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Kevin Myers: If we tolerate weeds of inefficiency at parish pump, inevitably we get forests of ineptitude at national level

WHY has this column been avoiding the general election? Because in part I am of frail constitution, with limited patience and a low boredom threshold, and I see no compelling reason to embitter this part of my career with a contemplation of the trite, the predictable and the unutterably myopic.

Here was a general election in which the Great Idea could have been unfolded, in which serious reform of the institutions of Irish life could have been promised. Instead, we have sipping round the edges, as the appalling and ruinous habits of Irish life continue unabated.

Compared to the €100bn (and mounting) that we owe the world, no doubt the €48,000 bill run up by Clare county councillors to attend three conferences is small beer. Except it's not, because it is emblematic of the national vice that has all but sunk this State -- for these conferences did not take place at the height of the Feline Follies of the Celtic Tiger, but after we'd discovered a hole where the hull should be, and what we saw vanishing beneath the waves was the future of YET another generation of Irish people.

In February 2009, 17 Clare councillors attended a St Valentine's weekend seminar in Letterkenny. Each councillor apparently drove separately to Donegal, and in all they racked up tax-free mileage claims of €15,000. That's nearly €900 each. But none of the money claimed by these councillors to attend this absolutely vital St Valentine's Day conference actually "exists" in Ireland. Every penny will have to be borrowed. If everyone in this State went off on such a junket, the cost would come to nearly €4bn. And the reason why these councillors were able to charge so much money was that each claimed to drive his or her own car.

The same number of councillors apparently made a comparably lonely and unaccompanied 530-mile car journey to and from a tourism conference in Dunadry, in Co Antrim, at a total cost of €15,450. Four of the councillors each received more than €1,000 expenses for attending the conference (coincidentally and irrelevantly, just next door to Belfast Airport, to which in those days you could fly from Shannon). Just to round the picture off, the 32 Clare councillors claimed payments and expenses of nearly €1m last year.

The last time Clare county councillors attracted my attention was when 12 of them flew to Madrid on a tourism fact-finding beano. Yes, I know, absolutely vital.

It's not just Clare. Three weeks from now our county managers, councillors and mayors will once again find themselves heading to the US for St Patrick's Day, just as representatives from Cork, Kerry, Carlow, Kilkenny, Longford, Westmeath, Cavan, Sligo, Roscommon, Louth, Mayo, Wicklow and Meath last year made the same heroic pilgrimage to New York.

How many of this year's gallant band of voyagers will be flying at the expense of their county councils -- or in other words, courtesy of future remittances from their grandchildren, exiled all over the world in about 40 years' time, or whenever it is that today's debts are paid off?

So who seriously maintains that local government in Ireland is distinguished by efficiency? Who can point to his local planning office and boast that there stands a beacon of probity? Yet if we are incapable of achieving basic civic virtues at the most visible and reachable level of national life, what hope have we at the uppermost levels?

So, we must tell the truth about ourselves, regardless of how difficult and unpleasant it is. No alcoholic ever got better by saying that all he needed to recover his health was a small gin.

One of the recent clichés about modern Irish life has been to contrast it with the "higher" standards that once prevailed in the early and more patriotic days of the State. Which standards were these?

The ones that allowed the Irish Hospitals' Sweepstakes to run the most corrupt lottery in Europe?

OR made it virtually impossible for Protestant GPs to get a dispensary outside the border counties? Or allowed de Valera to personally embezzle the money raised in the US for "Ireland"? Or allowed Lemass's jobs-for-the-boys culture, which corrupted employment practices throughout this Republic?

Local government is where the State begins in our lives. It is where the decisions are made for the new roundabout, or the shop, or the traffic light. It is where planning laws are enforced and where officials decide that the unlawful building is demolished. It is tangible and real in the way that state finance and foreign policy are not.

If we tolerate the weeds of inefficiency around the parish pump, we surely cannot be surprised if forests of ineptitude flourish at national level. Not one mainstream party promised a clean broom at the furthermost corners of council offices in this election -- which is one reason why this column has so far been such a largely politics-free zone.

But tomorrow, who knows?

Irish Independent