Dr Mary Murphy, Department of Sociology, Maynooth University

Maggie O’Neill’s seminar input ‘Anxiety and Work in the Accelerated Academy’ in MUSSI in late June 2017 and her (and other) arguments for a slow university are compelling and welcome. In an era where the university is relatively isolated, when expert knowledge is distained and where the neoliberal clamour for a small state dominates, it is hard to make tactical or strategic space for such arguments. The work of Maggie and others and qualitative research capturing and theorising the structure of feeling and highlighting the real pyscho- social impact of the accelerated university on academics lives is vital to such arguments.

It is important, as Maggie and others do, to locate such analysis as widely as possible and to situate the university in academic capitalism. We have in common with other public sector workers, educators and knowledge economy workers that our workplace, like all places of work, is increasingly subject to stresses associated with social acceleration of this turbo charged capitalist political economy. Algorithmic power, technological innovation and an accelerated speed of change dominate the pace of our lives as workers and as citizens. As O’Neill argues extreme busyness means acute time scarcity which means stress and anxiety in working life. This impacts on the quality of our academic work with students exposed to ‘factory universities’ rather than inducted into what Edwards called a ‘social science of love’.

In engaging with such debates, those working in Irish third level institutions should also be careful of our points of reference. Ireland is not the US nor the UK, and while we are culturally close to both countries, and are exposed to marketization, managerialism and performance management, Ireland has not (yet) formally adopted such extreme forms of research or teaching assessments and ranking. As academics we need to be careful not to get caught in the slip stream of the truly awful angst the Research Excellence Framework and the Teaching Excellence Framework causes amongst our British colleagues. We should be aware of and promote other (better) European academic practices.

While the practice of ranking trickles across the Irish sea, Irish third level institutions have has different engagement with implementing targets and publication quotas. Even in the context of strong structural pressures, Maynooth University still has capacity to both carve a unique path and also influence Irish policy. As academics we still have agency, and it is ironic that some academic predispositions (more dominant in some disciplines than others) use such agency to argue for and construct competitive frames of ranking. My experience straddling politics, sociology and social policy is that ranking mechanisms have featured more within and across Irish political science departments. Gender mediates this orientation to competition and gender also mediates the experience of such forms of academic capitalism. We know only too well that universities are gendered institutions and targets, and that ranking and league tables impact differentially depending on life, care and career cycles.

All of this impacts on political sociology and the potential role of public intellectuals, the urgent need to publish means we are less likely to research and write about what we think is important. The tendency towards myopic or abbreviated thinking limits our ability to contribute in meaningful ways to making sense of this world we live in and, as public sociologists, to enhance democratic deliberation. Lack of time and mental space for quality thinking, and the speed of the working day means less opportunity for collective deliberation and responses. The university undervalues societal contributions, new social media creates its own momentum of speed, and many academics find themselves withdrawing from a public sphere that wants little more than soundbites, the pressure of care in our lives mean women are more likely to withdraw.

Maggie talks of meaningful strategies for resistance and how such strategies need to be enacted collectively and imaginatively. While resistance is possible, it requires leadership particularly from those of us who are tenured and further on in our careers. Trade unions are still relevant, Grummel and Lynch note how Irish primary and secondary level teaching unions have successfully resisted at least some new public management practices in schools. We see examples elsewhere of the ‘right to unplug’, France for example has regulated against use of work emails from 9pm to 6am. A collective unplugging could create mental space and opportunity for a culture and ethic of care. As academics we can control what are acceptable forms of peer review communication and pull back from aggressive forms of feedback that leave colleagues with what Gill calls ‘hidden injuries’. University administrators need to re-evaluate what they value and what they count, and find innovative ways to measure and value care. While information technology offers multiple efficiencies, it comes at a price, incurring a loss of face-time and quality interpersonal communication without which a culture of care is difficult to nurture.

Research suggests new forms of work are creating more stressed working lives in many sectors, where the issue is not just the speed of work but also the capacity to have control over the pace of work in what were relatively autonomous careers. The metaphorical concept of a slow university is very useful in formulating our analysis, however as a sound bite it may be of limited tactical use in building allies or winning public support for the cause. The challenge is not to fetishise the university as experiencing more or specific pressure, it is more broadly about reimagining how work is and might be organised in an era of artificial intelligence and big data.


Professor Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

In The Hidden Injuries of Class (New York: Knopf, 1972), Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb described how poor people internalized the judgment that they had failed, were ‘losers’ in the gutter-speak of Donald Trump. It is important to understand how social context shapes aspirations and self-esteem. A book like Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor (University of Toronto Press, 2016) can serve as a self-help manual helping us recognize how the neoliberal university diminishes us and cultivates a sense of inadequacy that will never be retired. In ‘The Slow University: Work, Time and Well-Being’ (Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 15:3 (2014), Art. 14), Maggie O’Neill identifies the anxiety that is fostered among academics by the corporate culture within which university staff are judged and found always wanting. In her seminar at MUSSI, Maggie gave us ways to name and resist this new subjugation.

Our own feelings are important data as we try to understand what is done to us. So, how does the audit culture in universities make me feel? In Ireland, the tone of politicians and commentators when they call for evaluation to be extended suggests two things to me–they dislike public provision tout court, and, secondly, they don’t appreciate scholarship.

A Public Ethos

First, then, the universities are targeted alike with the rest of the public sector. Particularly in Ireland, and especially from Fine Gael but also from Fianna Fáil, there is a hostility towards public provision that takes ideology almost to the point of mania. Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy (Dublin: History Press, 2011) gives some of the background to this but for anyone coming to Ireland from abroad, as I did after living in GB and the US, the contempt that the political class shows towards public sector is overwhelming. It is almost as if it would be unfair competition for a state agency to provide anything that private enterprise could venture even if the state agency were able to do so at lesser cost and with greater benefit. So the first form of resistance we need to develop is a pride in the public nature of our work. We should invite commentary and review on this aspect of our universities.

We need point out that Irish universities educate a good share of the populace to a decent standard at a modest fee – the comparison with student debt in US and UK is striking, the standards of instruction indicated by modest attrition rate and decent international placement of graduates etc. We need to point out that university folk are prominent in public debate in Ireland to an extent that is striking in comparison to Britain, certainly to the United States and depressingly so with respect to parts of Eastern Europe. While we may bemoan the sliver of academia that is recycled through TV and radio studios, the healthy reading public in Ireland is fed by academic works that address matters of public interest in a fashion that almost matches the middle-brow culture in France. We need to remark that international business is drawn to Ireland not only by the low rate of corporate taxation but also by the quality of the skills in the workforce and much of this speak to a training and research culture fostered in universities.

