Sunday 17 November 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Snowball's chance of Government help

The placeholders and time servers running country haven't a clue how to handle a crisis, writes Gene Kerrigan

Miriam O'Callaghan made a weak joke on Prime Time on Thursday. It was weak because to get it you had to remember the last big snow-in, back in 1982. A politician called Michael O'Leary was then put in charge of dealing with the chaos, and he was briefly known as the 'Minister for Snow'.

A tenuous foundation for a joke. But O'Callaghan is a decent skin and, in our hour of misery, she sought to cheer us up with a slightly jocular reference. She was interviewing the Environment Minister John Gormley, leader of the Green Party, about his new role as some sort of "crisis coordinator". And she referred to him as the Minister for Snow.

Oh, boy.

Of late, when Mr Gormley appears on our screens he adopts a very peculiar expression. He tilts his head slightly, fixes a thoroughly mirthless smile to his face, and speaks as though he's impatiently trying to enlighten an entire nation of idiots who Just Don't Get It.

And, for some reason, being referred to as the Minister for Snow made John as agitated as a highly strung wasp in a very small bottle.

Maintaining his peculiar expression, still seemingly trying to enlighten the class idiot (Ms O'Callaghan), for the benefit of the dumb and the dumber (the rest of us), Mr Gormley had a small conniption.

"No, no, please," he said. "No, no, no."

It was as though someone had called him the Minister for Embarrassing Diseases.

"If you look at the legislation, you steaming heap of exceptional ignorance," he said -- well, to be precise, Mr Gormley didn't actually say that. He did insist that Ms O'Callaghan should stick to the letter of the legislation, but he didn't say she was "a steaming heap of exceptional ignorance".

However, that's what his face said. His face was that of a man of great principle and unequalled competence, mired in a world of intellectual pygmies who fail to recognise his superior qualities.

"I am not the Minister for Snow. Let's not use simplifications."

O'Callaghan hurriedly sought to get things back on track, rather than be caught up in an argument about a mildly amusing made-up ministerial title. That, she suggested, was irrelevant.

But Mr Gormley was having none of it. "No, it isn't. It's a simplification." And he simply wouldn't put up with simplifications. Like some sort of demented Star Trek fanatic appalled at a suggestion that Captain Picard was in any way the equal of Captain Kirk, Mr Gormley ploughed on. "If you look at the legislation, Captain Kirk is clearly a vastly more . . ."

Well, he didn't say that either. What he said was that the county councils are in charge. "I'm not their boss. If you look at the legislation, they report directly to the Department of Transport."

So, screw you, O'Callaghan. It's not Captain Gormley's fault, it's Captain Dempsey's. And Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey is reportedly on holidays (there are conflicting accounts of which country Mr Dempsey actually disappeared to, but all of them are sunny).

"That's the way the legislation is framed," insisted Mr Gormley, still hammering away at what he saw as the most important point.

"There's no confusion, that's what the legislation says."

It was like watching someone's back wheels spinning furiously on an icy road, making a lot of pointless noise and not going anywhere.

Anyway, I hope we're all clear on this very important point -- John Gormley, Minister for the Environment and Local Government, is not the Minister for Snow. He is in fact the Minister for Not Doing Anything About the Snow.

And he has a lot of competition. Since before Christmas we've had a Cabinet full of Ministers for Not Doing Anything About the Snow. From the start, ministers fobbed off responsibility to local councils ("If you look at the legislation . . ."). Now, this would be fair enough if we were talking about a normal bout of snow. But it soon became clear we're being pummelled by an extraordinary period of Arctic weather that threatens the national infrastructure.

All but major roads became dangerous and housing estates became ice rinks with thousands of falls and fractures. With rock salt running out, major roads might yet seize up, cutting off deliveries of food and access to medical facilities.

By Friday, my local supermarket was as busy as on Christmas Eve, as we stocked up in case the food runs out.

As late as Thursday, Mr Gormley was blaming the councils. They should, he said, "call an emergency meeting", to ensure enough grit gets into "their respective areas".

Now, this would make sense only if it was a problem of national distribution. But there's a shortage of rock salt all over. We didn't need competition between councils over scarce resources. What was needed was a national response, by central government. That, after all, is why we have a bloody central government.

When the banks collapsed, the politicians pointed to Lehman's in New York. "See, it's not just an Irish problem." And now they pointed to snow problems in Britain. "See, it's not our fault." At the time, we were dealing with 5cm of snow. Across the water, they were dealing (more efficiently) with 20cm.

The schools were in chaos, some open, some closed. It wasn't a Government matter, said the Government -- it was up to each individual school board. Again, fine if there were local snow problems. But this was a national weather problem, needing national direction. Reluctantly, at the last moment, Batt O'Keeffe woke up. Three days off, says he. And as yet no suggestion as to how this time can be made up within the rigid "standardised school year" setup.

Mattie McGrath TD revealed he's had an email from Noel Dempsey, Minister for Having Nothing to Do With a National Transport Crisis. Noel's email, says Mattie, claims the problem is not his responsibility, it's all down to the National Roads Authority. And Noel added a PS, a smiley face and a "wish you were here" (no, he didn't).

Meanwhile, on Prime Time, a reporter asked a succession of outfits which of them was responsible for this and that -- to do with the pre-Christmas flooding. Not us, that's someone else. No, not us, that's the other crowd. And each of them was telling the truth. And Mr Gormley was there to establish that whoever was at fault, it wasn't the Government.

As we saw during the flooding crisis, we have exceptionally skilled, gutsy and spirited people willing to go to great lengths to fight the elements. Whether farmers or firefighters, gardai or soldiers, we've seen admirable work done on a local basis.

The country is covered in snow. The elements threaten our lives, our comforts and our economy. And the people supposedly in charge have done a superb job -- of showing us how an extraordinarily well paid and exceptionally pompous shower know how to run for cover when a nationally organised job needs to be done.

We have placeholders and time servers running the country. It's the same crowd that presided over and encouraged the golden circle of greedy hustlers who destroyed the economy. And who are now engaged, at great expense to the rest of us, in seeking to preserve that setup with as little change as possible.

Good luck over the next couple of weeks. We're all going to need it.

Sunday Independent

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