Address by Minister Heather Humphreys TD at Enabling Rural and Community Development on a Shared Island Dialogue
They also recognise the opportunities that are there to be taken up, and in so many cases, reflect the close similarities between the issues concerning our rural communities.
The role that remote working now plays in our economy and communities is one such opportunity, with the pandemic having demonstrated that it is possible for many people to live and work in rural areas regardless of where their employer is located.
The launch of our Connected Hubs platform has already provided workers with access to a network of more than 230 remote working hubs, and we expect to bring this number to at least 400 in the medium term.
This is a key development that will make remote working a reality for thousands of people across the country.
By giving people that choice to work from within their own communities, we can attract people back to rural Ireland and revitalise the centres of our towns and villages.
We can reduce commuting times, lower transport emissions and, most importantly, improve the quality of life for rural dwellers.
Similarly, there are many reasons to look at how we foster community development and social enterprise on a shared island basis.
Social enterprises have significant potential to contribute to local economies through job creation and trading, and they can have a huge impact on communities, socially and environmentally.
They also help to ensure rural areas benefit from a just transition to a more sustainable and inclusive economy and society, and that rural towns are revitalised to become vibrant hubs for commercial and social activity.
The relationship between social enterprises and the communities in which they operate is very much symbiotic; social enterprises are developing within their local communities, and communities are being helped to develop by social enterprises in their locality.
Their importance to rural communities should not be underestimated.
Our people, community groups and social initiatives have deep and dynamic connections, and community leaders want to do more together on a shared island basis.
That is why the Government wants to enhance our cooperation with the Executive in Northern Ireland so that our policy supports for community development interact with and complement each other, reflecting the composition and interests of our communities, North and South.
Last October, as part of the revised National Development Plan, the Government set out an unprecedented commitment of €3.5bn for all-island investment out to 2030, including at least €1billion from our Shared Island Fund.
We are bringing more ambition, drive and resourcing to how we work and invest collaboratively – working with the Northern Ireland Executive, UK Government, Local Authorities and with civil society partners – on an all-island basis.
As Minister for Rural and Community Development, I am particularly keen to progress cross-border projects that deliver real benefits for local communities on both sides of the border.
I am particularly pleased that we have been able to provide €13million through the Shared Island Fund and my Department’s Rural Regeneration and Development Fund to move ahead with Phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project.
Construction work is due to begin in Clones in the coming months and that will be an historic day for the town and indeed for the entire border region.
The Ulster Canal is a symbolic and landmark cross-border project.
It has been talked about for 30 or 40 years and it is a key priority for the Irish Government under the National Development Plan to now move ahead with that project.
The Ulster Canal has cross-party support.
Indeed in all my years in politics, I don’t think I have ever heard a dissenting voice when the project was discussed.
We have momentum now and rather than rest on our laurels I believe it is critically important that we seize the moment and press ahead with funding for Phase 3 of the project which will see the full restoration of the canal between Clones and Castlesaunderson.
I have asked my officials to work with Waterways Ireland so that jointly through the Shared Island Fund and the Rural Regeneration and Development Fund we can make sure that funding is provided for.
In terms of other projects, we are also moving ahead with the Narrow Water Bridge project to connect the communities of Carlingford and Omeath, and serve as a lynchpin for tourism and outdoor recreation in the east border region.
Last year, the Government also launched a major new North South Research Programme - with the announcement in March of more than €37m in awards by the Higher Education Authority for 62 exciting all-island research projects.
Last month, the Government commenced a new €5m Shared Island Local Authority funding scheme to provide seed capital to cross-border local authority partnerships to take forward new investment projects.
Enabling Local Authorities to implement their agreed cross-border regional development goals. For example, on tourism promotion, heritage conservation, biodiversity protection, and meeting regional skills needs.
Councils, including here in Monaghan, are now advancing plans for new investment projects with counterparts in Northern Ireland.
I look forward to seeing the funding awards for this innovative scheme announced later this year.
And, the Government is working to bring forward other new Shared Island investment projects this year, including on:
- Electric Vehicle charging infrastructure;
- Enterprise development on a cross-border basis;
- Cross-border community climate action; and,
- All-island civil society engagement.
This is an ambitious programme of investment and cooperation which is central to how we are working to invigorate North/South and East/West partnership and connections as integral dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government recognises of course that there has just been an Assembly election in Northern Ireland and that the political parties must now look at how they can form a new power-sharing Executive.
We want to see this happen as soon as possible, and will seek to support that as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
We will also always work for a positive and conducive political context for North/South and East/West cooperation.
The benefits of such interaction are so important, given the depth and breadth of our shared interests and connections, which have been able to flourish over the last 25 years.
That is why the Government is working now consistently, and with real commitment and ambition to develop and deliver a Shared Island agenda that we can take forward on an all-island partnership basis in the time ahead, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
We want to hear directly from people across all communities on how we can do that.
Today’s Dialogue is an opportunity to focus on fostering rural and community development on a shared island basis.
There is so much that we share in these areas. A rich store of experience for learning and exchange; and huge potential in cooperating more on an all-island basis.
I am delighted that last year saw the establishment by my Department and the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs of a North-South Rural Policy Forum as a vehicle of the sharing of information, experiences and best practice.
Indeed, the latest meeting of that Forum took place right here this morning in advance of this event.
I am sure that today’s discussion will illuminate how much we stand to gain by championing rural development and community leadership together in new ways, and as a core part of how we can build a shared future on this island, rooted in the Good Friday Agreement.
Rural communities are the beating heart of this island, North and South.
They are changing, innovative and vital to a sustainable, prosperous future.
My Department and the Department of the Taoiseach will be listening to today’s discussion and will publish a report of the key themes which will help to inform how the Government proceeds in the time ahead.
Finally, today’s event is taking place against a very fitting backdrop – the end of Derry Girls.
For anybody who saw the series finale this week, Lisa McGee brought us all right back to 1998 and the passing of the Good Friday Agreement.
It was a time of historic change and of great hope for better days ahead.
I think it’s appropriate today to finish with the words of Erin Quinn:
“No matter how scary it is, we have to move on and we have to grow up because things…well…they might just change for the better.
“So we have to be brave, and if our dreams get broken along the way...we have to make new ones from the pieces.”
I think the parties at Stormont, the Irish Government, everybody here today and everybody who believes in a truly shared island would do well to keep those words in mind.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh.