Thursday 14 December 2017

Maeve Dineen: Sale of our forests shows just how far we have fallen

Maeve Dineen

THE forced sale of our peat bogs and forests is another bitter reminder of how far we have fallen. For the price of a few fancy hotels we are contemplating selling one of the few resources that we all own and can use for free.

At an emotional level, I would rather see a hundred Allied Irish Banks or Bank of Irelands sold to rapacious foreigners than see large swathes of our beautiful countryside flogged to the highest bidder.

Even at an intellectual level, it is almost impossible to justify, but the country is in such a mess that privatisations are inevitable. And, yes, there will be protections to make the whole thing more palatable.

When it comes to selling off harvesting rights for timber, it makes sense to create a new department of conservation so there is somebody to ensure that we can at least walk in the many recreational areas which Coillte has created with our money.

It also makes sense to stop three different state agencies competing to provide wind energy, but there is still something very depressing about the idea that it has come to this.

The way we manage around 7pc of our country will have to be changed to raise a few billion euros -- enough to pay for the mistakes of a few idiots who lost the run of themselves.

It is even more galling to think that Bertie Ahern now sits on the board of International Forestry Fund and stands to profit from actions aimed at repairing some of the damage his governments have caused.

And just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, we realise just how valueless most of the semi-state bodies really are. We have created hollow giants which have sucked money from the Exchequer for decades, offered often lousy service in return, and now prove to be worth almost nothing.

Almost all the semi-state companies, packed with political appointments and without any competition, have been allowed to run up massive pension deficits by political masters who knew they would be long gone when the day of reckoning came.

Pensions

The small sums which will be raised for the taxpayer thanks to these excessive pensions will be used again and again as an excuse not to privatise. This would be a big mistake. In fact, the opposite should happen.

The companies with no value at all should be sold off first -- 20 years too late in most cases -- but it is always a good time to get rid of companies like Bus Eireann.

The privatisations which would mean most to Irish business are undoubtedly the ESB, Bord Gais, the airports.

Here, things are far trickier. In a small market, it will be difficult to ensure competition, but we must have competition. It is no good replacing a state-owned monolith with a privately-owned monolith. It remains to be seen whether Colm McCarthy and his team have devised a solution to this problem. Nothing should be sold off without some form of competition in place.

Perhaps the ideal privatisation was Aer Lingus because the state-owned operator faced a far more powerful and successful competitor from the outset and, because of that, it has stepped up to the mark.

The first task of any new minister must be to devise ways of ensuring that all state bodies face something similar to Ryanair in the years ahead.

In any case, it is not hard to picture the squeals that will accompany the sale of any state asset. But they miss the simple truth that most things are better off in private hands than public hands.

There is no reason for the State to cut down timber. There is no reason for the State to provide medical care directly and, even if there were a reason, we cannot afford it -- simply because state-owned organisations such as the Financial Regulator and the Department of Finance failed miserably to do their jobs.

In truth, privatisation is not about satisfying the IMF or the ECB. It is about making the country fit to govern itself once again one day. That day is a long way off and many other changes will be required, but decent services and lower costs will help us on our way.

Irish Independent

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