Árd Fheis heaped promises on top of the ones FF have already broken

NEVER in the history of mankind has so little been learned about so much by so many. The Fianna Fáil Árd Fheis was like a sort of Pinocchio-fest.

Minister after minister suffered the indignity of watching their noses grow at least a foot every time they made a press release. How can they possibly expect us to believe a word of it or of anything else they say ever again? What about the 2,000 extra gardaí, the 12,000 childcare places, the 200,000 extra medical cards, and the school upon school promised immediate refurbishment?

What about the promise to end all hospital waiting lists? What about the individual rights of assessment and provision in a new and radical disabilities bill? Those promises are only a couple of years old. Together they constitute the greatest con-trick perpetrated on an electorate since 1977.

And now exactly the same people are at it again. It was all underpinned by this remarkable couple of sentences in the Taoiseach's own speech to the Árd Fheis: "We must never pursue the economic path of our opponents, who when the tough decisions had to be taken, failed every test. In order to buy quick popularity, they chose to ignore hard realities. Never again not under this Government not under Fianna Fáil."

What opponents is he talking about? Who tried to buy quick popularity? I know Fianna Fáil has become adept at rewriting history and if your recent history includes characters such as with the likes of Haughey, Burke, Lawlor and Flynn, you need to be good at re-writing but this was a truly extraordinary assertion. In fact, the Taoiseach was talking about himself. The opponents he was referring to were the Fianna Fáil and PD government that succeeded itself in 2002.

The Taoiseach grandly announced that his new government would never court popularity less than 24 hours after he had announced that his government's Hanly Report was effectively being ditched. The reason?

They need to court popularity in the towns likely to be most affected by the Hanly Report.

Immediately after the Taoiseach, we had the Minister for Finance announcing that he was going to move to cut the costs of tribunals.

"There are a number of options we are addressing relating to costs, and I hope to bring proposals to the Government in due course," said he.

Could this possibly be the same Minister for Finance whose Government has been sitting on the Commissions of Investigation Bill, introduced by the Government in July of 2003 but debated for the first time in the Dáil just last week?

The whole purpose of that bill is the tighter control of costs in the public investigation and reporting of matters of significant public concern. Has Charlie McCreevy not heard of this bill? Or does he think it is inadequate? Or does he just believe it's easier to engage in populist guff at his party conference as if he were a member of the opposition rather than the most senior government minister after the Taoiseach?

Perhaps he prefers to ignore the fact that he is responsible for steering through the Oireachtas this week a piece of legislation that has already been proclaimed as the Government's considered response to exactly the issue he today says is shortly going to be the subject of his own rather than Michael McDowell's proposals to Government.

He also prefers to ignore the alternative option promoted by the Labour Party, that the members of the Dáil and Seanad be given the necessary constitutional and statutory mandate to do the job for which they were elected to hold governments to account for their decisions.

The DIRT Inquiry proved comprehensively that inquiries run by the Oireachtas have the potential to be economical, efficient and effective. Perhaps that is the reason the Government has resolved to reject them. Instead, we will get more of these headline-winning complaints about the status quo, as if the Government was in no position to do anything about it and without any real commitment to fundamental reform.

The highlight of the weekend, of course, was the publication by Environment Minister Martin Cullen of draft guidelines on rural housing. This announcement generated all the right headlines but look a little closer and you'll find it was an utterly meaningless exercise.

According to the minister, "people who are born in an area, who live in an area and who contribute to an area will be entitled to build their home in that area".

His guidelines contain a range of measures ostensibly designed to deal with the issue of rural or "one-off" housing. Subject to good planning practice, people with "rural links" are in future to be favoured for planning. And any applicant applying for permission in an area suffering from population decline should also be favoured.

BUT there are two little wrinkles that the minister and his advisers know all about, but neglected to include in the spin. First, he is proposing to implement his guidelines by way of section 28 of the Planning and Development Act 2000.

That section specifies that both local authorities and An Bord Pleanála should "have regard" to ministerial guidelines, in performing their functions. We already know, because the High Court has already held, that a local authority can discharge its obligation to "have regard" to ministerial guidelines simply by showing that they have read and not ignored them. In other words, the guidelines are not binding, because you can have regard to an argument and yet disagree with it.

So anyone who believes that the minister has changed the law in some way is being kidded.

Second, the Minister is proposing guidelines that suggest a planning application should be considered not simply by reference to what structure is proposed to be built, and where, but also by who is proposing to build it.

In other words, if an applicant has "rural links", he or she might be more likely to obtain permission to build a once-off rural house than a city-dweller would.

But of course there is nothing at all to stop an individual from selling his or her house, once it is built, to anyone willing to buy it. Nor could there be. Irish law could not permit a minister to direct who should be permitted to live in any part of this country.

A land-owner with, say, seven children who got seven planning permissions under these new rules (if they ever take effect) is entirely at liberty to sell the seven houses built as a result to whoever he likes. And there's no possibility of a system like this being constantly abused, with consequent long-term environmental damage all around the country? Who does the Minister think he's kidding?

There's one more catch in the scheme, though. According to the minister's press release, his guidelines are being issued in draft form to allow for comment prior to finalisation. What's the betting that once the local elections are over, it might take quite a while to finalise them?

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