The Irish government's long-term plan for the country is not as visionary as it looks.

Irish governments are often in a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t position with regard to how to distribute investment. Concentrate too much on Dublin and they’re accused of neglecting the rest of the country. Distribute investment throughout the country and they’re accused of adopting the old “one for everyone in the audience” approach to buying off potential voters.

Both accusations can be unfair. Since Dublin is home to 40 percent of the country’s population, neglecting them is hardly an option, but neither is neglecting the rest of the country.

To address the issue the government has announced, with much fanfare, its Project Ireland 2040 plan. This is a national development plan aimed at putting a coherent vision around future growth. Liberal use of the word “rebalance” emphasizes the point that Dublin has reached a critical mass that is sucking in vast numbers of people from the rest of the country, and that the opportunities that attract people to the city need to be made available elsewhere.

Fianna Fail’s criticisms of the plan have been dismissed by the government as “opposition for opposition’s sake.” Michael Martin, the Fianna Fail leader, has complained about the government using taxpayer-funded “expensive marketing” to promote a plan that looks more like an election manifesto. This is somewhat harsh. In a democracy such plans require public buy-in if they are going to be a success, and it is entirely appropriate for the government to communicate its ideas clearly.

Nor is it fair for Mr Martin to criticize the government for not putting the plan to a vote in the Dail. There has already been ample public consultation over the last three years, and forty public meetings later is a bit late to be complaining about a lack of input.

So what is in the plan? It addresses ten areas.

First is the establishment of a National Regeneration and Development Agency for compact growth. The aim is to incentivize more development that is clustered together as opposed to one-off housing, or “bungalow blight,” that makes it so difficult and expensive to provide essential services. One-off housing made some sense in the days when agriculture was labor-intensive and needed large numbers of people living on the land, but today few people have a compelling reason to live in an isolated house far from any others. Elsewhere in the world, to live in the country is to live in a village where services are easier to provide.

Second is an enhanced road network to better connect towns and cities. Third is a Rural Regeneration and Development Fund of €1 billion to balance out growth between Dublin and regions, plus a National Broadband Plan to provide internet access to villages, rural areas and islands. Given the expense of building a broadband network, where delivering to larger towns makes more economic sense, this is one area where the government may have over-promised.

Fourth is a “Sustainable mobility” plan aimed at improving transport options within towns and cities. Flagship projects include the long-awaited Metro Link in Dublin, parts of DART expansion, and an overhaul the current bus system nationwide. Segregated cycling and walking facilities and networks are also included, all of which will require extensive stakeholder input. Poorly-designed bike lanes are a great way to waste money since they often go unused, but can take thousands of cars off the road when implemented properly.

Fifth is giving equal priority to encouraging local entrepreneurship as opposed to attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). If this is delivered, it will be a sensible change in policy and has the potential to make the biggest economic impact. Ireland has for too long depended on companies to do the innovating in places like Silicon Valley and then sought to attract some of the resulting ancillary jobs. While this has helped to improve employment numbers, locally-grown innovation has the potential for the next Facebook or the next Google to be an Irish endeavor. A high profile technology firm born and headquartered in Ireland would add more value to the Irish economy than the crumbs that the country currently gets from the US-based technology table.

Point six of the plan focuses on international transport links, namely airports and sea ports, and part seven deals with culture. The idea is that towns and cities need more than good roads and buildings. They need a soul, and culture is a crucial ingredient in adding to quality of life. A national cultural and sporting infrastructure plan is envisaged for towns and cities for the next decade.

Part eight is a €500m Climate Action Fund to address greenhouse gas emissions, primarily focused on the transport sector, and to shore up flood defences. Lofty ambitions here include getting half a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, banning the purchase of diesel-only buses by July 2019, and phasing out non-zero-emission cars by 2045.

Part nine, dealing with water management, reads like a description of everything Irish Water would like to do, and interestingly the phrase “water charges” appears nowhere in the report.

Finally, part ten deals with healthcare, education, and childcare. Health gets €10.4 billion, education €8.8 billion, and childcare €0.4 billion.

