The Irish Times view on Thornton Hall: how not to run a project

The Government continues to uphold the State’s reputation for botching big infrastructure initiatives

The Celtic Tiger years produced a petri dish for expensive and grandiose government initiatives. Little has been learned from those damaging experiments. There was no question of political modesty or of settling for cost-effective solutions. Developments had to be “the best in the world” and, invariably, this led to cost over-runs. Economist John FitzGerald described these political and administrative misjudgments as being rooted in “lofty notions”.

Two such projects, both with pre-recession links, are now attracting attention. They are the new national children’s hospital at St James’s Hospital and an abandoned plan to build a massive prison complex at Thornton Hall in north Dublin. Purchase of Thornton Hall by the Department of Justice in 2004 was mired in controversy. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) found the State had paid almost double what the 165 acre site was worth – an estimated €15m – because the vendor was told of the proposed prison development. “Savings” were suggested by then minister for justice Michael McDowell, who proposed moving the Central Mental Hospital and selling its valuable site. There was confusion and delay.

By 2007, as building estimates tripled, funding for the proposed complex evaporated. Mountjoy was modernised and new management appointed. The C&AG found costs atThornton Hall had been underestimated while those at Mountjoy were overestimated. Expenditure on roads, sewage works and legal fees at Thornton Hall rose by a further €20m. Now, the Department of Justice is offering most of the property to the new Land Development Agency for housing. But a prison might yet be built there, according to an official.

Political grandiosity and official backside-covering frequently serve to maximise costs and minimise State value, particularly on big projects. Look at the national children’s hospital project, forced to relocate once, and now threatening to cost €2billion. The Government continues to uphold the State’s reputation for botching big infrastructure projects.