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Friday 19 October 2018

He's the last big hope for nation on its knees

The Taoiseach's newest recruit won't be a 'Yes' man, but will try to keep the people happy, writes John O'Keeffe

The appointment by the Taoiseach of Prof Peter Clinch to the post of special adviser on the economy is being met with audible mutterings of approval from within and outside the corridors of power. An outspoken critic of the Government on a range of issues in the past, from decentralisation to the "flimsy detail" of Transport 21, he now stands as the only visible white knight in the unforgiving battle field that is the Irish economy.

Put simply, the 37-year-old UCD Environmental Economics Professor may be the last great hope for a country on its knees and his arrival is likely to herald a new approach to Government economic strategy.

If the Taoiseach was looking for a 'Yes' man however, he is likely to be disappointed. "Decentralisation is totally inconsistent with the National Spatial Strategy," Clinch has remarked and "this has dented the credibility of the system". On the Department of the Environment, Heritage & Local Government he said: "Decisions are been made in an information vacuum. Without proper research, vested interests can put forward their own theories and there is no evidence to contradict them".

Head hunted for the Taoiseach's top insider job, the Government phone call cannot have been a difficult one as his family and academic credentials are beyond compare. The son of Dr James Clinch, his father was Master of the Coombe Hospital between 1971-1977. His grandfather Dr "Jammie" Clinch earned 30 rugby caps for Ireland and was part of the Irish rugby team that famously beat England 19-15 in 1926. His other grandfather, Seymour Heatley, was a surgeon in Sir Patrick Dunne's Hospital.

Clinch is keen to distance himself from active political affiliations. "Other than my maternal great great grandfather (Patrick Foley) who was a Parnellite and was MP for West Galway 1885-1894, no other members of my family have been involved in politics" he said. "I am not a member of any political party and have not been involved in politics heretofore".

Clinch has the type of mixed religious and academic background that is now becoming de rigueur amongst the 'New Fianna Fail.' "Around 1916, my Catholic great-grandfather was an officer in the RIC," he says. "On the Protestant side of the family, my great-grandmother and her daughters used to feed and shelter rebels on the run in Co Wicklow from the Black and Tans and yet my great-grandfather made them eat with a Union Jack on the table. Healthy political debate has always been a family tradition."

However it is his academic credentials and experience that have marked him out as a man for the top. Educated by the Jesuits at Belvedere and Gonzaga College, he bears all the hallmarks of the modern Hiberno-Patrician, saying, for instance, that traffic congestion, travel time and community life may be a more significant indicator in determining happiness than income.

He holds a first class honours BA and MA in Economics and a PhD from UCD and also held visiting positions at a number of US universities.

Jean Monnet Professor of European Policy in UCD since 2003 -- a position he ascended to at the tender age of 32, which he now describes as "lucky" -- he also holds another Chair in Planning. His CV reads like a magnus opus of over achievement and he has also worked for the World Bank in Washington DC, a consultant to the OECD, while also serving on a number of government advisory panels.

Co-author of 'After the Celtic Tiger, Challenges Ahead,' described as "highly readable" and "thought provoking" it was a 'must read' for all politicians, according to one reviewer.

His specialist area is environmental economics and his tasks will include helping the Government meet climate change targets, while also maintaining a secure economy.

If pundits are looking for hints as to how Dr Clinch will steer the Taoiseach and his Government towards a "secure economy" his words this weekend may prove instructive. "When I finished my BA in 1992 we were more concerned about the 'rare ould jobs' than the 'rare ould times' and I have no desire to go back to that," he said.

During the height of the Celtic Tiger, Prof Clinch was one of the few to opine that the Government must still "be interested in what makes people happy," an oft repeated mantra of his. It is encouraging to note that the country's newest and potentially most exciting rainmaker realised that the time to mend the roof was when the sun was shining.

The real question remains whether he can ensure that the Government can now keep out the rain.

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