The Final Act of the Irish Electoral Cycle
We have entered the Final Act of the drama that is the Irish electoral cycle. The plot so far has involved harsh austerity, deepening neoliberalism, and widespread protest. But in the Final Act – at least in the play as scripted by the coalition government – these plot lines are expected to fade away as a new story arc emerges. Most immediately this will involve a raft of budgetary measures designed to return relatively insignificant amounts of cash to the wallets of various parts of the electorate. But, as the Capital Plan announced last week attests, it will also involve the promise of large-scale and geographically dispersed infrastructural investment.
While in one sense the Capital Plan is a mechanism in support of clientalism – allowing TDs the opportunity to bring the proverbial (and at this stage prodigal) bacon back home to their constituencies – it also serves to usher in the re-emergence of another central myth of Irish political and economic life: the myth of counterbalance.
The myth of counterbalance has been around ever since the Irish State decided to dismantle the walls of protectionism and open the country to the global economy. For various reasons Dublin has long dominated the country economically and demographically. The myth of counterbalance proposes to address this dominance by targeted policies designed to grow the economies of the other major cities.
I call this a myth not because such a feat is unattainable, but rather because, in Ireland, it has consistently proven itself to be. The myth of counterbalance emerges intermittently, the well-worn narrative dusted off to address the same intractable problem for a whole new generation.
Myth and reality
The idea of counterbalancing the growth of Dublin harks back to the Buchannan report on economic regions published in 1969. Buchannan proposed the creation of ‘poles of growth’, which would serve to counteract the unsustainable growth of Dublin. Throughout the 1970s Cork and Limerick were identified by central government as sites for targeted investment. However, while the official policy ostensibly favoured the creation of a counterbalance, in reality the recommendations of the Buchannan report were largely ignored, and later abandoned during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
In the Fanning report of 1984 on the impact of the recession on Cork, the notion of creating a counterbalance was resurrected. Fanning highlighted the need for targeted investment in infrastructure in the cities outside of Dublin, along with investment in indigenous small enterprises, in order to avoid the fallout from another round of global restructuring. In the report, Fanning advised against focussing only on short-termist policies and forgetting the goals of long-term sustainability. But then the Celtic Tiger came along and counterbalance was abandoned in favour of reducing corporation tax to a minimum and putting in place a series of incentives to attract a new round of foreign investment.
In 2002, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) once again broached the subject of counterbalance. Although politically weakened by clientalism, the NSS nevertheless put in place a framework to develop a number of ‘Gateways and Hubs’ that would act as regional centres of growth. There was a four-year gap, however, been the NSS and the publication of National Development Plan, which would link public spending to the infrastructural investment proposed in the spatial strategy.
In the interim, cities like Cork and Limerick launched ambitious development strategies that aimed to capitalise on the NSS. Cork Docklands Development Strategy, for example, inaugurated an entrepreneurial approach to development that transformed the city’s governance structures by inviting a host of private sector actors to shape urban policy. While the 2000s saw a new wave of development activity, the wider redevelopment of the docklands still depended on substantial state investment that, although promised, was not forthcoming. When the 2008 crash happened, one of the first programmes to be cut was the Gateway Development Fund for infrastructural investment.
Thus, the Celtic Tiger period of growth again failed to deliver on the promise of counterbalance.
The return of counterbalance
In the recently announced Capital Plan Cork is expected to get investment in key road infrastructure, an upgrade of Ringaskiddy Harbour and other projects including investment in a convention centre at the former Beamish and Crawford factory. The phantasmagoria of these plans was reinforced by a set of lavish visualisations shared by Simon Coveney on his facebook page. The Capital Plan is indicative of the re-emergence of counterbalance and, in the context of the eternal returns of Ireland’s boom and bust trajectories, the suggestion that we have exited the crisis and entered a new period of growth.
But like previous iterations of the myth of counterbalance, we can see the contradictions emerge when we look a little closer at its practicalities.
Over the last year, it had been recognised by Central and Local Government that the boundaries of Cork city did not encompass the functional urban area and that something would need to be done about it. A Local Government Review was set up to explore options. The logical solution would be for the boundaries of the City to be extended to more accurately reflect its functional area. This being Ireland, however, the simplest option practically was not necessarily seen as the simplest option politically, and – as was the case with Limerick previously – the solution proposed was not to extend the City boundary but to merge Cork City and County Councils.
As reported in the Irish Examiner, Consultant Alf Smiddy and Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly argued that the merger would create “what would be by far the largest unit of government within the State”, which they contended would offer Cork the clout to successfully lobby for devolution of powers. The report stressed that the merger would allow Cork “to act as an effective counter-weight at the national level to the current economic predominance of Dublin and the eastern part of the country”. Alan Kelly argued that it would “put Cork in a position that it can compete on a regional basis with the conurbation that is around Dublin”.
Not everyone agreed. Two members of the Local Government Review, Prof Dermot Keogh and Dr Theresa Reidy (both academics at UCC), broke with the consensus and produced a minority report that stated their disagreement “with substantial parts of the draft report, the main finding, and most of the conclusions”. In a piece written for the Irish Examiner, Keogh and Reidy argued that after decades of delayed decisions on a boundary extension, the “amalgamation has been chosen as an easy political option” and that it wouldn’t solve the problems posed by Dublin’s dominance. Cork City Manager Ann Doherty later called the merger review “fundamentally flawed” and City Councillors sought to challenge the legality of Alan Kelly’s plans to proceed with it.
Cork’s boundary issues highlight the problems underpinning of the myth of counterbalance in Ireland. While ostensibly it has long been a central component of Ireland’s policy landscape, in reality it has never been pursued in any serious sense. The Irish state has been adept at spinning webs of visions, stories of ‘what will be’ woven with colourful images, maps and descriptions. But when it comes to frontloading investment into the necessary infrastructure, successive governments have balked.
Indeed, it would appear that Ireland’s period of neoliberalisation and entrepreneurialism has exacerbated the prospect of counterbalance. The suggestion that a merger of the local authorities would, by a sleight of hand, suddenly make Cork more attractive to international investment is indicative of a jaundiced approach that seeks to leverage an illusion of transformation to entice external forces to solve Ireland’s problems of uneven development.
What then is the purpose of the myth of counterbalance? It is an ideal that, while not in any realistic sense committed to, is perhaps periodically aspired to by successive governments. But more often, and particularly in the Last Act of the election cycle, it is a vehicle to carry the illusion of vision and the prospect of hope. The myth of counterbalance presents the notion that there is a ‘plan’. It tantalisingly dangles in front of the voting public the prospect that, within the crisis-ridden theatre of Irish politics, a socially and spatially equitable Ireland can be achieved. It is just beyond our reach, it seems to say, just beyond our grasp. Without fundamental change, it forever will be.