Tuesday 24 October 2017

New drivers on the big bus to nowhere

Home truths...

Suits you sirs: Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured together in a week when it was learned that 3,000 Irish children are homeless
Suits you sirs: Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pictured together in a week when it was learned that 3,000 Irish children are homeless
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

Somewhere along the way - it might have been the 1980s or even before - the Irish mechanism of state simply stopped doing stuff. We became used to new governments and ministers coming and going with big new plans and promises, but ultimately taking those ideas nowhere.

It's like some sort of tour bus running around in great big "do nothing" circles - with politicians and civil servants climbing on and off through their respective careers. They leave one seat and take another; newbies get on and old hands get off clutching bullet proof pensions. But ultimately it all goes nowhere. And nothing ever gets done.

Maybe at this point the paralysis is so complete that it's not entirely their fault. Irish politicians work hard and some even believe in the notion of public service. The same applies to civil servants. Perhaps the big bus goes nowhere no matter what they do. Civil servants assert that the political "big plan" can't work because there's never enough time to get them moving. They aren't given the necessary executive powers to move things along at the right pace and by the time things do start to fall into place there's a reshuffle or an election. A new minister gets on the bus with his or her own big alternative plan and the old one is ejected. And nothing happens. And the cycle begins again.

Take education. Back in 2009 it was revealed that a good number of the 43 schools included in a "new" building plan announced by then Education Minister Batt O'Keefe, had been included in the plans announced three years previous by his predecessor. The schools hadn't been built. Today, eight years later, the schools still aren't built and panicked parents are queuing overnight for city school places.

Then the health system. The first half of this year saw 51,321 people on trolley beds - an all- time Irish record. A total of 7,124 patients were on trolley beds in June - up 21pc on the previous year. The day this was announced, Health Minister Simon Harris said: "This afternoon we'll have an emergency department task force where we'll have a further opportunity to discuss these issues with the HSE, INMO and other stakeholders." Nothing got done.

As Health Minister in 2014, Leo Varadkar ushered in a new era of reality. He wasn't going to let us think the big bus went anywhere. On the beds crisis he said: "Anybody who makes such promises does not understand the true complexity of what we face in the health service." Fair play. So Leo moved up front to drive the bus. Nothing got done.

Further back again in 2004, the year hospitals cut treatment for 14,000 patients and the trolley bed crisis emerged, then health minister Micheál Martin insisted "there is no crisis." Micheál is back at the bus stop with his hand out looking to drive the bus.

Now we see that housing policy is taking the same roundabout route on the road to nowhere.

It was in 2012 that the Simon Communities first called a housing crisis. Then housing minister Jan O'Sullivan reacted: "Past policy on homelessness was driven by short-term measures and an overwhelming emphasis on emergency accommodation. I am determined that this policy changes and we produce more sustainable, appropriate responses to homelessness." Then Jan got off the bus with nothing done.

In 2013 Phil Hogan said vested interests may be involved in keeping some people in emergency accommodation at huge expense and that it was a "scandal and a waste of money." He added: "I have never ceased to be amazed at the amount of time spent by some people in emergency accommodation." The following year Dublin City Council built 29 houses for a waiting list of 16,000. And big Phil got off the bus.

In April 2014, the month in which it was revealed that Dublin councils were housing children in hotels, then finance minister Michael Noonan said: "Claims that you've seen since Christmas that we're at the start of another boom, they're widely exaggerated. We need to get property prices up another bit." Indeed it took the end of the year, when rents were revealed to be rising at 14pc per annum before then Taoiseach Enda Kenny finally acknowledged that a housing crisis existed and proposed building some houses. Enda and Michael hopped off at the last stop clutching big pensions.

By November 2015 a handful of "modular" houses had exceeded the promised deadline again and again at Poppintree in Ballymun.

The "emergency" housing was more expensive to build than regular homes and took longer to build. Then minister Alan Kelly, whose plan this was, revealed an ex site cost of €178,262 per unit of accommodation for regular social housing compared with €191,000 per modular house. Alan got pushed off the bus.

Last year incoming housing minister Simon Coveney became the first to call Ireland's housing crisis "an emergency" and launched the biggest big plan yet to tackle the crisis - 'Rebuilding Ireland.' He staked his political future on solving the problem. Like Batt O'Keefe, he rolled into it many of the previously unfulfilled housing targets. Then as soon as he sat down; Simon changed seats again, leaving the housing crisis at the worst it has ever been.

During a week in which we learned 3,000 Irish children are now homeless, current Housing Minister Eoghan Murphy and current Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were pictured looking jubilant together in wet suits. Leo stopped the bus so they could do a triathlon. Eoghan was faster than Leo. It was great craic.

One of Leo's first moves as Taoiseach was to assemble an elite PR team to his side from other arms of Government. Just as well, because unlike their predecessors, Leo and Eoghan are a little wet behind the ears. They badly need to learn how to look busy getting nothing done whilst taking us along on that great big spin to nowhere.

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