‘Ireland is good in a crisis but can’t manage success’, says crisis era mandarin

Former secretary general of the Department of Finance John Moran is standing as a candidate to be Limerick’s first directly-elected mayor

The Irish political system performs well in a crisis, but “is poor at managing success”. That’s John Moran’s takeaway from the last two decades, a period that started with the financial crisis and culminated in the pandemic and the recent energy price shock.

It was also an era that saw a huge surge in employment and left us with an acute housing crisis.

The former civil servant is now running as an Independent candidate for the role of directly elected mayor of Limerick, the State’s first direct mayoral election, and a poll that could set a precedent.

Looking back on that tumultuous period, Moran says that while plans to recapitalise the banking system, prepare for Brexit and support the economy during Covid were successfully deployed (some might dispute this), there was a conspicuous failure to invest for a bigger population and a bigger economy, resulting in infrastructural bottlenecks in transport, housing and health.

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“There is an inbuilt fear in the Irish system to spend,” he says, suggesting policymakers are fearful of overspending or presiding over another spending fiasco, a phenomenon that characterised much of the Celtic Tiger era and, more recently, with the National Children’s Hospital.

The findings of the report by the Housing Commission, published this week, highlighted “risk aversion” on the part of policymakers as a key problem.

If you have realistic targets for your demand needs in housing and you have a plan to deliver them, people will relax and prices will go down

“There was an absolute imperative to invest more in housing at an earlier point,” Moran insists, noting the economy has created 750,000 jobs since 2014. That sort of growth, he insists, could not have been anticipated in 2014 when he was still at the helm, but should have been in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Because of the then government’s failure to build public housing, the State, instead of welcoming private funds that might fill the void, has become “hostile” to them. “We have this idea that you can build all the homes in Ireland just using government money, which is just impossible,” Moran says.

Moran, a lawyer and banker by trade, grew up in Limerick but left in the 1980s to work in New York, Sydney and later in Dublin. He joined the Central Bank in 2010 as head of wholesale banking supervision, before moving to the Department of Finance a year later, initially to lead the its involvement in rescuing the then ailing banking sector.

He served as secretary general of the department between 2012 and 2014, working closely with former finance minister Michael Noonan, who credits Moran with making a lot of the decisions. He also served on the European Investment Bank’s board between 2013 and 2018 and chaired the Land Development Agency (LDA) between 2019 and 2021.

I can’t think of any other politician anywhere in the country who will automatically be given the power to direct how Government funds are used

“This is a new type of election for us in Ireland,” Moran says of the upcoming mayoral vote in Limerick, which will be held on June 7th, the same day as the local and European elections. Normally mayors are elected by the local councillors rather than directly by voters.

Under the legislation, Limerick’s incoming mayor will take on a number of executive functions in areas such as strategic development, housing and building, road transport and environmental services, but won’t have powers over things like policing. They will receive an annual salary of €154,000, will be assigned up to five staff from the council, and have an annual budget of €8 million for mayoral projects and initiatives.

The most significant power they will wield, however, is proposing the annual €1 billion budget for Limerick City and County Council.

“I can’t think of any other politician anywhere in the country who will automatically be given the power to direct how Government funds are used,” Moran says. In other words, the winner will automatically assume an executive position rather than a representative one.

“The mayor will hold a pen in the next two or three months, and if Bruff enterprise centre is a priority of the mayor as part of their electoral promises, they have a mandate to say – when looking at the €300 million budget that’s spent in Limerick – if I can find a quarter of a million spare funds here either by cutting another programme or making something else more efficient, I can spend it on that thing in Bruff,” he says.

Moran insists Ireland is too centralised, with limited scope for policymaking at local level. Some 60-70 per cent of exchequer funding spent in Denmark is spent by local municipalities, councils and mayors, compared to just 10 per cent here, he says.

We have this idea that you can build all the homes in Ireland just using government money, which is just impossible

“It’s crazy, the level of decision-making that occurs in government departments,” he says, adding that he would dismantle the Department of Rural and Community Development and disperse its annual budget of €430 million to local authorities.

He also believes that decentralising decision-making could dilute Dublin’s overwhelming economic dominance. “If we had directly elected mayors in other parts of the country, we might get a more rational division of the economy,” he says.

Voters in Waterford and Cork voted down the option of having similar mayoral votes in their jurisdictions. The vote in Limerick, Moran says, was passed largely because Limerick notables like the Rubberbandits, rugby star Paul O’Connell and several NGOs rowed in behind the idea.

The debate over directly elected mayors (for Dublin particularly) seems to wax and wane. Critics say such a move in Dublin would never wash, not with the capital commanding such a large share of the economy. Central government would never concede that amount of power, they say. But if London can do it successfully, why not Dublin?

What does Moran plan to bring to the party if elected?

The first thing he would do is revise up the county’s housing targets. Currently the annual target for Limerick city and county is 2,000, but the delivery rate is less than 1,000. He would bring the target to more than 3,000. As mayor, he would zone land for these enhanced targets, noting there is room for thousands of homes in Moyross, Colbert Quarter and Southill.

“You may not be able to build all the housing on day one – I’m not saying that – but you can buy all the land. You could have got planning permission in three years to build thousands of apartments and have the pipes put in and the roads put in,” he says.

Moran references the State’s sale of Bank of Ireland shares to US financiers Wilbur Ross and Prem Watsa back at the height of the financial crisis in 2011, a deal that he helped broker.

“Because the market knew the numbers were right, the entire problem of Ireland turned around in that instance – because they believed our targets,” he says.

“If you have realistic targets for your demand needs in housing, and you have a plan to deliver them, people will relax and prices will go down.”

Moran’s mayoral campaign has focused largely on his ability to get projects over the line. The State needs to flood the market with affordable rental accommodation, possibly modular homes, in advance of a more permanent build, he says.

He believes Limerick and the wider State could use private infrastructural funds to finance its student housing needs similar to the way investors have built toll roads, tunnels (including the Limerick tunnel) and bridges here, operating them for a time to recoup their investment before the assets revert to the State.

Several mayoral candidates debated the issue of housing at a recent event at the Technical University of Shannon. While there was agreement on the need to build more, there was disagreement on whether the LDA was the vehicle to do it.

It’s crazy, the level of decision-making that occurs in government departments

Moran denies he quit the LDA in 2021, but admits there were disagreements about his employment contract, governance and Government funding for the agency, which was initially just €300 million, a figure he describes as woefully inadequate.

Obviously, it’s not entirely about housing. Limerick isn’t creating enough jobs as “we have graduates leaving our two universities”, Moran says. Employment could be enhanced with a better tie-up between agriculture and food, drawing more tourists from other parts, by developing the county’s offshore wind potential, and with a bigger focus on sectors like manufacturing and IT, he says.

“A lot of the policies are around building up Limerick’s economic sectors whether it’s AI, IT or manufacturing, but with a ‘Limerick first’ focus,” he says.

Moran recently stepped down from the board of Shannon Airport and the Limerick Economic Forum to avoid any suggestions of a conflict of interest. He has also stepped back from roles with local organisations, including the University of Limerick Foundation and the Hunt Museum, in the interest of transparency.

There are 15 candidates running for the role of Limerick mayor, including other Independent candidates Helen O’Donnell and Frankie Daly, Sinn Féin’s Maurice Quinlivan, Fianna Fáil’s Dee Ryan and Fine Gael’s Dan Butler. While there haven’t been any polls indicating possible voting patterns, Boyle Sports has Moran as favourite.