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Last Updated: Thursday, 19 August, 2004, 14:44 GMT 15:44 UK
Countryside move divides Dublin workers
By James Helm
BBC correspondent in Dublin

Even in the middle of a heavy August downpour, Thomastown is a pretty place.

It is not a big town - population around 2,000 - and sits beside a river in the rolling hills of County Kilkenny, a couple of hours drive south of Dublin.

View along the Liffey river, Dublin
Dubliners are resisting the allure of fresh air and low house prices
If you are heading south to Waterford on the main road, it would be a good place to stop on the way.

Thomastown, like many other towns the length and breadth of Ireland, is a vital part of the Irish government's big plan. It is about to grow.

Ireland's Health and Safety Authority is due to move here from Dublin, bringing 110 staff and their families.

For these recipient towns, the future looks rosy: a cash injection, with new housing required, and a boost for local businesses.

Great outdoors

Local people praise the quality of life on offer here. A couple of miles away is the magnificent Mount Juliet golf course - one of Europe's finest - and a leading hotel. There is a great outdoor life to be had.

And for Dubliners, house prices are lower than in the capital. Walter Walsh, an estate agent in the area for more than 40 years, showed me around a new detached home.

He stressed how much the area has to offer for anyone coming here - "and the fresh air is free here, and there's plenty of it," he chuckles.

Irish Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy
McCreevy's plans envisage the relocation of 10,000 jobs
In the barber shop on the main street, Vernon Moloney, a Dubliner who moved to the country, agreed that Thomastown is a friendly, accessible place with much to offer.

Late last year, out of the blue, Ireland's Finance Minister Charlie McCreevy announced the decentralisation plan.

The aim is to move 38 public agencies and nine whole departments out of Dublin and into provincial towns, lock stock and barrel.

So, for example, the Prison Service will go to Longford, and the tourism promotion agency Failte Ireland will go to Mallow in County Cork.

More than 10,000 jobs will move too. For staff it is voluntary, and if anyone refuses to go they will be offered a job in a different department in Dublin.

Dublin plughole

Ireland's extraordinary economic success over the last decade or so has brought wealth, but a lot of it has undoubtedly remained in Dublin.

Tom Parlon is the minister who is overseeing much of the decentralisation plan. He says it is about spreading some of that wealth, and taking pressure off the capital, with its traffic congestion and sky-high property prices.

There is simply no need, he says, for all the various departments to be concentrated in the capital.

The problem, though, is persuading people to move. The latest figures show that only one in three civil servants have applied to move.

Among staff at public agencies it is even worse, at one in eight.

In Thomastown, despite the attractions, the initial figures suggested that no-one wanted to make the move from Dublin.

Stephen Bathe has worked for Failte Ireland for 24 years. He lives with his wife Grace and their two sons in leafy south Dublin.

His department, where he is a computer expert, is shifting to Mallow. But Stephen and his family have no intention of moving.

They are settled in the city - it is where they come from, where relatives are, where their two teenage sons are at school. For them, it just doesn't make sense, whatever amount of cleaner air and outdoor activities are on offer.

Decentralisation v devolution

Critics say that decentralisation will lead to a loss of expertise if experienced staff jump ship for the private sector in order to stay in Dublin.

And according to Professor Brigid Laffan of University College Dublin, decentralisation should be about devolving power rather than dropping public jobs into small towns.

She believes there is a "political logic" to the proposed process. Certainly, backbench politicians in the areas due to benefit from new offices have been enthusiastic.

Decentralisation has been Ireland's main source of political debate this summer. Unions in particular have been scathing.

Mr McCreevy, its architect, is off to Brussels to became a European Commissioner. The ministers left behind insist the plan will go ahead, although the time frame may slip beyond the three years initially set down.

Now they must persuade staff in the big city that what they really need is a move to a quieter life in the Irish countryside.

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