TDs silent on other attacks on rural Ireland

FINTAN O’TOOLE

Where is the passion of TDs when ‘the rural way of life’ is being slowly strangled by policies of more much consequence than stag-hunting?
 BEFORE THE battle of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington surveyed the Irish troops who were his primary cannon fodder and remarked: “I don’t know what they’ll do to the enemy but, by God, they surely terrify me.”

 I can’t help wondering when people in rural Ireland will have the good sense to be terrified by their own shock troops.

 In the hoo-haa over John Gormley’s relatively minor animal welfare legislation, deputies from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Labour and Sinn Féin have been queuing up to give performances of more overwrought melodramatic intensity than any fat lady dying in an opera.

 TDs who usually make the boring priest in Father Ted sound like Oscar Wilde after a few too many absinthes have been working themselves up into the most lurid flights of oratorical fancy.

 Thus, banning the Ward Union stag hunt (headed by Ray Burke’s old pal and prominent Anglo Irish Bank client Mick Bailey) is “an attack on rural life” (Bernard Durkan), on the “traditions of those living in rural Ireland” (Phil Hogan), on “ordinary, decent people … [who] are being terrorised” (Mattie McGrath), on “rural Ireland and its traditions” (Johnny Brady), and so on.

 It is an assault by an alien (James Bannon pointed out darkly that Gormley “does not have a rural heritage”) on the pure race of Gaels. Shane McEntee told the Dáil that the stag-hunters “are true Irishmen. There is not an ounce of English blood in them.”

 It is an affront to the ancient Celts – Bernard Durkan pointed out that “Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a great hunter”.

 It is, even, a prelude to genocide. Willie Penrose, who last time I looked was a barrister based in the elegant and sophisticated town of Mullingar, posed as the last of the Mohicans, plaintive voice of an ancient tribe being driven to extinction. “Does the Minister want to get rid of us altogether? Will he take our blood and get rid of us altogether?”

 It is amusing to listen to these middle-aged men working themselves up into paroxysms of passionate outrage in defence of endangered humanity. But one can’t help wondering where all this passion goes when “the rural way of life” is being slowly strangled by policies that are much more mundane but also of infinitely more consequence.

 The “traditions of those living in rural Ireland” surely include, for example, going to the post office. Post offices in rural villages don’t just provide services, they are also part of the texture of social life. It is often the postmistress who notices that Johnny from the back of the hill hasn’t been in to collect his pension and wonders if there’s something wrong.

 Over 500 rural post offices have closed in the last eight years and at least another 200 more are under threat. Where are the hysterics in the Dáil, where’s the high-flown rhetoric, where’s the backbench revolt?

 What about the winding down of Postbank, which was successfully building a decent business supplying financial services through those post offices? The destruction of this bank, which was filling the huge gap left by the withdrawal of services to many rural areas by the mainstream banks, has been met with a shrug of the shoulders.

 Both this year and last year, Bus Éireann has cut back substantially on rural bus routes. Fifty routes have been scrapped or greatly reduced and a further 47 are under threat.

 Rural communities, which already have at best a minimal public transport service, have been worst affected yet the howls from TDs have been muted.

 Have we ever had a backbench revolt over drinking water? If there actually were a conspiracy to wipe out rural Ireland, making people drink crud would be a good way to start.

 During 2007, which is the most recent year for which we have full figures, almost a third of private group water schemes in rural Ireland were contaminated at least once by E.coli. As well as getting bullshit piped at them from the Dáil, rural dwellers have the privilege of having it delivered through their taps.

 One could go on and on listing real issues that actually shape people’s lives in rural Ireland – access to decent quality broadband, the closure of village Garda stations, the scrapping of the Rural Environment Protection Scheme (Reps) scheme. None of them ever produces the kind of grandstanding to which we have been treated on the animal welfare legislation.

 Why not? Because dealing with such issues involves actual political struggles over the choices we have to make and the way we use our collective resources. You have to talk about all of those embarrassing things like money and power and priorities.

 You have to think about what it is that makes rural life sustainable and whether we have any real commitment to creating it.

 It is much easier to feed rural people a diet of exaggerated self- pity and paranoia about “them” up in Dublin. As long as rural people keep lapping it up, they will not stop to wonder why their great champions actually do so little for them.

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