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1. Introduction

Rural Ireland continues to exercise considerable influence over Irish society in economic, social and cultural terms. However, in common with urban society, rural communities are currently undergoing a process of rapid change.

The White Paper seeks to formulate a coherent strategy for rural development and to identify the policy responses at national, regional and local levels, which will most effectively address theissues of economic and social underdevelopment in rural areas. The objective is to identify and implement a strategy which will (i) provide sufficient employment opportunities to compensate for the changing pattern of employment in agriculture, (ii) countermigration and depopulation in many areas and (iii) meet the needs for public service delivery in terms of access to the range of services which are required to sustain viable rural communities.

The economic and social development of rural areas is no longer synonymous with agricultural development. Consequently, cohesive enhancement of the wider rural economy is now seen as essential to the maintenance of many family farms. The recent European Union Agenda 2000 agreement on agriculture contains an increased focus on rural development, acknowledging it as the second pillar of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Expansion in agriculture has been tempered by the adoption of EU policies to curb over-production, move towards world market prices and integrate environmental protection into farm supports. Mechanisation and new technologies have led to a decline in employment not only in agriculture but in other primary production sectors. Frequently, these changes have resulted in the movement of labour and population into urban centres. Many rural areas have experienced profound change as a result of migration and population decline.

Diversification of the rural economy has become a key objectiveof public policy. However, there are practical constraints to such a policy approach. For example, rural areas suffer in many cases from remoteness in terms of physical access and from diseconomies of scale. Also, trends in the concentration and rationalisation of industry and in the wider commercial and services sectors, make it difficult for many rural areas to either attract inward invest mentor indeed to retain existing employment.

The rapid and unprecedented growth in the economy in recent years has not been distributed evenly throughout Irish society. Economic forces impose a process of adjustment which does not impact uniformly in all areas nor do the benefits and opportunities accrue in a socially homogenous fashion. In many rural areas, disadvantage and marginalisation remain significant problems. Thus, the economic and social decline of some rural areas is in marked contrast to the problems of managing rapid and sustained development elsewhere.

As a small open economy, Ireland, and its rural areas in particular, are both sensitive and vulnerable to international economic and cultural developments and influences. Globalisation of production, changing markets, intensified competition, rapid changes in technology and changing consumer demand together with a growing public awareness of environmental issues, all impact on the organisation of economic activity and on the patterns of social integration and settlement. Thus, the forces which dictate the nature and rate of economic and social change originate largely outside of rural areas.

However, current developments can also provide new opportunities for rural communities provided that the appropriate policy framework is in place. While rural development has emerged as aprominent theme of public policy in Ireland, at European Union level and in other international for a such as the OECD, coherentsets of policy responses have not been formulated or implemented. The need for such an approach was identified in "The Cork Declaration, A Living Countryside" (1996) which was the outcome of a major EU international conference on rural development. The Declaration called on policy makers to support recommendations for a ten point programme for a sustainable rural development policy. These included (i) a fairer balance of public spending between urban and rural areas, (ii) a multi-sectoral approach todevelopment, (iii) diversification of economic and social activity, (iv) sustaining the (APPEARS ON PAGE 2 OF THE PUBLISHED DOCUMENT) quality and amenity of rural landscapes, (v) subsidiarity and (vi) an emphasis on a 'bottom-up' and an integrated single programme approach to rural development. Some of the recommendations of the Declaration are incorporated into the agreement on Agenda 2000.

Against this general background, the Government has decided to bring forward the White Paper to

  • identify the issues critical to the development of rural communities in Ireland,
  • articulate a vision of the long-term future of Irish rural society,
  • establish an overall policy strategy with key objectives to achieve the vision goals with appropriate institutional mechanisms to ensure implementation.

The White Paper acknowledges the close interdependence and interrelationship between urban and rural areas. The overall strategy is designed to ensure balanced and sustainable development and improved social cohesion rather than to contribute in any way to an urban/rural divide. The intention is to put in place a strategic framework for rural development rather than to identify sectoral responses to specific problems or issues.

The preparation of the White Paper follows a comprehensive consultative process with the rural community, the social partners, a broad range of interest groups and Government Departments. A large number of written submissions were received from national and local organisations, groups and individuals representing a wide range of interests in rural areas. The rural community also had the opportunity to express its views and concerns at regional seminars hosted by the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food. In addition, the Minister of State and his officials, along with members of the Interdepartmental Committee which was established to prepare the White Paper, met various groups duringthe past year.

While the White Paper was prepared by the Interdepartmental Committee which was chaired by the Minister of State, the consultation process formed an important part of the development of the overall strategy.

The publication of the White Paper coincides with the preparation by Government of the National Development Plan, 2000-2006, which will set out the national development strategy and priorities for the period involved. The Government is committed to ensuring that the principles and general policy commitments in theWhite Paper are reflected in this plan.