All we can do now is wait and worry. The Government spent the weekend doing two things — making the final financial decisions, and trying to position themselves. My main hope is that once they get the budget, and the inevitable fall-out, over with, they’ll get back to running the country in a real sense.
I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute. I have to get something else off my chest first about all this positioning that’s going on.
We all read far too much over the weekend about what Labour thinks and what Fine Gael thinks. Anyone who knows anything at all about how government works knows full well that there’s a huge element of nonsense in all this. The idea of the two parties in government being at loggerheads with each other over the budget is only true in the most superficial sense. Yes, the backbenchers of both parties are deeply worried about concessions and victories and defeats. There will be the usual media commentaries in the aftermath about who won and who lost in the budget haggling.
But inside the Cabinet room there is far more solidarity than difference. And whatever differences exist are based far more on personality than policy. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, for example, to discover that James Reilly has Cabinet colleagues who are utterly exasperated with him. But they’re in Fine Gael as well as in Labour. They’re fed up, I’d imagine, having to go out and defend the indefensible in the interests of Cabinet solidarity.
But the fact that they have been doing it means they all see themselves as being there for the long haul. While the Government was being formed they got extensive briefings from the Department of Finance. All those notes were subsequently published under Freedom of Information (I wrote about them here in April of 2011), and they were really scary.
They demonstrated in the most graphic way possible what a legacy the Government had inherited. More to the point perhaps, they persuaded the incoming Government that they had a hell of a mountain to climb — and there was only one way to climb it.
Ever since then, this Government has been totally focused on two things — the demands of the troika, and the public finances. Of course they had little choice, but what it has meant has been that they were, and are, totally ill at ease when it comes to dealing with anything else.
It’s too soon to say they’re out of touch — and they’re certainly nowhere near the last crowd. But they are so totally preoccupied with the economy that they seem to forget, until there’s a crisis, that they are also responsible for all the things that happen in the community and in our society.
Let me give a couple of examples of things our Government should be totally on top of, but clearly aren’t.
On Sunday I listened to Orla Tinsley on the radio news, and not for the first time, realised I was listening to one of the bravest women in Ireland. Orla, as you know, has cystic fibrosis. That means she has an extraordinary battle on her hands. But she has chosen, even while fighting to stay well, to use her talents to spread awareness of the condition, and to battle for the rights and needs of other people who suffer from the same condition.
The condition has taken the lives of friends and fellow-campaigners. It’s hard to imagine what could be tougher than that, and still she battles on. She, and her colleagues, seemed to win a great victory when a new, dedicated unit was opened in St Vincent’s Hospital last year, guaranteeing the care that the very particular needs of cystic fibrosis patients demand.
And in no time at all, the services they were promised appear to have collapsed in a heap. Last Thursday, Orla wrote this in the Irish Times: “When I arrived seeking treatment on Tuesday and was offered a bed in a room with three other people, I had heard the news that five others were waiting for treatment at home, so I refused the offer. I arrived back home to a call offering me a cubicle in the old private hospital at St Vincent’s.”
Since then there has been a bizarre exchange of press releases between the hospital and the Cystic Fibrosis Association, with endless talk of meetings and reviews. Orla Tinsley accurately (actually, understatedly) refers to it as bureaucratic codswallop. People are at risk of their lives because agreements entered into are not being honoured.
On a different level, though just as serious, the anti-social behaviour which boiled over this weekend in the savage killing of a young man in Rialto is a manifestation of another tinder-box issue. There are parts of Dublin and Ireland where poverty, compounded by hopelessness, is producing a degree of alienation that is genuinely frightening.
It’s not every weekend that someone dies in the middle of a confrontation fuelled by drink or drugs. But it is constantly the case — and I know this from direct experience — that people are hurt and frightened by such violence. There are communities where elderly people can’t stir out of doors, and where children can’t play. The root cause is a variety of different kinds of poverty, but in all cases that cause has been exacerbated by inadequate policing.
I know some of the police who work in these areas. They are good and competent officers, and they work bloody hard. But some senior officers are “pulling all-nighters” to make up for lack of resources and manpower. They know the streets need more police, but they’re not just starved of uniformed gardaí. Because of recruitment, replacement and promotion embargoes, they’re running out of strategic capacity — the ability to plan and prioritise.
WHAT these issues, and many others, have in common is simple. They require the attention of government. Things frequently work better when they are given decent political priority, and often fall apart when ministers simply aren’t paying attention.
So it’s time our Government got back on top of the things that demand attention. It’s no excuse to say they’ve been concentrating on the economy. They were elected to do that, for sure, but to do far more than that. The troika isn’t going to fix what’s going on in St Vincent’s Hospital, and it surely isn’t going to fix what’s happening in some of our forgotten communities. They’re the kind of things we need a Government for.
Over the next few days, they’re going to get all sorts of abuse heaped on their heads, no doubt, because of the things that are in the budget – even if they get it right (and that’s a big if). They’re the ones who are saying that once it’s done, 85% of the work to fix the economy will have been taken in hand. So there ought to be time to start fixing our damaged society. If they don’t start concentrating on the big picture, irreparable damage will be done.