I’m delighted to be here in the heart of the midlands for the official launch of the Charter for Rural Ireland.
This initiative will, I believe, create a strong and robust framework for the future sustainable development of rural Ireland.
It is a great addition to our Long Term Economic Plan designed to keep the recovery going and to ensure it is felt across all parts of Ireland.
Our plan includes three specific steps:
1. More and better jobs;
2. Making work pay, and;
3. Investing in better services.
With over 135,000 more people at work since we came into office, we are now targeting 200,000 jobs by 2020.
More people in work creates the resources to cut taxes for working people and invest in better services, improving living standards for all.
This will ensure more people feel the benefits of a recovering economy in their own lives.
We’ll continue to make responsible and sensible decisions to keep the economy strong and the recovery going.
Rural Ireland is alive, but is changing. This Government of Fine Gael and Labour will continue to put in place measures to revitalise rural Ireland so that the recovery is felt inside every doorstep, in every community, in Ireland.
We will ensure that rural Ireland is supported, so that it can achieve its full potential across a wide-ranging spectrum of areas.
But at the heart of our plan is more job creation.
And it is through community initiatives like this facility here in Banagher that we can develop local areas.
I’m told that this wonderful facility was made possible through the work of the people in the local area, who identified their own needs and worked together to address them.
I applaud you, and I hope others will similarly take control of the development of their own communities. That is what the Charter is about.
It represents our strong commitment to put the future development of rural communities in this country at the heart of Government.
I know that when it comes to economic recovery that we have not yet finished the job.
At the moment about 1,000 new jobs are being added to the economy every week.
We need to keep the recovery going to ensure that all communities across Ireland can feel the benefits of recovery.
That is why we have launched the Regional Action Plans for Jobs, covering all parts of the country and building on each region’s unique strengths and attributes.
We want to ensure that every region can achieve its economic potential, and we have pledged to work for a situation in which no region suffers unemployment more than 1% above the national average.
We want more opportunities for people, especially for our young people, so that they can, if they choose, continue to live and work in their local communities.
Since entering Government we have put a real focus on specific sectors that can deliver jobs across rural Ireland.
The tourism industry is one example of a sector that responded positively to new Government initiatives such as reducing the rate of the Air Travel Tax to zero, the reduction of VAT to 9% on tourism-related services and the Gathering initiative in 2013.
New figures released yesterday show that 2015 was a record year for the number of visitors coming to Ireland – 8.5 million overseas visits, an increase of 1 million over 2014.
This revival is supporting new jobs across the country. As part of our Long Term Economic Plan we are targeting the creation of 50,000 more jobs in the sector in the coming years.
The agri-food sector has also been a beacon of light during the past few difficult years. While there have been challenges we have still seen a surge in job numbers and exports into new markets. As part of our plan we are targeting another 23,000 direct jobs to be created in the coming years.
Both of these sectors are dependent on local infrastructure to grow and prosper. Thanks to the fruits of recovery we can now make serious commitments in new short and long term local investments.
Earlier this week the Government approved the 2016 funding for local and regional road upkeep with €300 million spent nationwide.
Also this week the Government made available an extra €100 million dedicated to the repair of roads and bridges recently damaged by flooding and storms. Detailed planning is currently taking place with all county councils to ensure that crews begin repair work as soon as humanly possible.
It is essential that we keep the recovery going so that we can continue to have the resources necessary for these vital investments.
The Government has also taken steps to support local institutions. Last week we published a report of the Post Office Network Business Development Group chaired by businessman Bobby Kerr. In response to their welcome recommendations the Government has decided to support the introduction and roll-out, by An Post, of an ‘ePayment Account’ in 2016.
We are also committed to ensuring that patients throughout the country continue to have access to GP Services, especially in remote rural areas, and that general practice is sustainable in such areas into the future.
Rural practice is top of the agenda as part of the discussions for the new GP contract currently underway between the HSE and the IMO. I believe that the proposals being discussed are robust and hope that there is a positive outcome to the discussions which will benefit all rural communities.
The Rural Charter builds on all this work already undertaken by the Government to support rural Ireland, and it brings forward a number of new actions and initiatives. It will underpin the future sustainable development of our rural communities. It will help to support and accelerate rural Ireland’s regeneration.
It will be delivered in tandem with other measures in place to support overall national development, and in cooperation with all relevant rural stakeholders and rural communities.
It will, not least, support the development and rejuvenation of rural Ireland through advancing the implementation of the recommendations in the report of the Commission for the Economic Development of Rural Areas – the CEDRA Report – which was published in April 2014.
In this context, I would like to take this opportunity to thank those involved in both the initial CEDRA commission, and the more recent CEDRA Expert Advisory Group who have played a significant role in identifying the potential and opportunities in Rural Ireland and offering their insight into how these can best be supported.
The individuals involved, a number of whom are rural entrepreneurs who run successful businesses, gave of their time and expertise to support this process.
Their insights and contributions to the process have been invaluable and I would like to thank them for their assistance.
Included in the Charter is a commitment to ensure that there is collaboration between Local and Community Development Committees, Local Enterprise Offices and all the relevant stakeholders to effectively support enterprises in local areas, including social enterprise.
The new structural arrangements and co-ordination of local activities through Local Community Development Committees or LCDCs as they are more commonly known has resulted in more streamlined and targeted delivery of resources at local level and this Charter builds on the work that has been undertaken in this regard.
The development of the Rural Policy Framework will involve a significant and far reaching public consultation process.
This consultation process will begin with a National Rural Development Forum which will take place later in the year.
The aim of this all-inclusive Forum will be to highlight key aspects of the new policy framework and identify both the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for rural Ireland.
The Charter also commits to the further reinforcement of a more coordinated approach to the delivery of initiatives to rural Ireland- all Government Departments and agencies must work together at national and local level.
While I acknowledge that such coordination is already well established, it is essential it becomes the norm.
The commitment of this Government of Fine Gael and Labour to rural Ireland is real and tangible and can be seen through the range of actions and initiatives being rolled out across Government in support of rural Ireland.
This includes but is not limited to the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which will bring over €4 billion into the rural economy, the Rural Economic Development Zones (REDZ) initiative and the new Town and Village Renewal Scheme.
Can I conclude by thanking you for being with us here today to launch this Charter.
We will need your continuing support and input to implement it and to ensure that it is a success.
For this Government’s part we will continue to implement our Long Term Economic Plan to keep the recovery going so that it can be felt across all parts of Ireland.