Friday 6 December 2019

'Too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy on Twitter or playing impromptu acoustic guitar gigs'

Housing activists' direct action is a quick fix that will spur on populism

Swords band Kodaline and Glen Hansard perform at Apollo House
Swords band Kodaline and Glen Hansard perform at Apollo House

Ciarán Conlon

'Too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy driving taxis and cutting hair.'

- George Burns.

This column was meant to be about the year ahead and the challenges and opportunities that lie in store for politics and public policy. But first, a quick diversion to a related matter. Over Christmas, this old one-liner by George Burns kept popping in to my head. The thought kept niggling at me that we could do with updating it for today's Irish audience. Something along the lines of "too bad all the people who know how to run this country are busy on Twitter or playing impromptu acoustic guitar gigs".

Yes, as you might have guessed I'm not persuaded by the "direct action" of the people behind the Apollo House occupation. Don't get me wrong - I recognise the seriousness of the issue and I don't doubt most of the participants' bona fides. In fact, I spent five years in government trying to make sure that - in the area of policy I was most involved with - government and its key stakeholders in the private and voluntary sector worked collaboratively. But, in my view, when any group decides to act outside the normal laws, rules and regulations that the rest of society adheres to, then trouble ensues.

You see, after spending over 20 years working in a public policy environment, including 13 years in direct party political involvement, both in opposition and government, one thing became abundantly clear; there are almost never quick and simple solutions to complex problems of public policy. With every lever of public policy you pull, there are a series of knock-on effects, some you can predict, others not. So the idea that this complex matrix of interconnected policies, partnerships, incentives, interventions or actions lends itself to real, long-term solutions typed out in 140 characters or less is unfortunately just not the case.

To be honest, if those simple solutions to complex problems existed, the combined wit and intelligence of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Labour, the Greens, the Progressive Democrats, the Independent Alliance and a series of very smart Independent TDs and their teams and supporters would probably have spotted this low-hanging policy fruit by now. Because they are the parties and groups in the past 10 years that have been, or are, in government. Within those groups, one must think there are a few talented, compassionate and committed people covering a range of political perspectives?

Campaigner Rosie Leonard, of the Irish Housing Network, outside Apollo House in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.
Campaigner Rosie Leonard, of the Irish Housing Network, outside Apollo House in Dublin. Photo: Steve Humphreys.

Now, I'll admit, I'm a bit boring about this stuff. I believe we live in a parliamentary democracy, governed by rules that only get changed when a bunch of people elected to represent the whole country decides to change them. Not when a small group - however convinced they are of their mission - decides to change them. Because once you go down that road, you give licence to anybody else that wants to copy you, only next time it might be on an issue or form of action that you don't support.

So, occupy Nama premises, yes! (though safe and secure additional spaces for ALL categories of rough sleepers have just been brought on stream). Free water for all, yes! (and physically impede workers doing their job, but still leave everyone paying through central taxation), and tax the rich, oh yes! (though few realise that the top 1pc of earners will pay 24pc of all PAYE and USC in 2017, the top 6pc fully 49pc, the top 26pc, over 83pc).

But what if others with a different agenda start taking direct action? The UK and the US have seen this more than we have, but we are not immune. What about refusal to process same-sex marriage certificates? Ethnic or religious profiling for public protest and intimidation? Direct picketing or even attacks on clinics or their staff? Lots of groups are in favour of direct action, but what happens when someone takes direct action on an issue you don't support?

If you insist that you know best and everyone else "just doesn't get it", then you help create an environment where all issues - especially "your" issue - seems amenable to the quick fix and simple solution that "government" doesn't "understand" or "care" about. In that type of environment, it doesn't take much for populist politicians of all persuasions to put a bull-clip around those quick-fix solutions and call it a manifesto. Some might even use it as a platform to run for high office…

Maybe that's a good pivot back to looking ahead to 2017.

Let's start with the good news. Next year will almost certainly continue a pattern of consistent improvement in the quality of life of most people on the planet. Sounds wrong, doesn't it, when we think of the unending stream of horrific stories from home and abroad, but it is the case. An Oxford University group of academics, Our World in Data, have tracked changes in quality of life over hundreds of years up to present day. Using factual information that is readily available, they show that people all over the planet are living longer, are better educated, are getting to vote more and fewer are living in extreme poverty.

In fact, since 1970, global literacy levels have jumped from 56pc to 85pc, access to democracy has nearly doubled and the numbers living in extreme poverty has fallen from 60pc to less than 10pc. In fact, since 1990, you could say that 130,000 people each day have been taken out of extreme poverty. Each day. Check their website if you want a positive reality check about what is actually happening in our world, not just what makes the news.

Unfortunately, in the immediate term, I think 2017 will see the beginning of the payback of the bill that populist politics racked up in 2016. We will actually have US President Donald Trump in a couple of weeks and we will actually have the UK's Brexit plan - if it exists - made public in a couple of months. These two events, along with a series of elections in Germany, France and elsewhere, will pose an enormous challenge to our own political and wider governance system. Having worked closely with both political and administrative sides of government, I am more hopeful than many that Ireland can emerge strongly from this shifting landscape. We've done it before and I think we can do it again.

And no need to put the guitar away - just remember that it isn't a policy instrument.

Ciarán Conlon is a former special adviser to the government

Irish Independent

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