When hacking through the buzzword-compliant fluff of the report, there is some good quality policy insight to be found. However a disappointing aspect is the relegation of railways in favor of roads. While some investment in roads is always welcome, it is disappointing that rail travel seems to have been treated as an afterthought. A true commitment to compact growth would have seen villages clustered around train stations such that people could potentially live in a village, work in a nearby city, and not need to use a car on a regular basis. Yet the plan spells out in great detail which roads are going to be expanded but gives railways lip service in the form of feasibility studies for high speed intercity rail and continued maintenance of existing tracks and signalling. There is not even any mention of electrification of heavy rail lines; instead we are to get more diesel-electric trains, which conflicts with environmental goals. For intra-city transport and quality-of-life improvements, bike and pedestrian infrastructure would be front and center.

Critics have said that Project Ireland 2040 is a repackaging of existing spending plans, and there is some justification to that. While it shows some areas of promise, it is not as visionary as Leo Varadkar would have us believe.

The people stand to benefit from the Public Services Card. The government should sell it to them better.

You know the drill. You apply for a library card, driver’s license, passport, or bank account, and you have to start at the top and fill in a long laborious form telling them your first name, last name, date of birth, address, and provide various pieces of evidence proving that you are who you say you are. For each document you have to complete a different form to meet the peculiar requirements of a different agency or company. At the other end, an army of bureaucrats laboriously works through all the applications and sorts out the inevitable problems that occur.

Users of online services used to face the same problem of having to complete a proprietary registration form for every website that required a login. Create an account, remember your username, and choose a hard-to-remember password. Users had to potentially remember a different password for every service. Social networks like Facebook have helped simplify this process; now many websites or mobile apps allow first-time visitors to simply register using their social media account into which they are already logged. What used to be a daunting form-filling process has been replaced with a single “Sign up with Facebook” click. Signing up for one social network can make it easy to sign up for hundreds of other apps.

Wouldn’t it be good if it were just as easy to access government services? Citizens and the government would benefit from a streamlined process whereby signing up for one government service means you can sign up for them all without having to laboriously duplicate the same data entry every time.

The Baltic nation of Estonia led the way with just such a service in 2014 with the introduction of their national ID cards which provide a government-verified digital identity to every citizen. From the moment of birth, every Estonian has a digital birth certificate issued by the hospital and their health insurance is automatically started. At the age of 15 all citizens get their physical ID card which streamlines access to banking, public transportation, voting, healthcare, signing contracts, and myriad other uses. Filing taxes takes under an hour and registering a new business is a one-minute job.

Estonia has an advantage in that its population is a mere 1.3 million, roughly the same as the greater Dublin area, and small countries can implement this kind of reform at lightening speed. Not to be left behind, Ireland has also tried to roll out a Public Services Card (PSC) that seeks to smooth out the interactions between citizens and government. Originating as a means of preventing benefit fraud, the use of the PSC has been steadily expanded to other government services and has become a requirement for first-time adult passport applicants, replacement of some lost or stolen or damaged passports, citizenship applications, driving test applications, and access to online public services such as Social Welfare and Revenue services. More uses are set to follow.

Despite the expected benefits, the well-intentioned PSC has been dealt a series of confidence-sapping blows, the latest of which was one applicant feeling humiliated when her status as an adopted child delayed the processing of her application; she had not noticed the stipulation that adopted people must produce a certificate of adoption. “It is the worst form of humiliation – Woman denied Public Services Card due to adopted status,” screamed the headline at

Concerns have been raised by civil liberty advocates that the PSC must not become a mandatory ID to be produced on demand to police. For police to accost anyone and demand their “papers please” would indeed be sinister, but the Garda Síochána are expressly prohibited from demanding the card as a form of identification. Legal experts argue that the governmnent is required by EU law to provide a solid justification for requiring the PSC as access to essential services. The flames of public disquiet are fanned by continuous media coverage of these “controversial” ID cards.

Rolling out the the PSC in Ireland may be more challenging than in Estonia, particularly if the public has a low opinion of government competence or the integrity of civic intentions, but it shouldn’t be that much more challenging if the right leadership is shown.

