Wednesday 18 September 2019

Gene Kerrigan: 'Old problems have become the new normal'

As Leo Varadkar struts his stuff on the EU stage, problems at home are here to stay, writes Gene Kerrigan

You've got to admit, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has been playing a blinder recently. He remains admirably unflustered, standing quietly in the vicinity of whichever of the EU's Top Blokes he's told to stand beside.

Alongside Mr Tusk or Mr Barnier, his smile betrays no more than a smidgeon of nervousness.

Smiling, nodding, occasionally frowning, there are no limits to the emotions Mr Varadkar can display. Sources confirm that his facial eloquence is often remarked on favourably within the Bundestag.

Mr Varadkar's public utterances are generally harmless, to the effect that we're really hopeful that our panicky neighbours won't wipe their boots on the Belfast Agreement.

This is known, among the more excitable elements within Fine Gael, as "standing up to the Brits".

If only Mr Varadkar's job demanded no more than standing in a steadfast pose alongside Mr Tusk.

Unfortunately, he has domestic duties.

These require him to ensure that the people he appoints to ministerial positions can do the job.

It involves monitoring progress and forcing policy changes when the minister is persistently ineffective.

And this, I'm afraid, requires qualities more complex than those required for maintaining an air of calm while standing beside a Top Bloke from the EU.

A Government that cannot ensure the people have access to housing and basic healthcare is a gross failure. When this happens for a year or two, it can be blamed on a misjudgement of the pace of events or a misallocation of resources.

But it's now 12 years since the A&E chaos was officially classed as a national emergency.

The (undeclared) housing emergency that has been building for about half that time grows steadily worse.

And the Varadkar Government - exactly like the Kenny Government - grows steadily more frantic in assuring us that things are getting better.

All this at a time of record amounts spent on health and housing.

And we have come to accept this as almost normal.

There'll be the odd improvement, but the political establishment is close to accepting permanent failure in the two central roles of Government - housing and health.

What's the evidence for this?

And what's preventing us from getting out of the quagmire into which first Fianna Fail and then Fine Gael took us?

The evidence is in front of our eyes, telling us that we've settled for an acceptable level of homelessness (officially it's almost 10,000) and an acceptable level of unnecessary death (about 300 a year) in the public health service.

When fixable problems last up to 12 years, they are clearly not problems, they are the result of policies to which those in office are irrevocably wedded.

Fixing the problems requires FG/FF to abandon core policies, and this they will not do.

Central to those policies is a belief that public services must be reduced to a bare minimum, a "safety net" for those in the most dire need.

The rest of our needs will be met by the magic qualities of the private market, which will intuitively match needs to resources.

In health, both the major parties believe in keeping the private market up to about 30pc. This removes customers from the public market (we are customers, not patients).

And this in theory should reduce public spending, but of course it doesn't.

In order to encourage us to buy into private health schemes, the public service is kept in a dodgy state. Evidence? I try at least once a year to reprint Brendan Howlin's regretful explanation, reflecting on his period as health minister. The Government, he said, "really required the public system to be inferior. Why else, if it was first rate, would people pay for a private system?"

The "free market", however, has failed in health, as it has failed in housing. And public services continue to flounder, year after year. And public spending costs grow, not fall.

Further evidence: when they can't fix the problem, politicians play with the figures. People are recategorised. It doesn't house them, but it massages the figures. The real homeless figure is closer to 13,000.

Another indication is the way politicians begin to come up with vague and mad explanations for what's happening. For instance: in explaining the hospital chaos, Mr Varadkar claimed that "what can happen in some hospitals is sometimes, when they have more beds and more resources, that's what kind of slows it down".

When the system is on the edge of collapse, apparently, the staff work more efficiently. And if FF and FG in turn hadn't removed thousands of beds, the staff would be less efficient.

Really?

"Because", if they have enough resources, explained Dr Varadkar, they "don't feel as much under pressure".

In housing, FF/FG believe in a policy of encouraging massive profiteering, by investors, which will in turn bring investment rushing into an ever-larger private sector, reducing demand on State spending.

The "free market" policies create homelessness - as owners of property push up rent and sale prices, forcing people into emergency shelters.

The parties haven't "failed" to ensure the growth of both council and affordable housing - that's been their policy.

And there's an added reason that the housing emergency will persist: they believe in "mixed" class housing. No large estates, like Cabra West and Ballyfermot and Crumlin and Finglas. There must be small "mixed-class" estates.

This mad policy is entirely based on a quite staggering class bias. It's a cartoon version of Irish society - decent, hard-working people like Mr Varadkar and his equals, and dodgy people like the rest of us.

The levels of ignorance and prejudice are mind-boggling. In previous times, faced with huge housing problems, politicians abandoned pet theories and did what worked - they launched massive housing programmes. In those times, there was a strong pragmatic streak in Irish politics - and that allowed politicians to do what they knew would work, rather than clinging to right-wing principles.

Mr Varadkar and company are made of sterner stuff. They are highly ideological. They have strong views on the efficiency of the "free market". If it's not working, and it's clearly not, there must be some managerial fault.

They are as likely to change these views as the Capuchin monks are to make personal fortunes by demanding money from the hungry before they give them a parcel.

That's just not in the monks' make-up. And abandoning the principles of profit and market forces is not in the make-up of our leaders.

They'll continue to unfold the succession of loudly proclaimed gimmicks. These adjust the shape of the emergency - easing it here, making it worse elsewhere - but without affecting the scale of the problem.

Well, at least Mr Varadkar knows which of the Top Blokes to stand beside while the headless and panic-stricken chickens of Downing Street dart this way and that.

The backstop, and the Belfast Agreement, are safe enough as long as the Top Blokes of the EU see their interests as similar to ours.

What, though, if there's the prospect of a wild Brexit that threatens to damage everyone - and the Top Blokes tell Mr Varadkar sacrifices are necessary?

Well, the same strong intellect that guides our health and housing policies will no doubt see us through.

Sunday Independent

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