Dáil speech by Willie Penrose TD on the establisment of the Department of Community and Rural Affairs
” I am delighted to be here to speak on behalf of the Labour Party on the establishment of this important portfolio. Unlike others, I will not play party political games. My party and I believe that rather than playing party political games around the establishment of this important Department, we should focus on having it established quam celerrime and ensure the maximum number of functions fall under its remit, especially those pertinent to the lives and economy of rural Ireland. I congratulate and support Deputy Ring’s appointment as Minister for rural affairs primarily. I am delighted that the rural part of this has primacy and is prominent in the title of the Ministry. I give my unequivocal support because it is important that issues of rural concern are given the priority status they deserve because they have been overlooked for a long time, although not by politicians.
“During the 1990s, I lodged a significant document with the then Deputy Séamus Pattison in Kilkenny, whom the Minister will know well. I spoke about the centrality of post offices and the CAP. The media has been so lazy in announcing the promises of some people that one would think that rural issues had only been brought to the attention of this House in the past five years. They have been known here for at least the past 25 years that I have been a Member, and the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know that parties have always emphasised issues relevant to rural Ireland. I come from a very rural area and I would not be allowed to forget where I come from if I did not articulate and espouse the importance of rural issues and the people who live in my area.
“I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Labour Party regarding the establishment of this important Ministry which deals particularly with issues of rural preservation, regeneration and revitalisation. No one will know more about this than the Minister himself. I recall when he was elected to the House in 1994 or 1995.
“That is what got him elected. The people did not forget that the Minister spoke for them and espoused their cause. Rural-proofing of decisions would ensure rural Ireland was not sidelined or overlooked. All we are looking for is our just desserts. We are not looking for any more than that. It is an important principle to be treated equitably and fairly, and all we seek is the fair play to which we are entitled.
“The cause is not one to which I have come in recent times but one which has underlined the Labour Party philosophy which I developed and articulated during the 1990s. It is our party policy. As a party we are unequivocal and passionate about ensuring economic growth in every part of Ireland in order that families can continue to live, work and raise their children in rural areas and play a central and important role in their communities. We need a real and effective charter for rural Ireland that clearly identifies key issues to better support rural areas. There must be active participation in rural development initiatives which have been developed by communities, not by bureaucrats. They are the people whom the Minister has to rule out. He Minister can develop these things himself. He does not need any consultant to tell him what is wrong with rural Ireland.
“That said, we need not talk about what is wrong. There are huge opportunities in rural Ireland. Let us be positive about where we live. We cannot always be using the béal bocht. We must say that we are here and are looking for that to which we are justly entitled. When we get it, we will show the rest of them a clean pair of heels, as they say down our way. Let us get on with it. We do not want solutions that are generalised, idealistic or theoretical coming from the mouths of bureaucrats. The Minister must cut them out at the pass and, if he does so, he will do a good job.
“It has to be done using a bottom-up approach to support economic and community development and with stronger action to keep family farms and rural enterprises alive. We have to address structural issues such as the age and gender profile of the agricultural sector and the rural community generally. Agriculture is not the only active industry in rural Ireland but it is the backbone of the rural economy and we have to ensure better co-ordination between local enterprise offices and local authorities to support local enterprise projects and minimise the red tape that is strangling initiatives. We made proposals in this regard during the election campaign but nobody wanted to discuss them. We have had our fill of glossy reports and we want real, effective and substantial resources. We do not want to receive a pittance, which amounts to a few bob being thrown at long-standing issues while rural communities die.
“There has been significant depopulation and we face significant challenges in rural areas, including inadequate infrastructure, about which the Minister will be well aware. The N4 is an important route running from Bunbrosna through Edgeworthstown and Newtownforbes to the north west. He knows better than anybody that this route has to be developed to ensure the people of Donegal, Sligo and the north west get a fair bite of the cherry. The N5 is equally important and the Minister fought hard for the road improvements around Strokestown and so on but inadequate infrastructure elsewhere on the road has to be addressed. There are threats to the rural fabric, including shops, pubs, petrol stations, retail, newsagents, shops and the post office. I have referred previously to what we can do regarding post offices by allocating the provision of banking services to them. However, I will never join a march or a protest over rural shops or anything else because the first thing rural people do is they pass the rural shop and they do not go into it. They hive off to Mullingar or Longford to the large shops such as Aldi and forget about the rural shops. It is all right at 10 p.m. to go to them when someone needs a pint of milk and none of the large shops is open. Rural people can save rural Ireland if they shop in rural Ireland and spend in rural Ireland, send their children to schools in rural Ireland and attend the local churches and support their local clubs. We have it in our own power to do that and all we need is the Minister to give us additional resources to give us a push along the way. We are not here with a begging bowl mentality or with the béal bocht. We are working in co-operation and collectively with the Minister to get this through. There are threats to rural schools because of the decline in population which I see in my own area of Ballynacargy. We used to have a huge young population but that has declined. Sports teams are also threatened. In addition, there is a threat to GP services – 40% of the GPs in County Longford will reach retirement age in the next seven years, and 30% in County Westmeath. The problem is trying to get young GPs to replace them. A proper GP contract will have to be brought forward, which recognises the costs associated with providing these services in rural Ireland because, after all, we also suffer from poor health in rural Ireland; it is not just an urban Ireland phenomenon.
