An Introduction to Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024

Dr Nat O’Connor[i]

Key words: Public Spending; Taxation; Public Services; Public Sector; National Budget, Government Spending

The full report is available here: Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024.

The last time Ireland intensively scrutinised public spending was when the economy had collapsed in 2008. The scale of the national debt and loss of tax revenue at the time threatened the financial ruin of the state. That was not the best environment in which to consider where the state spends money and what we get in return. The 2008 crisis led to a rush to cut the spending that was easiest to cut, rather than any kind of strategic decision on what areas of public spending foster wellbeing, economic development or the kind of society we want to live in. There is a need to examine public spending outside of crises.

Public access to high quality information is an essential part of democracy, not least clear information about where public money is allocated. Despite digitalisation, and the availability of budget documents online at the touch of a button, the national budget is not well understood by most citizens. Partially that is because the documentation has not evolved to provide the public with clear information or data files that are easy to analyse, and partially it is because public spending is complicated and therefore requires some background knowledge to understand. It is also the case that media coverage of the budget focuses overwhelmingly on ‘the money in your pocket’, as opposed to the value and economies of scale from collectively purchasing goods and services rather than buying them individually. The government’s Budget in Brief guide[ii] is a good attempt to simplify the budget, but it still relies on readers already knowing where spending was allocated so that the budget allocations make sense on top of that. Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024 is an attempt to fill that gap.

In 2024, the state will spend €114.4 billion, but before now there has never been a single report that shows straightforwardly where all that money has been allocated. Ireland’s Public Spending Explained makes public spending more intuitive by describing it in 105 ‘spending programmes’, which gives insight not only into where money is being allocated but also to the range of goods and services provided through government departments and state agencies.

As an example of where public money is spent, the three largest spending programmes account for more than a fifth of all public spending. For every €100 spent, €9.34 goes on the state pension, €7.02 goes on acute hospital services and €4.89 goes on welfare payments for illness, disability or carers. That adds up to €21.25 out of every €100 of public spending.

Ireland’s Public Spending Explained provides brief descriptions and statistics for all 105 spending programmes, which are divided into the 30 top programmes (each of which is 1% or more of public spending), 44 major programmes (each accounting for 0.1% to 0.99%) and 31 ‘smaller’ spending programmes (less than 0.1% each).

The 30 top programmes account for over 81% of all public spending or €93.1 billion.

Four of them are social protection programmes:

  • State Pensions
  • Illness, Disability and Carers’ Income Supports
  • Working Age Income Supports
  • Child-Related Income Supports

Nine are health and social care programmes:

  • Acute Hospital Services
  • Primary Care Reimbursement Service
  • Specialist Disability Services
  • HSE Other Operations and Services
  • Primary Care
  • Health Capital Spending
  • Older Persons’ Services
  • Mental Health
  • Long Term Residential Care

Four programmes are ‘non-voted’ spending, which means that the money is allocated due to contractual obligations rather than being a core part of the annual budget process:

  • Investment in the Future Ireland Fund
  • EU Budget Contribution
  • National Debt Servicing
  • Other Non-Voted Expenditure

Four programmes are for education:

  • Primary Teachers
  • School Infrastructure and Other Grants
  • Higher Education
  • Secondary Teachers

Finally, there are nine other programmes where the state has allocated over €1.1 billion each (1% or more of all spending in each case):

  • Local Government (Self-Funded Activity)
  • Civil and Public Service Pensions (Major Schemes)
  • Housing
  • International Protection (including Ukrainians)
  • Garda Síochána
  • Water
  • Public Transport
  • Road Networks and Road Safety
  • Childcare and Related Programmes

While the top 30 programmes represent over 81% of all public spending, there are another 44 ‘major’ programmes (each of which accounts for at least 0.1% of all spending), which add up to 18% of public spending. The major programmes describe a wide range of goods and services provided by the state, from farms supports, defence and enterprise development, through to prisons, support for the arts, and the Courts Service.

Between them, the top and major programmes account for 99% of all public spending. Yet that is not the whole picture. Despite only accounting for 1% of spending as a group, and each representing less than 0.1% of total spending, there are 31 ‘smaller’ programmes that include whole government departments and many strategically important agencies such as the Central Statistics Office, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Public Appointments Service.

Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024 also describes the tools available to analyse value for money and the impact of public spending programmes, as well as a detailed method showing how the numbers in the report were produced.

The full report is available here: Ireland’s Public Spending Explained 2024.

[i] Dr Nat O’Connor has taught politics and social policy since 1999, and is currently an occasional lecturer in Maynooth University and UCD. He has a PhD in political science from TCD and a MA in political science and social policy from the University of Dundee. In a voluntary capacity, Nat is chairperson of the Irish Social Policy Association ( Nat has authored and co-authored a range of reports and academic papers. You can find him on TwitterX @natpolicy