At the time of going to print the votes of the 2016 General Election are being counted across the country. The election campiagn was for many a short and dull affair, the national real-politik focused not on key issues but who would go into coalition with who. The televised Leaders debates held host to spats over who did what and when, and did not project much evidence of forward thinking or viision from the party leaders.
But much of politics has little bearing on the national circuit, and many candidates will know their seat will be won and lost on the ground. Nowhere more so than in the rural consisteuncies of Ireland, where all politics is indeed local. The national media loves to look down upon the rural voter. In their view, the rural voter is an uneducated, cap wearing ‘gombeen’, whose sole focus is “Who fixed the road?”. However, they never ask why. Why does the rural voter favour the candidate with a local outlook?
People in rural constituencies are far more inclined to vote for a candidate with a strong connection to their local area. The importance of loyalty to the locality cannot be overstated. Rural voters feel abandoned and disconnected from the ruling elite in Dublin. Take my constituency for example: Kerry. When it comes to politics in Kerry, one name comes to mind – Healy-Rea. People often ask me, why are the Healy-Reas so popular amongst voters? While most of the country vilified Michael Healy-Rae when he and his brother Danny asked for ‘drink-driving licenses’, no one actually took the time to examine why they would come up with such a plan. Although their idea may seem outrageous to many, the idea behind it is actually rather complicated. The marginalisation and isolation of many people in rural Ireland is an enormous issue. The population of rural Ireland is rapidly aging. In Kerry, 70% of the 20,988 people aged over 65 live in rural areas. Many bachelor farmers live in isolated farms, far away from anything resembling a town or an urban centre. There is no Hailo-ing taxis or catching the 39a into town in these areas. You either drive or you don’t leave the house. Several of these people go days without seeing another person. In the past they would drive to the local pub, have a few pints and drive home. However, the changes to drink-driving laws in recent years means that they can no longer do this.
While I wholeheartedly agree with the ban on drink driving, it’s clear that the crackdown has had a very negative consequence in rural communities. There has been no balancing done here. Nothing is being done to alleviate this isolation. People like Michael Healy-Rea are the only public figures attempting to do something about it. However misguided his attempts may be, it is clear that he has made an impact on voters. He is a favourite to win a seat in the newly established five seater constituency Kerry. His recently released election campaign video may seem like a parody to many, but it provides an ample list of reasons why people vote for him. The bachelor farmer living on a hillside doesn’t care about Apple’s investments in Ireland or how much FDI politicians can generate. It has very little impact on their lives. They will vote for the candidate who doesn’t look down on them, and who will treat their concerns as valid. The popularity of Michael Healy-Rea has even encouraged the family to run a second candidate in the constituency, his brother David Healy-Rea.
The concerns of rural voters are important. They may be a minority, but they have a very strong influence on politics in Ireland. If steps are to be made to change the way the Dáil works, to shift its focus outward rather than inward, politicians need to identify the issues facing rural voters and make meaningful strides to solving them. If they don’t, rural voters will have no choice but to continue to choose candidates like Healy-Rae. Investment needs to be made in rural transport schemes and outreach programmes aimed at the isolated and the lonely. Investment must be made in infrastructure to develop adequate road and rail services to areas beyond the Pale.
County Councillors have to step up and fulfill their roles in a more substantial way. Proactive, meaningful strides must be made to stop the decay happening in rural Ireland and the mass exodus of rural youth. Job creation is central to this. While it’s unlikely that Microsoft will decide to set up shop in rural Donegal, a core objective of the government should be to stimulate the economies of rural areas and encourage some form of investment outside of urban Ireland. The economic upturn has yet to begin in rural areas decimated by emigration. It is becoming impossible for young people from rural Ireland to remain in their hometowns. Limited employment opportunities, low wages and the allure of emigration have resulted in the depletion of youth in rural Ireland.
In order to see a positive change to the political landscape in this country, focus needs to be spread equally. The ‘us vs them’ mentality which permeates throughout rural politics needs to be eliminated, not through small tokens, but by treating rural Ireland as an equal partner in the future of the country. If not, rural voters will continue to choose the inwardly orientated ‘pothole politician’, to the detriment of Irish politics as a whole. I for one won’t blame them.
- Aoileann Kennedy
This article originally appeared in Volume 29, Issue 9. Published February 29th 2016.