities in the Gaeltacht.

Many things are happening. The Deputy referred specifically to the gas pipeline. As the Deputy knows, we are putting in the ring in Belmullet and this is the key to broadband. The provision of gas is crucial. There have been hold-ups in relation to planning. People, including locals, had objections they felt were valid and we had to allow the democratic process to take its course. The Government is committed to providing gas to north Mayo, but we can only do that when the planning problems are cleared out of [144] the way. They are not in the hands of the Government.


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