Planning reform is urgently needed
This week the government announced further reductions to essential rural services. We can expect several arterial bus routes to be closed.
Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross TD, cited between six and eight routes that are regarded as the least profitable.
This announcement comes very soon after news about impending reductions in the rural train routes.
At the same time, we hear that the ordinary postage stamp may soon cost €1.
Minister Naughten defended this increase on the basis of maintaining the five day service across the entire country.
We can expect several more post offices will be closed.
It is hardly surprising that the postmasters’ union warned that the raised postal charges would reduce their volume of business.
That would further accelerate the rural decline.
These bad news stories are connected.
This year Bus Éireann will lose €6 million and the losses at An Post will almost double that bill. A lot of these losses can be attributed to poor planning.
I don’t expect Minister Ross or Minister Naughten will admit that, especially as their cabinet contains the first specifically named Planning Minister.
Two decades ago we saw a notable reform in Irish urban planning, raising housing densities to render the associated infrastructure, especially public transport, more viable.
For no apparent reason, this hard-earned lesson was not applied to rural Ireland.
As a result, counties such as Leitrim and Roscommon (served by minister Naughten) carry on with settlement policies from a by-gone era.
Virtually all housing there is scattered randomly in single units, with little regard to the actual cost of services from the central exchequer.
That wanton pattern is unsustainable.
We fail to connect the presence of this malfunctioning blanket of septic tanks with the polluted water supplies, even during the worst winter flooding.
In reality, the latest announcements for bus routes and postal services are a government endorsement of this failed planning policy.
We should admit that small rural counties such as Roscommon and Leitrim are verging on the dysfunctional.
They need to be amalgamated to form larger administrative units attracting logical management.
It is disappointing to see that Minister Coveney, who shows much promise in his housing initiatives, has so far been reluctant to introduce this urgent planning reform.
Can I suggest a New Year resolution?
Ethical dilemmas of genetic therapies
TV actress Sofia Vergara is facing a bizarre lawsuit where her own frozen embryos are suing her.
The suit alleges that not allowing the embryos to be born is “depriving them of their inheritance”.
We have reached a critical point in our history. We have become capable of manipulating genes.
We can now, with all the right ingredients, concoct genetic soup.
As the genetic links become clearer, we will be able to foresee who will be prone to alcoholism, to cancer, even to obesity.
We are now experimentally treating diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy with gene therapy.
When we succeed, what next?
At what price?
Imagine cloned versions of our politicians? Our worst nightmare.
The genetic revolution will move forward regardless of our readiness, or where humanity is heading.
This raises both moral and practical questions, along with deeper consequences for the individual and society.
When does life begin, and when does it end?
There is no ultimate answer.
A question arises: what is the impact on society?
Are we wise enough to restrain the power to alter life?
What ethical system should we use? And who, in the end, will make those decisions?
Will we be left with no choice?
If one can imagine this future, is this a slippery slope?
Should doctors decide which are good genes and which are bad?
Will genetic enhancement be as socially acceptable as plastic surgery?
The stakes are high and no critic can stop this revolution.
What kind of inheritance will we leave for the future?
That may be for them to referee, but it is for us to establish at this time.
Good guys survive in political world
There are concerns when Donald J Trump is inaugurated as the 45th US President, he may bring in some extreme laws and regulations with a Republican majority in the House of Representatives and the Senate.
However, there are some safeguards.
A majority of the US Congress may not pass a President’s plan, if it is unsuitable or not in the best interests of the country.
The downside of this is party politics can overrule what are in the best interests of the country.
An elected public service official, unlike a permanently employed one, may have flexibility in refusing an order from a higher authority or a State Governor like what happened in the Summer of 2008.
Then, Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, issued an executive order to cut wages of some 200,000 public state employees to the minimum State wage of $6.55 an hour to pressure the State’s senate and assembly to pass his Budget.
The employees would receive their full wages, once the budget was passed.
John Chiang, the State Controller, in charge of wages, refused as he believed it was illegal and cruel to people surviving a tough recession with mortgages and bills to pay.
There was sufficient State funds for salaries.
He believed it could not be justified and was beyond reason.
He responded with a firm no.
I have to include at this point that Schwarzenegger was a Republican and the California state legislature was majority Democrat as was Mr Chiang.
Governor Schwarzenegger sued the official and his department.
The case went through the system until Schwarzenegger was not re-elected in 2011.
New Governor, Democrat Jerry Brown, stopped the law suit.
Mr Chiang was re-elected State controller and next elected California State Treasurer in 2015.
Chiang spoke recently of what he learned from 2008: “I think, always, you look deep into your conscience and then you move from there. People have a sense of why they serve. At times, we will prevail; at times, we will fail. But to stand and watch idly and do nothing — I think people will regret if things go along and they didn’t offer up their very best.”
People in the public service in this country have done as he did, like garda and health service whistle-blowers.
Chiang, born in New York, raised in Chicago and son of parents from Taiwan hopes to be a candidate for Governor of California in 2018, showing competent guys can finish first in the bruising political world.
Brexit the gift that will keep on giving
The EU needs to tread carefully with regard to its negotiations with the UK.
If the EU insists on a hard Brexit with all that entails — such as trade tariffs, separate customs jurisdiction and immigration controls (hard borders) — then Ireland will be affected in the most cruelest of ways.
Ireland’s exposure to the fallout will dwarf that of Germany which has 80,000 jobs dependent on free trade with the UK.
Ireland may have to consider following suit in leaving the EU (Irexit) and enter a bilateral agreement with the UK which best facilitates the way of life across these Isles.
If there is a sharp downturn in economic activity there will be less discretionary spend which coupled with reciprocal immigration controls could see tourism in Spain and Portugal being hit hard.
Spain and Portugal are favourite haunts for British and Irish tourists alike.
The border issue within the island of Ireland also warrants special consideration.
Triggering Article 50 could well trigger a border poll which is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.
That may be a tidy solution for the EU but what effect will that have socially and economically on the whole island of Ireland?
All of this should only serve to remind us that in this post-truth world in which we live that it is incumbent upon our elected leaders to refrain from rhetoric that would paint themselves into a corner.
That is what David Cameron did, that is Mateo Renzi did and that is what Arlene Foster has been doing though at least now she seems to be reaching out to the Irish Government to try to steer a steady course through choppy Brexit waters.
The best outcome is that the output of the negotiations produces a situation whereby the UK is an associate partner of the EU much like Norway and Switzerland where the UK has control over its immigration to a large degree, has access to the Single Market and Ireland has derogation to form a special bilateral agreement with the UK, much like the Common Travel Area Agreement.
Now wouldn’t that be the most perfect gift?
Counting the costs of mains services
We have lived in rural Ireland for more than 40 years.
We have provided our own water and sewage services via well and septic tank for all of that time, at considerable expense and trouble.
We would happily pay for mains services — but we are certainly not going to pay for anyone else’s.