Sunday 20 January 2019

Nothing to offer but more years of failure

When parties can't provide basic services, shelter and medical treatment, only fools would vote for them, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoon.
Cartoon.
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Just six years ago, people in their early 30s made up the largest group within the homeless. It's a horrible way to have to live, but most adults can at least try to steel themselves against the dread that envelops such a life.

Today, after endless election promises and macho political posing, the largest group within the homeless is children aged one to four.

Seven thousand homeless, 1,850 of them children, sheltered in rotten circumstances.

Christ knows how this will damage the kids. They don't know how to steel themselves, they don't have the defences that even a damaged adult can hope to raise.

The twin evils of our day - homelessness and chaos in the public health service. It's as though these are no longer issues - they have become part of the political landscape, the new normal.

These are bedrock tasks for politicians - the very basics of civilisation, to provide shelter and medical treatment for the people.

Doctors have pleaded with them, and nurses too. Fr Peter McVerry has persistently questioned their inaction. Last Christmas a group of activists, musicians and actors shamed them, taking people off the street - the politicians insisted they knew what they were doing, the party lapdogs taunted the activists.

Having taken back the issue, the parties have turned homelessness and health chaos into useful, permanent social scandals. And they take turns slagging each other and exploiting their own failings in the competition for votes.

But, isn't this just being negative, cynical? Aren't the politicians doing their best?

There's a Twitter account called @Newsworthy_ie. It collects, edits and puts online video of significant political moments. It's a fine example of social media journalism.

Last week, it patched together three moments featuring Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin, in a 27-second edit. It's remarkably revealing, and depressing.

First, seething with apparent anger, Enda Kenny tears into Fianna Fail at the 2007 FG Ard Fheis: "They promised to decrease significantly waiting times at accident and emergency units. The result, as you know, is a national disgrace."

There's fire in Kenny's eyes as he spits out the words: "And nobody accepts responsibility for any of these failures."

Next, Enda versus Micheal, at a debate during the 2011 election: "Micheal should be ashamed to speak of health issues in this country. We have people lying on trolleys, announced by the HSE, record numbers yesterday."

Finally, a debate between the same two in 2016. Kenny has been in office for five years and now Martin is almost parroting Kenny's passionate accusation of 2011: "The man has some brass neck to talk like he talks about health. Their policies, their performance is disgraceful."

Even more than the words, what matters is the seemingly genuine depth of feeling each brings to their performance. They're as passionate as you can hope for a politician to be.

But there's no relationship between the impassioned words and what Martin did as Minister for Health and Kenny did as Taoiseach.

It's as though the issues of hospital chaos and homelessness have no reality of their own. They are used solely to provide FF and FG with an emotional subject over which they can take turns displaying their carefully scripted concern and their anger.

So, we ask ourselves: are the leading FF, FG and Labour politicians foolish incompetents who wasted 10 years failing to deal with problems that are a fairly simple matter of matching aims and resources?

No, it's worse than that.

Look at the shameful "targets". The aim is that no one over 75 years of age will have to wait in A&E for longer than... 24 hours.

This how low we've sunk, this is the height of our ambition. Wait in hope and fear, in pain and discomfort, for 24 hours. That's if you're over 75. Younger - it might be 48 hours, or longer. This mocks the very notion of an emergency department.

And they're not even meeting that target.

So far this year, 5,880 people over 75 have waited longer than 24 hours for a bed.

It's all about hospital beds. In 1980 we had nine beds for every 1,000 of population. By 1990 the figure was down to 6.1. A lot of wealthy people, including some politicians, had arranged complex tax frauds, and revenue was down. Closing hospital beds was one way of reducing state spending.

In 2003 bed numbers hit a low of 4.3. It was Celtic Tiger time and there was an effort to improve things - so, in 2004 the figure spiked to 5.7.

Today, the OECD average is 4.8 beds per thousand.

And our figure is 2.9.

There's no mystery to this problem. Bringing Irish standards up to the OECD average requires 9,000 beds.

And beds are bugger all use without nurses.

Just do it.

But, where's the money for this?

We are a rich country. When we were poor, decades ago, we build vast public housing estates, we had sufficient hospital beds. They were made priorities by the state.

Today, politicians posture as though there's some mystery to it all. No, there isn't. Beds and nurses and houses, or forget about it.

Politicians have created a thriving private property market, from which rich people are getting richer. This has pushed up prices and rents right through the market, so that even some of those with jobs can't afford shelter.

"We've never seen rental increases like this in any jurisdiction that we're aware of", said David Ehrlich, one of those making a fortune. Head of Ires Reit, the biggest private landlord, he foresaw even more increases: "Our prospects for continued bottom line growth are very positive".

The shortage of shelter isn't a by-product of some failed plan. We say it again: when a solvable social problem continues for years it is not a problem - it's a policy.

This is what the politicians want. The right-wing parties have worked for this, taking pains to invite vulture capital into the country; insisting that the State can only "encourage" the private sector, not compete.

The result, people paying absurdly high rents, or living with relatives, or sofa surfing, families living in single rooms in hotels. The right-wing ideology of the main parties insists that the State must "interfere" as little as possible with the private market. The straight route that worked for our ancestors - direct building of social housing - is not acceptable.

These parties - as we can see from the facts in front of our eyes on a daily basis - prefer to see children in distress.

Similarly with health. In a quote that never gets old, former Health Minister Brendan Howlin explained that the government "really required the public system to be inferior. Why else, if it was first-rate, would people pay for a private system?"

How do you degrade a health service? You cut bed numbers and cut them again, and again and you refuse to restore them.

So, with effective solutions off the table, the right-wing parties take turns pretending to give a damn, and slagging each other for failing to do the job.

This is the new normal.

To vote at all - even a miserable fifth preference - for the right-wing designers of our shameful social problems is a vote for homelessness and hospital chaos.

There was another relevant video on @Newsworthy_ie last week, this time a 28-second clip of the RTE Six One headlines for August 11.

Among them: "Three out of 10 homeless children in Dublin receive no assistance". It's from August 11, 1997.

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