While modern technology has the potential to counteract the effects of peripherality, limited or unreliable broadband internet access has made it difficult for rural areas to compete for jobs with their urban counterparts. Controversially, in 2012 Kerry Group decided to situate a major new site in Kildare as opposed to Kerry because the infrastructure was below par in its home county. ICSA president Patrick Kent recently described access to high-speed broadband as the modern equivalent of access to electricity, such was its importance for rural areas. This is one reason why the cable making landfall at Killala is so significant, making possible new interconnections and interdependencies.
Economic growth during the 1990s and early 2000s brought increased employment and reduced unemployment to most areas of the country, but some benefited more than others. In some areas, particularly in the peripheral West and Northwest of Ireland, unemployment remained high throughout the economic boom. Similarly, the economic collapse has not been experienced in the same way in all rural areas or by all groups in the workforce. The recent publication of the findings of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas (CEDRA) illustrate the complexity of uneven development in rural Ireland.
Parts of the traditional rural economy, e.g. employment in agriculture, forestry and fishing, are in decline, while the growing importance of mainly public sector employment in the Professional Services category to rural areas has been shown by the CEDRA report. Farm consolidation and mechanisation mean that, although agriculture is generally doing well, it does not provide much employment. There are 170,000 fewer people farming today than when Ireland joined the EEC in 1973.
In the previous articles in this series ( Industrial development in Southwest Donegal; Textile production 1983, Asahi came to Killala in 1977) the impact of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in rural areas in 1983 was explored. This reflected contemporary policy which aimed to attract multinationals to all parts of Ireland. However, that trend has shifted, with most multinational jobs now concentrating in the bigger cities. Ireland must compete with many other countries for FDI and the technology, pharmaceuticals and financial services companies which have been attracted to the country tend to prefer locations either in or near cities. Between 2004 and 2013, whereas 13,000 additional jobs were provided by foreign multinationals in Dublin, falls of 1,500 and 5,000 were experienced in the Northwest and Midwest regions respectively. In 2014, about three-quarters of all new multinational jobs were located in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.
While it is possible to identify examples of successful indigenous companies forming in small towns and large exporting companies based in rural areas (e.g. Fexco in Killorglin, Netwatch in Carlow), there are not enough of them to counteract the loss of employment in other sectors.
Ireland’s population is increasingly concentrated in Dublin and its hinterland. This is unsurprising, given that Dublin accounts for about 40% of national economic activity (GDP). It is predicted that by 2030, around 60% of the population will live within 25 miles of the east coast.
In outlining how rural Ireland is being reshaped, the CEDRA report points to a long-running concentration process which has drawn people and some types of economic activity out of more remote or less accessible rural areas into urban areas. It also identifies flows of people out of cities and many towns into the surrounding countryside, resulting in accessible rural places becoming areas of growth. However, more remote rural areas have experienced a reduction in social and economic capacity due to a decline in traditional employment, general inability to retain or attract sufficient population, persistent unemployment and emigration.
Emigration is a particular problem for rural areas, with less accessible rural areas being worst affected. A 2013 study undertaken by University College Cork (UCC) Geography Department established that 27% of households living in the countryside had experienced the direct emigration of at least one family member since 2006. The corresponding figure for urban areas and more accessible countryside areas was 15-17% of households. The 2013 report is available at www.research.ie/intro_slide/research-funded-irish-research-council-irish-emigration-age-austerity
Proximity to a city appears to be a major factor in preserving population and economic growth for rural areas, with rural dwellers commuting to these urban centres for work. As Ireland’s urban network is uneven, locations which are most distant from cities, such as the border counties, the Northwest and the North Midlands, face even greater challenges.
Now move on to The future of rural Ireland - nuances, scale and fighting back.
See all the articles in this series
See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection
This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.