The British government made a botched attempt to implement a national ID system, spending $370m on it, before abandoning ship under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government that took office in 2010. It would be a shame if Ireland were to follow a similar course when its smaller size makes it a perfect place to make a success of such a project.

Estonia’s implementation has not been without problems, and security vulnerabilities have required patches and updates to large numbers of IDs. Nonetheless, the system has been so popular and successful that it has been expanded to non-citizens, meaning it is set to bring in €1.5bn ($1.84bn) in net economic benefits and €340m ($416m) in socio-economic benefits by 2025 according to Deloitte, an accounting firm.

The worst thing the Irish government could do is quietly press on with implementation in the hope that protests don’t get too loud, a tactic that is sure to backfire. A better approach would be to boldly and openly talk up the many advantages of the system, preferably using Estonia as a shining example. In other words, the government should show leadership on this issue and sell it to the public to ensure that they buy into a service from which they can reap huge rewards.

A row over a cabinet appointment misses the real problems faced by the Irish language.

Government Buildings, Dublin

The Taoiseach’s appointment of Joe McHugh as Minister for Gaeltacht Affairs, a junior position under the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, looks at first glance like an own goal. Enda Kenny must surely have known that appointing someone who is not a fluent Irish speaker would lead to a torrent of that most venerable of Irish complaints, “it’s a disgrace.” While Mr Kenny has instructed Mr McHugh to take a refresher course, Irish language promoters have taken it personally and described it as a slap in the face. Protestors have even appeared outside the Department of the Taoiseach to register their displeasure, many of their signs printed in English.

Is it a fair criticism? The Minister for Defence is Simon Coveney who has never served in the military. The Minister for Sport is Paschal Donohoe who has never been a professional athlete and would be unlikely to make the Irish national soccer team. However there are other ministers who have a background in the departments they are heading. The Minister for Education and Skills is Jan O’Sullivan who has a Higher Diploma in Education and has worked as a teacher in Ireland and in Canada. Simon Coveney, as well as being Minister of Defence, is also the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and has a degree in Agriculture and Land Management.

While a certain amount technical know-how is necessary for cabinet posts, the skill set that is necessary to run a government department principally comprises of managerial and organizational skills. Much song and dance has been made of how Mr McHugh would need translation services to be used if Irish speakers were dealing with him directly, but it would be a very inefficient department if every telephone enquiry were to go directly to his desk. Government simply does not work that way. The measure of Mr McHugh’s performance will be in how he can manage his department and any reforms he can bring about.

The uproar over the appointment highlights a certain sensitivity that surrounds the precarious state of the Irish language. Promoters rightly feel that it is an endangered language, and experts in linguistics agree. John McWhorter, a fellow of the Manhattan Institute, has said that languages like Irish are on such thin ice that restoring them to widespread use in everyday speech will require an unprecedented comeback the like of which has never been seen anywhere. Therefore it is unsurprising that anything perceived as a threat to an already struggling language is going to provoke a strong reaction.

The Taoiseach once proposed that Irish be removed from the leaving cert as a mandatory subject, and Irish language promoters were horrified, fearing that this would destroy what was left of the country’s native tongue. However would it have made much of a difference to the already negligible amount of Irish spoken on the street? It is doubtful.

Some say that Irish is struggling because it is an inherently complex language that is difficult to learn. But the same could be said of English which is riddled with irregular verbs and complex grammatical constructions. If I can hide in the present, why do I have to say “I hid” in the past instead of “I hided”? Complex grammar is something we absorb naturally from a young age as we listen to the speech around us, and we think nothing of it.

The problem with the way Irish is taught is that it is left until too late in life to begin teaching it, with lessons beginning in secondary school. This antiquated practice flies in the face of what linguists have known for a long time, that it is easier to acquire a language at a much younger age. If Irish were taught in primary schools when young children are still acquiring English, it would stand a much better chance of sticking. Instead it is taught at secondary level and those who go through that course end up like Mr McHugh, able to get the gist of what others are saying but not fluent or confident enough to be able to speak as Gaeilge.

If the government could rectify that little problem it would go a long way towards restoring its credentials as being serious about language preservation.


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