Clare County Council is planning to launch its very first digital strategy in July. Bernie Commins speaks to Urban McMahon, Clare broadband officer and head of information systems about the strategy's initiatives to enhance quality of life for its communities, create opportunities to work from home and help to rejuvenate rural Ireland.
Hot desks, hubs and high-speed broadband. It is far from these that rural Ireland was born! One part of rural Ireland has not only been embracing these things, but it has been using them as ways to ensure that rurality stays relevant.
Earlier this year, three digital hubs were launched by Clare County Council in Kilrush, Miltown Malbay and Feakle. They are part of the Council’s DigiClare.ie initiative, which is under the umbrella of the Clare Rural Development Strategy 2026. The hubs comprise ‘hot desks’ (which can be used by one or more workers, booked as needed) meeting rooms and full audio-visual facilities with high-speed wifi connectivity. Two similar facilities are planned for Ennis and Ennistymon, both of which are at advanced stages of development and will include incubation units also.
In many parts of rural Ireland, not a whole lot has risen from the ashes of the Celtic Tiger. Post offices have closed, many co-ops are no more, pubs and grocers have shut up shop, GPs are fewer and farther between, and Garda stations are rare. Central to the development of these digital hubs in Co Clare were themes of rural depopulation, isolation, the rural economy and lack of access to services – and a realisation that 55 per cent of premises in the county did not have access to high-speed broadband. The hubs, the Council realised, would help to achieve a number of goals: provide fit-for-purpose facilities with broadband connectivity within communities located strategically throughout the county; enhance the ability of Clare citizens to live and work in the county; improve quality of life for members of the communities; and provide high-specification facilities and high-speed broadband, enabling communities to become connected.
In January 2018, the Government launched Realising our Rural Potential: The Action Plan for Rural Development, which is perched on five pillars: supporting sustainable communities; supporting enterprise and employment; maximising rural tourism and recreation potential; fostering culture and creativity in rural communities; and improving rural infrastructure and connectivity. Clare County Council is already ticking a number of these boxes with its rural development initiatives. And everyone had a place at the table when it came to submitting ideas and opinions, explains Mr McMahon.
“As part of our Rural Development Strategy process, we had huge input from many stakeholders from throughout the county. We held five to six workshops that were attended by Chambers of Commerce, representatives from the Irish Farmers' Association (IFA) representatives from third level colleges. All rural development organisations got involved and contributed to these workshops, stating what they felt should be done for their county and outlining what structures should be in place,” said Mr McMahon.
“One of the recurring issues was the absence of high-speed broadband. And, while access to broadband services is critical, we found that the requirement for facilities to complement the infrastructure also needed to be there. This was deemed equally important. So, you could provide broadband in the middle of a town, but without the facilities to complement its use, it really would be found wanting,” said Urban.
Cue, the digital hubs.
“Digital hubs certainly are not new, but our remit was to provide digital hubs in rural areas that would be accessible to all members of the community: local residents, local enterprises, entrepreneurs, local businesses, e-workers, commuters who want to reduce commuting time or frequency, and particularly in terms of Co. Clare, visitors to our area who might need an office or a work space and who might need interconnectivity on an ad hoc and flexible basis.”
So far, the hubs – funded solely by Clare County Council – are proving very popular among a variety of people with varying requirements.
“In Feakle, for example, we would have people who are working in a bank in Dublin, but who have the option to work remotely. So, they can come home on a Thursday evening and they work in the hub on Friday, which costs them just €10 per day.
“In Miltown Malbay, a local journalist who relocated to the area and was unable to get broadband in her house for a few months, used the hub there. Two bloggers use it. They drop their daughter off at a nearby school, use the hub for the day, collect their daughter after school and go home. They are there full-time until the end of the school term. It saves them two hours’ commuting every day. Kilrush is the location of the biggest digital hub, according to Mr McMahon, and is attracting full-time professionals – those working for multinationals, or in a consultancy role, for example – who may not be able to afford their own office space.
“But the boardroom facilities there are also being used by local companies, local individuals and by some public sector organisations because they have full audio-visual capabilities and Skype,” explains Mr McMahon.
From 2018, all applications under the Direct Payments Schemes (Basic Payment Scheme, Greening, Young Farmers Scheme, National Reserve, and Transferring of Entitlements) will be done online. For the farming communities in these rural parts of Co Clare, the hubs will be instrumental in delivering various workshops and programmes to assist farmers with their online applications and other things and to provide them with broadband infrastructure and facilities that they may not have access to on their own farms.
“We have the facilities now to be able to roll out programmes in partnership with the likes of Teagasc, the IFA and other farming organisations,” says Mr McMahon.
Indecon's independent assessment of the macro-economic impact of digital on the Irish economy in 2016 found that the digital economy represents 6 per cent (€12.3bn) of Ireland’s GDP and that this is expected to grow to €21.4bn or 7.9 per cent of GDP by 2020. Almost 116,000 direct and indirect jobs are supported, of which 68,000 are directly linked to digital; and approximately one in seven Irish people (13.5 per cent of the adult population) make a supplementary income on the internet. However, rural Ireland’s delayed access to ‘digital’ has made all the above less achievable. This delay has only served to expedite the movement of bright, young talented people from rural to urban areas.
“If you are trying to establish a business in any of these localities, there are a couple of barriers. One is the absence of broadband and the other is the absence of suitable facilities. If you are a small enterprise starting with maybe one or two employees, we have provided these ready-made facilities, which tick all the boxes for your requirements.
“Nowadays, working remotely is accepted in about 50 per cent of the jobs that exist, so if you are an individual who is living locally or looking to relocate, the opportunity to work remotely is there with these hubs. If you work in Limerick or Galway, you don’t need to necessarily drive there five days a week.” Additionally, Mr McMahon says that a further aim is to advertise these facilities directly to companies in Limerick and Galway so that they are aware of them and the opportunities that exist for their employees to work remotely.