Some 80 attendees from across Ireland, Scotland, England, Canada, and the USA attended the first day of the North Atlantic Forum (NAF) bi-annual conference in ATU Conmemara and Connemara West, Letterfrack on Tuesday (18 June 2024). Community leaders, business leaders, community-led development organisations, students, government representatives, and researchers gathered together to share knowledge on the future of rural and island communities.

Over 45 presentations were shared over the four-day conference titled “Sustainable Livelihoods”, showcasing how rural communities are striving and achieving sustainability.  Attendees also explored the region on a series of three field trips focused on community-led development initiatives, cultural heritage, and natural resource development. ATU is the academic partner in this conference.

Opening the conference, Dr Kevin Heanue, Chair of the Conference Organising committee and Connemara West, says: “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.”
“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 says.
Dr Heanue urged the conference delegates to “challenge conventional wisdom, ask questions and communicate what they hear at the conference to their wider networks”.

Denis Kelly, Director of the Northern and Western Regional Assembly (NWRA), 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 highlighted the European Commission’s “Regional Competitiveness Index” 2022, which shows that the Northern and Western Region of Ireland’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. This underinvestment needs to be addressed to avoid long lasting consequences on the Northern and Western Region of Ireland”, he said.

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. 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. There are major regional development projects and initiatives, including Data2Sustain to promote competence in using digital technology with SMEs and public services; the Advancing Innovation in Manufacturing (AIM) Centre; and Creative Industries West (CREW). The University hosts four industry clusters in the Marine, Manufacturing, Wood and Digital Health. We are currently working with University of Galway to bid for an SFI-funded research commercialisation hub in medical devices and digital health”.

Keynote speaker Professor Tony Varley (Emeritus), University of Galway, 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 Ryan Gibson, Libro Professor of Regional Economic Development, University of Guelph, Ontario, Canada, chaired a panel discussion comprised of Dr Deirdre Bryne, Staff Researcher, School of Business and Social Sciences, ATU, Allen Meagher, Editor, Changing Ireland, Dr Andrew Jennings, University of Highlands and Island, Scotland, Gabriel O’Connell, CEO Monaghan Integrated Development, who shared their experiences on shifting rural power dynamics. The panellists stressed the importance of place-based and community-led development and the need to ensure these initiatives are appropriately funded.

About the North Atlantic Forum
The North Atlantic Forum is a “collegial assembly” which builds on a network established by the North Atlantic Islands Program at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada. It remains an informal network of researchers, regional policy-makers, and practitioners from the North Atlantic region who share research and best practices and support community, business, and government exchanges across the North Atlantic region for increased collaboration and partnerships.