Saturday 23 February 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'This pause in the madness brings a moment of clarity'

Compared to some of our friends and neighbours we are enjoying a time of peace and stability - with one or two odd exceptions, writes Brendan O'Connor

HOSPITAL PLANS: Simon Harris, Minister for Health, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
HOSPITAL PLANS: Simon Harris, Minister for Health, with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar

The week between Christmas and New Year can feel like the pause between the breaths, where we see things clearly for a moment, seeing both now, and also infinity.

Into this pause can come all kinds of things. With hostilities briefly paused on Brexit, we can see it clearly in all its horror. It is when there is a pause that we see objectively what we have come to take for granted as it happened to us daily. When that drip, drip of madness just keeps happening we almost start to take it for granted. But somehow when it all stops for a week and we can take some time out to look back into it from a distance, we see it all, perhaps too clearly.

The Brexit mess combines with the bizarre images of Trump in Iraq in a giant bomber jacket, setting off his coif even more than usual, and it's hard not to agree with Jeremy Warner's damning summing up of the situation in The Telegraph last week, that, "we live in a world led by megalomaniacs, political pygmies, chancers, liars and ignoramuses".

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Against this background of dysfunctionality, and with a rise in populism throughout Europe, we are told we should be grateful for the relative stability of our own politics, and this is true to a point. You will tend to find in relationships that when one partner is mad or wild or drunk, the other partner tends to become the sane, solid, sober one, because they have no choice if life is to hold together. And so it is that we have been forced towards relative order in this country as a counterpoint to our near neighbour's chaos.

But even in our republic of stability, odd things throw themselves up at this time of year. There were, for example, two flat assessments of our housing crisis last week. Jim Power in The Irish Examiner pointed out that on the numbers, many ordinary working couples are never going to be able to afford any of the houses being built by the private sector. In the Irish Independent, we read that it's a better bet for builders to build premium or luxury apartments than ordinary housing in ordinary areas. Sobering realities that we will contemplate briefly in this pause and then try to forget quickly as we move back into our necessary day-to-day belief that everything will work out.

Other odd things pop up to fill this in-between gap too. Sometimes it can be pre-prepared quotes given out at Christmas briefings and saved up to fill news pages. So we get odd stories like the Taoiseach defending vulture funds, and then the strange nugget that the State is considering auctioning off sponsorship naming rights for the new national children's hospital. The report, based on a cabinet memo, bubbled up, and was quickly denied, sort of.

It turns out that while the minister will not look at selling headline naming rights for the hospital, the State may attempt to recoup some of the cost of the hospital, which has now more than quadrupled from the original €400m to €1.75bn, by offering naming rights to individual parts of the hospital.

This is somewhat less weird than the notion of the whole hospital being named for example, after an insurance company, as has happened in the US. How odd would it have been if the new children's hospital had been named after, say, the VHI, or one of the other insurance companies people use to try to keep themselves out of the clutches of the State health service.

And while it may seem more palatable, and perhaps nothing new, to name the odd ward after a 'philanthropic' donor, there is still something unsettling about the notion of going with the begging bowl to, say, rich individuals who avoid paying as much tax as possible, and luring money from them by appealing to their vanity, or going to corporations who are in a similar position. Perhaps it would be a way of extracting a slightly higher rate of taxation from those multinationals who pay such low rates here? Should we all get some naming rights for the contributions we make to the health service? A huge chunk of all of our taxes goes towards health, so maybe there should be plaques on beds for all of us? Should people on social welfare be auctioned off to the highest bidder? Wearing branded T-shirts to indicate who is generously donating their welfare payments?

While the notion of the private sector partnering with the State on big infrastructural projects is technically nothing new, and while the State going with the begging bowl or relying on charity to provide essential services is nothing new, the idea of selling naming rights to parts of the new hospital is perhaps unsettling right now because people feel increasingly owned by large corporations. This is due, in large part, to the internet.

In Channel 4's Big Fat Quiz of the Year, comedian and commentator David Mitchell opted to name his team, 'The internet is a bad idea'. And as much as we realise this is a somewhat pointless observation at this stage, and not totally true, it appealed to something in us. The internet has made life easier in so many ways, but the unintended consequences have been unfortunate, to say the least. Putting aside the crabby public debate, the often ridiculous surges of outrage, one of the most disturbing outcomes of the internet is that we all feel slightly owned by large corporations. What feels like it should in some way be a State-controlled utility, operated for the public good, has become a massive marketing opportunity, where we all auctioned ourselves off for data rights. Of course, we knew, to some extent, what we were letting ourselves in for. All these free services, free news, free information, free everything at our fingertips, had to come at some kind of price. But it is only really in the past year that people have realised the extent of the price we were paying, and the price things like our political system are paying. If the medium is the message and the medium is largely controlled by a small group of really rich people, central among them a 34-year-old manchild with empathy issues, then we have a problem.

When that manchild and others are now more important than governments, and are effectively, most now agree, too big to regulate successfully, we have reached some kind of tipping point. So the world is effectively ruled by massive companies who are all the time auctioning off our attention to the highest bidders, who then do their best to manipulate us in hitherto unimagined ways.

No wonder then that people crave safe spaces that are controlled by government for the common good, some bastions of order to protect them from the chaos of a market that no longer operates by fulfilling customer needs, rather by monopolistically controlling the virtual sea in which we swim.

There's no doubt some sugar-daddies and mommies will come in to sponsor parts of our new children's hospital, and it will be nothing new. Ronald McDonald, of all people, already provides an excellent facility for families next to Crumlin Children's Hospital and it is a facility for which many parents are eternally grateful.

But you can't blame us either - as we sit here in the pause between breaths, and observe objectively the chaos in which we've been swimming - for being uncomfortable. If the internet, which allowed marketing to take over the world, and blurred the line between customer and product, which was effectively a corporate takeover of society and discourse and even politics, was a bad idea, it's too late anyway. All we can endeavour to do is to perhaps to resist in some small ways the corporatisation of everything, even our sick children.

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