And why is the public character of our universities important in this regard? First, because private institutions accept no such obligations to serve a broad swathe of the student class–notwithstanding the endowment funded scholarships for a few of the less wealthy, privately funded universities are businesses that serve the needs of the rich, validating their education with expensive prestige. Only public universities accept a broad responsibility to serve equality of opportunity, and while they should do more in this regard only public institutions can be brought to accept that they should redress those hidden injuries of class that mark the poor and ethnic minorities as ‘losers’ long before leaving cert. It is evident to me that the public obligations of universities need to grow rather than to be allowed wither.

Second, it is evident that who pays the piper calls the tune. Some of the most shrill voices for homophobic and patriarchal regulation in the United States are ‘experts’ funded and promoted by evangelical-Christian universities (all of them private institutions). Likewise, many ‘expert’ lobbyists come from think-tanks funded by the interests they serve. Allowing private companies to own medical research means that drugs are unaffordable. Allowing private interests to commission the bulk of the research in any one area means that they can simply choose not to publish findings they find sits ill with their private benefit. When it comes to producing critical knowledge of general benefit, the public principle is an important one that even needs extending rather than diminishing.

Planning for the employment needs in a changing economy needs two things that private institutions do very poorly. First, it needs a long-term perspective when the horizon for a business might be no more than the annual declaration of profit or at most the period over which a loan might be amortized or an improved business readied for re-sale. Second, the private sector will not take a general view resulting perhaps in over-provision where there is a short-term need, or where the high-salary and high-fee opportunities appear to be, resulting in under-provision of training for lower-wage but vital professions.

I am not saying that all public universities at all times provide the very best in educational access, in independent critical thinking about society, and in preparing a workforce with the flexible skills needed for a changing economy, but I am saying that these are essentially public goods and that private institutions would only serve them inadvertently if at all. I am also saying that the public ethos of universities should include pride in serving these ends.


The audit culture wants to operationalize scholarship into oblivion. Scholarship can only be judged and not weighed. The audit culture resists this claim insisting that two publications are always better than one, other things being equal. Scholarship doubts that they ever are. The audit culture believes that only what can be counted should be allowed to count. Scholarship thinks otherwise, relying upon qualitative judgments. The audit culture suspects that everyone who is not pressured to produce more will be idle. Scholarship trusts academic ambition to spur intellectual creativity. The audit culture can only think within a bourgeois capitalist calculus. It gave us ideas like lesser eligibility, the undeserving poor, and thus the workhouse for the indigent or unemployed.

Scholarship, at least in the fields I know best, is more anarchic. In fact, some of the best writing about how universities should function has come from anarchist thinkers such as Paul Goodman whose The Community of Scholars (New York: Random House, 1962) still inspires. In other words, academics can evaluate the work of colleagues, and can self-organise for conferences, teaching, and publication. Stefan Collini has recently asked that we be ready with answers to the question: What are Universities for? (Penguin, 2012). I would begin with scholarship, making new knowledge, offering critical reflection on existing knowledge and interpretations. I would then go on to say that this is a very good context in which to educate people. I would begin my defence of university teaching with an insistence upon the independence of the university from direct external control, much as John Henry Newman did when he defended a secular university in The Idea of a University (1852). We could talk then about the synergy between independent thought and education. Is it possible to impart the ability to read and think critically if you are unfitted to occupy the intellectual frontier of a discipline? Maybe, but there must surely be a limit to the ability to teach what you cannot fully understand. Only those making new knowledge in a field fully understand its limits; or at least so it has seemed to me.

Does the sort of independence that I have described as essential to scholarship require public institutions? Perhaps not. Can it be achieved in public institutions? I think so, and I think academics should submit to this sort of judgment.

Finally, I believe that if the public ethos were encouraged, then, we might even get more scholarship that volunteers itself to have a public purpose, more teaching that avows a public purpose. The audit culture breeds academic productivity that accepts direction from the corporations that own the journals, the corporations that invite research-partners at public expense but for private gain. The audit culture spawns anxiety, reduces reflection, rewards mindless repetition.

Private vice does not make public virtue.

A seminar held in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute explored how dialogues within and beyond the Higher Education sector are converging around the need for a socio-cultural shift towards slowing down the pace of work, life and consumption, improving well-being and providing counter narratives to processes of globalisation and the ‘Gridlock’ that Hale, Held and Young (2013) write about. In a seminar series initiated at Durham University and a series of blogs, colleagues and Professor Maggie O’Neill addressed the potential of the concept of the SLOW University for their experiences of work, life, time, well-being and the very meaning of the University in current times. The motivation for organising the seminars emerged from dialogue with colleagues, biographical experiences and resistance to the speeding up of Higher Education, the impact of the audit culture and ‘marketisation’; as well as growing pressures, for some, in relation to developing a work/life balance in the context of metrics, audit, efficiency, increased competition, demand management of research grant generation and the importance of hitting performance targets for career development and promotion. The gendered dimensions of these issues have been central to these discussions.

Discussants at the Maynooth seminar included:

Chair: Professor Linda Connolly, Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute

Professor Sharon Todd, Department of Education, Maynooth University, Dr Mary Murphy, Department of Sociology/Politics, Maynooth University and Professor Gerry Kearns, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

A blog by each participant will be posted each day this week.



“Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University”

Professor Maggie O’Neill, Department of Sociology, University of York

I was delighted to accept an invitation by Prof. Linda Connolly to speak at a seminar with colleagues in the Maynooth University Social Sciences Institute.

My talk took place after an excellent roundtable on the impact of Brexit and the social and political challenges facing Ireland following the UK general election. This left me feeling deeply saddened, given the analysis of experts from the disciplines of politics, law, policy and sociology, and not least because of the impact on academia in the UK.


The motivation for my paper was a concern about the deepening anxiety in the British University sector caused by the shifts in funding, purpose, audit culture (metrics), increasing social acceleration, performance management and the impact upon the wellbeing of staff (especially post-doctoral and early career researchers) in this changing landscape.

My talk explored Pace, Space and Well-Being: Containing Anxiety in the University by drawing upon earlier work, a special issue on The Slow University for the Journal ‘Forum for Qualitative Research’ (co-edited with Heather Mendick, Luke Martel and Ruth Muller ) and Isabel Menzies Lyth’s classic text on the function of social systems as a defence against anxiety (1959). I argued that the success and well-being of the university and our experience in it, is intimately connected to techniques to contain anxiety.

