Good afternoon everyone.
I’m really pleased to join the Taoiseach, Minister Humphreys, and Minister Ryan to launch Ireland’s new Rural Development Policy.
I want to commend Heather, her Department and staff and everyone who put this new Policy together.
Heather has been a strong advocate for Rural Ireland for many years at the Cabinet table building on the work initiated by Michael Ring in the last Government.
One of her strongest messages is that rural and regional policy should be a shared responsibility for all ministers and all departments. That message is reflected in the ambitious Plan we’re launching today.
It is designed to unlock the enormous potential of rural Ireland. Whether we live in a rural area or in a city, the COVID-19 pandemic has restored our appreciation of rural Ireland, and the capacity of our regions to transform the way we live and work.
Like Heather, I’ve always rejected attempts to create an artificial divide between rural Ireland and urban Ireland – to play one off against the other – East v West, Dublin v the rest. We are One Nation, and few Dubs are more than a generation or two away from rural Ireland.
Of course, there are differences, but the potential of working remotely, high-speed broadband, and changed priorities means we can really narrow the divide between urban and rural in the years ahead. And rather than one taking from the other, it’ll be one enabling the other and vice versa.
I believe Ireland will only be strong and prosperous when the entire country is strong and prosperous. As the Plan’s vision statement says: ‘Rural Ireland ‘is built on the interdependence of urban and rural areas’.
The forthcoming Review of the National Development Plan will take this inter-dependence into account, and the need to link large-scale capital investment to proper planning.
Balanced regional development is already a priority in the Programme for Government, and it will feature as a priority in each of our major policies, from the Review of the NDP, to the Climate Action Plan, to the National Economic Recovery Plan.
The National Economic Recovery Plan will set out how we plan to rebuild our economy – to respond to the twin challenges of digital and green – but also how to build a new, more inclusive society. I believe that when the pandemic is over, many of us will return to the office, but things will never be the same again.
Blended working will mean less commuting, more time for family and leisure and fewer transport greenhouse gas emissions. New job opportunities will be created for people who want to live in Rural Ireland. New businesses will find it easier to establish and grow.
Small towns and villages will see new investment, greater footfall and spend. Communities, sports clubs and organisations will be reinvigorated as people spend more time working locally, while others choose to relocate there for a better quality of life.
I believe, Government needs to make sure we take advantage of the opportunity to promote remote working while also managing its risks.
So, in January, I published Ireland’s first Remote Working Strategy. Its main actions are to:
- legislate to provide employees with the right to request remote working
- introduce a legally admissible code of practice on the right to disconnect from work
- invest in remote work hubs, ensuring they are in locations that suit commuters and are close to childcare facilities
- explore the acceleration of the National Broadband Plan
- review the treatment of remote working for the purposes of tax and expenditure in the next Budget
- lead by example by ensuring that home and remote working should be the norm for 20% of public sector employees.
Implementation is well underway.
Through IDA Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta we will promote remote working among our client companies to drive regional job creation.
As Minister for Enterprise, Trade & Employment, I’m conscious that the hospitality and tourism sectors have been hit hard by the pandemic. These sectors are particularly important to rural Ireland.
We will keep the main financial support schemes, such as the Wage Subsidy, in place for as long as these sectors need them.
And we will continue to provide and enhance loan guarantee schemes to help with cashflow and business planning.
My Department is also helping businesses to get online with a 50% co-funded Trading Online Voucher Scheme. We have helped 330 retailers to develop their online presence through the Online Retail Scheme.
We have just begun the making of nine new Regional Enterprise Plans. These plans will encourage enterprise collaboration from the ‘bottom up’ and are designed to build on each region’s unique strengths to drive jobs growth over the next four years.
Each Regional Committee is chaired by a senior industry figure and involves Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Local Enterprise Offices, Local Authorities, higher and further education bodies and businesses.
Also, IDA Ireland’s new strategy is targeting 400 investments outside of Dublin between now and 2024. We have allocated an additional €10 million this year to IDA’s Regional Property Programme to ensure that buildings and serviced sites are in place for companies considering investing or expanding.
Before I finish, I just want to thank Heather again and everyone involved in the drafting of the Rural Development Policy.
It provides grounds for optimism in these difficult times. Despite the tough start to the year, I am still optimistic for the year ahead and I’m very optimistic for Rural Ireland in the post-pandemic world.