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Eamon Ryan: What we need today is a much bigger State

The view that we are living in a failed state only serves a nihilistic creed. We need a well-funded, competent public sector if we are to continue to build on our progress

David McWilliams investigated the proposed public sector pay deal in his Irish Times article last Saturday. You could only draw three conclusions from the analysis: that our public service is not delivering for the Irish people, that we are chasing our inflationary tail by agreeing to the recent pay deal and that no one seems to be in control of the future direction of the Irish economy.

On all three counts I beg to differ. But, more fundamentally, I believe that what we need today is a much bigger state, one that is paid competitively, that performs well and that is fit for purpose for the enormous development that a country with an increasing population and one of the most vibrant economies in the world needs.

While there is always room for improvement, our public sector as it stands has real strengths. The best measure of progress is how we compare with our peers, and on that score any assessment of the most reputable international league tables shows we are not doing badly at all. We have the second-highest quality of life worldwide, according to the UN Human Development Index, and are ranked 12th in the 2024 Social progress index. Our average life expectancy has increased by more than five years in the last 14. We are ranked fourth in the human freedom index, third in the global peace index, second-best for the reading ability of our 15-year-olds and 11th for maths. You could go on, but the overall picture is clear, our Oireachtas, our public servants and the various agencies of our State and our society are delivering for our people.

I have spoken before about the need for a bigger state. And business organisations such as IBEC are to the fore in calling for this type of investment in the State. They point out that we have seen a one million increase in private sector jobs in the last 15 years, while our public sector numbers have more or less stayed the same.


That imbalance between public and private is not sustainable. There is a special need for public servants in the field, with more technical and specialist skills, so we can help build up our housing, energy, transport, food, forestry, nature and water systems, as well as expanding the health and educational services, to serve our growing population.

This is happening already in areas where we have a real opportunity. Ireland has to become a regulatory hub for the European digital economy and we will need hundreds of new staff for Coimisiún na Mean, ComReg and the National Cyber Security Centre, for example. Many of these jobs will be funded by industry levies, making them cost neutral for taxpayers.

We have already begun the process of scaling up An Bord Pleanála with plans to increase staffing to more than 300 people. We established the new Maritime Area Regulatory Authority (Mara) last year, and we are looking at similar staff upscaling for it and other licensing bodies such as our local authorities and the National Parks & Wildlife Service.

We won’t get the right people if we don’t pay them well. In the long run our country will work best when there is a fair return on labour as well as capital. Listening to those responsible for bringing jobs into the country you increasingly hear that our reputation as a stable and reputable country is becoming one of our best economic assets at this trying time in the world.

The issue of how we set public pay levels is of course complicated. We do have to be careful about how much money goes into an economy that is near full employment and in danger of overheating. There are, however, other moving parts in that equation. The economic calculus is also set by how much tax cuts are promised and how much we increase other current spending at the same time. The Government did improve its final offer in the recent public service pay negotiations, in part because what is on the table now is very similar to what the private sector is already settling on. The prospective deal also comes with the opportunity to improve productivity through the use of new digital technology and more flexible work practices. We will be better placed to deliver those gains because we also engage in a partnership approach to economic decision making.

A teacher, however, can still only teach 20-30 children in a given week, the exact same as was the case 30 years ago – and indeed, the aim has been for lower ratios. Similarly, a nurse can only tend to the needs of roughly the same number of patients as a nurse in the 1990s could.

I believe we can get the balance right but the biggest risk is that we might doubt or talk ourselves down so much that we stop before we even start. That is the one thing we have to avoid in the public service at all costs.

You would never believe that it is possible to strategically lead the country in a new direction if you just read some of the political and social media commentary suggesting we are living in some sort of failed state. Such a view only serves a nihilistic creed and is the opposite to the real-world implementation of complex solutions, which populist soundbites never achieve. These complex solutions require an expanded, well-funded, competent and competitive public sector.

Eamon Ryan is Minister for the Environment, Climate, Communications and Transport, and leader of the Green Party