The scope of the problem

The landscape and focus of this analysis is the marketization, new public management and neoliberalism embedded in the sector constituted by the introduction and subsequent increase in tuition fees for students (many leaving University with an average debt of £50,000) and the removal of government funding (see Holmwood 2013). The creeping managerial hierarchies and market based performance indicators have shifted the focus away from the importance of Higher Education as a space for democratic citizenship and the importance of equal access to higher education, towards a business model that helps to create a clientelist culture were learning is ‘propelled’ and a pilot teaching excellence audit called the teaching excellence framework (TEF) in addition to the research excellence framework (REF ) has fostered an unhealthy, competitive, marketing and marketised approach by Universities, especially by some of those gaining gold (rather than silver or bronze) for the quality of their ‘teaching excellence’.

Taking a psycho-social approach, I suggested possibilities for being slowly radical to confront and work with anxiety materially, discursively and symbolically, by addressing issues of governance and well-being by ‘un-managing’ the academy and providing opportunities for more dialogue and spaciousness. I also argued that there is a need for further, systematic research using critical, participatory, biographical and performative methodologies.

I suggested that applying the concept of slow to the university, in the context of increasing marketization, managerialism and performance management, might enable academics and managers to focus upon our experiences of work, time and well-being, the increasing pace and tempo of academic life and the very meaning of the university in current times.

There are, importantly, organised and individual resistances to this changing landscape in the University Sector in the UK in the shape of the campaigns for the defence of the public university, the council for the defence of the British University, blogs and spaces such as the New Academic blog by Nadine Muller where people can share their concerns, experiences and anxieties and a women’s academic network

Resisting the Accelerated Academy: Pace, Space and a Slow University?

In 2013 following conversations with colleagues about the many resistances to the speeding up we experienced across the sector, we organised two inter-disciplinary seminars on the idea of the Slow University, supported by the Institute for Advanced Studies at Durham University. Academics Heather Mendick, Ruth Muller and Luke Martel spoke at the seminars alongside sound artist Chris Watson, Slow movement guru Carl Honore and poet Matthew Griffiths.

Searching for research and dialogue on this I found Geir Bethelsen’s World Institute of Slowness; Brian Treanor’s (Loyola Marymount University in LA) Slow University: A Manifesto; an article by Jeremy Hunsinger ‘Against Speed Cosmopolitanism’ promoting the Slow Science manifesto; Elizabeth Yeoman and John Hoben’s work on ‘Corporate Ethos Reshaping University Culture’ arguing for a return to the university as a self-regulating democratic learning community.

Ros Gill’s chapter, Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia was instrumental in highlighting the extent of the ‘hidden injuries’ and Filip Vostal’s research asks what is the antidote to the will to accelerate? Vostal suggests that there is a path between a conservative, regressive ethic of slow and being a ‘productivity ninja’. Vostal advocates scholarly time, autonomy and resisting the university corporate culture and management rationality.

Later still, I found the work by Berg and Seeber on ‘The Slow Professor: challenging the culture of speed in the academy.’

Richard Collier, Ruth Muller and Andrew Sparkes have all written about health and well-being in relation to the experience of academics from postdoctoral researchers to senior academic staff; that academics are subject to increased social and psychological risk and stress-related illness. Indeed recent research by Ruth Barcan highlights the ‘conditions that undermine the notion of scholarly vocation-relentless work, ubiquitous bureaucracy’ and ‘can cause academics acute distress and spur them to quit’. An important question to ask is: how is the pace of academic life interpreted and received at the level of feelings’?

Raymond Williams (1977:132) defines “structures of feeling” as “meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations. We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically, affective elements of consciousness and relationships.” Jenny Bourne-Taylor (1997, n.p.) defines “structures of feeling” as “a common set of perceptions and values shared by a particular generation … as firm and definite as ‘structure’ suggests, yet it operates in the most delicate and least tangible part of our activities”.

How are the shifts in structures of feeling experienced?

In response to the special edition of FQS on the Slow University a colleague wrote the following, that express, to a degree, how structures of feeling are experienced:

It meant a lot to me affectively to read about anxiety and well-being at the personal level in universities, and had more impact than just say headline figures of Union surveys of stress at work; identifying the mechanisms of that stress and the effect on the working environment, especially relationships with colleagues, was very valuable for me, and I agree that more ‘micro’ studies would be revealing.

I was very struck by the words of Gill that ‘we often draw no distinction between our work and ourselves.’ I feel this applies particularly to academics who see themselves as intellectuals/practitioners with a wider purpose/field of reference than just universities and individual careers.

On the one hand this is a great motivating strength and bulwark against being overwhelmed by the ‘fast’ university. But on the other hand, that blurring of occupation and personal identity can leave one very vulnerable to being undermined at work, at risk of being unfairly labelled as not being a team player for university fiscal objectives, for struggling to separate work from life time so that unhappiness at work seeps into life time, for unease about the ethics and efficacy of some university recruitment practices and cost of education to students.

I recognised the phenomenon of layers of the university feeling they had to respond to new initiatives and be shown to be doing something even when there was collectively little faith in the efficacy of such initiatives or not enough time to get them right before the next set of initiatives

I recognised that often anxieties are at the level of ‘phantasies’, and feel this is heightened and perpetuated by lack of face to face contact between colleagues, and/or overuse of email and hierarchical feeding back of decisions that are now rendered as (yet more) new procedures to follow.

I identified with how some academics obviously since your 2014 article the TEF has come on the scene as well as the REF (or whatever it will become) as disciplining mechanism.

What can be done?

In the talk I suggested, drawing upon ‘Unmanaging: opening up the organisation to its own unspoken knowledge’ by Teodore Taptiklis (2008), a book I was introduced to by John Pritchard and John Shotter’s book reviews, that we need slow down the pace of change and acceleration and work with colleagues in management, education and HE specialists towards ‘unmanaging’ the University, engage with the growing body of work on the accelerated academy, metrics, audit, the impact of increasing neoliberalism, and address anxiety and well-being in the sector – as a matter of urgency.

In ‘Education after Auschwitz’ Adorno (2005:198) stated that “education must take seriously an idea in no way unfamiliar to philosophy: that anxiety must not be repressed. When anxiety is not repressed, when one permits oneself to have, in fact, all the anxiety that this warrants, then precisely by doing that, much of the destructive effects of unconsciousness and displaced anxiety will probably disappear”.

This will necessitate a research strategy and radical democratic manifesto to open and keep open spaces for dialogue, research and interventions using critical theoretical, feminist, biographical, participatory, longitudinal & micro social/psycho-social research working across thee sector and conducting comparative research too.

It is important to not only understand the issues involved but also to challenge and change them.


About the author:

Professor Maggie O’Neill joined the Department of Sociology at the University of York in April 2016 as Chair in Sociology/Criminology and has held posts at Durham University (Professor in Criminology, Principal of Ustinov College, Co-Director of the Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexuality and Council for Academics at Risk (CARA) Academic Champion) Loughborough University, Staffordshire University and Nottingham Trent University.

