by Stephen Cadogan
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has defended his Government’s handling of the Leader rural development scheme, after opposition leader Micheál Martin this week said the previous Fine Gael-led Government undermined and arguably destroyed Leader.
Mr Martin said it was lauded by the EU as an example of good governance and developmental community-led approach to revitalise rural areas, injecting €400m from 2007 to 2013.
“The Fine Gael-led Government came in and reduced that allocation to €250m and destroyed it by undermining the governance structure with huge bureaucracy,” said the Fianna Fáil leader in the Dáil on Tuesday.
“There were also major delays in getting the programme off the ground.
“As of this month, only €13m out of the 2014-20 programme allocation of €250m has been spent.”
The Taoiseach said an underspend in Leader is normal, in the first two years of the seven-year programme.
“The Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Ring, has made 32 changes already to simplify the Leader process and to make sure that money is drawn down and is spent.”
Mr Martin accused Fine Gael politicians of wanting to take the Leader programme away from the community, and give themselves some credit.
“It was snarled in bureaucracy because individual deputies and ministers wanted the credit. They did not like non-politicians in community-led groups developing through the Leader programme.”
The opposition leader said: “We need a reality check in terms of delivery on promises made to rural Ireland.”
He said rural businesses are under huge pressure because of the lack of broadband speed, household quality is reduced, and the potential of new micro enterprises is stymied because of the lack of broadband connection.
“If there was one project that would really enable rural Ireland and the regions to develop economically, it is the availability of high speed broadband.
“Everything else pales into insignificance with that vital piece of infrastructure.”
However, the Taoiseach pointed to 80% of jobs created in the last quarter being situated outside the Dublin area. “I do not think there is anything more we can do for rural Ireland than ensuring there is employment in rural Ireland.”
He also said €21m has been invested in the town and village scheme, and the local improvement scheme has been restored with €17m spent already.