Sunday 20 January 2019

But where were all the snow consultants?

The politicians did their job last week. Gene Kerrigan asks how come they so often fail in dealing with longer-term problems?

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Well, that was a memorable week. Some scary parts, many quiet acts of kindness and heroism, and a whole lot of dedicated public service.

The other side to all this, we'll get to later.

As the storm and the snow approached, various elements of the State behaved appropriately. The professionals - the National Emergency Coordination Group (NECG) - assembled the data and drew their conclusions. They have a huge technological advantage over those who tackled previous "weather events". And they set out to minimise casualties. It would be worth it, to save one life.

Leo Varadkar properly and usefully employed the high profile his office gives him, to amplify the professionals' message of caution.

Volunteers and professionals threw their energy and skills into protecting us. As usual, Joe Duffy's Liveline played an important role in these things - alerting us, informing us, making contact between people in need and others of good heart.

At one stage, Duffy abruptly left an item unfinished, to allow it be resolved off-air without our intrusion. Helping someone out of a jam, in a respectful manner, mattered more than getting a moment of "great radio".

There was a sense of a mature people hunkering down as a possible disaster crept up on us. This is how community and politics are supposed to work.

OK, there was some of the usual showboating - the Taoiseach was repeatedly flanked by a soldier and a garda as he addressed the nation. It was silly, yes, but if he does the job, I guess we have to indulge his need to be seen as Supreme Commander Varadkar.

There's a question here, about success in one kind of task, and repeated failure in another.

How come our politicians behave appropriately in dealing with a dangerous storm and relentless snow - yet seem so deeply incompetent when dealing with, for instance, the housing debacle and the hospital chaos?

There's a difference in scale, yes, but the length of time the problems persist is staggering.

This month, it's 11 years since Mary Harney declared a "national emergency" in hospital A&E departments. The figures are worse than ever.

Through the years, one loud, swaggering minister followed another, vowing to fix the housing crisis. Again, the figures are worse than ever.

How come politicians who recognise what needs to be done in one set of circumstances are bugger all use dealing with more complex problems?

The answer, I think, can be found within the detail of what happened last week.

The weather problem was confronted by a tight body of professionals, with State forces at their disposal.

The politicians had two roles. A) to set up the NECG structure (which was done in years past); and B) to convince the citizens to obey the advice of the professionals.

A range of volunteer groups weighed in. The media kept us informed of what was happening.

Meanwhile, as the professionals prepared urgently, the politicians went into the Dail and had two rows.

First, Fianna Fail accused the Government of using public money to mount a media propaganda campaign - Project Ireland 2040 - to benefit Fine Gael.

What followed was childish.

When accused of misusing public money, Varadkar raged that Fianna Fail did the same. He had adverts from their time in office to prove it.

"I thank the Taoiseach. His time is up," said Sean O Fearghail.

Varadkar ignored the Ceann Comhairle and continued offering his evidence that FF is as bad as FG. He and Micheal Martin exchanged puerile remarks.

"Time is up," repeated the Ceann Comhairle. But Varadkar had found a picture of Brian Cowen in an advert. And of Micheal Martin.

"The Taoiseach is not in order," said the Ceann Comhairle.

"...and on the next page we have a picture of Mr Bertie Ahern..."

"Can the Taoiseach restrain himself from..."

But, Varadkar had found another photo of Brian Cowen, in the Limerick Chronicle, and he had to tell the Dail about that.

The childishness was embarrassing. "Please," begged the Ceann Comhairle.

"On the back of this we have an article from the..."

"No, sorry, Taoiseach..."

But it went on, a child stamping his little foot.

Eventually, the Ceann Comhairle regained control.

So, in dealing with serious issues we first have to get past the incurable tribal bickering of FF/FG - the herpes of Irish politics.

We'll come to the other Dail row in a moment.

Another obstacle to solving crises such as the housing and hospital chaos is FF/FG's shared ideology.

In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, when conservative politicians were faced with huge housing problems, they asked a simple question: How do we build decent houses fast?

They used direct labour, they used private firms, whatever worked. And they built the great estates that housed the workers who built this country and took it out of poverty.

Varadkar and his like grew up into a political culture shaped by the 1980s sharp swing to the right - the legacy of Thatcher and Reagan. The market-first philosophy, transmitted through education, the media and the political parties, seems as natural to them as "A Catechism of Catholic Doctrine" seemed to me as a youngster.

For these politicians, housing isn't the primary problem. They must find ways to tweak the market, to get private capital to meet housing needs. It's not about housing, it's about satisfying investors (domestic or visiting vultures) and ensuring returns (for investors, for banks).

Pushing prices - whether buying or renting - out of the reach of people with jobs is not a bug in this system, it's a feature.

There's a similar problem in dealing with hospital chaos - there are interests to be looked after: investors, again; consultants; geographic considerations, to keep Punch's marginal seat out of Judy's grasp.

And the right-wing view is not of a health system. It's a health market, and the public element is reduced to the skimpiest "safety net" they can get away with for those locked out of that market by poor wages.

The second Dail row last week arose from this ideology. Brid Smith TD spoke of hundreds of pensioners in a facility where "the council, as a matter of policy, turns off the heating every night". As the storm neared, she wanted a policy move on heating.

Meanwhile, FG's minister responsible, Jim Daly, advised old people to keep the heat on.

Varadkar would have none of it. He publicly smacked down his own minister. This would cost €6m or €8m, depending who spoke. Varadkar said there's no "blank cheque".

Again, the ideological need to keep the costs of the "safety net" to a minimum, regardless of the consequences in misery or death.

Aware that this was part of storm protection, Minister Regina Doherty went about sourcing the money.

Give them a genuine all-in-it-together problem and Varadkar and Co can do a job.

Housing and health, though, are markets, with investors and providers and bankers, whose interests come before ours.

If they fought the storm as they do homelessness, they would have hired 26 snow consultants to spend six months assessing the tenders of 17 private firms specialising in storm attrition.

Sunday Independent

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