A former editor of Sociology the flagship Journal of the BSA and former Chair of the ESA Research Network on Biographical perspectives on European Societies Professor O’Neill co- founded the Race Crime and Justice Network in the North East with Gary Craig and Bankole Cole and the Sex Work Research Hub (now based at York) with Rosie Campbell. She currently Chairs the Sex Work Research Hub with Prof Teela Sanders and Rosie Campbell OBE. She was swarded a Beacon of Human Dignity award, Columbia University, Human Dignity and Humiliation Global Network December 2012.

She is currently undertaking:

~Leverhulme Trust Research fellowship, Methods on the Move: experiencing and imagining borders, risk & belonging See:https://walkingborders.com/

~ESRC/NCRM research project Participatory Action Research (PAR): Participatory Theatre and Walking Methods’ Potential for Co-producing knowledge with Dr Umut Erel (PI) and Prof Tracey Reynolds (Co-I)

~KTP/AHRC research project with Prof Nicole Westmarland (PI) and Open Clasp Theatre, Newcastle Policing Domestic Abuse: using theatre based methods to train police in aspects of coercion and control February 2015- September 2016




Sex Work Research Hub




Housing and how it is provided remains a vital issue across the city of Dublin today. Where and how we should provide housing for a changing population are some of the most pressing issues facing the city. Housing builds community and it develops a sense of place for these communities. As the current challenges in housing show, building houses is more than just an adequate number of rooms. It is one of the main ways that the city’s population retains a sense of itself.

2018 marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Herbert George Simms. Through his work with Dublin Corporation, Simms was responsible for some of the most elegant and highest quality housing that remains in Dublin city to the present day. From Cabra, Crumlin and in the heart of the city, Simms’ work and vision for Dublin are still present. Their presence is not just about housing, but fostering communities.

To recall his work, and in light of the significant challlenges that face housing in the present, this set of events will draw together some of the main ideas about Simms’ work in and legacy for Dublin city. Through seminars, oral histories and visual representation, the conference will examine Simms’ legacy to the city of Dublin, assess his contribution to the development of communities across Dublin and provide a lens through which to view current contexts.

We are seeking contributions from all to help remember the work of Simms but particularly from:

  • Residents of Simms-designed housing
  • Architectural historians
  • Geographers
  • Planners
  • Local history groups
  • Photographers
  • Poets and other artists
  • Housing policy workers
  • Community workers

Email: simmsdublin@gmail.com

Twitter: @Simms120

Conference committee:

Mary Broe, PhD candidate, Maynooth University

Donal Fallon, Historian in Residence, Dublin City Council

Erika Hanna, Department of History, University of Bristol

Rhona McCord, Contemporary Irish History, TCD

Eoin O’Mahony, School of Geography, UCD (chair)

Paul Reynolds, Stoneybatter History Group

Proinnsias Breathnach

This is a revised and expanded version of the original piece with the above title published here, which contained a couple of errors.


The recent World Economic Forum at Davos brought the tax treatment of multinational firms operating in Ireland once more into the spotlight.  While there is much criticism of Ireland’s low corporation tax rate of 12.5%, the real issue is the way in which huge flows of revenue are allowed to pass through Ireland without being subject to any taxation at all.  An examination of the returns for 2016 filed by two major multinational firms which have bases in Ireland, Facebook and Google, helps to throw light on this controversy.

In that year, Facebook Ireland’s declared pretax profits amounted to an extraordinarily low 1.4% of revenues of €12.6bn.  This contrasts very starkly with Facebook’s total global profit rate of a whopping 45.3%, based on returns filed with the US Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC).  Thus, while Facebook Ireland accounted for over half (50.5%) of Facebook’s global revenues, its share of the firm’s global profits was just 1.5%.

In 2016 Google Ireland’s pretax profit came to a very modest 5.1% on revenues of €26.3bn.  This was less than one fifth of the company’s global profit rate of 26.8%. Google Ireland accounted for almost one third of Google’s total global sales, but just six per cent of global profits.

The very low relative profitability of the Irish operations of these two companies is attributable almost entirely to the royalties they are required to pay to the overseas branch of the company which holds the rights to the company’s global intellectual property (IP) i.e. rights over patents, brand images, etc.

These branches are located in the Cayman Islands (Facebook) and Bermuda (Google).  These are essentially brass-plate entities with virtually zero costs, so the royalties they receive are converted almost entirely into profits which are added to the bottom lines of their respective parent companies.

The returns which Facebook and Google make to the Companies Registration Office in Ireland do not detail these royalty payments.  Instead they are combined with various other cost elements in a single general/administrative costs category which, on its own, consumes 70% of Google Ireland’s revenues, with this figure rising to no less than 96% in the case of Facebook Ireland.

It is noteworthy that there is a much more detailed costs breakdown in the returns these firms’ parent companies make to the SEC.  One may ask why a similar breakdown is not required in their Irish returns which serve to hide royalty payments from public scrutiny.  There is no evidence here of the transparency which the Irish government routinely claims is a feature of the Irish corporation tax system.

However, one can get an idea of the scale of royalty payments being made by these firms by asking what level of profits their Irish operations would have made if their profit rate matched that achieved at global level.  This is justified by the high proportion of their global revenues accounted for by Ireland and the fact that there is no reason for expecting the non-royalty costs of the Irish operations to be substantially different from the non-Irish operations.

If Facebook’s and Google’s Irish operations had profit rates on a par with their global returns, between them they would have generated combined profits of €12.7bn in 2016, over eight times their declared profits.  If they paid corporation tax on this at the standard rate of 12.5%, the yield to the Irish government would have been €1.6bn, compared with the €193 millions actually paid.

In the past, royalties were generally charged where firms licensed technology or brand names to independent third parties, with the price involved being determined by commercial negotiation.  The development of in-house technology was considered a cost item similar to labour or transport costs and charged to the accounts accordingly.

However, multinational firms have increasingly employed the practice of charging overseas subsidiaries for the use of the firms’ own technologies in the form of royalties.  As firms can arbitrarily set the charges involved, this became a useful way of moving profits, disguised as royalties, from one jurisdiction to another.

The use of royalties in this way has a long history.  However, in the past royalties were mainly used to transfer untaxed revenues from Third World countries to hide the true level of multinational profits in these countries which in some cases were  astronomically high.

Up to recently, the main device used by multinationals for shifting profits between jurisdictions was to locate different stages of an overall production process in different countries, with one stage located in a low-tax jurisdiction.  By manipulating the prices charged for the movement of inputs and outputs between subsidiaries (so-called “transfer prices”), the bulk of the profits could be concentrated in the low-tax country, from which they were then extracted.

