Wednesday 26 October 2016

Fetish for the right way of doing things

Priory Hall was blamed on one rogue builder, but the problem was always a political one, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

‘As long as the building didn’t actually fall on the surveyor during the ‘inspection’, the job was oxo’
‘As long as the building didn’t actually fall on the surveyor during the ‘inspection’, the job was oxo’

Remember Tom McFeely? The guy who built Priory Hall? If ever there was a ready-made villain, it was Tom. An ex-Provo, a millionaire builder who went broke with all the other millionaire builders.

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Tom had a tough, unapologetic air about him. Think of Tom and - well, the word "loveable" doesn't spring to my mind.

Rogue builder, they called him. And, given the state of Priory Hall, no one rushed to amend that description.

On the other hand, Bernard McNamara, the guy who built Longboat Quay, has a delicate and thoughtful air. Nothing crude or rough about our Bernard.

In 2007, the Irish Times told us Bernard McNamara was regarded as "fantastically clever" and "a very straight operator" who was "dead sound". He was "the acceptable face of capitalism". Green Party TD Ciaran Cuffe called him "one of the good guys".

Today, the people who bought his apartments at Longboat Quay face eviction. Or they'll have to collectively cough up millions to fireproof their homes.

So, Tom McFeely, "rogue builder". And Bernard McNamara, "one of the good guys". Yet each threw up apartments that were later deemed unsafe to live in.

When something goes wrong, we assume some individual gobdaw has pulled a stroke. We look for the proverbial "rogue builder". And Tom McFeely's brusque, crude, unrepentant response fitted the image we expected to see.

Someone bent the rules, we concluded, someone scammed the regulatory bodies responsible for protecting us.

But neither Priory Hall nor Longboat Quay happened because someone diverted from policy. These things happened because of policy.

This isn't about "rogue builders". This is about the politics of building, the politics of how we run the country.

And too many people see politics as boring stuff - speeches and documents and debates. Once every five years, we're swayed by something we hear or read. We lean towards one party or another and vote for them. And for the next five years we leave them to it.

And that's how you end up with casino banks and low-wage jobs with crap conditions, shredded pensions and leaky water pipes. Not to mention houses and apartments that disintegrate beneath our feet.

As my old friend Pericles used to say: "Just because you aren't interested in politics doesn't mean politics isn't interested in you."

For a long time, Irish politics was dominated by mindless right-wing parties. In the Nineties, following the Thatcher-Reagan revolution, the right-wing parties became a lot more focussed.

The Progressive Democrats had a big influence. In the words of Michael McDowell, the priorities were "pro-enterprise policies, competition and deregulation". Their rival parties - FF, FG and Labour - bought into that.

In October 2002, Bertie Ahern spoke of the need for the Financial Regulator to stay keenly aware of the needs of the industry.

As Minister for Finance and then as EU Commissioner, Charlie McCreevy had a decisive influence on the thinking of the times.

In April 2005, he outlined that thinking, saying: "I come from the political and philosophical viewpoint that says that if you don't need to regulate, you don't."

Six months later: "I favour the lightest possible touch of regulation and a combination of the carrot and the stick, and that's the approach I have lived by since I was an Irish minister putting forward legislation in any area."

There are two things to note. One, there was a lot more carrot than stick. And two, the light-touch regulation didn't just apply to the banks. It permeated the right-wing approach to "legislation in any area".

Financial regulation existed, but it wasn't enforced. Labour law existed, but there were few inspectors. Building regulations existed, but you could ignore them and you knew that no one in authority would kick up a fuss.

A builder needed a "certificate of compliance". To know if the building was adequately fireproofed, you needed to look under the floorboards.

But the rules didn't say the surveyor had to do that, so an inadequate visual inspection became standard practice.

As long as the building didn't actually fall on the surveyor during the 'inspection', the job was oxo.

Here's Phil Hogan: "The McFeelys of this world stand for everything Fine Gael stands against."

Ah, no, Phil, baby. The McFeelys of this world, and the McNamaras, were the vibrant, innovative entrepreneurs that Fine Gael and her sister parties Fianna Fail and Labour enthusiastically looked up to, along with.the creators of God knows how many thousands of apartments and houses that have not yet been condemned.

While the politicians paid dutiful attention to the needs of such people, there was always a populist right-wing columnist on hand to sneer at the "Nanny State". Anything from building regulations to traffic lights was deemed to be "health and safety gone mad".

And backing up the right-wing columnists were the right-wing academics. All agreed that anything that interfered with the freedom of entrepreneurs to do what they damn well pleased was an attack on liberty itself.

The failure of regulation wasn't the responsibility of one lily-livered regulator or another. It was the result of right-wing policy that decreed there must be minimal interference with the entrepreneurial classes.

That mindset led us into the crash, and it still prevails.

Today, nothing must divert the right from its chosen task - the restoration of the world as they knew it, with its structural inequalities intact.

Concern for the values of "the market" have become such a fetish on the right that the Government looks away from even the Nama scandal, rigid with fear.

The police? They're out on the housing estates, fondling their handcuffs in case some Water Tax protester sneezes without a licence.

Police on two continents are investigating aspects of a Nama sale worth billions - but the Irish authorities pick a spot on the wall and stare intently at it.

They say that the sale was fine - if there's a problem, it's with the purchase.

If Mick Wallace wasn't in the Dail, this scandal would have been safely brushed under the border. Nothing to do with us. Wallace has argued the consequences of selling massive loan portfolios, limiting the market to billionaire outfits, selling cheap. He doesn't have the requisite right-wing credentials, but he has the facts.

Whether it's Nama or dangerous buildings, the consequences of destructive right-wing policies continue to destabilise the political scene.

If we had an active police force, they might look into whether a crime was committed in any of these troubled apartments or houses. I used to think there was a crime called "reckless endangerment", but obviously I've been looking at too many episodes of Law and Order. We don't have crimes like that in Ireland.

Sunday Independent

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