Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Decentralisation exposes cracks in the political system

The current decentralisation plan, unveiled by Charlie McCreevy in his December 2003 budget speech, illustrates some very fundamental flaws in the Irish political system.

Firstly, it highlights the huge potential for abuse of power by a sitting Government or individual minister. The proposed distribution of up to 12,000 civil and public servants to the four corners of the country must surely rank as one of the most glaring examples of opportunistic political patronage since the foundation of the state.

Not only are the vast majority of these posts going to locations which do not feature as gateways or hubs in the same Government’s much heralded 2002 National Spatial Strategy, but the resistance of the majority of existing job-holders to follow their jobs must surely result in a huge loss of experience and expertise. The knock-on effect must be a significant disruption in Government services and a huge re-training burden which will ultimately have to be borne by the taxpayer.

The political beneficiaries of this initiative will be those Fianna Fail and PD politicians to whose constituencies the civil servants are moving.

The financial beneficiaries will be the property developers, builders and estate agents who regularly fill the infamous Fianna Fail tent at the Galway races. Large fortunes will be made selling sites and new offices to the civil service throughout the country and redeveloping vacated office blocks in Dublin.

Secondly, this decentralisation programme highlights the conflict of interest for sitting TDs in having to choose between National and Constituency interests. On the one hand, Opposition TDs rightly want to condemn the naked political opportunism and lack of planning of this entire decentralisation proposal, yet find it virtually impossible to denounce an individual decentralisation move to their own constituency without putting their Dail seat in serious jeopardy.

Thus, Enda Kenny recently made the gaffe of describing the overall decentralisation plan as a mess, while simultaneously urging the rapid movement of 160 civil servants to Knock.

A similar dilemma arises for TDs when it comes to the siting of traveller accomodation, dumps, incinerators, prisons etc..

This whole decentralisation process should now be put on hold and handed over to an independent body, whose remit should be the review and revision of current proposals in the context of the National Spatial Strategy, Transport 21 and the willingness of appropriately skilled public servants to relocate.

Decentralisation should not be rushed simply to suit the general election needs of the current administration.

In addition, no future Government of individual Minister should have the power to personally direct the location or relocation of any facility. Of course they must retain the power to set out the desired strategy, but implementation decisions should be the responsibility of a non-political body.

Too much public money is spent by Government ministers on vanity projects in their own constituencies. It’s our money, not theirs.

Footnote: Published as a letter in the Irish Times. An abbreviated version read by Pat Kenny on his RTE radio programme (in May 06).

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