Budget: Oireachtas still carries the burden of 1930s Catholic social teaching…

Elaine Byrne has some useful thoughts on the legislative context for tomorrow’s budget in Dublin. She is not impressed, and goes back to Charlie McCreevy’s completely nuts proposal to decentralise 10,000 civil service jobs in contravention of the government’s own spatial strategy as an example of how useless the Oireachtas has been at holding a government to account for it’s own dysfunctional populism: “The cost to the exchequer of this politically motivated and grievously flawed decentralisation policy is estimated to have almost breached the €1 billion mark.”And here’s the killer. The problem, according to the OECD, is systemic:

When Lenihan stands to announce the most austere budget in the history of this state at 3.45pm tomorrow, remind yourself of the €1 billion mistake made by his predecessor standing in the exact same spot.

The 2008 OECD report on the public service indirectly criticised the decentralisation programme. It described the Irish policy process as tending “to neglect the longer-term” where political concerns and electoral timeframes “crowd out longer-term interests”. and induce “short-termism”.

For instance, the early childcare supplement was introduced by Brian Cowen when minister for finance, in the run-up to the 2007 election. The Special Savings Investment Accounts (SSIA) scheme, which provided for a 12 per cent return on savings over a five-year period, matured just in advance of the 2007 general election.

The political decision-making process has been held hostage to geographically concentrated policies, political strategies targeted for specific demographic groups and tax cuts benefiting certain socio-economic interests.

In fact the junior Minister for Science and Innovation, Conor Lenihan admitted in Belfast at his breakfast meeting with local entrepreneurs at the President’s Club on the morning of the Slugger Awards that it had become an Irish political tradition to commission reports on reform and then to ignore them.

Byrne continues:

The only constructive input the Opposition can make tomorrow is to adopt or reject a policy menu to which they have not contributed. The standing orders of the Dáil prevent any amendment of the estimates. Parliamentary procedures dictate that scrutiny of the budget is restricted by a time limit.

There will be no meaningful policy deliberation or any stress-testing of proposals before firm decisions are made. Evidence based policy-making which opens up decision-making to interested stakeholders and the wider public will be absent tomorrow. So too will the systematic early consideration of the benefits, costs and compliance issues of new budgetary measures.

This will always be the case because our parliamentary system is dominated by the executive and the whip system ensures that the legislature will always be limited in exercising its obligation to hold the executive to account.

Tomorrow is merely a theatrical exercise in parliamentary voting fodder.

The key to understanding the problem is the embedding of special interest in the system. Byrne give the social partnership a deserved dig, but it has haunted the state right from the beginning (and even before. The very first senate was established out of the 1917 Irish Convention, with a shadow assembly of 15 Senators appointed by the British Lord Lieutenant in June 1921 to cover a range of interests, particularly business, the professions and education.

And none of the subsequent reforms have done much to tip the upper or lower houses away from those embedded interests and towards a greater capacity for scrutiny within the legislative system. Indeed, the wikipedia entry for DeValera’s reforms of the 1930 emphasise the role of Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno recommending a more corporatist approach to dealing with social issues that emphasized interdependence and solidarity, especially between employers and employees.

This is a big problem for a house of the people’s tribunes. But there is no guarantee it will even recognise the problem never mind attempt to fix it. Last word to Ms Byrne:

Unlike the US system, Irish TDs cannot individually affect legislation or get items added to legislation. Since 1923, fewer than 40 Private Members’ Bills have been enacted. In Westminster, a similar parliamentary system, 268 were ratified between 1979 and 1997.

A recent Economist Intelligence Unit report said Dáil committees do not have the necessary financial specialisation. The Public Accounts Committee has repeatedly asserted that ongoing parliamentary scrutiny of major expenditure projects is almost non-existent.

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  • John East Belfast

    I dunno ?

    Decentralisation of civil service jobs always madea lot of sense to me.

    Basically if the Private & Financial sector is drawn eastwards to Belfast, Dublin & London then to me the Govt should jobs should go west to the regions where office rents are cheaper and where the private sector struggles.

    That was always a no brainer to me ?

    I also cant see how this goes back to 1930’s catholic teaching

  • Mick Fealty


    Of course. but if you look at blog again you’ll see it was dashed out so quickly it wasn’t set up to fit the same government’s spatial strategy.

  • Decentralisation is a good idea. However, just because we call something decentralisation does not mean it is decentralisation.

