Tuesday 20 August 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'Blueshirts' reputation for prudence frays under pressure of big-ticket projects'

'Ongoing public spending debacles have emerged as a key factor in eroding trust in the Taoiseach'. Photo: PA
'Ongoing public spending debacles have emerged as a key factor in eroding trust in the Taoiseach'. Photo: PA

Gerard O'Regan

Popular wisdom once had it you could always rely on the Blueshirts to look after the family silver. Tightwads, the lot of them, when it came to spending.

After all don't they come from a tradition where a shilling was hived off the blind pension - all in the interests of balancing the nation's books?

But that's not so any more. At least it's what Leo Varadkar's opponents would have us believe about his Government. They can only fumble about when it comes to getting best value for hard-earned cash garnered by the taxman. Managing big-time projects is just not their thing.

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Spending on the much-awaited multi-million euro children's hospital has certainly been chaotic. It may be that one way or another the real cost would come it at something around the latest published figure.

But that's beside the point. The mish-mash approach of those overseeing its construction has shattered public confidence on the all important value-for-money issue.

This week things went from bad to worse. It was another nightmare day for the Government at the Public Accounts Committee. Once again serious questions on individual accountability and responsibility were left unanswered. Allegations that a firm of consultants more or less investigated themselves - when trying to find out who knew what and when - must be confronted.

The singular weakness on the Government side is that it has allowed such unrelenting confusion to continue. There is a feeling that a state of drift continues as regards the financing of this hospital.

Nobody seems capable of taking the construction costs issue by the scruff of the neck - and explaining in easy to understand terms - why there has been such gargantuan overruns. Now it has emerged that spending may rise by another €50m - an alarmingly neat round figure - with no guarantee the carousel will end any time soon.

On another front, there is much unease the National Broadband Plan will also become a black hole, soaking up endless amounts of public cash. One way or another there is once again a huge public relations deficit in selling its benefits to the public. The Opposition parties have been unable to offer any clear-cut alternative plan. Yet they have been winning the argument.

The ideal of providing top-class internet coverage for every household in the country is praiseworthy, equitable, and indeed vital for our economic development. And there is obviously no way of doing it on the cheap. It is especially significant private operators have not exactly been queueing up to try to get a slice of the action. It suggests making long-term money out of this project may not be as easy as it seems.

Yet the Government is all too often on the back foot. Of course providing high-speed internet across the highways and byways, reaching the most isolated parts of the country, cannot but be financially complex and highly technical. Accordingly, it's fertile territory for the Opposition to have a go.

But the response from the Cabinet should be more sure-footed and confident. As with the hospital controversy, there is a feeling checks and balances to control future spending are just too lax.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Tralee Institute of Technology is facing a deficit of €10m. It is reported there are problems with cash flow and over-staffing, combined with the fact relevant authorities were not kept informed. This will pose further questions as to why yet another simmering financial crisis was not nipped in the bud.

Recent opinion polls show support for Varadkar and the Government is flat, with the possibility of further seepage. Ongoing public spending debacles have emerged as a key factor in eroding trust in the competency of the Taoiseach and some of his ministers.

It is indeed a contrast with times past. Fine Gael always prided itself on being extra cautious with the public purse. The party would have us believe it is Fianna Fáil Flash Harrys we must watch for and their spendthrift ways.

But if the children's hospital saga drifts on - and on - things will get worse for Varadkar before they get better. That is, if they are going to get better.

Irish Independent

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