It is 30 years since I began work in Dublin, having started my career in Cork. At that time, I would have been cynical about those who griped about how the capital was over-indexing on investment and political attention, at the expense of regions, including Munster. It seemed a form of inferiority complex to be forever whinging about the capital grabbing the lion’s share of investment.
Now, I am convinced that the political, institutional, and trade union structures created in Ireland after independence have hard-wired a set of behaviours and decisions that suit agendas set within the M50.
Moreover, despite the obvious benefits of spreading Ireland’s economic presence outside of Dublin, time and again we see private and public capital being prioritised within the Dublin area. Part of this is caused by history and the way administration worked in a world before telephony and the internet. Government departments and semi-state organisations were clustered in Dublin to be physically close to the political, legal, and financial decision-makers.
Trade unions established head offices in Dublin to pursue agendas that reflected the interests of the bulk of their members, who, de facto, lived around the capital.
That eco-system bred a culture of influence and decision-making that inevitably was shaped first by life around the capital and afterwards by life in the country.
That’s human nature. How else can we explain why government departments that cater for people in the country are still planted in the heart of Dublin? Why is agriculture, for example, administered and led from a large office close to St Stephen’s Green? Why is the fishing industry overseen from a physical headquarters in the capital?
These are tangible markers of the imbalance. It is much harder to dig out the intangibles that underpin decisions that prioritise a Dublin-first set of issues.
Technology, and a flow of foreign direct investment, could change this fundamentally, if the political will for a radical shake-up exists. The argument that you have to base civil servants in the centre of Dublin because they need to be near politicians is laughable. Many of them commute long distances to sit at desks and work on computers all day.
Such high-value activity can take place literally anywhere that has a decent broadband connection.
We know that clever international companies are operating in the Munster and Connacht regions, serving global markets and being financed by global investors. If these companies can excel from bases established in Cork, Limerick, and Galway, among others, why do our state bodies struggle to replicate their success?
Ultimately, decision-making is local and when the leadership of any enterprise lives and socialises in one urban centre for decades, a group-think evolves. It legitimises decisions that are blatantly not in the national interest, but which can be wrapped up in an explanation and excuse hinged around the importance of the capital city.
Changing this imbalance will be hard to do. Vested political and private sector interests prefer to keep the high level of economic activity and wealth flowing around the capital, because — guess what — that’s where the highest incomes and career opportunities exist. Only the brave have an appetite to tackle such hegemony, but it’s a fight worth having, if it unzips economic energy in so-called regional Ireland.