Gerard Howlin: It’d be inexcusable to pass up this chance to reform public transport

The fingers of the status quo are firmly clasped around the Department of Transport’s jugular, writes Gerard Howlin

Gerard Howlin: It’d be inexcusable to pass up this chance to reform public transport
Bus Éireann bus on St Patrick's Bridge, Cork.

It was the anniversary of James Connolly’s execution yesterday. 104 years ago, wounded and strapped to a chair, he was shot. It was the callousness of the executions that swung public opinion. Abused by the crowd on their way to prison, the 1916 leaders were martyrs coming out of it. Things turn.

The new leader of the Labour Party, Alan Kelly, put it up to Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to rubberstamp the next, and last, installment of the public sector pay deal on Oct 1. It's 2%, and that’s a lot of money. It will be €88 million this year and €264 million in 2021. Thereafter that is the higher floor for public spending every year, before another cent is found.

Ireland’s unemployment rate now stands at a record 28.2%. This rate is almost double the figure recorded after the financial crisis. It does not include the additional 425,204 workers, who are availing of the Government wage subsidy -furlough- scheme. More than half the workforce is on a State payment on some sort. In a good scenario unemployment could be down to a mere 14% next year. So what’s to worry about? A lot less, if it’s not you or me.

The European Commission forecasts that Ireland's economy will contract by 8% in 2020 before expanding again by 6% in 2021. That will come to life not as percentages but as puddles of personal misery, each separated from the other by different circumstances. 

You can have the empathy to feel another’s pain. But you can’t endure it for them.

What matters is the practical help offered. A recovering economy, new jobs to replace lost ones, and innovation to move ahead of trends are required to mitigate what is imminently about to happen.

After the crash in 2009 there was solidarity of a sort. Those lucky enough to keep a job, contributed in higher taxes and lower pay — including the public sector. This time, on one issue, there is solidarity again. Labour, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have closed ranks to agree that even though the world in which the public sector pay agreement was signed is over, the party will go on regardless.

I understand the politics. It’s simple and cynical. Labour has again brilliantly used a wedge issue to successfully splurge public money, in pursuit of political collateral. This time it is public servants. Last November, at their party conference it was people imminently facing into the old age pension.

No they should not have to wait until they are 67 as planned for more than a decade now. Forget that it was a Labour achievement in government that bedded a Fianna Fáil policy down. There was an election coming, however. Labour was behind the curve. So let’s party with the facts, and prioritise the economics of eternal youth. It didn’t do Labour any good, but it moved-on the issue forcefully.

Gerard Howlin: It’d be inexcusable to pass up this chance to reform public transport
Much of the public reviled participants in the Easter Rising, but perceptions were upended by the executions, especially that of James Connolly, depicted here by Wal Paget on a stretcher in the GPO. There is a lesson for his putative heirs: Things turn.

Kudos to Mary Lou McDonald for catching the ball in the air. With one reckless holler about the demographics taking care of themselves, she put Brendan Howlin’s ball in the back of the net. Big score for Sinn Féin. You do need to keep a sense of humour.

Kelly has rehashed the same manoeuvre for the same purpose. He needs to move-on Labour. In so far as his party has any support, it is in the public service. Then there is a rusting, aging Labour apparatus within the trade union movement. In return for giving Labour bed and board, those unions understandably want a return. From a position of unprecedented weakness, at a moment when apparently there should be no pressure to agree what clearly can’t be afforded, they win the jackpot. Hearty congratulations to the union leaders. They never get the thanks they deserve from a grumpy membership. But that sideswipe into the honey pot, just as it was about to be taken off the table and put back into the cupboard was brilliant. Will it do Labour any good? Let’s see.

What it will do is deepen an existing policy trend that is entirely negative. Fianna Fáil had already abandoned its own previous position, and joined the pension’s bandwagon. Fine Gael is in rubber stamp mode. The invoices for our money, keep issuing. There is nonsense abroad about economic collapse, without austerity. Ballooning the national debt is now the new group think. Although thinking has changed over the past twenty years economically, it is always the same group that shows up to think it.

What is being sold out is the public interest.

Today the Minister for Transport will take questions in the Dáil. There is an expanding black hole of debt and insolvency opening up beneath companies which deliver public transport. The largest bloc are public companies within the CIE group. Others are private. What’s budgeted by way of public subsidy for public transport is now entirely inadequate to keep the providers half mothballed, semi-indefintely.

This is a crisis issue. Reprobate and right-wing though I am, I know public transport is an absolutely essential socially and economically. I know it is even more important than another public service pay increase.

Fares from passengers are down to about 10% of what’s normal. For those companies still functioning, they are still bearing most of their costs. There is a necessity to keep the infrastructure alive. There has to be a clear-eyed estimation of the cost and the terms and conditions it will be delivered on. In return, there has to be emphatically clear thinking of what the State wants, as a public good, in return for any recuse. It will be inexcusable if the Department of Transport and the National Transport Authority (NTA) waste this crisis, and simply subsidise the status quo. It may be a while ago, but the reason operations are outsourced and the NTA established was to enable the parent department to focus on policy. I hope it is not rude to ask, but I would like to see some transport policy that addresses the current crisis, its enormous costs, and has a plan to equate more State support with clearly defined public gain.

The French government stood on the neck of Air France and drove them out of competition with trains over shorter routes in return for rescue. What are the returns in terms of route changes, work practices and industry structure for the future? Will we hear today? Will the opposition pressurise the Government, in the public interest?

I doubt it. The arthritic fingers of the status quo are firmly clasped around the jugular vein in the Department of Transport. And why wouldn’t it? The tone is set politically. The unemployed are not in any union. Power arrives nearly always as organised force. There is a national storyboard about solidarity in crisis. Just off stage, there is an unfolding reality.

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