Thursday 17 January 2019

We're paying a high price for cheap clowns

As the problems pile up, TDs strut and pose and entertain us with a shouting match, writes Gene Kerrigan

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Last Wednesday's Dail screaming match between Marc MacSharry and the Healy-Rae brothers was one of those scraps where you could cheerfully brain both sides.

I know it betrays a fault in my character, but I think the political tone could only have been improved if someone had given them baseball bats when it started.

You might see those guys as amusing clowns who add to the gaiety of the nation - but it comes at some cost.

A salary of about €93,000 each, for a start. Plus around €30,000 each in travel and accommodation. Plus whatever allowances they can pick up.

And there's a far, far greater cost.

Look around, at the state of the country. We've long known the political classes have trouble delivering the fundamentals - housing, for a start; and timely medical treatment.

Hardly a day goes by without something else being added to the list of incompetencies.

For instance, we know about the long, long list of Garda scandals (don't mention the cocaine). Then, we were told about the homicide problem. It seems Superintendent Blunder and his trusty assistant Sgt Booboo "misclassified" some deaths - to use the mildest word possible.

So, of course, there was a review, to see what exactly the cock-up was, and how many times it happened.

Just a clerical error, some cops said. No, said the civilian analysts, some deaths weren't properly investigated,

We found out last week that 12 families were told the death of their loved ones had been misclassified as less serious crimes.

And now, to add farce to tragedy, the Policing Authority says there'll have to be a review of the review. It seems someone is worried the cops cocked that up, too.

The police force has long been smug in the knowledge that any mess will be tolerated as long as it doesn't embarrass the political parties.

That stage is now well past.

Meanwhile, the volume of calls to Joe Duffy's Liveline has pretty much melted the phones. People suffering chronic pain want to know why their pain relief was withdrawn.

The health bureaucracy, we're told, has added "a secondary layer of approval" for reimbursement. They're worried about "safety, efficacy and cost", they say. What many fear is that it's the third of these that results in the cutting of painkiller funding.

When you hear a Waterford man has lost his pain relief, with terrible consequences, you might doubt that it was withdrawn for longterm safety reasons - given he's aged 99.

The public health system has long been a handy piggy bank. It could be cut back when politicians had to allow for the massive scale of tax fraud the respectable classes carried out in the 1980s and 1990s. When the banks wanted public money more recently, it was handy to cash in some hospital beds and nursing jobs to help the bankers out.

We - including those wracked by chronic pain - will be paying that price for many a day.

In theory, these crucial services are overseen by ministers, who are drawn from - and overseen by - the ranks of TDs. And the quality of the people we're electing is part of the problem.

We elect people because they're good at "constituency work" - shaking hands, complaining nationally about local problems, swearing their love for every blade of grass in the constituency.

Look at last Wednesday. The MacSharry-Healy-Rae row, with all its genuine anger and passion, was that about political decisions that affect the lives of the people?

It erupted in the period set aside for "Questions on Promised Legislation". Sounds like a policy debate, yeah? Don't be silly.

It's an opportunity for TDs to raise local issues, to strut and pose, to impress their constituents. For instance, last Wednesday Mattie McGrath stoutly opposed the closure of railways - for which there is no proposal. Leas-Cheann Comhairle Pat Gallagher wanted to know how this came up in legislation.

"Programme for Government," says Mattie, "rural Ireland and investment in our railways."

Gallagher asked for a page reference.

"It's page 128, on services for transport," says Mattie.

"Transport is not on page 128."

"It is," said Mattie, and he was allowed strut and pose as defender of the railways.

I looked at the Programme for Government. It doesn't contain the word "railways". At all. It mentions "rail" three times, in promising a costing for an Athenry-Claremorris line.

Page 128 is about bikes, goods vehicles and flooding.

In short, Dail proceedings are a farce. TDs use the place to advertise their own political charms.

Anything goes. The McSharry-Healy-Rae row was about who was first in line to strut and pose. MacSharry seemed to lose his temper because the Kerry Klowns are consistently better at getting to the top of the queue.

MacSharry eventually got to speak. He spoke about post offices. And mentioned two in his constituency.

Many years ago, politicians fell in love with light rail, and Luas was born. Unlimited billions were made available.

Garret FitzGerald said it was a bad idea - buses would be better, they're more flexible, not dependant on expensive and immovable rail systems. Supply can be increased and cut to meet need.

But light rail is sexy. It can also be used to raise house prices along the route. Private companies can be brought in to build and run it.

So, Dublin Bus didn't get the buses it needed. Last week, Transdev, the company that runs the Luas, boasted it had "traffic management systems", to ensure its new 55-metre train wouldn't get stuck on O'Connell Bridge.

Next day, the new 55-metre train got stuck on O'Connell Bridge, the end of it sticking out and blocking traffic up the quays.

There are another six of these things on the way.

Sometimes it seems as though a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs has been let loose on Dublin City.

O'Connell Street is a mess, now they're playing Lego with College Green and Dame Street. It's as though they put in the Luas tracks without considering actual transport needs.

But then, the Minister for Transport, Shane Ross, was busy getting the Stepaside Garda station re-opened in his constituency, even though the cops think it shouldn't have the priority the Government gave it.

We shall have a Plaza, the politicians announce, just like other European cities. Oh, goodie.

Has it occurred to them that a plaza works in countries where it's sunny a lot of the time and people like to sit and have a cool drink?

What the hell, the amateurs will continue to play with the city, while the politicians strut and pose.

The TDs' role is not to innovate, to question policy, to challenge the powerful, to look out for the collective interests of the people. Their role is to grab as much as they can for their constituencies, and to strut and pose the rest of the time.

We need better people in parliament. We need stronger bodies outside, pushing our interests. The corruption of the parties is not primarily financial, it's their abuse of democracy.

Citizens have long understood this. They look to the Dail to get a new traffic light installed. When they're worried about health policy they ring Joe Duffy.

Sunday Independent

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