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Andrew Lynch: Gormley looking Gormless as the grit hits the fan

Last month John Gormley went to Copenhagen as part of his long-running quest to save the planet.

Today, as head of the Government's grandly titled National Emergency Response Committee, he's charged with the less glamorous task of keeping Ireland open for business.

The Minister for the Environment has finally emerged blinking from his winter hibernation -- but with the weather set to get even worse this weekend, there are worrying signs that even his best efforts will turn out to be too little, too late.

By now, the Government's feeble response to this crisis has become painfully clear. To put it bluntly, the country's roads need grit that we just don't have and have little hope of getting in time.

Local authorities are currently using 20,000 tonnes of the stuff per week, but the NRA has confirmed that less than half that amount is available for the next seven days.

Throughout a series of blustering media interviews yesterday, Gormley suggested that it was all the fault of county councils who had failed to provide for this kind of emergency.


They in turn have complained that the Minister simply isn't giving them the money they need to buy the necessary supplies. While this unseemly blame game drags on, the country is grinding to a halt -- with the cost to the economy currently estimated at €120m, and rising.

Ever since he took up residence at the Department of the Environment, Gormley has been full of bright ideas on such pressing issues as stag hunting and energy-saving light bulbs.

The recent flooding crisis, however, suggested that the Minister is rather less good at coping with real problems.

We've all been shaking our heads this week over the Slovak government, who took three days to tell us that they'd accidentally allowed 100kg of explosives into Dublin, but it took our lot three weeks to decide that Arctic weather conditions might actually constitute an emergency.

Above all, this fiasco has shown up the dysfunctional relationship that exists between Gormley's department and local authorities around the country. It appears that because nobody knows who's in charge, nobody makes any decisions until it's too late for them to do much good.

When Willie O'Dea was asked yesterday why the Army haven't been called out to help, he replied simply: "We weren't asked" -- which begs the question of who exactly the Minister for Defence expects to ask him.

Whether or not this big freeze is as unprecedented as the politicians claim, it was by no means unpredictable.

In fact, the record clearly shows that weather forecasters were warning as long ago as December 18 that something like this might happen.

A last-minute grit or sand order then could have made all the difference, but instead everyone in Government Buildings headed off for Christmas and assumed that the situation would resolve itself before it was time to head back.


Whenever TDs are criticised for the ridiculous length of their Dail holidays, they tend to get very upset and protest that they're working flat out in their constituencies instead.

After this week's performance (or non-performance), it will be hard to take that excuse seriously again -- incredibly, the Minister for Transport is reportedly still sunning himself in the Algarve.

Nor is it much use looking to Brian Cowen for leadership, apparently, since his gloomy pronouncement yesterday that, "The question of the availability of that material comes into play particularly after next weekend," is about as inspiring as his warning during the floods that, "Things will get worse before they get better."

To quote Shakespeare's Richard III, now is the winter of our discontent. Government TDs will hear all about that discontent in their constituency clinics -- as soon as it becomes safe to walk the streets again.