This has long been recognised as a feature of foreign investment in Ireland.  Such is the size of the foreign sector in Ireland that, in 2015, outflows of direct investment income (i.e. multinational profits) amounted to 23% of Ireland’s GDP.

The use of royalties as an alternative method of concealed profit shifting has grown dramatically in recent years, as multinational firms have developed accounting techniques for doing this without legal transgression.  It allows firms to avoid any tax at all on large portions of their global revenues, and is particularly important for services firms such as Facebook and Google which do not have the kinds of production systems which facilitate transfer-price manipulation of the type described above.

Multinational firms in services sectors such as internet services, software and financial services now account for one half of exports from Ireland.  Their rapid growth has been paralleled by a sharp rise in outflows of royalties from the country.  In 1998, the outflow of direct investment income (multinational profits) was three times greater than the outflow of payments for royalties and licences.  By 2016, the direct investment outflow was almost four times greater (in current terms) than in 1998 while the royalties outflow had increased almost 13-fold.  Thus, in 2016, the royalty outflow was 20% greater than that for direct investment income.

Between them, the outflow of royalties and investment income from Ireland amounted to €126bn in 2016.  This equates to almost one half of total GDP.  Multinational firms paid around €6bn in corporation tax in the same year. This indicates the scale of magnitude of the flow through Ireland of multinational profits which pay little or no tax en route.

It is no surprise, therefore, that the larger EU member states which are the source of most of this untaxed income wish to introduce measures which will allow them to obtain their fair share of tax on this income.  However, the EU’s proposals for a common consolidated corporate tax base (CCCTB) seek only to redistribute the profits currently declared within the EU by multinational companies.  As the Facebook and Google examples show, these represent only a small fraction of the real level of profitability of these firms’ activities in the Union. However, because of the high level of concentration in Ireland of these declared profits, redistribution under the CCCTB proposals seems likely to have a significant negative impact on Ireland’s corporation tax revenues.

The OECD’s proposals to tackle tax base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) by multinational firms include the targetting of the global misallocation of profits generated by intangibles (i.e. the intellectual property on which royalties are based).  If successfully implemented, these proposals could lead to substantially increased tax revenues for EU member states, including Ireland.  However, there is considerable opposition to the proposals, and the prospects of their being implemented in any meaningful way in the foreseeable future are remote.

Anticipating slow progress in the development of the BEPS proposals, the European Commission is now proposing the imposition of a tax on the EU revenues of firms operating specifically in the digital economy, which are seen as the leading practitioners of profit shifting out of the Union.  This is presented as an interim measure pending the working out of more long-term arrangements for the effective taxation of global firms.  In this respect, the EC has recently suggested the EU might go it alone in taxing these firms on the basis of allocating to each member state a share of the firms’ global profit corresponding to that state’s share of global revenues.

Ireland has opposed the proposed “digital tax” on the grounds that it would reduce Ireland’s attractiveness as a location for multinational investment while offering litte counterbalancing compensation in terms of digital tax revenue due to the small size of the Irish market for digital sales.  However, the prospect has been raised of those countries advocating the tax (including the four largest post-Brexit economies – Germany, France, Italy and Spain) implementing it as a separate grouping, should unanimity among EU member states not be forthcoming on the issue.

The fact remains that Ireland currently acts as a major facilitator allowing multinational firms to avoid taxes which could contribute significantly to the revenues of other EU member states.  The argument that closing off these tax avoidance practices could undermine Ireland’s attractiveness as a location of multinational investment is alarmist.  These firms need a European base and Ireland has been performing more than satisfactorily in this respect in many ways other than in relation to corporate tax arrangements.

Ireland has been a major beneficiary of revenues transferred to Ireland from fellow EU member states since 1973.  Being part of an economic community involves give as well as take.  It therefore behooves the Irish government to support the EC’s attempts to secure a fair tax return from the profits being made by multinational firms within the EU.




Symposium: Housing in Ireland:  Philosophy, Policies and Results.

Trinity Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, in association with the Centre for Faith and Justice

Joly Theatre, Westland Row, Trinity College, 5-7 pm Wednesday 29 November


This Symposium will provide a critical analysis of:

  • Alternative philosophical approaches to housing
  • The policies currently being pursued
  • The results : affordability and new homes


Sinead Kelly,  Maynooth University

“Neo-liberalism and its Impact on Housing Systems”

Margaret Burns, CFJ

“The Right to Housing: What is the Issue?”

P.J.  Drudy, Trinity College

“Market Failure: Out of Reach House Prices and Rents”

Fr. Peter McVerry SJ, CFJ

“Homelessness : Have we Lost our sense of Outrage?”

Rory Hearne, Maynooth University

“New Inequalities in Irish Housing”

Daithi Downey, Dublin City Council

“Sustainablility, Affordability and Choice: Towards a Cost Rental and Unitary Rental System”

Cian O’Callaghan and Philip Lawton, Trinity College

“The Challenge and Opportunities of Vacant Space : Unfinished Legacy of the Property Crash”

Proinnsias Breathnach


The Irish government is currently preparing a National Planning Framework (NPF), which is to replace the National Spatial Strategy (NSS), originally launched in 2002 and officially abandoned as a failure by then Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan in 2013.  The preparation of the new plan was originally announced in July of that year, but significant progress only became apparent this year culminating in the publication, in September, of a 151-page draft of the proposed NPF which is due to be finalised at year-end following a phase of public consultation.

This paper will initially provide a brief review of the NSS and why it failed.  It will then outline the main features of the draft NPF which, in essence, are quite similar to the NSS.  The paper will then focus on governance issues which contributed substantially to the failure of the NSS and which remain largely unaddressed in the draft NPF.  The failure to address these governance issues will, it is argued, inevitably lead to the NPF going the same way as the NSS.


The NSS was an ambitious strategy which sought to address two major, and related, issues which had come to the fore at the turn of the present century.  The first of these was the need for a new planning framework to manage the very rapid changes occurring in the Irish economy and Irish society as a result of the very rapid growth associated with the Celtic Tiger phenomenon which had emerged in the early 1990s.  The second issue was the fact that the economic and population growth associated with the Celtic Tiger was disproportionately concentrated in the Greater Dublin region.

The basic aim of the NSS, therefore, was to put in place a planning system which would slow down this concentration process by directing a larger share of development to other parts of the country.  The essential strategy was derived from the European Spatial Development Perspective (ESDP), a well-thought-out approach to promoting balanced regional development (a concept which has been widely misinterpeted in public discourse on regional planning in Ireland) adopted by the EU member states in 1999 (Committee on Spatial Development, 1999).

