The 2016 census showed an overall increase in the Irish population, however in several rural areas the population declined or remained the same, most notably Donegal which experienced a population decline of nearly 7,000. While OECD research in 2015 showed that 17% of people born in Ireland live abroad.
While the government likes to talk of an economic recovery we must ask what this largely jobless recovery will mean for young people living in rural areas. Rural areas that suffered from outward migration even prior to the economic crash are faced with a further crisis as regional towns and rural areas are left behind by the limited Dublin focused recovery.
The government’s claim that unemployment has fallen to 6%, while masking the real jobless rate of 15%, undoubtedly shows that more people are in work then at the height of the recession. The proliferation of low paid precarious work however means that many people are despite being in work still at risk of poverty, with over 50,000 low paid workers relying on family income supplement.
The historical population change in Ireland has seen the gradual migration of people to urban areas alongside a contraction in the rural economy as Irish manufactures in peripheral regions couldn’t compete following Ireland’s entry to the European common market. In 1984, the Guaranteed Irish organisation listed 530 clothing and footwear manufacturers; by 2012, a shoemaking company called Whelan’s, Co Cavan, was the only one on that list still manufacturing. This decline in industry coincided with a decline in small farms as Irish agriculture modernised in a way which pushed smaller holders off the land and reduced the need for rural labourers.
As Ireland emerges from recession the challenge facing rural areas is whether the gradual economic decline which existed before the crash continues or even worsens or will rural economies be revitalised. The answer to this question will decide if rural Ireland offers a future for its young people and what kind of quality of life they can expect.
This is of course not just an economic question, according to research by See Change nearly half of rural people would hide a mental health problem. It is of course well documented that mental health issues are often caused or worsened by economic factors, as such the economic future of rural communities will have a direct impact on people’s health. The government’s decision to cut funding for mental health services such as the decision to close the mental health service in Ballinasloe and the decision to cut the mental health budget has made it even more difficult for people to seek treatment for mental health issues.
There are many threats which could mean a worsening of the situation in rural Ireland, the lack of investment and the Dublin focused ‘recovery’ will increase the regional imbalance that has already forced many young people to leave rural Ireland. This continued drain on rural youth is by no means inevitable, rather the lack of investment and industry to counter the decline of employment in agriculture which has been overseen by successive Irish governments has created this situation.
While the challenges facing rural communities and the difficulties these create for young people are significant there are still some reasons to be positive. In Greece, where the economic crisis has been much worse than in Ireland and youth unemployment is as high as 48%, many young people from rural areas are returning from cities to work on the land. Similarly there has been an increase in the number of small scale organic vegetable producers in Ireland, Like Greece young people in rural Ireland have been able to make a living off smaller farms by selling directly to consumers. While some farmers have been able to capitalise on the growing organic and direct sales market, The various issues facing conventional farming however means that farmers struggle with falling incomes
The success of the co-op movement which has supported Irish farmers as well as providing employment in food processing for over a hundred years shows what can be achieved. Co-ops present an opportunity for workers or producers to pool their resources to ensure a better return for each member. A co-operative economy would give communities the power to invest in themselves. The success of the Basque co-op Mondragon which is the 7th largest business group in Spain and which was able to create 1000 new jobs in 2014, while the Spanish unemployment rate was over 20%, shows that co-ops can be successful in all aspects of the economy.
There are challenges facing young people in rural areas, these challenges are intrinsically linked to broader economic and political concerns however there is an alternative which would allow rural areas to offer young people a sustainable future.