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It takes 10 years to build a road in Ireland, 20 for a rail line, 30 for a MetroLink. What are we doing wrong?

Cliff Taylor: Why do big infrastructure projects always take so long in Ireland?

Twenty years. That is the length of time it takes to plan and build a new rail line in Ireland, Green Party leader Eamon Ryan observed this week. Roads take “only” 10 years. It was a striking observation, but not hugely surprising when you think of some of Ireland’s greatest hits in terms of project delay. It is 17 years since the original Mater site was chosen for the national children’s hospital and six years since the new site was chosen.

The 20km Dublin MetroLink was originally mooted in 2005 and when a public consultation finally started in 2018, the target was to have it built by 2027. It will now, we are told, be 2035 before it is up and running and cost closer to €10 billion rather than the original €3 billion estimate. After 1995, Madrid built 130km of an expansion to its metro in eight years. You wouldn’t bet your house on our 20km ever happening.

When you read the international experts on why big projects always run late and cost more, you end up – as an Irish person – nodding a lot. There is a playbook of problems identified in particular by the acknowledged international expert Danish professor Bent Flyvbjerg, and Ireland all too often ticks most of the boxes.

Big projects chosen at least in part for political kudos. Check. Poor initial scoping of the projects and unrealistic costing. Check. Unrealistic assessments of the net benefits. Check. Largely ignoring the risks, particularly those with really big projects on a scale never attempted before in the country. Check. And then a determination, when things go wrong, to keep going and throw good money after bad. Check – with knobs on.


Public spending minister Paschal Donohoe announced a range of reforms a few months ago to try to speed up decision making while also increasing oversight on major projects, and resourcing key agencies to deliver. It is nuts and bolts work and far from exciting, but delivering on the Government’s €165 billion investment plan in an economy creaking with capacity shortages is vital work. And so is ensuring the right projects are built at a time when flush public finances are putting pressure on spending and spending. Perhaps someone knows the projected costs and benefits of the Dublin MetroLink, now that the cost has shot up and can still show it makes sense?

What are Ireland’s particular problems? The planning system was highlighted by Ryan as a key blockage, with its long lead times and potential to spill over into an unpredictable and seemingly endless legal process. The new planning Bill, due to become law in autumn, will try to make things move more quickly and tighten up the right to seek judicial review, though criticism by planners that some of it is “unworkable” is concerning. Better planning comes down in part to balancing the rights of objectors and developers, but also to the resources in the system – the number of planners, the resourcing of the planning bodies and, crucially, the legal system, where a new planning court needs to work quickly and efficiently. It also comes down to a process where agreement is reached on a particular planning goal, at national and then local level, with significant public input, rather than piecemeal development and endless judicial reviews.

The second delay on projects in Ireland is the “doing” – driven by the kind of factors common in projects worldwide such as poor initial specification and costing, and poor assessment of risk. There are particular risks with really big projects of a kind never attempted in the country before. The children’s hospital is just such a once-off project which reviews have found was poorly specified from the start, inadequately costed and hit by delays, during which new building standards pushed up costs further. And it has thus descended into a major row between the board responsible for construction and the builders.

Ireland is used to building roads and schools, but megaprojects like a major hospital or a metro are another matter entirely.

And the other big delay factor on projects in Ireland is politics. The peculiar nature of the Irish electoral system and the need to protect even small pockets of objecting voters means politicians are notoriously sensitive. This is why, for example, they call for housebuilding in the Dáil but object to developments in their constituencies. As with the legal system, the common good often gets scuppered by the fact that nothing can ever be seen to upset anybody. Look how long it takes to deliver a bus lane in Dublin suburbs.

There is one story which brings a lot of this together. Ireland has been planning a North-South electricity interconnector for many years. This is not a glamorous project, but it is certainly one of the most vital, made all the more so by the need to upgrade and underpin the electricity grid which will be central to our climate change strategy.

The first expert study was published in 2016, but the required 400 overground pylons drew hundreds of objectors. It got through planning and a legal appeal in 2017. Since then successive governments decided on a second expert commission in 2017 to ensure the first one wasn’t outdated and then‚ to be sure, to be sure, in 2021 it ordered another independent review of the second commission’s report. Ministers clearly didn’t want to make a decision, conscious of its sensitivity. This review was considered by the Cabinet last March. The interconnector, we are told, may finally be built in 2026.

It is just one part in a massive jigsaw needed to improve our electricity infrastructure which risks being a single point of failure in reaching our climate goals, as Ireland puts all its bets on electrification. The Climate Change Advisory Council wrote to the three Government party leaders in May expressing serious concern about the ability of the planning system as currently resourced to do what needs to be done for the huge job that lies ahead.

In a political world where the urgent tends to push out the important and public upset is to be avoided at all costs, this is not welcome news. But if Ireland is to get anywhere near its climate targets, then the past record of project planning and delivery will simply not be good enough.