Rural isolation: ‘They have the farm…but there is no company on the land’

Senator Róisín Garvey has asked for the Community Employment (CE) programme to be opened up to more participants than currently allowed as a way of helping to combat rural isolation.

During a Seanad debate on the Department of Social Protection’s response to Covid-19 yesterday (Monday, February 1), the Green Party senator raised the issue of rural isolation.

The CE programme is designed to help people who are long-term unemployed (or otherwise disadvantaged) to get back to work by offering part-time and temporary placements in jobs based within local communities.

The senator feels that while there are farmers “who may have means”, there are those who also “may not have a social life” and want to join the schemes but are not eligible to do so.

‘Wives of farmers who are worried about their husbands’ mental health’

“They [farmers] want to join CE schemes but they cannot do so – we should consider this. For mental health, it is really good to create space,” the senator said.

“I have had telephone calls from people saying they really want to join CE schemes but who cannot do so.

Wives of farmers who are worried about their husbands’ mental health are asking whether there is any way in which the department can consider allowing them to join a scheme because it would be an outlet for them.

“They have the farm…but there is no company on the land. The cows are great but that will only get one so far.”

The senator also asked Minister Heather Humphreys for an update on remote working hubs. The minister said her department is at an “advanced stage of developing a €5 million call for hubs”.

“I have a keen personal interest in this matter and my department will continue its efforts to grasp this once in a lifetime opportunity to change the way we do things,” she said.

Remote working ‘will help viability of small farms’

The need for improved facilities to allow for remote working has been made clear during the pandemic.

Acceleration of remote working “will help the viability of small farms” according to this year’s Institute of Professional Auctioneers and Valuers (IPAV) Farming Report, but factors such as access to broadband continue to impact those in rural areas.

Philip Farrell, report editor, noted the importance of the government’s ambition to introduce legislation regarding remote working.

“There’s a large cohort in the farming industry who are part-time farmers, who need to [work on] a full-time basis in order to make a profit and in order to pay their way,” he said.

‘Impossible for many in rural Ireland’

However, a Sinn Féin TD says the government’s National Remote Work Strategy, which was recently published, will be impossible for many in rural Ireland.

Sligo-Leitrim deputy Martin Kenny said: “While it is welcome that legislation will be introduced to give employees a legal right to work from home, I believe this will still be an impossibility for many in rural areas.”

The deputy said that during this lockdown and the previous lockdowns, he has been contacted by constituents in Sligo, Leitrim, Donegal and Roscommon who have little or no broadband service.

For businesses and employees, access to fast and reliable broadband is essential and is as important as having electricity.

“I have [written] to the Minister for Communications [Eamon Ryan] to express my concern about the lack of broadband in these areas and that employees and businesses living in rural areas will be discriminated against because of where they live.

“It will mean that it will be impossible for them to work from home,” he added.