*Quilty. Photograph: Páraic McMahon
Swift movement at a national level is needed to sustain the future of North and West Clare, areas which are heavily reliant on tourism.
Elected representatives highlighted their concerns and made a call for action at a specially convened meeting of the West Clare Municipal District. Clare County Council are finalising plans to examine the countywide impact of COVID-19 led by the Economic Development Directorate.
Addressing councillors, Director of Service, Leonard Cleary stated, “the economy of West Clare and communities in the area have some challenges ahead. Our economy relies heavily on tourism and visitors to the area”. He said the West Clare MD needed to put a clear plan in place and see how the County Council could help “kickstart the economy” while being mindful of the various phases and guidelines in places. “The hard reality of economics have to be addressed”.
Already the impact of COVID-19 has been felt in West Clare, Cllr Cillian Murphy (FF) outlined who shared his concern on how the area will cope for the next 12 months. Having secured information from the Council’s finance department, he highlighted that 20% of the rates base for the local authority comes from the hospitality sector, small local shops and petrol stations. The impact on communities needed to be factored into any plans, he believed.
IBEC have stated that 11% of jobs in Clare are dependent on tourism. “We’ve nothing to fall back on,” Cllr Murphy commented in reference to 40% of the jobs and 30% of the rates in the West Clare MD being reliant on tourism, “We almost left the west of this county survive on tourism, now tourism has collapsed”. He cautioned that “an awful lot of people” in the tourism industry are employed on a casual basis, “The impact on those household budgets in winter will be severe. “These businesses are the absolute social fabric of these communities, it is where we met for a coffee, hear music or go for a pint”.
Clare must be unique to bounce back, Cllr Ian Lynch (IND) declared. “It is not a very easy topic to talk about, we’re in the midst of a changing time and we have to look at the consequences. It isn’t a county or a national thing, it is a global issue”. Trying to replace the financial plus of tourism in West Clare “is going to be a mammoth task,” he added. The Kilrush representative praised the Council’s response during the pandemic but called for the West Clare Greenway to be prioritised, “The Government need to act quick, we’re in really good shape and we have to be unique”.
Lean on Me, a new online platform that allows people to buy vouchers online that will be redeemable in North Clare outlets was referred to by Cllr Roisin Garvey (GP) who maintained it was “a solution to a lot of problems Cillian has mentioned”. The Inagh native praised advertising by the Council and Visit Clare on TG4 during a series on the Burren, “Ian Lynch’s singing is good promotion for Clare but so is the cinematography from the Burren”. She underlined the benefits of remote working and pointed out that the demand that exists for refurbishing old houses.
“Solidarity has been shown across communities, it needs to be shown now to the businesses that have had to close,” Cllr Joe Garrihy (FG) stressed. “The businesses in Doolin, Lisdoonvarna and Lahinch won’t survive on Joe Garrihy going to dinner there once a month, we need the visitors,” he added. More resources must be pumped into the Council’s Rural Development Office in his view.
Last year, 1.6m people visited the Cliffs of Moher, Cllr Garrihy predicted “it will be a long time” before that figure is matched again. He was adamant that COVID-19 showed rural living in a different light, “it shows the nonsense of the spend talked about on broadband and how we can effectively communicate via Zoom” and it must be strengthened by clever marketing of Co Clare. He suggested that an action-group be established, “this is an emergency and it requires an emergency action”.
A strong advertising campaign is needed, Cllr Joe Killeen (FF) told the meeting, “we need to try get the tourism system back in action as soon as possible”. Potential visitors need to be assured that they can enjoy sites from a safe social distance, he advised the meeting. A deduction in the VAT rate was one form of financial support needed for the tourism businesses in North-West Clare according to the Corofin man, “we have to win back public confidence”.
Support for the establishment of the action-group was voiced by Cllr Shane Talty (FF). He hoped that the refurbishment of Lahinch Seaworld would be one of the first “flagship projects” to lift spirits in the coming months. He urged the Council to “work with every business that we can” and said people will need to see the local authority “making active changes”. Talty continued, “Some way of living with COVID-19 around us is going to have to be found”.
Financial attitudes have to be factored into every plan, Cllr PJ Kelly (FF) surmised. “I listened with interest to the many genuine problems we have, it is somewhat more difficult to solve a problem than to identify it. Any fool can identify a problem, it takes more than a fool to solve it”. He warned that the situation was constantly changing. “It is very difficult for anyone to amalgamate all the problems and come up with a solution, we’re in orbit”.
Criticism of the Council for not commencing the roadwork programme came from Cllr Gabriel Keating (FG). “I couldn’t understand why we hadn’t made a start during the good weather”. He said that signage work was to be done by the Bridges of Ross, “we don’t need four or five people to put up a sign”.
Opposition to the new action-group was voiced by Cllr Lynch but Cllr Garrihy felt it would bring in expert external views such as the Burren Ecotourism Network. “We set up a taskforce not so long ago, it only had one meeting and it was one of the worst things we’ve done. It is not the time for a talking shop,” Lynch replied and referenced the inactive Moneypoint Taskforce.
Cleary also mentioned the previous attempt at setting up a taskforce and said the idea would be taken into context. He informed councillors that they will aim to hold a workshop session with an emphasis on economic development in the coming weeks.