I’m delighted to extend a very warm welcome to you all to my home county of Monaghan.
And I’m very pleased that my Department of Rural and Community Development is supporting the National Women’s Council in staging this conference as we mark ‘International Day of Rural Women’.
I think it’s fair to say that we have arranged a host of really experienced and talented speakers for you here today.
And I have no doubt that over the next couple of hours, you will engage in some really interesting discussions ranging from:
- How Women are leading change in rural communities
- The need for a society where women live free from violence
- And the impact of Covid-19 on women in rural areas
I want to talk to you today - not just from the perspective of a female member of Cabinet.
But as someone who has spent their entire life in Rural Ireland and who believes, wholeheartedly, in what Rural communities have to offer.
Our Rural Future
When I launched the Government’s five year strategy for rural development, Our Rural Future, I stated that Covid-19 has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform Rural Ireland.
An opportunity to revitalise our towns and villages - and to enhance the wellbeing and quality of life for our citizens.
An opportunity to breathe new life into rural communities – making them more vibrant and better places to live, work and raise a family.
And the opportunity, as well, to reverse that tide of seeing our young women and men leave their rural homes behind because there is more opportunities in the nearest city.
My role as Minister for Rural and Community Development gives me the unique privilege to get out and visit rural communities the length and breadth of the country.
And I can tell you – not only is Our Rural Futurehaving that positive impact and change on the ground.
But in so many communities that I have visited, I’ve met women who are at the centre of that change.
Women who are helping to make their rural communities stronger, more vibrant and more resilient.
Women who create jobs, drive innovation – and who keep the show on the road!
And they do so because, like me, they draw a sense of pride from what it means to be from Rural Ireland.
Remote Working and Women
Colleagues, the Pandemic has taught us too that there is no such thing as the ‘status quo’.
We can, and should, adapt and embrace change – even when it is foisted upon us in the most sudden and unexpected of circumstances.
I have often said that the Pandemic was the best possible pilot scheme when it comes to Remote Working.
In fact, I remember attending a Cabinet meeting in Trim in 2019 – the first time that Remote Working was discussed by Ministers in a meaningful way.
But I can you tell quite honestly – that my enthusiasm for Remote Working that day was met by a wall of hesitation and scepticism.
Many of those present said: ‘Yeah, it’s a good idea, but it will never work’.
Well colleagues, Remote Working is no longer just a good idea.
As a result of Covid, Remote Working is now a reality for tens of thousands of women and men across the country.
How things have changed from the day when, as rural women, we were made believe that our place in society was to stay at home and cook the dinner and mind the kids.
We now have a situation where so many of our women can and do build that career they have always wanted.
With the help of Remote Working, our women can live and work in Rural Ireland, raise their family, and benefit from a better quality of life.
And so, I often think back on that day in Trim in 2019, when the idea of Remote Working wasn’t taken seriously.
And I’m proud to have played my part, as Minister for Rural and Community Development, in helping to make it happen.
I believe it is incumbent on us now, as policy makers, not to let this opportunity slip.
For the sake of our future generations, the young girls and boys growing up in Rural Ireland today, we need to continue to work hard to make Remote Working a permanent reality.
Colleagues, as you know, I have the immense privilege of holding two senior portfolios – Rural and Community Development and Social Protection.
And, particularly in the area of Social Protection, I’ve always found that the best possible approach to making decisions is to listen to the people who those decisions affect.
When I introduced the first changes in 14 years to the means test that applies to carers – I did so after listening to our carers in rural communities.
When I introduced a new special payment for people with disabilities, I did so too after meeting and listening to people who grew up in rural Ireland with a disability.
And if I do have the privilege of remaining in Social Protection for another wee while, one area that I would like to focus on is how we assist women returning to the workforce.
This can be a particularly challenging journey for women who have taken time off work and all of a sudden face the prospect of returning to a forty, fifty or even sixty hour week.
While many employers should be commended for how they assist female employees on that pathway back to the workplace, I believe as a State we need to look at the likes of ‘flexible working’ and how we can do more to support women.
And we need to look at providing women with support through retraining andupskilling to help them get back into the workforce.
Colleagues, just last month – and not too far away in Ballyconnell, County Cavan – I had the immense privilege of hosting the 13th OECD Rural Affairs conference.
And on that Wednesday afternoon, rural affairs ministers from across the world gathered with me on stage to discuss our shared vision for our rural communities.
I’m proud to tell you that of the nine rural ministers and policy leaders on stage, six were women.
That just goes to show that when it comes to driving real and positive change for rural economies and societies, women are to the fore.
Can I take this opportunity to say that we witnessed a piece of magic on Tuesday night.
On the pitch of Glasgow’s Hampden Park, the Irish women’s football team made history by qualifying for the World Cup Finals.
The Nation is so proud of what the girls achieved that night!
And under the leadership of another strong woman, Vera Pauw, they will do us even more proud when they take to pitch in Australia or New Zealand next summer.
To think, these young women once operated in an environment where they had to cram into airport toilets after international fixtures, change out of their tracksuits, and return them to the FAI.
It just goes to show that those who were once so badly left behind, are today leading from the front.
And in conjunction with another Monaghan woman, Minister Catherine Martin, I am looking at seeing whether the Government could support the establishment of a Centre of Excellence for Women’s sport.
I believe it’s the least they deserve.
Colleagues, it has been a privilege to speak to you today.
But before I conclude, last week I visited County Wexford for the Our Rural Future Roadshow.
My first stop was a small village called Bree, just outside Enniscorthy.
Bree is where the Irish Countrywomen’s Association was formed.
While there, I took a moment to visit and reflect in the ICA memorial garden.
And while people here today won’t share all the values of the ICA, I think we are all united behind one of their core beliefs.
And that’s the importance of bringing together both rural and urban women.
I wish you every success with your conference here in Monaghan today.
And I want to pay tribute to the National Women’s Council of Ireland for their tireless work advocating for women in all parts of the country.
And you can be assured that I will continue to support women from all walks of life.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.