Lost services: Local communities must fight back with more than rhetoric and hot air

A few weeks ago, I was invited onto the panel of the Claire Byrne TV Show on RTÉ 1 to talk about the effect that the closure of banks, post offices, Garda stations and more public services around County Roscommon and further afield has had on rural Ireland. Emotions were running high on this issue at the time.

In many respects it’s an old story. The island has seen dozens of smaller banks and post offices close over the last ten years, ever since the country went into the protection of the EMF after losing millions of euro due to the collapse of construction. Nevertheless, it’s an issue that continues to bubble up from time to time, and puts the plethora of published plans for the regeneration of rural Ireland back on the top of the news agenda for at least a day or two before being fully forgotten again.

In the immediate aftermath of the TV show, I must have received over 400 different communications from all over the country about the closure of all sorts of crucial public services. They came by text, letters, emails, and social media messages, and told the same story every time – a tale of genuine fear and anxiety as key local services – essential to maintaining population in any village or town – seem to be either closing or being downgraded. Over a dozen of the communities affected are here in the western region.

In the last four weeks, the calls have still been coming, with follow-on requests to visit some of the areas affected where public meetings were being held and new rallying calls going out to try and do something locally to avoid closures. I am pleased to say I have had an opportunity to do just that in the last while.

My journey last week on one such mission took me away up into the hills of north Leitrim and the BeePark Community Centre in the bustling town of Manorhamilton, where a decent crowd turned out on a wet night to hear concerns over the erosion of banking services in the town – described by most of the top table as another attack on rural Ireland.

Manorhamilton is a little different to many of the other towns where the letters have been coming from. For starters, its bank is still open, but there is unease (to put it mildly) over a decision to withdraw the over-the-counter services in the local branch in December.

During a meeting that went on for well over an hour and a half, person after person from the local business community spoke about how no longer having an exterior main ATM machine in Manorhamilton was already damaging the local economy. The lady from the local credit union, in fairness to her, was there to express support for the committee, and suggested that they open an ATM outside their own office in the New Year. However, deep surprise was expressed at the decision to withdraw the cash services at the counter, considering that there are still over 1100 jobs in the town, which has a population estimated to be somewhere between 1500 and 1600 people.

Kevin Comiskey from the Irish Farmers Association was one of the leading lights that organised the meeting and invited me up to Leitrim. With a mart still operating in the area, he said the absence of a bank to cash a cheque in was still impacting farmers in the region and those who would regularly use the local livestock mart.

I was a bit surprised to hear from the IFA that as many as 90% of all farmers who sell at Irish marts still get a cheque for the sale of their cattle, and that there apparently is no uniform system to pay by electronic funds transfer. Surely this must cause great difficulties when there is no such thing as a local bank in many towns around the country any more?

I remember myself the way it used to work on our own farm when I was a young boy. The routine was always the same. My father would very proudly head for the local bank branch a day or two after the cheque arrived from the mart to cash the proceeds of his hard labour. After rearing nine or ten Charolais bullocks for a couple of years, once the money came in, he would start the process of paying the bills for cattle meal, fertiliser, or whatever else he owed to get the animals into the mart in the first place.

Local publican and independent councillor Felim Gurn sat beside me as I chaired the meeting in Manorhamilton. He spoke passionately about the huge frustration that a town with a population in excess of 1500 people could be left without such a basic financial service. After the meeting, I went back with Felim and the TD (and former MEP) Marian Harkin into Felim’s pub for a cup of tea and a sandwich before hitting the long road for home. The fact that this establishment – like so many more around the country – had to be opened on the night as it is now closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, tells its own story of the decline of rural Ireland.

Footfall is the key to the survival of business in our smaller country towns, and I was delighted to hear from Marian Harkin that new legislation is coming through the Dáil which will give all local credit unions the power and right to open up themselves with some of the many key other financial services the local banks have enjoyed for years.

On the night of the meeting, I spoke about the pressures being put on our local credit unions by the Central Bank as part of a general move to reduce the number of little credit unions around the country. There were some local anecdotes told to me afterwards about the absolute torture the voluntary members of the credit union boards are still experiencing in other towns as they try to comply with the very heavy burden of additional regulation.

My own contribution on the night was to urge everyone involved to move quickly while the ATM and bank is still open in their local town, meet local and regional management, and try to work together to make a financial business case for the retention of services before they are closed. We did this successfully in Lanesborough and Ballyleague over ten years ago, when the late Gerry Thompson led a delegation that met National Irish Bank to fight for the local ATM machine. The bank duly engaged in a process that ensured the machine stayed – even after they left the country. Thankfully, businessman Bernard Keane came to our rescue and facilitated the machine in his own SuperValu store across the road, and that’s where it has stayed ever since.

The bottom line with regard to these closures is that local communities must get up off their own posteriors and fight back – not just with rhetoric and hot air, but with a rock-solid business plan based on the ability of the local community to justify the local service. That remains the only viable way of stopping the further decline of your local community services – and the sooner townspeople realise that, the better.

 

What do you think?

Email People columnist Ciaran at ciaranmullooly@gmail.com.