The main thrust of the ESDP was to facilitate the capacity of the EU’s regional cities, working in conjunction with their surrounding hinterlands, to compete independently in international markets, thereby achieving more balanced – and sustainable – spatial development across the EU.  This approach, it was envisaged, would counter the established tendency for national economies across to EU to be increasingly dominated by their respective metropolitan regions.

The NSS, therefore, sought to create specialised export bases in the regions outside Dublin focused on the main regional cities which, following the ESDP terminology, were called “gateway” cities.  This was designed to reflect the idea that these cities would act as the centres through which each region’s links with the outside world would be channelled.  It was not envisaged that these cities would monopolise investment and growth within their regions, but that they would act as drivers of growth throughout their respective regions.  This was an aspect of the NSS which was never properly articulated to the public at large, and to politicians in particular.

Why the NSS failed

Given that the NPF is presented as a replacement for the NSS, and that the basic approach of the NPF draft strategy is similar to that of the NSS in its emphasis on the regional cities as the drivers of growth and development within their respective regions, one would expect that the process of preparing the NPF would have included a detailed examination of the NSS experience designed to identify the range of factors which contributed to its failure and appropriate measures to ensure that these factors would not have a similar impact on the NPF.

The government did, in fact, appoint an Expert Group to review the NSS and make recommendations designed to produce a more effective successor.  The report of this Expert Group was submitted to the government in January 2014 but was not published until over two years later (Review of the National Spatial Strategy, 2014).  This report amounts to just nine pages of printed text, only two of which are devoted explicitly to a critique of the NSS.  The report does identify, in very broad outline, some of the problems which beset the NSS, but fails to touch on many other seriously problematical issues which are likely to recur with the NPF (Breathnach, 2014).  Three of these are highlighted here as being of particular importance.

The first of these is that the NSS devoted not just insufficient attention, but hardly any attention at all, to the processes and mechanisms required to create the specialised regional industrial structures which were to underpin the strategy.  Instead, it focused on the physical planning needs associated with growth in the regions relating to such issues as housing, transport, other forms of infrastructure and the provision of social services such as hospitals and educational facilities.  This preoccupation with physical planning issues is repeated in the Export Group’s report, reflecting the Group’s composition.

The NSS basically saw industrial development as a matter to be left to the enterprise promotion agencies, especially the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, and proposed no structures for mobilising these agencies in support of the NSS objectives.  This, no doubt, reflects the fact that preparation of the NSS was allocated to the Department of Environment and Local Government, whose primary concern in the planning sphere lies with physical rather than economic planning.  This problem has been reproduced in the preparation of the NPF.

The other two main factors contributing to the failure of the NSS can both be considered to be factors relating to governance.  The first of these refers to the lack of buy-in to the NSS on the part of the state apparatus and the second refers to the failure to put in place the kind of subnational administrative structures which successful implementation of the NSS required.  As the indications are that these governance issues will be equally problematical for the NPF, they are addressed in some detail in the next four sections.

Absence of state apparatus buy-in

The NSS was treated with, at best, indifference and, at worst, outright hostility by the Irish state apparatus, including both the elected representatives in the Oireachtas and the state bureaucracy, the latter including both the central civil service and key state agencies.  In his introductory message in the NSS document, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern gave a commitment that the Government would ensure that its policies would be implemented in a manner that was consistent with the NSS.  In fact, the opposite happened.  Instead, several major government initiatives launched after 2002 basically ignored the NSS.

The most notorious instance of this was the programme for relocation of government offices launched by then Finance Minister Charlie McCreevey in 2004, which was almost entirely at odds with the aspirations of the NSS.  This programme planned to relocate 11,000 civil service jobs to 59 different locations scattered around the country; only 14% of the jobs were allocated to gateway centres.  Of nine departmental headquarters to be relocated, only one was earmarked for location in a gateway centre.  This despite an express commitment in the NSS that “The Government will take full account of the NSS in moving forward the progressive decentralisation of Government offices and agencies” (NSS, p.120).

In relation to capital investment, the NSS stated:

“Implementation of the NSS will be an important factor in the prioritisation by Government of capital investment, and in allocations by Ministers of the sectoral levels of investment decided on by the Government” (p.124).

At the time the NSS was launched, the main medium for channelling funding for capital investment was the National Development Plan 2000-2006.  While this was well under way when the NSS was launched in 2002, it did contain a strong commitment to promoting balanced regional development which was identified as one of the four main objectives of the plan: “…from the outset of the NDP, investment within and between the Regions will take full account of regional development policy” (NDP, p.46).  This was also anticipated in the NSS which stated that  “Implementation of the current National Development Plan will be a key step towards balanced regional development” (p.123).

However, the mid-term review of the NDP, conducted by the ESRI, found that “Regional development was not a criterion in the allocation of funding for projects under the plan” (Fitzgerald et al., 2003, p. 210).  While the mid-term review stressed that “all aspects of the NDP must adhere to the strategy set out in the NSS” (p. 210) and that it was necessary for the NDP to prioritise investments in accordance with the Regional Planning Guidelines then being prepared by the Regional Authorities, it is an indication of the Government’s continued disregard for the NSS that the final review of the NDP, produced by Department of Finance, did not address the issue of regional development at all.

Further examples of how the NSS was disregarded by the state bureaucracy include a major government-commissioned report on Ireland’s enterprise strategy published in 2004 (Enterprise Strategy Group, 2004), which devoted a single, token, paragraph to the NSS; the launch, in November 2005, of a government programme to invest €34.4bn in developing Ireland’s transport infrastructure which made no reference to the NSS; and Enterprise Ireland’s strategy document for 2008-2010 which also made no reference to the NSS.

Explaining hostility/indifference to the NSS

It is easy enough to identify why the political establishment would have been hostile to the objectives of the NSS.  The populism, localism and short-termism which characterise Ireland’s political system are inherently inimical to a strategy such as the NSS which was long-term in orientation and, more importantly, advocated a spatially selective approach to state investment which favoured some locations over others.

Explaining the lack of cooperation of the state bureaucracy with the NSS is a somewhat more complex matter.  One key problem in this respect is the culture of non-cooperation between government departments which prevails in Ireland’s central civil service.  A review of the Irish public service published by the OECD in 2008 identified this as the single greatest problem constraining the service’s performance (OECD, 2008).   Irish government departments are infused with an inward-looking “silo mentality” whereby each department jealously defends its functional autonomy vis-à-vis other departments.  This had clear and negative connotations for a programme such as the NSS which required interdepartmental cooperation and coordination for successful delivery.

