UNCERTAIN DAYS FOR BALLYBAY

23 March 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The local political storm precipitated by the news of the prospective closure of the District Veterinary Office in Ballybay as a public facility, and the worrying implications for the 51 staff employed there and the health of the town economy, was a predictable one.
The manner in which it manifested itself at last Wednesday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council – with the hot potato of ultimate responsibility for the decision being projected back and forth among the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors on wafts of hot vocal air – was insightful of how the changed national political landscape is likely to play out over contentious issues in local authority chambers.
But its hectoring tone carried little reassurance for the personnel fearing relocation or redundancy, or the already beleaguered Ballybay business community contemplating the further depletion of local economic activity.
Those engaged in local or national politics who have been gifted any appreciable degree of foresight will certainly have seen this storm coming. Indeed, its clouds have never fully left the horizon since the issue of the Dept of Agriculture office in Ballybay emerged as a regular subject of debate among the members of Monaghan Co Council and Ballybay Town Council over the past three years.
Reassurances about the office’s future made by or on behalf of former Fianna Fáil Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith were never unequivocal, nor could they be against the backdrop of an ongoing national programme of reconfiguration which had the intent of radically rationalising staffing levels and the number of offices from which the Dept’s services to the agricultural community were delivered.
Even when presented with their maximum positive spin, the reassurances were undercut by the critique of local opposition politicians, in particular Mid-Monaghan FG representative Owen Bannigan, and by developments, such as the transfer of farmer files, which strongly suggested that the days of the Ballybay facility’s function of direct engagement with members of the county’s farming community were numbered.
Although it exercised the energy of some of our Co Councillors quite vigorously last week, the question of who is the villain of the piece is something of a sideshow.
Claiming that new Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney had callously decided to close the office after only “a wet week-and-a-half in government”, as FF’s John O’Brien phrased it, or that the closure was the brainchild of his predecessor Minister Smith and somehow an “act of FF political treachery” instigated, as FG’s Hugh McElvaney asserted, as retribution for the loss of a Cavan/Monaghan seat by the party in the recent General Election, glitter attractively as bait for the media headline-writers. But they cast no more illumination than that.
The scythe of rationalisation being wielded in all sectors of the public service at present is powered by economic imperatives that go way beyond the influence of what actual decision-making powers are at the disposal of individual Government Ministers to exercise. There has been, from the earliest indications of change in the nature of the Ballybay office’s operation, a strong sense of the inevitable.
It may well be that Minister Smith had some influence on the reconfiguration of the offices in the north-east of the country being the last on the list, thereby postponing impact until following the General Election. But it seems reasonable to suppose that if he had the gift of preventing an office in his own constituency from having its staffing levels and functions depleted, he would have exercised it before the General Election to confer the beneficial effects of the decision upon himself and his fellow FF candidates. And it is entirely unreasonable, and unrealistic, to imagine any Minister acting with malicious or vengeful intent before he formally left office because an election result didn’t go his party’s way.
If Minister Smith was unable to resist the rationalising forces at work in the public service, it is unlikely that Minister Coveney will be able to. But it is just as unlikely that any new Government Minister would have had the opportunity, or the inclination, to okay a decision that would present two new Dáil colleagues, Deputies Sean Conlan and Heather Humphreys, with a very difficult issue to deal with in their own backyard at the very outset of their national political careers.
It is one of the difficulties facing our new Ministers of government that they are virtually compelled to flow with the established tide of cutbacks and service reforms dictated by the country’s extreme economic circumstances. If Minister Coveney was to spare the Monaghan office, what about the others throughout the country facing similar fates?
That is not to say that Monaghan Co Council’s desire that the Minister meet a delegation on the issue is futile. It would certainly bring clarity to the situation that would be of benefit to the employees directly affected, and might mitigate some of the upheaval they face if the Minister can be persuaded to exercise such latitude as he has to extend the timeframe for relocation of both personnel and services.
If the fate of the Ballybay office is as inevitable as it would seem, the Council delegation must also go to the Minister prepared to argue the case for some form of compensatory economic investment for the town. As several councillors have argued, the loss of any job to Ballybay has an impact far in excess of a similar experience in other parts of our county given that the town has a limited rates base and has been subjected to a number of significant recent economic blows, the loss of court sittings among them.
And, aside from the colourful ‘blame game’ shenanigans, last week’s Council debate raised a number of important questions in relation to the Ballybay DVO office that it would be important for Minister Coveney and his colleagues in Government to address.
One of the most disturbing arises from Colr Bannigan’s claim that he was informed that, at the start of the reconfiguration process, it was made clear that the offices located in Tullamore, the home of then Taoiseach Brian Cowen, and that in Minister Smith’s Cavan base, were effectively “untouchable”.
It is in no way to endorse this particular allegation of favouritism to say that it merits some degree of serious investigation. For it touches on a very important issue of perception.
It has become an accepted part of Irish politics that having a Government Minister in a particular county or constituency confers certain “fringe benefits” in terms of capital investment and funding. Indeed, the degree to which a Minister has “delivered” for their home area frequently constitutes the slide-rule upon which their political worth is measured.
But it is right that Ministers can influence the distribution of public resources in ways that effectively feather their own political nests?
Is this not just another example of the patronage politics that we have come in its other forms to repudiate in this country, the sort of politics that the incoming Government is at pains to distance itself from, the sort of politics being trounced in the tribunals? These are questions worth addressing.
Of more immediate concern to the people of Ballybay, however, will be the future of a very important public facility in their midst, and what can be done to either preserve it, or make up for the loss of stature and economic strength its departure will entail.
They will hope that Deputies Conlan and Humphreys, and the members of Monaghan Co Council, can bring them some measure of reassurance from their engagements with the new Government on the issue.

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