Gerard Howlin: Facemasks and flipping on pay shows Government has lost its gumption

Appeasement of people who panic-buy toilet roll but won’t cover their mouth and nostrils in enclosed public spaces won’t work
Gerard Howlin: Facemasks and flipping on pay shows Government has lost its gumption

Taoiseach Micheál Martin takes off his face mask as he prepares to make a statement on arrival at a recent EU summit in Brussels.

Yesterday at noon, in my modestly-sized local Centra in Dublin 7, at least two dozen people were not wearing masks — about 40% of customers. 

Fifty-five minutes previously, at 11.05am, the HSE updated its website reminding us that we should wear a face-covering in shops, shopping centres, and all retail spaces, and that it will soon be the law. That same post stated that “by law you have to wear a face-covering when you use public transport”. 

In that Centra, the staff were all masked and serving behind screens in a shop with clear markings to help customers socially distance. 

From frequent visits, I can say this is a well-run place. The numbers entering the shop are well policed. It’s a pity about the clientele. That’s us, folks!

I am now advocating an Iranian-style requirement for facemasks in all enclosed spaces, with commensurate methods of enforcement. 

The requirement is unisex, of course. Revolutionary Guard-style busybodies will be recruited. Unlike the 1,000 teachers needed to open schools, my busybodies can be easily found among the ranks of the under-employed and bitter on social media.

Anyone with recent postings online demonstrating bile, belligerence, and bloodymindedness will be accepted into the auxiliary force. The supply of available people will far outstrip need. Problem solved.

The effect of the slap of firm government has worn off, unfortunately. And there are worrying signs that the Government has lost its gumption. As an aside, the nonsense about ministerial pay is a prime example. 

The inflation of numbers among ministers of state and a commensurate increase in the number of them attending Cabinet is simply a function of the incoherence of our own political choices. 

If we want three parties in Government, each has to function at three levels. Firstly, in the departments that they lead. 

Secondly, in an overarching way, over every other department where they are not physically present, but fully share responsibility. 

Thirdly, as a party in Government connecting with their own parliamentary party, and membership. 

It is blindingly obvious that the third minister of state at the Cabinet table should be paid the same as the first two. The problem, of course, isn’t pay rises — it's pay cuts. 

Worse, it is craw-thumping, crawling political spinelessness that foolishly seeks to compete with and outbid an always-on anti-political mood online, and sometimes more generally in the media. 

I make the last point because you would have to go a long way to find much hullabaloo on the doorsteps about all this. 

Unlike the consequences of what unmasked people in shops exhale, political hot air generally stays in the bubble.

The lesson is the pointlessness of kowtowing to and appeasing the appetite for kicking politicians.

The root cause lies with Fine Gael in government, and their altar-boy-like refusal to pay themselves increases they unwisely gave, too soon, to public servants generally. 

No politician has any pay that isn’t linked to a public service grade — senators with assistant principal officers, TDs' principal officers, ministers of state with assistant secretaries, ministers with secretaries-general, and the Taoiseach and Tánaiste with justifiably a bit more. 

The damning indictment is not political pay — it is squabbling over crumbs, while the manure heap of public money is piled on with a 2% increase across the board for public servants in the autumn, in a country where a fifth of its people are unemployed.

The loss of gumption in piously offering up that 2% increase, the incoherent fumbling with petty sums to do with their own pay since, while refusing to even acknowledge the elephant in the room on public service pay generally, is a lesson in how to curdle contempt.

In a legislative package that I propose be introduced immediately, in addition to establishing a paralegal force of busybodies, wearing uniforms with a chip on both shoulders, there will be a ban on any politician forgoing any pay increase until they find the fortitude to enforce the same measure across the commensurate grades in the public service. 

I further suggest amendments to name each consequent cut to public sector pay grades after any Sinn Féin TD who conspicuously offered up their own pay increase with palaver on social media, as an appropriate punishment for the crime of virtue-signalling. 

That is virtue-signalling performed as it ran away from the responsibility of controlling spending generally.

The collective pittance involved in politicians' pay matters because the weaselling over it demonstrates a worrying lack of capacity on what matters. 

Bus driver Martin Simmons wearing a mask on the job. By law, people must wear a face-covering when using public transport.  Picture: Denis Minihane.
Bus driver Martin Simmons wearing a mask on the job. By law, people must wear a face-covering when using public transport.  Picture: Denis Minihane.

On Friday I took my regular Irish Rail journey from Dublin to Wexford and returned on Monday. 

It wasn’t exactly what I saw in that shop yesterday, but a significant minority, far higher than the 10% admitted to by Irish Rail, were not wearing masks. I counted four out of 11 in my carriage on the train the left Connolly at 8.05am. 

Returning on Monday, we were six in the seats at the end of the carriage where I and a senior family member sat.

Only three wore masks. 

And a new development, which is hanging your mask breezily from one ear, the better to exhale as you choo-choo down the tracks. It was no better in the rest of the carriage. A word from the steward elicited that one passenger had no mask. The two dangling were briefly affixed, but promptly removed again.

We are now going back to school, it seems. Simultaneously, holidays — such as they are — will be over.

Passenger levels on public transport have increased from 10% in the first thrust of the lockdown to 50% now. 

From September, with schools back, hopefully more people at work, darker evenings, and worse weather, more of us will be travelling cheek-by-jowl in sealed containers. 

And that brings me back to political gumption, or the lack of it. 

Appeasement of people who panic-buy toilet roll but won’t cover their mouth and nostrils in enclosed public spaces won’t work.

The relevant statutory instrument signed by health minister Stephen Donnelly allowed that the transport company or the National Transport Authority may “request the passenger to alight from a public transport vehicle”. It is not happening. 

I predict that the advice to wear a face-covering in shops will, when mandatory, be just as blithely ignored by an epidemiologically significant minority.

That’s the point.

Public transport — a series of virtually sealed containers — will shortly be busier. Covid-19 is advancing globally. A vaccine for you and I is still over the horizon. 

This is the time for the politics of belt and braces. Accident-prone politically and focused on the internecine internally, this Government looks jittery. 

None of the stuff that has happened so far necessarily matters much. But from the day the schools are supposed to go back right through to budget day, it is real time. 

They are going to have to toughen up and straighten out — quickly.

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