The NSS identified three particular measures which were intended to ensure that the policies and programmes of individual government departments and agencies would be consistent with the objectives of the NSS.  Firstly, the Department of the Environment and Local Government was to establish a committee representing all relevant departments to support implementation of the NSS.  Secondly, the same department was to establish a Monitoring Committee representative of government departments and state agencies, the social partners, the private sector, and regional and local authorities to oversee implementation of the NSS.  Thirdly, the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Housing, Infrastructure and Public/Private Partnerships was to take on the task of monitoring implementation of the NSS.  It is clear that none of these mechanisms, if they ever functioned at all, did not do so to any effect.  Thus, the “Comprehensive public [agency] support” which the ESDP regarded as “a necessary prerequisite for the effective application of the spatial development policy” which it advocated was not forthcoming in the case of the NSS (ESDP, 1999, 37).

Sub-national governance issues

In Ireland, because of the extremely high level of centralisation of public service functions and powers compared with other EU countries, the lack of support from central government departments was fatal to the NSS.  While the NSS expected Ireland’s subnational governance structures to carry much of the load for implementing the strategy, the fact is that these structures were simply too feeble to carry the strategy forward without this support.

Unlike other European countries, Ireland has no meaningful regional level of subnational government.  A set of entities known as Regional Authorities was in place when the NSS was launched, and these were envisaged by the NSS as having a key role to play in its implementation.  However, perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the so-called Regional Authorities was their lack of authority of any kind.  They were therefore not in a position to perform the coordination and mobilisation roles which they were expected to carry out by the NSS.

Meanwhile, at local level the county councils have very few functions and little influence over the activities of central government departments and agencies within their territories (OECD, 2008).  This lack of functional capacity also greatly constrained their ability to mobilise private and third-sector actors within their territories.  Thus, while in most regions county and city councils did manage to come together to create collaborative gateway implementation groups, their ability to act effectively was severely constrained by their inability to leverage action at local level.

These governance issues were identified as early as 2006 in a report on implementation of the NSS commissioned by Forfás (the now-defunct government advisory board for enterprise, trade, science, technology and innovation policy), which had become concerned by the NSS’s slow pace of progress (Forfás, 2006). Among the issues in question were problems of inter-county co-operation and of co-operation between councils and government departments and agencies; centralisation and compartmentalisation of government; and lack of leadership at the regional level.

These concerns were echoed in an assessment of the NSS in a 2008 report by the National Econonic and Social Council (which advises the Irish government on strategic economic development issues):

“The development of governance frameworks that will allow key actors in the gateways to take co-ordinated and effective action together is, probably, the greatest and most urgent challenge facing the implementation of the NSS” (NESC, 2008, xix).

In order to achieve this, the NESC pointed to the need for better collaboration between local authorities, and between local/regional authorities and central government departments and agencies; the need to recast regional structures; and the need for more effective vision/leadership at local and regional levels

The following year, in a report on the role of cities in national competitiveness, the National Competitiveness Council identified governance as ‘‘the key issue for managing urban growth and implementing policy actions to achieve competitiveness objectives’’ (NCC, 2009, 35) and highlighted the importance of a co-ordinated approach to tackling issues at the level of the city-region.

Forfás returned to the issue of governance structures in a 2010 report on regional competitiveness (Forfás, 2010), arguing that resources, energy and commitment could be more effectively harnessed at a regional level, that existing structures did not facilitate a strategic and coherent approach to the development of the regions, and that there was a need for governance and leadership structures at the regional level that are efficient, flexible and open to cross-regional collaboration.

New regionalism

These issues are widely recognised in the international literature on regional development.  Over the last 20 years a major body of literature has emerged around the concept of a “new regionalism” referring, in broad outline, to a widespread movement towards the acquisition by subnational regions of greater responsibility for their own affairs (Keating, 1998).  There are many dimensions to this phenomenon, but one which is of particular relevance in relation the topic of this paper is a general acceptance that traditional, top-down, regional development policies have been largely unsustainable and ineffective.

Accordingly, there has been a shift in thinking towards cultivating more locally-based, bottom-up, endogenous approaches to promoting economic development.  These are seen as being preferable for a number of reasons, including their capacity for putting in place more co-ordinated and comprehensive development programmes tailored to local needs and resources, for developing local linkages with suppliers and service providers, and for facilitating innovation via local information sharing (Pike et al., 2006).

In the “new regionalism” model, local and regional tiers of government are envisaged as playing a major role in fostering endogenous economic development at the regional level.  A 2010 OECD report identified three main roles which local government can play in promoting locally-based development (Clark et al., 2010):

  • Provision of leadership in building development coalitions and collaborative networks;
  • Coordination of support for the development effort on the part of all public sector agencies; and
  • Provision of high-quality services and infrastructure.

However, in order to perform this role, local and regional tiers of government must have effective control of public services delivered within their territories and must possess sufficient publicly-perceived status to allow them to perform the leadership and regulatory roles envisaged by the OECD.  This, in turn, requires the devolution to the regional and local levels of an appropriate range of functions and powers, where such devolution has not already occurred (see, for example, Cooke and Morgan, 1998; Danson et al., 1997; Martin and Minns, 1995).  In the case of Italy, for example, Governa and Salone (2005) have noted how the transfer of powers to regional government has contributed to the increased efficiency of regional and local government and improved urban/regional competitiveness, especially through the promotion of new forms of regional partnership between private and public sector actors.

A major sub-theme of the “new regionalism” literature refers to the territorial organisation of economic development at the regional level.  The key concept here is the “city-region”, comprising a focal regional city and its adjacent functional hinterland.  City-regions comprise territories in which multiple (and frequently interlinked) spatial systems are simultaneously articulated, embracing such activities as commuting, supply of consumer and public services, transport, communication, contact networks and production chain linkages.

City-regions therefore, it is argued, constitute the most appropriate spatial units for integrated socioeconomic and environmental planning.  This is a view very strongly advanced by the ESDP, which devotes considerable attention to the simultaneous and integrated development of regional cities and their hinterlands as complementary units.

The NPF Draft Strategy

This, then, brings us to the recently-published NPF draft strategy (Ireland 2040 Our Plan, 2017).  The main broad objective of the NPF is that total population and employment growth in the North & West and South Regional Assembly areas combined will be equal to that in the East & Midland Regional Assembly area in the period up to 2040.  The main vehicle for achieving this is concentrated development of the four main regional cities, whose combined growth would match that of the Dublin region over the period.  This would mean that these cities would have to grow at twice the rate actually achieved in the 25-year period up to 2016, while Dublin’s share of national population growth, at 25%, would be considerably less than its existing share of the national population (c40%).  Overall, some 50% of total population and employment growth would occur in Dublin and the four main regional cities. These targets, it should be noted, are aspirational – no specific mechanisms are set out in the draft strategy for achieving these targets.

