Monday 26 September 2016

Five key issues as we head into election mode - which will ultimately be ignored

Published 05/11/2015 | 02:30

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Life is rapidly draining from the 31st Dáil. The final legislative programme includes a litany of mundane matters on implementing budgetary decisions through finance and social welfare bills. But, there is also legislation to curb bail terms, protect part-time employee rights and ban the slapping of children. As we approach a dissolution, the true extent of unfinished business is now visible. While the election campaign comes sharply into focus, it's time to do an inventory of the formidable challenges facing the next government.

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Parties preparing manifestos will, of course, fix firstly on promises to deliver votes. Focus group research will identify the most effective marketing gimmicks: tax cuts, abolition of Irish Water, recruitment of extra nurses, gardaí and teachers, welfare enhancements and tweaking of improvements in education, childcare and health entitlements. Political leaders' priorities are predicated exclusively on populism and short-term thinking - ignoring issues of potential societal conflict and evading long-term challenges. Fresh mandates aren't gained from scrutinising past records.

The following are five critical points that will be waffled about, but ultimately ignored.

1. A national pensions scheme

Retirement incomes for an additional 20,000 pensioners per year must be funded by two million people at work. As life expectancy rises, the number of people over 80 will increase from 3pc to 10pc of the population. This Government's record amounts to a mix of paralysis in analysis followed by procrastination. We're still waiting - despite lengthy tomes from the National Pensions Framework (2010) the OECD Pensions Review (2012), and the inter-departmental working group on the new Universal Pension Savings Scheme (2015).

No political party intends to grasp the nettle requiring employers to automatically enrol all eligible employees in a state pension scheme. A mandatory, co-funded contribution system between employers, employees and the State to ensure the establishment of a National Employment Savings Trust, as applies in Britain, must be enacted and implemented. Otherwise those over 70 will not be assured of a secure income of even half the national average wage.

2. City housing action plans

Accommodation requirements directly follow jobs - Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway are critical growth centres. Elsewhere, construction is uneconomical because it is cheaper to buy existing houses, while capital finance allocations aren't delivering bricks and mortar. Take Dublin for example: You have four local authorities, multiple planning regulators, the Department of the Environment, state agencies, Irish water, social housing NGOs and Nama, none of which have managed to reactivate building to the extent it is so desperately required.

It is time for new blueprints clearing the way to directly developing idle land under licence. There must be savage cutting of bureaucratic red tape, ensuring public provision of sanitary services and public transport/road infrastructure for large-scale developments.

Affordable housing in cities is beyond the reach to households with annual incomes of less than €80,000, based on mortgage credit rules.

Housing estates, priced within reach of average incomes can only be provided with reduced VAT and levies. Without State involvement, tax concessions will only add to developer profits, because cost reductions won't be passed on to house buyers.

3. Social Reform

Ireland lags far behind Europe on abortion and euthanasia. Dáil debate surrounding the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 caused convulsions, resulting in disciplinary expulsions (FG) and a free vote (FF).

The fundamental problem is the rigidity of the Eighth Amendment. The complexities dealing with obstetric care and the human rights of expectant mothers aren't sufficiently accommodated or respected within the narrow confines of the explicit right to life of the unborn. A referendum to repeal it was refused because a political consensus is allegedly required to clarify what would replace it.

The legal options vary: fully legalised abortion on demand, based on a woman's right to choose; narrower provisions to protect young, suicidal women or cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

In my opinion, the tragic case of Miss Y (denied a termination despite going on hunger strike) wouldn't have happened if she wasn't a vulnerable immigrant.

The case of Miss D (pregnancy with foetal anencephaly and denied travel to the UK by HSE) was equally unacceptable, because she was a ward of the state. Hypocrisy facilitates simultaneous moral/religious opposition to abortion reform, while ignoring the reality that between 4000-7000 women obtain terminations in Britain every year.

The parliament of the day should determine these laws, amending them on an ongoing basis. Only by repealing the Eighth Amendment can we have reform.

Meanwhile, terminally ill patients are obliged to consider Switzerland, Belgium, or Netherlands as locations to end their lives; they don't penalise euthanasia. Medically assisted dying can be the most compassionate and caring response.

4. Personal Insolvency reform

This Government refuses to assist orderly, legalised escape from personal debt distress. Neither the 2012 Insolvency Act, nor the Insolvency Service of Ireland has gained traction. Despite the slavish support for banks, there's still no reduction in the three-year bankruptcy term.

5. Political reform

The Senate remains as was; the reduction of eight TDs doesn't constitute modernisation of a flawed electoral system that rewards localised constituency work above national parliamentary and policy duties.

The Dáil increasingly resembles a glorified county council, packed with parish pump pragmatists. Some element of national representation should be introduced on the basis of the entire country being their constituency.

The national interest should be their sole concern. The current regime creates competition between party colleagues, forcing them to be at doorsteps, funerals, functions and clinics instead of at their Dáil offices.

No party proposes any proportion of TDs to be elected on a list system. The country must confront these uncomfortable issues by 2020. But it won't. Sadly, the space for thinking outside the box is beyond the scope of our politicos.

In summary, we're the best small country in the world for not taking political risks - or showing courage or true leadership.

Irish Independent

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