Wednesday 26 October 2016

Floods, trolleys and the politics of fear

Real problems fester for decades, while the chancers stage another political panto, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 10/01/2016 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Deep in all our hearts, we know the floods will come again, and again, down through the years to come.

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Deep in all our hearts, we know the chaos in A&E will persist through the winter and into the spring and it will be there when winter returns.

The A&E crisis is a late 20th-century problem. The parade of promises to provide effective flood defences go back to before most of us were born.

Meanwhile, there will be an election - and these are the things that elections are supposed to be about. The safety of our homes; the protection of our health.

Deep in all our hearts, we know the probability is that we'll elect chancers and careerists again, as we have done at every opportunity.

Despite knowing that the problems that beset us cannot be solved by chancers and careerists.

Chancers and careerists have spent their lives figuring out how to manipulate our local loyalties. They know we're hoping that someone local will get to the cabinet table, and maybe bring back some goodies for the constituency.

Maybe if we elect the right chancer, or the right careerist, a post office or a police station will be spared from closure. Nationally, they know how to manipulate our hope for a wee tax cut.

They know, above all, how to manipulate our fear of change.

And because we vote according to our local hopes and our national fears, we elect the chancers and the careerists again and again. And decade follows decade, nothing effective is done, and the flood waters rise once more and break the hearts of people who prayed it would never happen again.

Two months from now, it will be 10 years since Mary Harney, then Minister for Health, declared the A&E crisis to be a national emergency. For years, it had merely been a crisis. Now, it was an emergency.

It was an emergency back then, in March 2006, because there were no fewer than 384 patients on trolleys, according to the nurses. The HSE said there was just 314.

Last week, the nurses counted 516 people on trolleys and no one dared question that figure.

And Leo Varadkar, the current Minister for Prolonging the National Emergency, was patting himself on the back. Because a year ago, the figure was 563. This is now the measure of success.

In 2006, following the declaration of a national emergency, the HSE promised that by the following year, the target for the maximum A&E waiting time would be six hours. The target these days is nine hours.

Treating someone who's waited a full nine bloody hours in A&E is now a measure of success. Again and again, targets are missed and seriously ill people wait multiples of nine hours.

We're not two weeks into 2016 and Leo has already given us the quote of the year. The A&E problem, he said, won't get "a quick-fix" solution.

No kidding, Leo, you've figured that out, have you?

After weeks of flooding, the country is in rag order. The floods have left families distraught, emotionally exhausted and still facing weeks of misery.

Rather than wait for hours, people avoid A&E and go to their GPs instead, as the politicians tell them they ought to. And they put themselves in danger, because sometimes it's urgent emergency treatment they need, not general practice.

So, you wait nine hours, or twice that, amid the chaos and the fear. Then, when the overwhelmed medics finally get to you, you'll find - as so many of us can attest - the treatment is first class.

But the reason you or your parent or your child lingers for hours or days on a trolley is because the public health system has been torn asunder repeatedly at the behest of right-wing chancers.

And that was done to facilitate the greed of tax evaders in the 80s, and to pay the bills of bankers and bondholders from 2008 on.

Against this background of floods and public health dysfunction, the political parties are positioning themselves for the coming election.

The Taoiseach exudes confidence. His handlers go to London and huddle with Tory strategists, to see if they can get Enda an overall majority, as they did for David Cameron.

Fianna Fail shamelessly decries Fine Gael's right-wing extremism and declares itself "a bit to the Left".

Labour rushes to the defence of Fine Gael, with Joan Burton insisting her partners are not at all right wing. Sure, wouldn't James Connolly be proud of them?

Vote for us, we're better than them.

No, they're not.

Yes, we are.

Amid all this, there's Renua, the novice right-wing spin-off from Fine Gael. They're almost sweet, in their mix of eagerness, enthusiasm and opportunism.

Renua rushed to be first into the electoral field with a manifesto - but they had a problem. Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and Labour had taken all the right-wing policies, and all Lucinda and her friends could do was pick up the leftover right-wing gimmicks that are too silly for anyone else.

So, they try to convince themselves that nonsense like a flat tax and a three-strike crime policy aren't as loopy as they seem.

Meanwhile, the wheels of democracy turn.

There's Simon Harris on the radio. Fine Gael's Minister for Looking at the Floods while Wearing a Concerned Frown doesn't just do floods. He's talking about the A&E crisis and saying the Government won't "throw money at the problem".

Then, he goes off to frown at the floods again, and promises the sodden locals he'll throw money at the problem.

What matters most to these people is winning the seat again, getting the party into office, getting bums into Mercs.

To solve that problem, they don't hesitate to throw money at it. Between them, they'll spend millions.

Down in Tipperary, the billboards show a smiling Alan Kelly, Minister for Making a Balls of Irish Water. His slogan, believe it or not, is a defiant statement of everything that made our political system the plaything of chancers and careerists. Vote for Alan, it says, and "Keep Tipp at the Top Table".

Put Alan at the top table and he'll come home with some crumbs for the constituency, so he will. Bugger the other constituencies.

And in every other constituency, the local chancers and careerists are telling us to be damned with anyone else's welfare, as long as ye vote for me, I'll see the constituency right, so I will.

Fixing real problems - floods, A&E, homelessness, emigration, unemployment, schools with shanty classrooms where the roof blows off in a high wind - all that's too difficult and costly for the chancers and the careerists.

Besides, they've found out, down through the years, that they can rely on exploiting our local loyalties - or they can promise a wee tax cut.

And the bottom line defence is to manipulate our fear of change.

Some day - if not this election, the next one, or the one after that - we'll break this cycle.

We'll tell them to stop using our own money to tease our hopes of that wee tax cut, which will instantly be eaten up by price rises. We'll decide that the political panto they're preparing to put on isn't just childish, it diminishes our country.

Vote for us, we're better than them.

No, they're not.

Yes, we are.

We'll confront our fear of change. We'll reject the "devil you know" premise that broken hospitals, flooded living rooms, emigration for some and unlimited wealth for others is the natural way of things.

If not this time, perhaps the next.

Why wait?

Sunday Independent

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