Thursday 19 September 2019

Simon is stuck on a trolley going nowhere

We desperately need political change, yet the established parties pursue the failed policies of chaos

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It's hard to feel sympathy for Simon Harris, but it was unavoidable last week. There's something pitiful in the sight of a person of high office in obvious panic.

Eleven years after first being declared a national emergency, our hospital emergency departments are still in chaos. Harris tried to blame a surprise flu upsurge; then he tried to blame the hospital managers.

He was, we were told, going to "kick ass".

Makes you shiver, all that machismo, what?

Having seen it all before, weary doctors and nurses corrected his nonsense: it's winter, they noted, and there's always a flu upsurge after Christmas.

Was Harris pretending not to know this? Or was he, as Minister for Health, truly ignorant of the seasonal aspects of illness?

In short, is he a chancer or an eejit?

Simon has a carefully woven image. He makes a point of being seen to listen, to sometimes agree with opponents, to admit being wrong when the traditional thing to do has been to bluster.

The image is that of a young politician who is articulate, capable, dynamic and, above all, different.

And being different, being new, is important, in politics these days. (Sorry, let me fix that sentence for you: appearing to be different is important, in politics these days.)

They've even got a thing they call "the new politics", a cobbled together arrangement overseen by Enda Kenny and Micheal Martin - who between them have a total of 70 years in the Dail.

Faces straight, they speak of the "new politics", only occasionally blushing. (I could watch FF's Billy Kelleher all day, with his "angry" face on. Real pro.)

Since the credit crash of 2008, the central political question for the governing parties of western democracies has been how to resist change. The problem - in the EU, the USA and beyond - has been how to fix the broken economy without altering the structured inequalities from which the comfortable classes benefit.

They've stopped change, but at a price. The rise of Trumpism and Brexit are ominous glitches, funded by billionaires. Here, the combination of continued failure and the blocking of change increased anger about housing and health.

There has been a consensus between the mainstream parties and the media that what is seen as the pragmatic centre must hold. Anything radical must be slagged off.

Sometimes it's the old red scare; sometimes, Ireland being Ireland, it's the old green scare.

Mostly, these days, the trick is to label any dissent as "populism".

The fascism of those surrounding the Trump camp is ignored by those who want to believe in "populism".

Today in Ireland, "populism" is the label stuck on anything that questions the extremist free market fetish of the old FG/FF/Labour politics.

The purpose is to suggest that anyone who questions the old politics is playing to the gallery. You don't want to allow the rich to privatise the water supply and drain our pockets? Aha, that means you're a populist and you "don't want to pay for anything".

The dreaded "populists", we're assured, are at best romantic idealists, wholly impractical.

Contrasted with this - assumed by the media as a fact of life - is the pragmatic centre. These are the serious people of the FG/FF/Labour consensus. It's admitted that they're not without blemish but we're assured they Make Tough Decisions and they Get Things Done.

To dissent from this consensus is to upset the natural order of things and risk a descent into chaos.

And therein lies poor Simon Harris's problem.

It's hard to argue that change risks a descent into chaos when the old politics has so obviously resulted in unending chaos.

The old politics crashed the credit economy and to this day has no idea how to fix it.

The credit bubble wrecked the housing market, on which FG/FF/Labour depended for a feelgood factor and an income stream.

The banking system remains on life support.

While bondholders have been paid in full, even on their failed investments, thousands of people are homeless, many turned out on to the streets while landlords and property investors seek the highest possible return.

Food banks and soup kitchens thrive, rough sleepers are given mats to lie on at night and are put on the streets again at dawn. Shop doorways fill up with cardboard mattresses and cheap sleeping bags. Yet, when Home Sweet Home took over Apollo House the establishment rose in horror. These populist protesters, they cried, were housing the homeless in a "substandard" building.

The Irish establishment obviously has no sense of irony whatever. They do have a sense of humour, though, albeit somewhat on the sick side.

The HSH move encouraged a wave of dissent - thousands of volunteers came forward, creating a political demand.

Now the cry was that "celebrities" were indulging their bleeding hearts. But we all know - though we don't like to say it - that we have a highly politicised police force. If the celebrities hadn't been involved, the Public Order Unit would have been despatched to Apollo House, batons swinging.

But if you start waving batons at people who've been at the Oscars you can't be sure how many front pages the pictures will end up on, with consequences for the tourist business.

The established homeless charities didn't rise to the efforts to turn them against HSH. Occupations don't solve homelessness, but they sure as hell damage the complacency of the old politics.

Meanwhile, poor Simon Harris was announcing that he wants to be the Minister for Health who solves the Emergency Department scandal.

Eh, Simon, it's not about you.

It's about the historic underfunding of the public health system; it's about the 6,377 hospital beds Fianna Fail cut in the 1980s, to reduce public spending - an act of destruction from which we still suffer today.

This political vandalism happened while hundreds of millions of euro were being siphoned out of the economy through tax fraud on a grand scale, organised by the professional class, for the business class, with the connivance of the banking class, and with the blessing (and the participation) of the political class.

The current chaos in health and in housing is about treating them as primarily elements of the investment market, through which those who have already accumulated fortunes can enlarge them.

The list of politicians who failed as minister for health includes several who see themselves as heavy-hitters - Michael Noonan, Brian Cowen, Micheal Martin, Mary Harney, James Reilly and Leo Varadkar. Harney achieved improvement in cancer care, one positive in a sea of negatives.

All the while, the emergency department crisis got worse.

The personnel changed but the politics remained the same - an aversion to the concept of public health, seeing it as a safety net, rather than the primary protection of the people.

Huge amounts of money are constantly squandered plugging holes in the system, often to the financial benefit of the private sector.

Until there's radical change there won't be the political will to build the homes we need for our people to live in, as was done in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

There won't be the political will to treat nurses with respect, to pay them wages appropriate to their contribution and to ensure that they don't have to move two trolleys out of the way to get to the old woman they're now free to treat after she's spent 15 hours weeping in a corner.

Sunday Independent

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