Thursday 22 August 2019

Donal Lynch: 'Ireland creaking at the seams'

As post-election euphoria curdles into realism, how do we actually tackle Ireland's crumbling public services

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In the aftermath of the election comes the sobering reality. Whatever the promises made by the various parties, all face a country dealing with several fronts of crisis. Much has been made of the Green surge but a greener country is going to be expensive in taxation and cost of living.

Collectively embracing these adjustments would be difficult in any era, but all the more so in a country that is creaking at the seams. We have been told austerity is over and we are back to almost full employment, but for the majority it still doesn't feel anything like real recovery. Wages are stagnant - tax hikes and levies have wiped out any moderate growth in that area - and the jobs that are being created are increasingly insecure and disconnected from centres of power, as exemplified by the so-called gig economy.

Personal debt is huge compared to the EU average, yet Central Bank rules mean young people cannot access debt to get a foot on the property ladder. Most damningly of all for our political class, we face the first generation of young people in the history of the State worse off than their parents were.

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And future generations may be worse off again if the state of our education system is anything to go by. We have now had a decade of insufficient investment and a failure of successive governments to address how we can fund a system which is one of the ultimate barometers of investment in Ireland's future.

Beyond education, our childcare system is broken. Staff shortages and lack of funding have placed huge pressure on the sector and many families are struggling due prohibitive childcare fees.

The Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) has said that the high cost of childcare is a major factor in discouraging women from participating in the workforce.

Other dysfunctional parts of Irish society have limped along through what we are told is recovery. A decade ago, the EU and the IMF allowed Ireland's bailout on the condition that two serious issues were tackled: reform of the legal profession and the introduction of water charges. The previous government underestimated the populist opposition to water charges and paid a terrible price, but it's now clear why they thought Irish Water would be the easier option.

Over the past decade, the legal profession has adeptly faced down all attempts at reform. Access to our court system is still for the wealthy and while the public focuses its ire on the claimants, the role of lawyers needs to be considered. The fact that many of our politicians are lawyers cannot help in this regard.

Even after the drama with Maria Bailey dragged out, Fine Gael's response was to appoint yet another lawyer - Senior Counsel David Kennedy - to investigate. Whatever the public scandal in Ireland, the lawyers win.

Enormous overspending on big public projects is not unusual internationally, but Ireland leads the way on this front. The motorway network, the Luas, the National Broadband Plan, the Health Service Executive's payroll computer system and the Dublin port tunnel have all run grossly over budget.

Recently we learned that the final cost of the children's hospital will be in the region of €1.73b, with the costs to rise by another €100m if construction inflation rises this year.

The National Broadband Plan is set to cost €3bn, with many arguing that the rationale for that kind of cost has not been justified.

The national debt is an enormous €200bn and Ireland pays €16.5m every day in interest on its borrowings. The independent body which keeps an eye on the public finances, the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council, has already given the Government a stern warning that it has not done enough to curtail spending, which leaves Ireland exposed to shocks just as Brexit looms on the horizon.

Legal reform, childcare, national debt and climate change are issues that need to be addressed. But Ireland's most pressing issues centre around a trinity of dysfunction: housing, health and transport.

Housing

Historians will likely call housing the current Government's biggest failure and after a decade in power, Fine Gael are all out of excuses. Rebuilding Ireland, their detailed plan, announced just three years ago, has been a terrible failure and while companies complain about flagging competitiveness - a consequence of being unable to find housing for workers - the streets of our capital are lined with homeless people.

In a broad sense the housing crisis was a failure of planning for the sharp surge in economic growth that followed the depths of the economic crash; we seemed to move from ghost estates to no estates with nothing in between. Housing is now a multi-headed hydra that seems to represent a political challenge of insurmountable proportions.

Many young adults wishing to buy a house face the triple threat of rent and house price inflation, along with job insecurity, which in turn often forces them to live with their parents for extended periods. Tenants in the private rented sector, including those in receipt of housing benefit, face unmanageable rent increases, even for sub-standard and insecure accommodation. The trickle-down effect of all of this has been a sharp uptick in the numbers of those living on the streets.

Health

A long line of otherwise brilliant politicians have failed to make much of dint in the problems facing Ireland's beleaguered health system. The problem may be partly that the changes that need to take place will take far longer than a four-year term of government, and so there is little real political incentive to force the vested interests, who see healthcare as a commodity, to take their medicine.

Staff shortages and emergency department overcrowding are the top challenges facing the health services, according to a recently published survey by Ipsos/MRBI for the Irish Pharmaceutical Association. Overcrowding was worse last year than any other on record. Out-of-control spending, best exemplified by the supernova-sized cost overrun of the new children's hospital, is another seemingly permanent blight, with little to show for it.

The linking up of mental health services is also a major issue: Ireland has one of the highest rates of mental illness in the EU and rates of depression are higher than average for men and women. Every month seems to bring a new problem in the two-tier system where people with health insurance can still jump queues.

Transport

As the economy has improved, the populations in our cities have grown exponentially and the sense that they are bursting at the seams is felt not just in housing, but also in transport. We still have a major European airport without a rail link and rapidly expanding towns such as Swords and Lucan that are still largely reliant on bus services and private cars. Dublin is now one of the most congested cities in the world.

Recent research has shown that commuters spent almost 250 hours stuck in cars travelling at less than 10km per hour last year. This in turn has made improving public transport a priority but, as with the health service, there is little agreement on how these changes should work.

Under the BusConnects plan, dozens of long-established routes throughout the city would be abolished, replaced by a design that promises faster journeys, but would require passengers, in some cases, to change buses. These plans have been met by robust opposition - thousands have attended meetings held by TDS in Dublin, where concerns have been expressed that some areas will be left without direct links to the city centre.

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