Doling out the dosh is easy but implementation is real challenge
The claim game – and the blame game. Norma Foley was beaming after her landmark policy announcement in the Budget. The Kerry TD was even admitting to ambitions for higher office.
In decades to come, the teacher from Tralee will be remembered as the minister who brought in free school books.
With her name attached to a signature project, when she was asked if she fancied becoming Fianna Fáil leader in the future, she praised the present incumbent for his “superb leadership”, spoke about how she was “honoured” to serve in Cabinet and didn’t see an opportunity arising in the short term. Yet when queried on whether she was saying she had no ambitions to lead, she did add: “I would never say not.”
Aha. You don’t survive politics in The Kingdom by hiding your light under a bushel. “I think anyone that is involved in politics, local or national, you always are prepared to give of your best and to take up opportunities and that remains the case.”
Sitting alongside her in Government Buildings was Fine Gael junior minister Josepha Madigan, who was dropped from Cabinet and is tipped to be heading to the backbenches in the December reshuffle. Them’s the breaks in politics.
Ms Foley was certainly happy to claim the credit for the free books scheme, which she said was a “priority of mine and signifies a new chapter in Irish primary education”. Not only that, but it’s her “determination” and “intention” to then roll it out to secondary schools: “Embed it there and then grow and nurture it.”
Several of the Education Minister’s predecessors must be scratching their heads wondering why they didn’t get there first on the school books – a measure that will benefit every family in the country. Having the resources is the obvious reason, but the measure is only costing €50m, which seems like a drop in the ocean in a giveaway Budget of €11bn.
What’s more it doubles up as a cost-of-living measure and there’s 11 months to sort it. Perfect.
When it came to taking the blame when such initiatives go wrong, the Education Minister was less forthcoming.
The announcement of free school bus tickets in the summer prompted a record number of applications. There was an increase of a third in concessionary tickets, but a difficulty sourcing buses and drivers has left some pupils stranded on the side of the road for the past month. The minister spoke of undertaking a “root and branch review of entire school transport system” but wasn’t holding her hand up for being responsible for the delays.
A similar pattern was observed as Cabinet ministers rolled out to proclaim their genius in securing their slice of the pie for funding initiatives in Budget 2023. However, when it came to standing over any bad news or taking the rap for the slow delivery of public services, everyone went missing.
When it came to the lower Vat rate for the hospitality sector being ended, Tourism Minister Catherine Martin even bizarrely declared it was a “matter for the Minister for Finance”. So much for collective Cabinet accountability.
Justice Minister Helen McEntee pointed to an “overhang from Covid-19” for poor recruitment numbers into An Garda Síochána, with just over half of the 800 recruits promised for this year being delivered.
It’s got to the point now where ministers are bluffing when they make commitments about the implementation of services in the next year
Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien was lining up his excuses for an anticipated shortfall in house builds with talk in the Dáil of “construction product inflation and some supply chain issues”.
Health Minister Stephen Donnelly glossed over a string of missed targets, including a significant shortfall in reducing the number of patients waiting for an appointment with a consultant. He blatantly re-announced free GP visit cards for all children aged 6 and 7, which was actually in last year’s budget, but never happened. Now there’s a plan to roll out 430,000 more GP visit cards, despite doctors warning they don’t have capacity and haven’t been consulted. “Sometimes if you wait for the perfect and for everyone to be satisfied, the right thing takes too long to happen,” the Health Minister sagely advised.
The problem is the ‘right thing’ is taking far too long to deliver is so many areas of public services, even when the funding is allocated.
It’s got to the point now where ministers are bluffing when they make commitments about the implementation of services in the next year.
The usual slow turning of the cogs within the system is also being exacerbated by a shortage of personnel across the board, with the country reaching full employment.
Budget 2023 can be divided in two – direct cash into people’s pockets and funding for public services.
The cash payments, in the form of tax cuts, social welfare, pensions, bonus payments, electricity credits and lower charges for public services can all be implemented easily.
But when it comes to building houses, hiring doctors, training guards or providing school buses, it’s more a case of wait and see.
Money no longer guarantees delivery.
And when the cash in the pocket is spent, voters will judge on the services.