Sunday 8 December 2019

Another crisis, another minister dodging it

Overpaid politicians shirk their responsibilities and want bus drivers to subsidise the buses, writes

Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Poor Shane Ross. In the week to come, Fianna Fail is about to get terribly concerned about the state of Bus Eireann.

Already, its political consultants have carried sacks of onions into the FF rooms in Leinster House, to help the TDs shed tears over the shocking state of the Expressway bus service.

The party intends to insist on a Private Member's Motion, no less.

"The effen Blueshirts better not cut wan inch of wan single bus route," FF will tell the Dail.

And, as Minister for Transport, Shane will be the designated villain.

Mind you, that's what Shane gets the big bucks for, shrugging his shoulders and saying, "Sure, 'tis nothing to do with me, I'm just the Minister".

This pantomime will continue, threatening to isolate rural communities, at a time when the country is already suffering the trolley scandal, the homeless scandal and the not-unrelated Nama scandal.

The FG-FF government is hardly eight months old and it's already showing signs of fatigue. Both parties are nervous, for different but related reasons.

For 80 years, FF and FG enjoyed their your-turn-my-turn arrangement, with largely interchangeable policies. The collapse of 2008, and the stark nature of the FF betrayal of the citizens threatened that set-up. After the slaughter of FF in the 2011 election, and the bollocking of FG in the 2016 election, the FG-FF arrangement was created in an effort to restore the cosy old order.

The fact that it still possesses a sense of humour is seen in the choice of words used to describe this dodge: "the new politics."

The current nervousness of FG arises from Enda's death-grip on office.

He's a remarkably sprightly 65, and even after 42 years as a TD he shows little sign of going back to the teaching.

There's no reason on earth - and even less in Fine Gael - why Enda shouldn't stay.

None of the potential contenders has offered any political change; none is noticeably more competent; none stands for any political principle that Enda cannot enthusiastically embrace - or furiously denounce, should the political wind blow in another direction.

That's all very well, but Enda's potential successors fret that they're missing their turn in the Big Chair.

No one - politician or pundit - has put forward any other reason for getting rid of him.

Meanwhile, anonymous FF sources recently went running to the Irish Times to complain that the Blueshirts are being unfair. The FF part of the FG-FF government claims they're "frustrated", God love them.

They "win" little legislative victories, it seems, then their bills are sidetracked into the Oireachtas undergrowth, where teams of Blueshirt bowsies drown them in procedural detail.

The FF whingers warned the Irish Times they might get "fed up with the whole thing".

I know, it's childish.

To understand this, you must understand that every FF TD and every would-be FF TD spends every waking moment longing and plotting for a return to office.

Everything they do and say is calculated to speed that day.

They feel they've done their penance for running the country off a cliff. Six whole years out of office is too steep a price to pay for selling the rest of us out to the banks and the bondholders.

Every single political stance they take, while trying to scramble back into office, will be held for as long as it's useful in generating support, and not for one second more.

They will oppose what they now support and support what they now oppose. They will tomorrow champion shamelessly that which they scorn today.

FF has no other purpose on this planet than to prosper in political office. Out of office it can't help strutting and fretting and warning us that it's getting "fed up with the whole thing".

Labour, meanwhile, endlessly asserts its renewed sense of independence. It hopes this will win the party enough support to enable it to yet again swap that independence for a couple of ministerial positions.

Sinn Fein has begun stroking its chin and going, To coalesce-or-not-to-coalesce-hmmmmm-what-do-ya-think-lads?

The left seeks to change the conversation - to issues and outcomes, not party fortunes - and continues to struggle to find a language that conveys that.

Which leaves us with Shane Ross and his Independents.

Some day, there'll be a Reeling in the Years moment when they put together all the clips of Shane Ross saying he's not going to do anything. Has there ever been a minister as outspoken about his pointlessness as Shane Ross?

Well, yes - there has been - Leo 'That's shockin'' Varadkar.

As Minister for Health, Leo was forever being told of some awful turn of events, be it trolleys, waiting lists or resources paid for but not used.

And Leo would respond as though it had nothing to do with him.

"That's shockin', so it is," he'd say. "That's unacceptable."

Then, someone would ask him if he wants to be Taoiseach and he'd say, "There's no vacancy, but if there was..."

Shane Ross isn't going to be Taoiseach. But, on the upside, his Bus Eireann problem isn't all that difficult to solve.

It's losing six million a year, Shane told the Dail. And now that there's pressure on the unions we're told that last year it was nine million (that's called juking the stats but let's not go into that).

Whatever the figure, it's not sustainable.

So, Shane has a choice: properly fund the public bus service. Or close it down.

Shane and FG-FF are ideologically against subsidies. But they'd be electorally butchered if they closed down the bus services.

So, they want the workforce to pay to keep the buses running. The service is under funded by about six million, and they want the drivers to pay that out of their wages.

Take massive pay cuts, they threaten the drivers, or we'll put you on the dole.

But, of course, they don't say that. "It's a commercial matter," says Shane. It's about profit and loss. And "on principle", he can't "interfere" in commercial matters.

This is nonsense. The rural buses won't make a profit. So what?

Lifeboats don't make a profit.

Street lights don't make a profit.

Fire brigades don't make a profit.

The social infrastructure that underlies a civilisation doesn't make a profit - except in the larger sense that all of these things make a profitable, civilised life possible.

Such talk is repugnant to Shane and his FG-FF chums. This country would have collapsed in the past without municipal housing - and the homelessness won't end until it's built again, but that too is repugnant to our leaders.

The Government, in the words of Brendan Howlin, former Health Minister, needs the public health system "to be inferior. Why else, if it was first rate, would people pay for a private system?".

And Shane and his chums don't have the courage of their free market convictions - to close down the public transport service. They continue to under-fund it, while their management surrogates now demand that the workers fund the service out of their wages.

I don't know how much bus drivers are paid, but it should be at least €160,000 a year, though I suspect it's a lot less. It's a responsible, useful job. And we pay Shane Ross €157,000 a year to scratch his arse and claim that the Minister for Transport has nothing to do with ensuring the survival of the public transport system.

Sunday Independent

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