Tuesday 22 October 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'Leo's 'just do it' logic may baffle future generations'

The decision-making around major projects in this country is utterly mystifying, writes Brendan O'Connor

Time will tell: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of the National Broadband Plan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Time will tell: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the launch of the National Broadband Plan. Photo: Steve Humphreys

There is a pattern becoming clear here. Let's call it the 'future generations' defence. And we've heard it before. Anyone who questioned the location, the process, the management or the cost of the National Children's Hospital knows this strategy well.

A good number of respected people, people who seem to know a bit about medicine and a bit about hospitals, now agree that we are building the National Children's Hospital in the wrong location. Many very smart people believe that there will never be a maternity hospital built co-located on the site. Anyone with a tither of common sense knows that it is going to be a transport nightmare for parents taking sick children there. Even the shape of the building seems to have added huge layers of expense. When the issue over the costing of the hospital blew up, we learnt they hadn't even properly thought through accommodation for parents and families and there was no plan or no budget for something that is a central issue around a children's hospital.

But the parents of sick children, who are the real experts in this area, were largely brushed aside. The likes of Jonathan Irwin and Jimmy Sheehan, one of whom has worked with seriously ill children for years and one of whom has more experience than most in building hospitals, were brushed aside too. They were portrayed as a nuisance. It was time to just get on with it. It would never get built if we didn't build it on its current site. They needed to get with the programme. The debate was shut down. We needed to move on. The children of Ireland had waited long enough for a hospital and this was going to be the best in the world, and why were these people holding it back, denying future generations of children their right to this hospital?

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Anyone who expressed concerns about the hospital were answered by saying we needed a children's hospital and by implication, they were somehow against it and were unpatriotic and didn't like children. It was bizarre logic.

Similar logic was employed when the wild cost overruns on the hospital were revealed. Simon Harris came out making an argument for the building of a children's hospital, as if anyone disagreed with the need for a children's hospital. If you questioned the manner of execution of the hospital, or the cost, or the management of it, you were portrayed as being against the hospital. And we were told that future generations wouldn't worry about these paltry cost overruns. Which is a great justification for everything when you think about it. In the grand scheme of things, once this money is spent, it will seem like a mere drop in the ocean. You could technically justify anything this way. Blow a few billion now on a giant bouncy castle. In 50 years, no one will care about that money, which is, technically, probably true. In fact, we should just spend any money we can get our hands on, on anything that takes our fancy. Future generations won't care.

There is a kind of a 'Just Do It' mentality as well. We need to get on with it, is the message. Don't be a cow on the line. Stop analysing everything too much. This is the plan we have now and it's not perfect, but if we don't build it now it will never be built. So let's double down here and stick with it, and shure look, it might not be ideal, but it's better than nothing.

There was a bit of an 'uh-oh' moment last week, when Leo Varadkar said: "In 10 years' time, people won't ask about the price, they'll wonder why we didn't do it sooner." Here we go again. We're being told to stop being so anal and annoying about this. Stop worrying about a paltry €3bn. Think of the bigger picture. Once that money is gone and spent, it'll be just like it never existed but every boreen in Ireland will have perfect broadband. And it might be costing us money now, but it will be free for all those future generations. Just like the free education that all the naysayers and the prudent old bores in the civil service were against.

And somehow, if you questioned the manner, cost and process of the broadband rollout, you were presented as being against rural broadband. The arguments made in favour of the current plan were largely arguments for rural broadband, as if anyone thought rural people shouldn't have broadband.

And then, there was the "Just do it" argument. Denis Naughten, fair play to him, rowed in with that, that basically if we didn't go with this particular plan, there would never be rural broadband: "If this falters, I don't honestly believe that we will ever get high-speed broadband into rural Ireland."

So we either build the hospital here and at this price or it'll never happen and that will be your fault for carping. And if we don't do broadband this way, it'll never happen, and it'll be your fault for carping. It's an imperfect world but we just have to do our best and get things done. And it's all relative. What seems like a lot of money will seem like nothing in 10 years.

And of course everything is relative. Rural broadband has now become unofficially enshrined as a right, and therefore, the argument goes, we have a moral (and electoral) duty to spend this money. But if we are going to get into the relativities of things, then we should possibly consider the other 'rights' that may be forgone for this €3bn. How much social housing could be built for the €3bn? Does a child have a right not to grow up in a hotel room? And how many children will stay in hotel rooms to pay for this broadband plan? A child certainly has a right to an education, but how many children with autism will not have that right met to pay for this broadband plan? How many children with special needs will wait a precious year or two of their young lives to even get an assessment in order to pay for this broadband plan? How many children will miss that precious early intervention window when they could learn to speak, or go to the toilet, or learn other basic skills, to pay for this broadband plan? Of course, by the current logic, if we gave all these kids the homes, the education and the services they required, it could cost billions, but future generations would certainly thank us and wonder why we didn't do it earlier. They wouldn't think about the cost.

It's one thing making a mistake and realising afterwards you made a mistake. But what about when you pretty much know you are making a mistake but you keep going anyway because it's the only mistake on the table? You have to seriously wonder if future generations will judge us as well as Leo thinks they will. They might look back, mystified, and wonder why we sleepwalked into these projects, even though we knew there was something cack-handed about them. Time will tell.

Of course, the real issue could be that future generations could marvel at how we spent billions on a fibre-based network, thinking technology would never change in unimaginable ways in a very short period of time.

Let's hope to god that some day our big broadband investment doesn't look as quaint in retrospect as Rupert Murdoch buying MySpace, or investing in the Pony Express just before the railroads came to town.

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