Sunday 15 September 2019

The reckless pursuit of votes left a huge mess in its wake

Brendan Keenan

Brendan Keenan

THE former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who died recently, once delivered the greatest stop-em-dead line I ever came across in a broadcast interview.

There was furious opposition to Schmidt's plan to allow the USA station short-range nuclear missiles on German soil. "If you persist with this," the interviewer said, "you will lose the next election."

"What makes you think I care," replied the Chancellor. There is no answer to that. It stunned the German interviewer into silence; it might have silenced an Irish one for ever. We might, however, want to ponder why it is so shocking as we look at the damage the opposite attitude has done, and the mess it has left behind.

The need to win election is part and parcel of politics everywhere, of course, but in some countries it reaches such a scale that serious damage results. Ireland is clearly a candidate to qualify for such a description. The mess can be seen in the scale of the challenge in achieving any significant part of the ten-year jobs plan launched by the Government last week.

Whatever about its ambition, one cannot find serious fault with the basic analysis in the plan. It identifies that a key to success in the economy of the future, where machines will increasingly do today's work, is competitive conditions for the humans who will do the tasks the machines cannot, and the new tasks we have not yet imagined which will become possible with the freeing up of labour.

Or so we must hope. In which case it will be necessary to provide good living conditions, education and health services, efficient administration and effective legal systems. Oh dear. Not only is Ireland uncompetitive with respect to its peers in all of these, but it has lost ground in the past ten or more years. The Crash will be blamed, for the housing crisis, the lack of public investment, the stressed health and education services and it certainly made things worse. But what caused the Crash? As we all know, a large part was a reckless, overweening desire to win elections at all costs.

This is a form of corruption. Not all corruption involves taking money, although that happened too and, on the cockroach principle, almost certainly more than we ever got to see. But corruption is also doing things, not because they are thought to be correct, but to gain an advantage. The consequences of doing something for electoral gain can be just as damaging as doing it for a stuffed envelope.

A lot of the damage was done to the things which are the subject of the jobs plan. There is a bitter irony in the objective that growth must be spread more evenly around the regions. That means they must be able to offer, at least in particular sectors, what Dublin can offer. They cannot do that at present.

How about this for a quote: "In order to achieve more balanced regional development, a greater share of economic activity must take place outside the Greater Dublin Area. This framework will open up new opportunities in the regions and give people greater choice in relation to where they work and live."

That was Bertie Ahern, launching the National Spatial Strategy which was supposed to begin in that turning point year of 2002. It never got time even to gather dust on the shelf and was officially declared dead by then minister Phil Hogan in 2013, to be replaced by the new, revised version.

Mr Hogan blamed lack of resources for the failure to implement the NSS. There certainly was a shortage of resources in this Government's time but they were there aplenty from 2002-2007. Many went into the National Development Plan instead, which was the usual distribution of largesse without any credible strategic focus but plenty of electoral calculation.

That focus could have been provided by the spatial strategy. Despite its flaws, it was in many ways the most convincing document produced by an Irish government since - well, perhaps since 1960. It withered because political corruption in the way I have defined it spent the money elsewhere.

The idea was to target investment in certain areas - gateways and hubs - which would become the kind of places 21st century people would want to live and work. Electoral politics first got in the way by having too many of them in the plan. But even that was not enough, with everyone demanding their share, so that everywhere would be a gateway or a hub.

In conventional corruption, there is always a nice argument as to whether the one who gives the bribe or the one who receives it is the more guilty. In the political kind, should we blame more the politicians making bad decisions in return for votes, or the voters threatening electoral blackmail if they don't get their bung?

Electoral blackmail and politicians' ransom payments killed the NSS and the consequences, especially the housing disaster, threaten this one. It is quite an achievement to have come through one of the biggest construction booms of all time and end up with the worst housing shortage in half a century (plus a lack of suitable office space).

The vision of a jobs-friendly environment does not square with workers having nowhere to live. Even an emergency programme will take several years to bear fruit, by which time the loss of possible output and jobs potential from the recession will have increased still further.

This crisis has also dealt another blow to ideas of regional development and specialisation. The relationship between central government and local authorities has failed again. It has been a sorry sight to see some authorities unable to provide the housing that was needed and others supplying oodles which were not needed, often accompanied by genuine financial corruption.

As a result, yet more responsibilities are being returned to central government. This has been a widespread feature of the crash, even though many of those responsibilities were devolved because of the previous failures of central government.

If things are to improve, either government departments will have do better than in the past, or local government will have to be reformed yet again.

The one thing that cannot be done is to leave things as they are. The next administration faces a huge challenge, which involves fixing the housing crisis in line with the strategic needs of the economy, while somehow overcoming popular demands for 3-bed semis, useless railways, inadequate hospitals and second-rate educational facilities. And, as the Tánaiste pointed out, doing it with precious little money as well.

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