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Pioneer spirit best answer to failures of nanny state

A tragedy waiting to happen -- this was how one Garda Superintendent described reports in Co Donegal last week that locals had been riding quad bikes and driving jeeps across the frozen loughs.

Spoilsport. It's a free country, isn't it? If people want to risk life and limb by heading out on to the frozen waterways of the country on the back of a glorified tricycle, that's their business. Just so long as they don't expect emergency workers to put their own lives on the line to rescue the victims from the consequences of their mammoth stupidity.

Ah, but there's the rub. They would expect it. And if tragedy got tired of waiting to happen and decided to turn up and spoil the party by actually happening, the nutters involved would be demanding to know why the local council hadn't put up signs telling them that taking vehicles weighing the same as a baby hippo out on to the nearest patch of ice might not be good for their health or why the Government hadn't spent millions on a nationwide ad campaign to pass on warnings which any halfway intelligent person should have been able to figure out for themselves. Then they'd put in a claim for compensation, so they could buy more quad bikes.

It's hard to know whether it's basic human nature not to take responsibility for one's bad decisions, or a more modern curse encouraged by a nanny state which increasingly infantilises its citizens with a mixture of fingerwagging and mollycoddling. Either way, nothing brings it out more than a spell of extreme weather, when every inconvenience and accident can be laid at somebody else's door or, better still, blamed on the weather.

Depressingly, this is a rot which starts at the top as the ongoing squabble between local authorities and central government as to whose responsibility it was to keep the roads open and commuters flowing demonstrated. By the end of the week, a sort of truce had been negotiated, with both sides agreeing to cite the lack of salt for all the problems. It was the political equivalent of a no-fault divorce. Nobody need take the rap for insufficient salt, after all.

Even by the end of the week, when John Gormley was finally appointed this winter's version of the Minister of Snow, it simply looked as if the Government had been backed into a corner and left with no other choice than to make a gesture -- which meant they were never going to get the credit that might have come from taking decisive action early on.

In a way, it's been a useful experience. The freezing conditions, coming on top of the recession, were a reminder that our lords and masters really haven't got a clue what's needed in a crisis -- and that's not salt, it's plain old-fashioned leadership. We know they can't keep every road open, or grit every footpath, but people still like to think somebody is taking charge and getting on with the job.

Instead we got a brutal Darwinian lesson that we're on our own out there. Literally, in some cases, if you were unlucky to be in a part of the country which was left to its own devices (and that was basically everywhere). So why did the Opposition have to go and ruin everything by trying to make political capital out of the crisis, reinforcing people's sense of grievance against the powers that be for not doing enough just when we were beginning to appreciate the joys of self-sufficiency? They were encouraging us to stay in a condition of childlike dependence on the State, ineffective though it was proving to be, when freedom and independence were tantalisingly near to hand -- if only we reached out and grasped it.

Some of us were actually starting to enjoy the whole Davy Crockett experience, feeling like pioneers as we headed out into the cold in search of fuel and supplies. If we had guns, we could have shot something to rustle up a meal. Instead we had to make do with the next best thing, which was raiding the dwindling contents of the cupboard to make a cauldron-sized pot of wholesome soup that could last for days -- and digging out those aged bags of flour to make bread instead of waiting for Pat the Baker to do it for us.

You could see the same sense of personal responsibility on the roads. The snow came down, the ice formed, salt was harder to find than a Cabinet minister, so you just have to get on with it as best you can, which meant, counter-intuitively, that people drove slower and more safely, because they realised it was just them and the weather out there.

Obviously the best solution would be for the cold air to lift, the sun to come out, and the ice to bugger off back where it came from. But in the meantime, we can dream, relishing the chance to find out what we're capable of when we don't have the luxuries of modern civilisation to lazily fall back on. Because if we've remembered one thing in the last few weeks, it is that those luxuries can be snatched away in a second. Transport can grind to a standstill; the shops can be cut off from reach; your very physical integrity is at the mercy of an icy path or a banjaxed heating system -- so you're back to the old days when every eventuality had to be planned for and nothing could be taken for granted.

Sure, self-sufficiency stinks after a while, and you just want your normal, pampered life back; but for a few short weeks, we've been given the chance to be different people. Better people. Rugged, strong and independent people. It's the ultimate fantasy. This could be the last chance we get to live it out for decades, until the next historic freeze takes hold. The least we should do is try and enjoy it while we still can, before we settle back into complacent dependency once more and let nanny in Government Buildings make all our decisions for us again. If we're not careful we'll end up like the neurotic and hypochondriac French, who last week were reported to be planning a new law making it illegal to be rude to your partner in case it hurts their feelings. Making repeated uncomplimentary remarks about your wife or husband's appearance could now result in jail or electronic tagging. They call it "psychological violence". Some of us call it life.Honestly, are we men or mice?

Sunday Independent