“If the Minister grabs the ball, accepts honestly the position of rural Ireland and its deficits, secures additional resources and realises this requires a whole-of-government approach, he will find that rural people will rise to the challenge and opportunities will manifest themselves. Let us contribute to a narrative of positivity and inculcate a sense that we are in this with him. He will not be left on his own; we will be there. The greatest curse for rural dwellers is the level and nature of bureaucracy. The dead hand is always around to impede people who get off their behinds to do something. Stupid and ineffective regulations that might well apply to a large enterprise and undertaking are often applied with greater diligence to a small shop or a two-person enterprise that is trying to establish itself and get off the ground. It is easy for environmental health officers to drop by a local rural shop and not like the colour of the paint or something. That has to stop. It is hard for businesses to survive. Rather than applying the full panoply of planning laws to young entrepreneurs and innovators, we should establish a system of licensing even for a time-limited period in order that someone could pay a licence fee of €500 instead of €8,000 in planning costs to see how he or she gets on.
“The tax system, which is created by politicians, although probably dreamt up by bureaucrats, totally disregards the energy and efforts of people in establishing a business. There should be a recognition of how important SMEs are to rural Ireland where they provide 300,000 jobs. The only recognition they have is that they correctly pay their taxes, as they should, but they are effectively tax collectors on behalf of the State. Surely the 12.5% corporation tax rate could be applied to start-ups and small business for three or four years. A sunset clause could be applied in order that the rate would not apply forever. The rate should be available to small businesses. If it is good enough for FDI and the big announcements, it has to be good enough for Johnny in Ballynacargy or Milltown, or Rathowen, Edgeworthstown, Legan, Abbeyshrule or Kinnegad. Let us be innovative and give them incentives. This is the way to do it.
“Banking annoys me. Rural people are being crucified by the banks and they are being disregarded. Something has to be done about the way they are treating small businesses. They are basically now an inconvenience and nuisance. The banks are axing face-to-face counter services. All people will get is the option of self-service machines to lodge and withdraw cash. Some banks might provide a morning service but everything is being done to disadvantage individuals and small businesses trying to go about their business by effectively running cash-free banks. I raised the need to implement the commitment in the programme for Government to investigate the establishment of a public banking network in Ireland with the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs and the Minister when he was Minister of State at that Department and I hope the establishment of such a network, which would have a special significance for rural Ireland, will fall within his remit. I appreciate he is familiar with this important concept and the offer of free invaluable external expertise and resources to help such a network get off the ground. The Labour Party and I are wholeheartedly in favour of this concept, which fits in neatly with our philosophy. Banks such as the Sparkassen savings banks in Germany are the backbone of funding SMEs. They proved their worth during the recession when, unlike other banks, they kept credit flowing to entrepreneurs. A number of positive developments for a public bank system in this State have been identified. It would be not for profit and be restricted to lending in the regional economy; it would fill the gap following the demise of the building societies and enterprises formerly served by the ACC and ICC; both the post offices and credit unions could earn additional income from selling public bank services across the counter; and it would provide a suitable vehicle for the European Investment Bank to lend funds to SMEs.
“As Deputy Tóibín said, the BMW region has suffered from a slower recovery, infrastructural deficits and the withdrawal of banks. I recall 30 years ago many bank and building society branches playing an important role in community development and community life in general. Branches were staffed by people rooted in the community who knew its strengths and weaknesses, knew the customers and their needs and concerns and had a stake in a local, vibrant economy. With the demise of building societies and the withdrawal of bank branches and human intelligence through the axing of counter services, the knowledge of business in the BMW region has been replaced with algorithms and remote banking with no interest or stake in the community. A dedicated public bank network would fill this void and would support enterprise and jobs in the regions. That is what we need. It would ensure a bank and service committed to the local community, ensuring SMEs and the agricultural sector would have a dependable source of credit and communities would benefit as the not-for-profit model would not only support enterprises and job creation but the surplus would be reinvested in worthy regional projects. The Minister could take this on board. He will face lots of opposition with more people telling him why he should not do it than do it but I know him from old and the more these people oppose him, the better he likes it. I wish him well because he must oppose them.
“Another issue that will affect rural Ireland is the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic Trade Agreement, CETA. The Labour Party is very much in favour of free trade and our positivity towards it has been expounded by our party leader, Deputy Howlin, in the House. Trade leads to commerce, industrial activity, jobs, incomes and prosperity but we must be vigilant in overseeing and scrutinising trade agreements at the macro level. I do not have sufficient time to highlight my concerns about CETA and how it has been advanced to this stage where the negotiations have been completed and the text of the agreement fixed and finalised without a proper debate in the Oireachtas before the Government agreed to the conclusion of the negotiations last October on which services or sectors we wish to protect in Ireland from the effects of the agreement.