The NPF is similar in approach to the NSS in its focus on focusing development in the main urban centres.  Indeed, in confining its focus to the four main regional centres it is more concentrated than the NSS which provided for seven gateway centres outside Dublin.

The NPF strategy identifies four particular measures which are designed to make it more effective than the NSS.

  1. The NPF will be given a statutory legislative basis which the NSS lacked.
  2. An Office of the National Planning Regulator will be established, one of whose functions will be to oversee implementation of the strategy.
  3. Each of the three Regional Assembly areas will produce and implement a Regional Spatial and Economic Strategy (RSES) which will also be aligned to the objectives of the NPF.
  4. A National Investment Strategy will run in parallel with the NPF and will be aligned to the objectives of the NPF.

The first three of these can be considered governance issues, and are considered in the section to follow.  As regards the fourth, it will be remembered that the objectives of the National Development Plan 2000-2006 (which was, in effect, of a national investment strategy and which ran in parallel with the NSS) were similarly supposed to be aligned to the NSS, with strong statements in both the NDP and the NSS to this effect.  Nonetheless, the NDP essentially ignored the NSS, so one can have little confidence in similar pledges of alignment between the proposed National Investment Strategy and the NPF.

Governance Issues

In its chapter on implementation, the NPF draft strategy has a separate section entitled Governance, which displays some awareness of the governance problems that beset the NSS.  The three governance measures identified in the previous section – putting the NPF on a statutory basis, the creation of the Office of National Planning Regulator and the production of regional strategies by the Regional Assemblies – are presented in the draft strategy as responses to these problems.

However, these measures go nowhere near addressing the governance issues which undermined the NSS.  Putting the NPF on a statutory basis in itself achieves nothing.  Ireland has a long history of passing legislation which subsequently remained poorly implemented.

The impetus for setting up the Office of the National Planning Regulator came from the Mahon Tribunal and is primarily designed to combat corruption in the planning process.  The Regulator’s main concern therefore will be to ensure that rules are adhered to.  Adding on the function of monitoring overall performance of the NPF, therefore, means diluting a function which should be central to effective NPF implementation.  Furthermore, there is no mention in the draft strategy of how the Planning Regulator will be able to act to ensure compliance with the NPF.

What the NSS lacked, and the NPF will also lack, is a powerful national office capable of knocking heads together in the central civil service to ensure coordinated support of the NPF, capable of forcing recalcitrant ministers to act in accordance with the NPF, and capable of resisting the political interference which will inevitably impact on the NPF implementation process.  It is impossible, given Ireland’s politico-institutional configuration, to envisage such an office ever being established, never mind acting effectively.

At the subnational level, the NPF attaches major importance to the role of the Regional Assemblies in drawing up and implementing regional strategies.  However, the Regional Assemblies have no powers to enforce compliance with these strategies on the part of actors within their territories, nor are any such powers proposed in the NPF draft strategy.  This is similar to the situation with the NSS where the old Regional Authorities drew up Regional Planning Guidelines in compliance with the NSS but where there were no mechanisms for enforcing these Guidelines, a weakness which was identified by Forfás in its 2010 report on regional competitiveness (Forfás, 2010).

On top of that, the Regional Assemblies comprise very unwieldy territories which bear no relationship to the spatial structure of the economy, which is mainly organised in the form of regional fields or hinterlands around the main regional centres.  The Regional Assemblies were created by cobbling together the earlier Regional Authorities, with their boundaries largely determined by the need to provide a degree of continuity with the existing arrangements for monitoring EU structural funding which today is of, at best, only marginal relevance to regional planning in Ireland and is not mentioned at all in the NPF strategy document.  The Regional Assemblies therefore represent governance units with few functions, no powers, and little relevance to the city-focused planning which is the main component of the NPF.

The draft strategy does recognise this problem and proposes the preparation, for each of the four regional cities, of Metropolitan Area Strategic Plans (MASPs), designed to address the problem of the regional cities being spread over multiple local authority territories.  However, there is no information on what governance structures will oversee these strategic plans and what powers, if any, they will have to secure active cooperation from relevant central government departments and organisations and participation of local authorities and private sector actors.

It would obviously make a lot more sense to create regional structures which align with the hinterlands of the main cities.  However, the NPF draft strategy accepts the clearly dysfunctional Regional Assemblies without question.  It borders on the absurd to base a regional strategy on such clearly inappropriate regional entities.

As noted above, research and experience elsewhere has shown that, ultimately, effective regional and local development requires devolution to the regional and local levels of the wide range of powers and functions involved in the development process.  Despite the fact that the first chapter of the Action Programme for Effective Local Government published by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (2012) presented a strong case for such devolution, this possibility has not even been hinted at in the NPF strategy document.

The NSS was fatally hobbled by the lack of support from central government departments and state agencies, and there are already signs of a similar fate being in store for the NPF.  According to the Local Government Reform Act 2014:

“Each public body shall consult with the regional assemblies, as appropriate, when preparing its own strategies, plans and programmes so as to ensure that they are consistent, as far as practicable, with national and regional objectives set out in the National Spatial Strategy and regional spatial and economic strategies.”

Yet, when the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI) launched its Framework for the Development of Regional Enterprise Strategies in February 2015, it made no reference at all to the Regional Assemblies which came into existence the previous month.  Furthermore, the DJEI proceeded the following year to prepare Regional Action Plans for eight regions (equivalent to the old Regional Authorites), whose boundaries do not coincide with those of the Regional Assemblies.


The NPF draft strategy comprises an outline strategy which identifies broad objectives and measures for achieving these objectives.  It may be that, at the implementation stage, more detailed sets of objectives and action mechanisms will be forthcoming, although no procedures along these lines are identified in the strategy.

Nevertheless, even at the broad level, there is no appreciation in the draft strategy of the nature of the governance challenges which will face the NPF.  Accordingly, there is very unlikely to be any movement in the foreseeable future towards devolving significant functions or powers to the subnational level or towards recasting the territorial structure of local government in Ireland – measures deemed crucial elsewhere to the achievement of balanced regional development.  Meanwhile, the NPF draft strategy clearly has no grasp of the powerful opposition the NSS met from the central organs of the state, and there is no reason to expect that the NPF will not meet a similar fate. In the absence of profound reform in these areas, it is difficult to see any prospect of the NPF being implemented successfully.


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Proinnsias Breathnach, Department of Geography, Maynooth University

This paper was originally presented at the Political Studies Association of Ireland Annual Conference, Dublin City University All Hallows Campus, October 15, 2017