Thursday, 8 Dec 2022

Donal O'Donovan: 'Rural Ireland will survive, but our biggest city is now eating itself'

Rural Ireland isn’t dying. Across the country, schools that 50 years ago could barely muster classes are full of happy, well-fed children. Clean and modern – often enviably large – houses are scattered increasingly thickly across small towns and rural parishes. They’re home to a growing and increasingly prosperous population.

The situation is far from perfect, but in contrast to the grim days when rural Ireland raised its sons and daughters for the boat, these days a mix of foreign and indigenous industrial employers has penetrated deep into provincial Ireland with high-quality, interesting and engaging, jobs.

Broadband is a big issue, and there’s no doubt the traditional small town main-street is being hammered by a bigger disruptions in the way people shop and socialise. And provincial towns and cities like Cork and Limerick are sub-scale, relative to Dublin in particular.

However, the kind of depopulation that characterised much of the 20th century is really over.

Right now, the problem is not that Dublin is gobbling up the rest of Ireland. It’s that Dublin is eating itself.

In the capital, quality of life for many people is declining – as a result of the acceleration of growth.

Six out of 10 new jobs last year were created in and around the capital – that’s not massively disproportionate to Dublin’s size, in fairness – but the social and physical infrastructure is buckling.

It is happening even though the city is becoming wealthier.

For those who have a foot-hold, or even a toe-hold, in the capital, packed trains, traffic congestion, long commutes, anxiety about full schools, all point to the strain on social and physical infrastructure.

For many newcomers to Dublin, including bright, ambitious and well-qualified young people coming to work or study from elsewhere in Ireland and abroad, the squalor of too much of the capital’s rental market is a bitterly ironic contrast to the city’s gleaming new office blocks.

At the extreme, the chaos of the homelessness crisis now pervades the city centre.

The problem for policy-makers, who know all this, is that when they’re selling Ireland as a destination for foreign investment they often don’t get the option of pitching Dublin versus Cork or Limerick. They have to pitch Dublin against London or Copenhagen.

Partly that’s because lots of business executives are lazy or conservative – they’re more comfortable making a decision if their peers have already made the same one.

In many industries, intellectual property is like the oil of the 21st century. The educated populations that can produce it are the oil wells. Until Ireland can build up a real alternative city of scale, it’s Dublin that will suffer the real strain.

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