Infrastructure budget pledge calls for €10bn grain of salt

Glaring lack of accountability in government and Civil Service for how tax euros are spent

 The National Children’s Hospital: offers little confidence in Irish governments’ and civil servants’ ability to oversee big projects. Photograph:  Dara Mac Dónaill

The National Children’s Hospital: offers little confidence in Irish governments’ and civil servants’ ability to oversee big projects. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The National Broadband Plan, the Children’s Hospital, and the delayed and over-budget motorways built earlier this century, would not give anyone any confidence in Irish governments’ and civil servants’ ability to oversee big infrastructure projects while ensuring that taxpayers get the best value for their money.

So the Budget 2021 commitment to spend €10 billion on everything from rail expansion to water treatment has to be met with a fair degree of scepticism. Calling the figure “new” is even a bit of a fiction, as some of it was effectively committed anyway.

The projects include expanding the Dart light rail system in Dublin, which is already out to tender and whose winning bidder could be announced before the end of the year. Other developments in line for cash include the metro from the centre of the capital to the airport, a plan about which Irish officialdom has been talking for more than two decades.

Nevertheless, €10 billion is a big number, and some of that cash will be spent. The big questions are whether the Government is capable of spending it on projects genuinely needed by those whose tax euros are paying for it, namely the Republic’s workers, and whether it can get the best value for their money.

On past experience, the answer to both has to be a resounding “no”. No Irish government has yet proved capable of doing either. Much of the problem is accountability, or rather the glaring lack of it.

Voters’ interests

Government members themselves are unwilling to – publicly at least – hold unelected officials to account, even though that is a key function of anyone who is elected. Government backbenchers either do what they are told or blindly defend their cabinet colleagues, neutralising their ability to safeguard voters’ interests.

Opposition politicians, who should be taxpayers’ last line of defence, simply sit back and wait for the government of the day to mess up, thus allowing them to score political points. So the bottom line is, none of our senior civil servants, cabinet ministers or elected representatives pay any attention to the public interest. If we allow that situation to persist, we can expect plenty of that €10 billion to be wasted.