Previously published in The Times Ireland edition.
Let’s move the capital out of Dublin. Sounds mad, right? If you’re thinking that, well, you’re in good company because my illustrious editor thought the same when I suggested the idea. But hear me out.
Being capital of a country is a prestigious thing. It means hosting parliaments, supreme courts, government buildings, the executive. It brings with it a certain degree of what could best be described as economic welly, with the salaries of members of parliament and their advisors and all their support staff and families, all on good money, being spent locally. It draws in foreign leaders, embassies, lobbyists, demonstrations, and the odd summit. All who need to be housed and fed, and quite a few not too fussy about value because someone else is picking up the tab.
In short, being a national capital is a money spinner.
But here’s the thing: Dublin, like New York, Sydney, Toronto and Johannesburg doesn’t need that sort of money, because it is big enough and economically attractive enough to lure what we really want. Foreign money. Foreign investment. And in that regard, being a capital is almost a hindrance, with many of those people associated with government using up precious space and housing in Dublin but not adding to Dublin by generating new money. Instead, they’re spending our own money which we had in the country in the first place anyway. Dublin wants value added money.
Supposing, instead, we decided to move the capital. Where? That’s up for debate, but I’d suggest building a new town somewhere in the midlands, planned, as Canberra and Brasilia were, for the purpose of being a capital city. A huge project to create a new economic hub, funded by taxpayer money we spend anyway, in a region that actually would feel the benefit from millions in new spending.
A new parliament, supreme court, Department of the Taoiseach, Aras an Uachtaran, a new airport and rail link, new schools, hospitals, embassies, all planned because we would know almost exactly who would move there.
Would it be expensive to build initially? Yes, of course. But consider again the buildings we could free up in Dublin. Indeed, if we were really ambitious, we could move most of RTE out there too, and free up that prime development land in Donnybrook. Leinster House would make a fine hotel, and it’s not like we’re proud of much that has happened in there since independence anyway. After all, the first few Dails didn’t even meet there.
Is it ambitious? Yes, it is, and not without controversy. We’d need a referendum, and it is quite possible that we’d never get it passed not because the country loves Dublin (as every All Ireland proves) but because there’d be war over what county would get it.
Then there’d be another war once the lucky county is designated and the local Down With This Sort Of Thing brigade do a Shell-to-Sea and wail that it’ll bring terrorist attacks and transsexuals or even transsexual terrorists. But it’ll allow us to kill a load of birds with one giant stone made of money. As part of the design, we can put in a state of the art refugee camp, traveller halting site, wind farm, prison, waste incinerator and (if we can get the water) maybe even a nuclear power plant, all as part of the package. No cherry picking. The county gets all this lovely spending or none, take it or leave it.
We bang on about how much we pay our politicians and how much lobbyists are paid to influence them, so let’s make them all spend their money in a region that needs it. Same with demonstrations. If people want to march on parliament, rather than have them block up the streets of Dublin, let them go to the new capital, where they can march along streets specially designed for demonstrations and buy their cans of Coke and Twixs and sandwiches from local shops glad of the business.
We could even designate a libel-free speakers corner near parliament where you can shout your head off without fear of legal retribution. There’d be a whole stream of axe grinding head-the-balls dying to shout abusive things at passersby and inform their fellow citizens of conspiracies involving the EU and giant lizards. Some people will make the trip just for that.
Yes, it is a very radical proposition, I get that. It would take years to plan, and there is the slightest hint of decentralisation (remember that?) about it. But would it be that bad for our leaders to get away from Dublin with its centre of the universe views? True, the politicians won’t like it. It’s a bit like a political version of the Shannon Stopover, kidnapping them and making them live in Portlaoise. Still, that’ll learn ‘em.
Not convinced? Fair enough. How about we start with a pilot scheme? We could move the Seanad. Sure they’re all just a bunch of jumped up county councillors anyway.
Or we could go for an even more radical proposition. We could move the Seanad around the country like a circus, every week meeting in a different county. The locals would be glad of the business, local schoolkids could be brought down to see the majesty of parliamentary democracy in action, senators could get to wine and dine their county councillor electors, and we could lease the existing Seanad chamber out to turn into something useful.