IT might not make as much of an impact today, but when the first decentralisation of government departments became a reality for Castlebar just over 40 years ago, it was a landmark occasion. In June, 1976, the opening of Davitt House in Castlebar marked the start of what was intended to be the full scale relocation of central government out of Dublin. The transfer of the Land Commission and the Forestry and Wildlife Service to Mayo had been in the pipeline for several years. The Castlebar-born Minister for Lands, Micheal Ó Morain, had first gone public with the plans as a member of the Fianna Fáil government. But it was his fellow townsman and political opponent, Henry Kenny - father of the present Taoiseach - who had the honour of being part of the government which saw the plans become a reality.
The small army of 180 civil servants who took up duty that sunny June day in 1976 was meant to herald the regeneration of small Irish towns and villages with central administration being redeployed back to the communities it was meant to serve. Their arrival, and the months of preparation which such a dislocation (as it was seen in Dublin) required, are recorded in this year’s Castlebar Parish Magazine by Pat Lynch, long a naturalised Mayoman, who had the responsibility for the logistics of the operation.
Pat recalls, with some humour, how the carefully laid plans for the official opening were scuttled by the impromptu invitation of the then Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrave, to all and sundry to the formal reception.
It had been the intention that, while the general public were more than welcome to present themselves outside Davitt House for the formal opening and cutting of the ceremonial tape, only a certain elite were to be invited inside to partake of the food and refreshments. However, Mr Cosgrave chose to go a little off-script and, in his enthusiasm for the project, invited everyone present to come inside and sample the refreshments on offer.
Henry Kenny himself made the reasonable point that, since the building was there to serve the public, the public were as well entitled as anyone else to be part of the celebrations. It was too, he said, a welcome sign that government was being brought to the people, and that Davitt House would provide a location where the farming community in particular would have the opportunity of engaging face to face with the public servants who were there to serve them.
The success of the transfer of the Department to Davitt House was supposed to be the blueprint for the decentralisation of virtually the entire civil service across the country. By 2004, Charlie McCreevy and Tom Parlon, Government coalition partners, announced on Budget Day a hugely ambitious project to relocate the civil service to designated towns around the country. Every town and village, it seemed, was to be given a slice of the pie, and rural Ireland would be renewed and revitalised.
Alas, what seemed fine on paper just did not translate into reality. Close to home, the relocation of the entire Department of Rural Affairs and Gaeltacht to Knock Airport, in spite of the full and enthusiastic support of the Minister Eamon Ó Cuiv, itself fell foul of bureaucracy. In a classic case of one arm of government not knowing what the other was doing, An Bord Pleánala ruled that the proposed move was in breach of planning regulations. The proposed decentralisation to Knock never saw the light of day.