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David McWilliams: Are you one of Ireland’s Outsiders or Insiders?

In a litany of projects paid for by the average citizen, cost overruns are blithely accepted and more money seems to shift from the Outsiders to the Insiders

The estimated budget for construction of the new children’s hospital jumped from €790m back in 2013 to the most recent estimate of €1.73bn, and recent reports suggest it could be even more. For reference, in Helsinki a new children’s hospital will cost €150m; in Copenhagen €350m; and in Edinburgh about €210m. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

In 2010 I wrote Outsiders, a one-man show that I performed at the Peacock Theatre. As the country emerged from a devastating economic crash the central theory was that the coming political battle within Irish society would not be between traditional left or right, conservative or liberal, urban or rural but would be between the Insiders and the Outsiders. The Insiders are those people with a stake in the society. Insiders can be on the conventional left, such as trade unions representing employees of a State broadcaster, or on what might be termed the traditional right, such as a talent agent representing entertainers in the same forum, but the key unifying aspect is that they both, in different ways, have access to power.

In contrast, the Outsiders have no stake, no real claim on power – they are locked out. Although Ireland is a democracy, real power resides with the Insiders, who are adept at keeping their influence intact. In theory everyone is represented in the political process but in reality we have what could be called spectator democracy. Every four years the people give the thumbs up or thumbs down to some politician or party and then we go about our business until the next time. In the meantime, the Insiders consolidate their power. This can go on for a long while until one day the Outsiders will have had enough and will vote for the party that promises to tear it all down and rebuild.

The general theory wasn’t a bad stab at foretelling the Outsider “uprisings” that have swept the world over the past decade, from Trump and Brexit on the right internationally, to the rise of Sinn Féin on the left in Ireland. The glue that binds these disparate movements is a sense of being left behind or on the outside and the desire to take back control from the Insiders.

Watching the RTÉ saga drag on, the anger it inflames and the emotions it releases, has reignited this division between the Insiders and the Outsiders. The nub of the issue for many of the Outsiders – at least from an economic and financial perceptive – is the cavalier attitude to public money displayed by the ultimate Insiders, RTÉ’s senior management.


For many this is yet another example of Insiders grabbing as much of the Outsiders’ money as possible for themselves, their stars and their organisations. It adds to a litany of projects where cost overruns, usually funded by the average citizen, are blithely accepted and more money seems to shift from the Outsiders to the Insiders, with the State acting as the broker rather than the accountant.

Here are just a few examples:

National children’s hospital

  • The estimated budget for construction jumped from €790 million back in 2013 to the most recent estimate of €1.73 billion, and recent reports suggest it could be even more.
  • Other countries are building far cheaper but smaller children’s hospitals. Helsinki’s cost €170 million.

Motorway network:

  • It was expected to cost €5.6 billion but ended up costing over €16 billion, with significant delays in delivery. For example, the N11 route was held up for five years because of objectors at the Glen of the Downs, while the M7 was delayed to protect a rare species.
  • Further probing revealed that the initial cost was underestimated by 40 per cent or so due to a systematic failure to fully cost parts of the projects “and a failure to fully take into account construction inflation”.


  • Phase 1 of the Luas network was originally estimated to cost €285, million to be completed by 2001. When finally completed in 2004 the cost had almost tripled, rising to €778 million.


  • This saga/fiasco begins back in 2002 when the project was costed at around €2.4 billion.
  • As remarked upon in a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts this April, the most likely cost for the construction of its latest incarnation was estimated at €9.5 billion by the department. Furthermore, the most credible capital cost ranged from €7.16 billion to €12.25 billion, with some upper estimates for the project allowing for a cost as high as €21.5 billion.

Dublin Port Tunnel

  • An expected cost of approximately €200 million in 2000 almost tripled to a new estimated cost of €580 million in 2002, but ended up costing €804 million by the time it was completed in 2006 – more than four times the original budgeted cost.

Personnel, Payroll and Related Systems (PPARS)

  • The proposal to upgrade the HSE’s payroll system was estimated to cost €9 million when proposed back in 1997.
  • By the time the project was scrapped in 2005 some €150 million had been pumped into it and it was erroneously overpaying a member of staff to the tune of €1 million.

Ireland is not unique in suffering cost overruns on so-called mega-projects yet there is a deep sense that no one is in control and money is wasted. Often the person or agency writing the cheque is spending someone else’s money.

Some people will conclude that where public money is involved a cavalier attitude prevails and it is always the Insiders who stand to gain. For example, Irish insurance awards for personal injury are way in excess of other countries. Despite new Personal Injuries Guidelines which appear to have gone some way to reducing the amounts awarded, court awards in Ireland are still higher, often multiples of what they would be in other jurisdictions. Who benefits? Obviously the personal injury industry and its practitioners -the legal Insiders, protected by the ultimate guild, the Law Library. And who awards these massive pay-outs? The grandmasters of the same guild, the judiciary. In the end, the public - the Outsiders - pay for these awards through higher individual insurance premiums. Yet again there is the sense that nobody pays but everybody pays.

Significant political change occurs for a variety of reasons. Convention suggests that such changes happen when the economy is weak, unemployment is high and people’s prospects are limited. But how do we explain general anger and a desire for change in a country that has never been richer, where the economy is booming, where unemployment has never been lower and where economic prospects are overwhelmingly positive?

Look no further than the televised spectacle of the public accounts soap opera this week. That’s where the real story lies. It’s not about individuals, it’s about a system that serves Insiders and locks out the Outsiders.