Ireland Of The Regions
Rather than promote the regionalisation of the State as a necessary, if not very welcome, by-product of attempts to maximise EU receipts from the structural and cohesion funds, the Government should welcome the opportunity to redress our overly-centralised system of administration. When the Cabinet finally decides to seek full Objective 1 status for the Border, Midlands and West regions for the years 2000-2006, it should ensure that the remaining five regional authorities are granted similar executive responsibilities and powers. It is acceptable - even laudable - to differentiate in economic terms between the regions, in order to maximise EU funding for the State as a whole and to address infrastructural, economic and social imbalances. But discrimination in terms of devolved democratic powers and responsibilities between one part of the State and another would be unconscionable.
For decades now, the need for the decentralisation of executive power and the granting of greater autonomy to local democratic structures, has been recognised. The establishment of regional structures was, in itself, a gesture in that direction. But once the frameworks were put in place and county councillors appointed to the new bodies, they were practically ignored. What power there was, still resided at county managerial level with most of the major decisions being taken in Dublin. Some change has taken place at county level in recent years, with elected and community representatives securing a greater input into decision-making. But the present development offers an opportunity for radical adjustment.
In the Dail last Tuesday, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, recognised that some executive powers would have to be devolved to the three most deprived regions under EU rules if they were to retain Objective 1 status. And he spoke of future negotiations with the European Commission to establish the parameters of those powers. From all that has been said and written in recent weeks, it would seem that the Government - and its advisers within the civil service - are likely to transfer minimum powers under this new political and economic dispensation. Such an approach would be short-sighted. If the Government wishes to minimise political opposition to the division of the State into separate economic zones, one of the means open to it would be to grant new executive powers to those regions benefiting from Objective I status, as well as to those in transition. Greater regional autonomy would then allow elected representatives in all regions to liase with key Government Departments - particularly the Department of Finance - with development agencies and the social partners in the integration and implementation of development plans.
In a recent submission to Government, the West, Midland and Border regions argued in favour of balanced development on the grounds that it would reduce pressure on housing and traffic in the Dublin region while addressing rural decline and long-term unemployment. Reports from Brussels suggested that the Regional Commissioner, Ms Monika Wulf-Mathies, will insist that any new administrative structures represent a "bona fide" attempt to devolve power to the regions, rather than a "subsidy shopping" exercise. In those circumstances, the Government should voluntarily embark on maximum, rather than minimum, political change.