An Irish MEP has told the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development that public services in rural areas “must be protected”.

During a sitting of the European Parliaments Committee on Agriculture, Midlands North-West MEP Chris MacManus highlighted the issue to Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski in a debate on the European Commission’s vision for rural areas.

Speaking after the debate, MacManus said: “The commission produced a document outlining their vision for rural areas. As I see it, they presented the ‘digital transition’ as a solution that would fix everything.

“I agree we do need more digital infrastructure but that means rural Ireland needs reliable high-speed broadband. That means a roll-out in the very short-term.”

The Sinn Féin TD highlighted that digital technology could be used by farmers to move towards precision farming and would also allow rural dwellers to work from home.

However, when it comes to some services, such as banking or dealing with a government department, MacManus argued that physical provision of these should not be abandoned totally.

“The document highlighted that 40% of those consulted said that they felt left behind by policy makers. This will not be improved by telling them that urban communities will have services and rural communities will be offered a website,” he highlighted.

“In recent years, we have seen the mass withdrawal of services from rural areas; in particular, banks, post offices and Garda stations…The government often tells us that these services are not viable. This lack of imagination is a disservice to rural Ireland.”

The MEP suggested that grouping service locations around hubs is a possible solution, and having multiple services in building.

“For years Irish rural communities have benefited from mobile libraries and banks; the hub model would be an easily implemented extension of that model,” MacManus said.

“It would give people in rural areas certainty that they can make a life for themselves without time consuming and costly commutes to urban centres. This would have a big impact on peoples’ quality of life,” he argued.

The MEP concluded: “The real vision for rural areas must be a mix of access to services that are fixed, mobile and digital; this approach is the only way to avoid social exclusion and inequality or a deepening divide between the entitlements of urban dwellers compared to those who live rurally.”