    The OECD Report uses a wonderful construction of language to basically say enough of this Irish solution type politics to an Irish problem.

    We did not have decentralisation; we had ‘administrative relocation.’

    “The Irish Public Service is currently in the middle of implementing a substantial programme that proposes to move over 10 000 civil and Public Service jobs out of Dublin on a voluntary basis. Within the Irish Public Service system, this is referred to as the “Decentralisation” programme. It should be noted, however, that this programme does not envisage any devolution or transfer of decision-making functions or authority currently held by central government or departments to local or regional government level, which is traditionally understood as “decentralisation”. Within the Irish context, decentralisation involves the dispersal of certain units of central government away from the Dublin region to other locations in the country. As such, the programme should be understood to mean administrative relocation of staff from the Dublin area, and throughout this review, references to administrative relocation should be understood to refer to the Irish decentralisation
    http://www.oecd.org/document/31/0,3343,en_2649_33735_40529119_1_1_1_1,00.html p.84

  • KieranJ

    I was wondering how long it would take to blame Dev for this scandal.

  • Mack

    Decentralisation is a good idea

    If it was focused on viable large population centres and not villages in the middle of nowhere, it could have worked well. As it was – 100% pure pork barrel.

  • Every time I consider decentralisation of powers in an Irish context, I think of the average Irish county councillor and promptly repress the idea for as long as possible.

  • Coll Ciotach

    The problem was of course not caused by the adheerence to catholic social teaching but the exact opposite – the adherence to protestant economic theory

  • Mick Fealty

    And I wondered how long it would take before someone would play another round of ‘Let’s blame the Prods’…

    So let me explain, since my point is somewhat ancillary to Elaine’s more pressing analysis…

    The co-option of competing interests into the decision making process is written in to the DNA of the state… The most recent example is the 20 year old social partnership, which places consensus between those competing interests above the demands of good government (or indeed the citizens at large)… Hence the back references to both the British appointed Senate and the one reformed under Dev…

    That’s not a dig at Dev, just a recognition that any proposed reforms need to take a long view of the problem not just respond to the exigencies of the moment…

  • In the context of the ‘completely nuts’ proposal, the announcement last week that the ‘green’ light has been given to Foras na Gaeilge to recruit 16 new posts, including ‘language engineers’, to populate the All Ireland body’s office in Gaoth Dobhair has to be given honourable mention.

    The fact that these posts were allowed back in 2002/3 and are only now coming on stream, as the Southern state prepares to implement the 20 Year Strategy for the Irish Language, including, as its main plank, the commissioning of a new Irish language promotion agency for the 26 counties alone, just goes to show that the one class of people who will always thrive, whatever the economic conditions, is the Bureaucracy.

    Foras na Gaeilge is an All Ireland agency, supposedly, and it will have offices in Dublin, Gaoth Dobhair and Belfast. What will be done in any of these plush well appointed and high rent offices is open to question?

    And now we have Udarás na Gaeilge, the new Irish langauge promotion agency, which will, at the time of a national emergency, be vying for funding with Foras na Gaeilge.

    Already the Estimates for 2010 prediict a €7m drop in funding for the Department of the Gaeltacht, the mother ship of Foras and Udarás. There won’t be extra money sloshing around for this scheme of Minister Ó Cuív. If anything, there’ll be less as Foras uses money normally spent on funding frontline Irish language organisations to recruit its Gaoth Dobhair bound language engineers….

  • OC

    ‘administrative relocation’

    Adminstrative dispersal?

    In theory, a form of internal out-sourcing. Spread the economic advantage of, in this case, employed civil servants all about the country. It will reduce the population density of Dublin somewhat, putting downward pressure on rents, and overall livability.

    In practise, how much of the “paperwork” etc., can be removed from the center of power? And how much of the total civil servant workforce are engaged in easily tranportable work? If they do actually move 10,000 jobs, it should have many positive ramifications.

    Also, it might also be a pilot programme to eventually out-source this work to other, cheaper (read foreign) climes, although as long as civil servants are required to be citisens, this should not be a problem.

    The Third Reich used this approach for manufacturing, leaving no one single site “too big to fail”. Efficiency isn’t always the most beneficial strategy.

  • In many cases, this was administrative recentralisation in that the centre was moved but the work was not decentralised at all. So instead of real decentralisation where you dealt with a local office, you were dealing with a centre office that happened to not be in Dublin.