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Connemara conference hears how rural communities are building sustainable future

Connemara provided the stage for an international showcase to demonstrate how quiet, rural communities are striving and achieving sustainability.

The North Atlantic Forum (NAF) conference – held at ATU Connemara in Letterfrack – hosted some 80 attendees from across Ireland, Scotland, England, Canada, and the USA.

The bi-annual conference offers a platform to discuss the challenges and opportunities to improve rural and island areas around the North Atlantic region.

With the theme of Sustainable Livelihoods, the four-day conference heard over 45 presentations demonstrating how a host of these rural communities are driven on sustainability.

The North Atlantic Forum is a ‘collegial assembly’ which builds on a network established by the North Atlantic Islands Programme at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Conference attendees included community and business leaders, community-led development organisations, students, government representatives, and researchers – all sharing their knowledge on the future of rural and island communities.

They also explored the region on a series of three field trips focused on community-led development initiatives, cultural heritage, and natural resource development.

Keynote speaker, University of Galway Professor Emeritus Tony Varley, identified key transitions that had big consequences for the distribution and redistribution of social and economic power within the Irish countryside.

Professor Varley discussed the unevenness of rural power transitions, the changing roles of different levels of government, and the role of community-based movements.

Dr Kevin Heanue, Chair of the Conference Organising committee and Connemara West, had earlier welcomed guests at the opening of the conference.

“It’s a great opportunity to have this gathering of internationally renowned researchers, policy makers and practitioners share their knowledge and experience tackling the problems and taking advantage of the opportunities to improve rural and island areas around the north Atlantic,” he said.

“The 40-year partnership between Connemara West and the Atlantic Technological University at its Letterfrack campus is an excellent example of innovative public private collaboration that has had local, regional national and even international impact”, he said.

Denis Kelly, Director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly, outlined the strategic planning and economic development policy objectives in the Regional Spatial and Economic Development for the Northern and Western Region.

He examined the economic performance of the west and border region and set out a range of indices that indicate that the gap is growing between this region and the rest of Ireland.

He pointed to the European Commission’s Regional Competitiveness Index 2022, which shows that the Northern and Western Region’s transport infrastructure index score was ranked 218th out of 234, implying that the region had the 17th worst transport infrastructure ranking.

“This region has been historically underserved in the provision of high-quality infrastructure, whether it be in traditional forms of infrastructure – such as roads, rail or ports – or more modern forms of infrastructure such as broadband and research facilities,” he said.

“This underinvestment needs to be addressed to avoid long lasting consequences on the Northern and Western Region of Ireland,” he added.

Mr Kelly called for an ‘integrated approach’ to the delivery of investment of scale with positive discrimination towards this region and deliver regional equity to enable the huge economic performance of this region to be delivered for our communities.

Dr Chris O’Malley, VP Regional Development and Engagement, ATU, outlined ATU’s role in supporting stakeholders in the region.

“This is the most economically challenged region with the sparsest population and least concentration of wealth,” he told delegates.

“We share research and knowledge with those in our communities across our region through our three Technology Gateways funded through Enterprise Ireland– Galway (medical devices), Sligo (manufacturing processes), Donegal (internet of things), through our research centres, and through our two existing and five new doctoral programmes.

“We support the development of new companies through four incubation centres, three entrepreneurial training programmes and student enterprise competitions,” he added.

Pictured at the North Atlantic Forum hosted by ATU Connemara and Connemara West were (back – from left) Dr Kevin Heanue, Chair of the Conference Organising committee and Connemara West, Brendan O’Keeffe, Paul Leamy, Head of Centre, ATU Connemara,  Cllr Eileen Mannion, Senator Sean Kyne, Dr Chris O’Malley, VP Regional Development and Engagement, ATU, Denis Kelly, Director, NWRA, and Eugene Finnerty, Regional Manager, Connemara National Park, with (front) Dr Ryan Gibson, Libro Professor of Regional Economic Development, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, Dr Deirdre Byrne, Staff Researcher, ATU, and David Douglas, Professor Emeritus, University of Guelph, Canada. Photo: Aoife Herriott


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