‘Decentralisation’ is a term that voters in most parts of the world find so desirable that it ranks with ‘motherhood and apple pie’: almost everyone is for it.  But here in Ireland, where Dublin has so outpaced the growth of the regional cities, it is a term associated with an intense craving: urgent and radical action is called for before Dublin strangles itself and the regions further decline.

The Government has responded with a bold plan.

The principle that lies behind the plan to ‘decentralise’ and move more than half of the Government Departments and 10,300 public workers out of Dublin is so significant that it is important that it be a success. Because 53 locations have been identified right across the country from Buncrana to Clonakilty there is widespread euphoria. In such a climate it may be difficult to look objectively at other variations on the plan that may have better results for the country as a whole, as opposed to the individual towns.

In the knowledge-driven economy regional cities are emerging as the key-driving force for development and for the health of towns and villages in their region. While Ireland’s regional cities were able to support manufacturing operations none of them have the scale, infrastructure and range of specialist legal and financial services to effectively compete with Dublin in attracting knowledge-driven enterprise. As a result the drift to Dublin is accelerating even though the quality of life may be more attractive in the regional cities. The solution: focus energies and resources in strengthening the regional cities and building a counterpole to Dublin.  One logically looks at the population concentration of some 700,000 people in the Cork, Limerick, Galway corridor.

Those of us who have laboured in the regions and over the years, resenting the concentration in Dublin, must admit that the close collaboration there between the Ministers in government, the public service and the development agencies has resulted in consistent and coherent economic development policy. Ireland is now one of Europe’s most successful economies, with the highest growth rate in the EU, year after year during the past decade. As the knowledge-driven economy takes hold coherent government and swift, prudent decision-making by the key players becomes more vital. For example eleven of the fifteen government departments invest in the vital research area and close consultation and collaborations in building Ireland’s reputation as a world-class location for research-based investment.

So, while any moves to take pressure off Dublin and encourage the growth of the regions much be welcomed, care must be taken not to dislocate the structures at the heart of  government that have worked remarkably well. For this reason the intention to disperse eight of the fifteen government departments across the country from Knock Airport to Killarney must be examined from a national perspective rather than from that of the individual towns.

Most countries have an administrative capital where the work of central government can be done in a coherent way, while a range of powers and functions are devolved to regional administrations.  In countries where significant powers are devolved to well-structured regional administrations decentralisation is a healthy reality. Ireland is not such a country: it has one of the most centralised administrations in the EU. The plan to scatter Government Departments throughout the country does not address this central issue: under the plan central government will continue to retain the powers and functions that in other countries are devolved to the regions. Despite the advances in electronic communications it is difficult to be satisfied that this novel concept will improve the governance and administration of Ireland.

But the plan may be right in principle and with further development could be excellent in practice.  The administrative capital of the country does not have to be in the largest city.  There are innumerable examples: Washington in the US, Canberra in Australia, Berne in Switzerland, and Wellington in New Zealand.  There are also examples of countries that, because of the kind of experience we have with Dublin, have decided to move the seat of government to a new more central location: Brazil moved its administrative capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia in xyz, and Malaysia is moving its capital from Kuala Lumpur to a xyz at the heart of its Multimedia Super Corridor. Were this the intention in Ireland there would be less concern about the prospect of disorientation of central government and a good prospect of building the critical mass of activity about the new seat of government as a counterpole to Dublin.

The plans to relocate more than half of the Government Departments out of Dublin raises the question of ‘why not move all of them’ and relocate the seat of government and central administrations in one of the regional cities. Such a move would appear to be far less hazardous than scattering half of Ireland’s government departments into small towns across the country and it offers the real prospect of creating a strong new growth centre with the critical mass and expertise to support sophisticated knowledge-driven enterprise.

Any of the regional cities could be considered, including Kilkenny and Athlone, but the Atlantic cities are obvious contenders. Galway and Limerick would be expected to make a strong case based on their relatively central locations and as Ireland’s second largest city Cork would not be found wanting.

‘Motherpie and applehood’ sounds fairly appealing but on closer examination does not make much sense: we must make sure that the same does not apply as we tackle the serious challenge of decentralisation.  The budget announcement is of historic significance: it signals a willingness to address a major challenger with an unprecedented radical solution. But radical solutions require careful examination before they are implemented to make sure that we are not overlooking better options.

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