World of Politics with Harry McGee
The most dramatic Budget during my time in Leinster House was the first every one I covered, in December 2003. I was relatively newly arrived in politics at The Irish Examiner and had never experienced a live Budget in the Dáil before. As Charlie McCreevy stood up to speak, we all quickly realised that this was going to be a Budget that was different than anything that had every gone before.
To the bewilderment of everybody – including his colleagues – McCreevy made an announcement that seemed to have very little to do with finance and everything to do with reform.
He intended to move the headquarters of just about every Government department from Dublin to the provinces. Ten thousand staff would be moved to such far-flung places as Killarney, Tullamore, Sligo and Ballina.
It was flabbergasting.
And it was a good idea.
The problem was that it was not such a good idea to announce in a Budget. And we will come back to that.
Within minutes of the announcement, Fianna Fáil and Progressive Democrats were in jubilant mood celebrating McCreevy’s stunning political coup.
Tom Parlon – in a case of spectacular hubris – got posters erected all over Offaly which had done very well from decentralisation. They declared: “This is Parlon Country”.
In the immediate aftermath, the Opposition was left reeling by the announcement. It was bold and imaginative but – like a lot of things in politics – it had not been thought through.
Some public servants were happy with the prospect of escaping the rising house prices and cost of living in Dublin, and moving down the country (often close to where they were from).
But others were reluctant to be herded away. And that sense was especially acute among top civil servants. Gradually, a campaign opposing the decision gathered force. There would be a loss of corporate memory if Departments moved. What would Ministers do if they needed advice from top-level civil servants immediately? How much would the whole project cost?
As time moved on, it became apparent it would be a very costly business, costing many hundreds of millions. People did not move with their own jobs. A person from Kerry, for example, who wanted to transfer back home had to move to the Department of Arts, Tourism and Sport. So if they came from an other department they had to be retrained. And the gap they left had to be filled (and a person trained in to do that).
For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune.