MISSED OPPORTUNITY Michael Ring has bemoaned the fact that his former Ministry of Rural and Community Development is no longer a stand alone department in government. He is pictured during his spell as Minister, opening the Kilmeena Community Playground, with local children, Emma Coady, Tracey Moran, Julie O’Grady and Darragh McDonnell. Pic: Conor McKeown
The former Minister for Rural and Community Development Michael Ring has expressed his disappointment with the lack of such a specific senior ministry in the current cabinet.
Ring’s former ministry has been merged with Social Protection under the leadership of Minister Heather Humphries.
Deputy Ring said regional development was neglected by many governments but argued that changed with the establishment of the Department of Rural and Community Development, with him as minister in the last government.
However, while the Department remains in situ, Minister Humphries is responsible for both that department and the Department of Social Protection.
“A clear message and a clear decision was made in relation to the setting up of the Department of Rural and Community Development and that’s why that department was set up, because they saw the gaps that were there in relation to the development that was taking place,” Deputy Ring told The Mayo News.
“I have to say that was a right decision, a good decision and what disappoints me was putting that department in with social protection (at cabinet). It should have been left as an independent department. It was really working well.
“It’s not the message they should have sent out. It should have been a standalone department and I would have strengthened Rural and Community Development and I would have taken rural aspects out of other departments such as transport and tourism and put them into it and that’s what should have been done,” he argued.
Deputy Ring argues that too often politicians are too often stymied in their efforts by civil servants, what he says is a legacy of a series of political scandals and tribunals in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“There’s no point pretending … It is because some politicians in the past did things they shouldn’t have done and that’s why tribunals were set up but we go from one extreme to the other. It is a habit we have in this country. It is like the EU regulations. In France and Germany they implement EU regulations. What do we do in Ireland? We have to go ten steps further than everybody else. We overcompensate all the time.
“It was perhaps because of the lack of trust (in politics) and there has to be accountability. I have to be accountable and I am, on the ballot paper. Everyone has to be accountable but we don’t need to go too far on everything.
“We have media at times giving out about ministers doing this and doing that and doing the other. The direct opposite of that is do you hand it over to the civil service? You are a minister or you are not a minister and you get criticised for making decisions … If you make wrong decisions, fine, get the criticism for it. I used to always say to my civil servants, what ballot paper did you put your name on? That is the truth. That’s what’s gone wrong in this country – the politicians have no power and you hand it over to the National Roads Authority, you hand it over here and there.
“We are elected to represent the people. Democracy is going to have to be looked at again. It is breaking down. I’m telling you, we put people into positions and they’ve too much power and they’re not really accountable to the elected representatives and it looks like sometimes the elected representatives nearly have to make themselves accountable to the executive which should never be the case,” he said.
Democracy is breaking down is a big statement, we interject.
“Well if we are electing people … It’s like the county councillors. Who is running the council? Is it the elected representatives or officialdom? In theory it is the elected representatives. And who runs the country? The elected representatives. It’s not the other way around.
“In practice, some people overstep their mark. We have Secretary Generals of some departments making political statements. They are not political people, that’s what the minister should be doing,” he said.
The accusation of civil servants overstepping their mark has come up regularly in this series. If it is as prevalent as many say it is, is it not within the remit of the politicians to address it?
“I can say and I can stand over this … In my department there was a will and a power. The will was there to do something about rural development,” he argued.
“The power will have to come back to the elected representatives. It will have to come back to the councillors. Power has to be respected and that’s why people are answerable. I had to stand before the people eight or nine times. The people made the decision. There are people there with too much power and not answerable to anybody.”