News Eoghan Harris

Thursday 18 September 2014

Charlie Flanagan has his hands full cherishing children

Published 29/06/2014 | 00:00

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Charlie Flanagan
Charlie Flanagan
Illustration by Jim Cogan

Sitting in the window of Field's coffee shop in Skibbereen, looking out on the small town square, I am at the hub of West Cork - which means I can hack into the mental chatroom of Middle Ireland.

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That's because Skibbereen people conduct their private discourses for public consumption. When two people meet they commence two monologues, keeping one eye on their theoretical auditor and the other on the general audience passing by.

* * *

The first thing I found out is that everybody, even Fine Gael supporters, believes the bank inquiry is a brazen waste of money on the part of self-important politicians. And the news that the night of the bank guarantee is off-limits has increased 
public anger about what is seen as a waste of money.

By now, most people know the basic problem was caused by banks and building societies greedily giving up the prudent principle of only lending money if a client could pay them back. That was the case when I went to buy a house in the early 1970s.

Back then, you seldom went to a bank because the deposit demanded was beyond your means. But even the building societies demanded a 20pc deposit. What was even more important, they tried to ensure that your repayments would not exceed one-fifth of your income.

But even without pressure from a building society, everybody with a mortgage knew the one-fifth rule was fundamental. So when I found my repayments were approaching one-third of my income, I sold my house in a salubrious area of south county Dublin and moved to a rougher area where I was suddenly solvent and could sleep at night.

In spite of Enda Kenny's efforts to blame Fianna Fail, the public has concluded that the primary moral responsibility for the recession belongs to two groups: the bankers who blew up the bubble and the Central Bank and the Financial Regulator who failed to alert the Government to the danger.

Naturally the Coalition will ignore the growing anger about the banking inquiry until it jumps up to bite them at the next general election, like the medical card issue did. That is why Fianna Fail should follow the public, pull the plug on this political inquiry and call for a proper judicial commission.

* * *

Most of the conversation in Field's concerns life and death, especially that other kind of death, called debt. So there was criticism of a gung-ho speech by President Higgins - who draws down an annual salary of nearly €250,000 that exceeds that of the President of France and the British Prime Minister - about us being ready to move beyond anger about the economy.

He told the President of Ireland's Ethics Initiative (don't ask) that the people of Ireland were "eager to discuss a new set of principles by which they might represent and project their lives together and with all those with whom we share our common and fragile planet."

That's just rhetorical jargon. Nothing I heard in Field's coffee shop confirms that we are all able to move beyond anger. The only group who can afford to do so are, like the President himself, public sector employees enjoying the highest pay and pension entitlements in Europe.

The President's rhetoric might cause civil servant retirees who comprise many of the shoppers in the Dublin foodhalls of Donnybrook Fair and Avoca to nod their heads as they carry their designer carrier bags to their recently registered cars. But it means nothing to the Waterford workers in Bausch and Lomb who after a 20pc wage cut are scouring the shelves of Lidl or Aldi and driving their basic groceries home in a car that is conking out.

Waterford is another hub where you can hear the truth. Tom Murphy, one of Waterford city's leading car dealers, cut to the chase in the Irish Independent last week. Listen to a man who talks English when telling us about the lived experience of the private sector.

"Just a few years ago we employed around 72 people all in. Now that's dropped to 40. Every one of our loyal and dedicated staff has taken a pay cut and we had to stop paying into the pension for senior staff with the promise that we'd start contributing to it again once we turned over a profit."

So who is buying cars? Tom Murphy says that they come from two groups. "We're seeing older motorists - the empty nesters as they are called - and civil servants buying again, but the upturn is slow."

That's the naked truth that all parties conspire to conceal. The only people with surplus buying power are civil servants and those who have retired on good pensions - which mostly means retired public servants because there are few good pensions in the private sector.

And yes, I am raising again the growing gap between the public and private sector. That gap is most gross in state companies like ESB, EirGrid and Irish Water and among the quangos whose abolition alone would save us €2bn.

And it is supported by all parties in the Dail.

This cowardly Dail consensus deprives the majority private sector of political representation. And it is this repressed anger, especially against quangos and obscene political pensions, which is causing so many voters to switch to independents, and inexplicably, to Sinn Fein.

Inexplicably, because Sinn Fein has added itself to the long list of parties which supports the gap between public and private sector workers. In short it is shaping up to replace the Labour Party in looking after those who least need looking after.

* * *

But I am not always looking for bad news in Field's. That was how I found out that Charlie Flanagan was probably the most popular Cabinet Minister, or more precisely, the minister least likely to be criticised.

That's just as well. Because no other Minister has such a potentially troublesome portfolio. As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Flanagan is essentially Minister for cherishing all the children of the nation equally. Nowadays that means children of every class, creed, circumstance and ethnicity.

Flanagan's responsibilities include but do not exhaust the following: giving closure to the deceased Tuam babies, stamping out cyber-bullying among affluent teenagers, coping with obesity, integrating immigrant children, ending the stunted education experienced by Traveller children.

The statistical age profile of Travellers is closer to that of a Third World country. For example, while the national average age is 32, the average age of Travellers is only 18 years. And this young group is not getting a proper education.

Although in recent years more Traveller children have been attending primary schools, few move onto Junior Cert, fewer still to Leaving Cert, never mind third level.

So here's the hard question: how can we ensure Traveller kids are treated better than the Tuam babies?

Sunday Independent

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