Government advisory board opposes Irish Aid decentralisation

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act reveal the government is going ahead with plans to decentralise Irish Aid to Limerick in the face of consistent opposition from the government-appointed advisory board to Irish Aid.

At board meetings throughout 2004 and 2005, the members consistently raised their objections to decentralisation. The board wrote to Tom Kitt, then junior minister at the Department of Foreign Affairs, in early 2004 and to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, in late 2004, protesting against the plans. The board's key concerns were that decentralisation would lead to the loss of key staff, difficulty in working with the Dublin-based NGOs (such as Concern and Goal) and with foreign embassies, and a lack of coherence between development policy and other policies in the Department of Foreign Affairs and other relevant departments.

At a meeting in November 2004, a member questioned "the value of being on the board if the board's views were not being heeded". The minutes recorded: "The fact that the numbers who applied from the senior staff grades... are so low has major implications in terms of institutional memory and programme development." It continued: "The threat to coherence between [the aid division] and the rest of the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as with other government departments such as agriculture and trade, is potentially very serious."

Following that meeting, chairman Chris Flood wrote to Dermot Ahern. He said the board wished to "record its alarm that the relocation of [the aid division] carries with it the risk of serious damage to the quality of the development cooperation programme".

By September 2005, with decentralisation ongoing despite repeated objections from the board, disillusionment set in, according to the minutes: "Members asked if this decision [to decentralise] was a fait accompli and wondered if the board was wasting its time discussing this issue. Board members had registered their opposition to the move and yet the plans seem to be going ahead..." Those minutes also noted: "morale is not good amongst [aid division] staff".

At the November 2005 meeting, the board was informed that, "of the current senior management group, only the director general and the deputy director general have indicated their willingness to move". However, it heard there was "a lot of interest" in posts with Irish Aid in Limerick from outside the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The junior minister with responsibility for Irish Aid, Conor Lenihan, confirmed there had been "a low take-up" of the decentralised senior management positions. He said a new senior management team would be in place by autumn, and that longer handover periods and stronger induction processes would protect against any loss of expertise or "corporate memory".

Conor Lenihan said the take-up of junior positions in Irish Aid was ahead of other departments, with applications having been made for 42 per cent of the 123 positions being decentralised. Many of these were from outside the Department of Foreign Affairs, he said.

Colin Murphy