Opinion: identifying the needs and opportunities of rural Ireland means actually understanding what it is to be rural

Broadband is the latest news story in a long line to focus our attention on uneven development in this small country. From this year's National Development Plan through spatial strategies and Colin Buchanan’s 1967 report, many policy reports harken back to Éamon de Valera’s idyll vision of a countryside alive to the "joyous sound of industry". The most recent figures from the CSO would not make for pleasant reading for de Valera. The reality is that we live on an island that is becoming more urban, more concentrated (we have the rents to prove it) and one which is seeing more and more of rural Ireland fall into an economic slumber. 

Who or what is rural Ireland? 

The most cursory glance at Irish economic activity since the foundation of the state would tell the story that we are now less reliant on our land for generating revenue. Where 50 percent of the state’s wealth was derived from agricultural (primarily rural) pursuits as little as 50 years ago, the biggest sectors today derive their value from the minds of educated Irish people in the industrial estates and the urban quarters of our biggest cities. 

This is part of a global trend, where city growth and urban development is seen as the most obvious spatial manifestation of the new global economy. Cities are given more power to better accommodate and capture future growth possibilities and we will see this coming down the line in Ireland.

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When it comes to the rural, we are not doing the same. We do not have the same knowledge or understanding. Growth has many friends, decline has few. Many of Ireland’s urban dwellers are little more than one generation removed from the rural. It is ironic then that our knowledge of the rural is so limited. Distilled in popular media, it is viewed as the domain of the IFA, associated with motorway-enabled crime or seen in the likeness of a Paul Henry painting

Yet rural Ireland holds a multitude. Its beauty is known across the world, while the future energy needs of the country will be served by the winds that blow through it and the waves that crash against it. It is becoming more diverse, more forward looking. For many, it has the allure of a unique quality of life that makes it very different from its urban counterpoint. 

Much of our talk about how we can make rural Ireland more competitive often reduces to how we can make the rural more like the urban

And it works differently now. Value is derived from all the above and from people accessing and experiencing our unique landscape in a variety of ways from hill walking to greenway cycle paths. One example of the way it works that is often overlooked are the cultural and creative industries. Internationally, this sector has received a great deal of attention. Ernst and Young valued it at $2,250 billion in 2015. In their 2012 review of the Irish creative economy, Indecon estimated an overall contribution of €4.6 billion in terms of Gross Value Add, equating to approximately 2.8 percent of GDP here. Late last year, we undertook an impact analysis of the creative economy (including, creative, cultural and craft industries) in the west of Ireland. 

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Much of our talk about how we can make rural Ireland more competitive often reduces to how we can make the rural more like the urban. Any effort to decrease the divergence in economic activity between Irish regions will have to focus on that which differentiates it from the urban. Our work on the creative economy shows that it exists differently within the rural context in three distinct ways: 

Product and place

From Donegal tweed to audiovisual content from Connemara to west Clare trad, place is ingrained in the products of the creative and cultural industries. Competitive standing here is determined by uniqueness and authenticity, and both these values have a very stubborn geography when ascribed to a product or service. These are markets where replication and massification (most often an urban phenomenon) are almost impossible.  

Make it local and sell it global 

The attractiveness of the periphery’s produce, notably in the area of craft and design, is how they sit against the mass produced that flood major markets has a role here. How these products reach the market also shows the unique business approaches and models adopted by the creatives. While distributors are important to access the market, technology and broadband in particular is recognised by the majority of creatives as crucial for success.

From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Richard Curran profiles Donegal tweed specialists Magee 

Ways of doing business

The nature of the work and the resultant produce mark these industries as unique. In many cases, economic gain might not be the primary motive. This affects the business models adopted. Geography also plays a role here. While the vast majority of these industries and their small nature means that more than half work from home, nearly 20 percent of the creative industries work out of shared spaces. The rise of collaborative practices, co-working spaces and collective services agreements has been spearheaded by the rural creative.

The Rural Regeneration Fund is tantamount to reducing policy to a "Dragons Den" for rural communities

While plaudits have to be given for the setting up of a Department of Rural and Community Development, this will take time to reach full effectiveness. The answer to supporting rural Ireland, however, will not be found in initiatives like a Rural Regeneration Fund, which is tantamount to reducing policy to a "Dragons Den" style mechanism for supporting rural communities. Real support requires a lot of hard work.

To identify the needs of the rural means understanding what it is to be rural. A national audit of the "kinds" of rural across the island is start point. Policy then needs to respect that which makes places unique and to build that. This is not achieved by pursuing prescriptive polices that are thought to work only because they worked elsewhere. Progressive policies are needed to bring "making" back to the rural. To trust in the culture and creativity of these distinct, and often times revered places. And for rural Ireland to hum to the joyous sound of industry, it is absolutely necessary that these regions have a broadband connection to do so. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