“It is not only politicians who are raising these concerns. The view is shared by organisations as diverse as the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association and the Environmental Pillar. NGOs, business organisations and a range of civil society organisations came together last week in a major press conference to highlight their opposition to the CETA deal and their concerns. Their opposition was not to trade. That is an important point. However, there was firm and united opposition to the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement as the Canadian Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau, arrived.
“Obviously, there were great photo shoots with the Taoiseach and everything else, but the Taoiseach needs to be wary. That is why I do not want this to land on top of the Minister, Deputy Ring, some day. He might wonder why no one did anything or why no one shouted stop. A colleague from the Minister’s area, John Healy, used to say that no one shouted stop. I believe that in the Minister we have someone in this area who has fine vocal cords. If John Healy were here now, he would say we have someone whom we believe will shout stop. That is why I am such a strong advocate and supporter of the Minister personally, and I always will be.
“I want to highlight two points in the context of the debate on issues for rural Ireland. The Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Kyne, will be aware of these because he is from an agricultural background and has degrees and so on. He is well-up on this area. Only 5% of Canadian farmers produce nearly 50% of total Canadian food output. That is the scale of operator that Irish farmers will be competing against. In 2015, a Teagasc report estimated that 63% of Irish farms are already not economically viable. Of course, without the CAP payments they would not be.
“Another major worry is Brexit. An amount of between €10 billion and €12 billion will be lost from the CAP budget. This corresponds to perhaps a 5% to 10% impact. That is going to be significant and it is another issue that has to be considered in this area.
“There will be an increase in competition from these massive industrial-scale Canadian operations. That is what concerns me. That will always be to the detriment of the small farm holder or anyone else. Other EU trade agreements are being negotiated. This will have a devastating impact on small Irish farmers in particular. Consequently, it will have a knock-on effect on the fabric of rural society in Ireland. The shops, pubs and communities of rural Ireland are held together by these farms and these rural projects. I have already alluded to this.
“Pressure for intensification will alter the character of the landscape and the patchwork system of fields that is so important to biodiversity. It will affect the hundreds of thousands of jobs reliant directly and indirectly on our landscape through our tourism industry. This will apply nowhere more than the Minister’s area of Westport. The Minister and the area have had great success with the cycleway and everything else. Well done to the Minister in that regard. Westport is a vibrant thriving town, and long may it continue. I have visited it and I intend to visit it again over the summer. In fairness, people who criticise the Minister can only look at that.
“I only wish we had something similar, although we have a greenway in Mullingar that runs from the Meath border through to Longford. It is excellent. I remember some people were not so positive. I remember when the then Minister, Deputy Kelly, gave us €950,000 to bring it from Coolnahay right through to the Longford border. The amount of people who utilise it is significant. There should be some grants to help people establish little tea houses and so on along the canal. Waterways Ireland should look at that. The body should help, assist and grant aid people to establish such facilities. I note Clare and Paddy Crinnigan do a great job in Coolnahay of providing teas and a stop-off there. They are excellent. They have Christmas lighting and so on and people come from hundreds of miles around to look at it. Well done to them. George Lloyd was a great help to them as well. It is critical to support and supplement the livelihood of those in rural Ireland in the tourism industry.
“The effect of the financial exposure from the CETA investment court system will be significant. The system allows for businesses to sue governments outside our courts for damages for vast amounts. Earlier this year, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation admitted it had not even done a cost-benefit analysis on this. It did not do the analysis before the Government supported and signed the agreement at the European Council last October.
“We have not even got over one bailout. Now we are going to be hit by something that I believe has the potential to be even bigger. When the Exchequer gets squeezed, we know how rural Ireland suffers because it is the poor relation. We want to ensure the pot we are entitled to is not squeezed further. Whatever about adding to the pot, we do not want the Exchequer to take the view that, once a squeeze comes, it should grab the money from CEDRA or the Leader programme or reduce the associated funding. We do not want another blank cheque for big business that the citizens of this State will have to foot the bill for. That is what concerns me about CETA.
“The loss of sovereignty is a problem. Authority will pass from the Irish courts to an arbitration court outside the Irish jurisdiction for disputes between governments and mulitnationals. At a recent meeting in the European Parliament office in Dublin, a senior counsel and Queen’s counsel who is a constitutional lawyer stated that, under the Constitution, the Government does not have authority to transfer power from the Irish courts to an arbitration court outside the country. Furthermore, he said that to do so would contravene a number of articles of the Constitution.
“Throughout Europe there is widespread condemnation of the investment court system. Canadian subsidiaries of US-headquartered mulitnationals will be able to use CETA to sue European governments. There was a debate in the Seanad on this and Senator Alice-Mary Higgins said it could serve as a back door for more than 40,000 US companies. This is especially worrying for Europeans as US corporations dominate the Canadian economy. The legality of this is being questioned by the Association of European Administrative Judges, German magistrates and various professors of law in various counties as well by legal scholars.
“We have to be vigilant. I have plenty of hope. I believe the Minister is the person to inspire that hope. I have no doubt that if we give the Minister the backing he deserves, we will get to a point where rural Ireland will get its fair share and will be on a level playing field. That is all we want.”