Putting aside angels-on-a-pinhead arguments about the actual year in which a decade expires and a new one commences — is it January 1, 2020, or 12 months on in 2021 and, anyway, who really cares? — what we hope will be the peace and quiet of St Stephen’s Day brings an opportunity to reflect not only on the country’s 2019 but also on aspects of the Dáil’s less-than-adequate performance since 2010.
All those years ago, Brian Cowen was taoiseach, Pope Benedict XVI sent a pastoral letter to Irish Catholics apologising for child abuse in the Church, the corpses of 40 children from a home for “fallen women” run by evangelical Protestants were found in unmarked graves in a Dublin cemetery, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Central Bank (ECB) arrived on these shores to start the dismal work of dragging the drowning banks, and the wider economy, out of the deep end.
It was business more or less as usual in the 30th Dáil, however. Fianna Fáil’s defence minister resigned in a spat of horridness about comments he’d made involving a Sinn Féin councillor and brothels, not one but two Fianna Fáil senators resigned the party whip as a consequence of their expenses claims being questioned, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny fired his finance spokesman, Richard Bruton, upon hearing of a plot to overthrow him, after which Simon Coveney and Leo Varadkar were two of nine Fine Gael frontbenchers who said they had lost confidence in Mr Kenny’s leadership.
Refusing to resign, the Mayo TD went on to lead Fine Gael to victory in 2011 and serve as taoiseach until 2017. On taking office, he cut his own salary by €14,000 and told ministers their pay was to be reduced, too.
If, at this time, anyone had predicted our nearest neighbour’s exit from the European Union in 2020 or thereabouts, they would have been led gently into an unlit room and advised to sleep it off.
Few, if any of us, would have lost sleep wondering — as many have done this year — how much money RTÉ’s presenters were taking home for what is laughingly called work. Television presenters had homes to go to; as the chickens of the Celtic Tiger boom — a fantasy economy whipped up by bankers, politicians, and developers — came home to roost in the 2010s, the country was to learn what an economy on the floor entails: Evictions, 170,000 people wrestling with negative equity, hundreds of thousands of boarded-up homes, and 432,500 people unemployed, a penalty that would have been even harsher had it not been for the pragmatic but painful resumption of this country’s traditional but painful safety valve — emigration.
With a debt mess worse than Greece’s, the government opened the file marked ‘How To Slash Your Economy Back to Recovery’ and took the axe to public sector pay and child and unemployment benefit with a ruthlessness that made the post-crash cuts programme introduced by Britain’s Conservative government — untroubled by the ECB’s accountants — look like a minor tidying-up exercise. Later in the decade, Yanis Varoufakis, Greece’s combative finance minister during his country’s 2015 euro crisis, called in to see his counterpart in London. He had a poignant rhetorical question for his host: “You haven’t really done austerity here, have you?”
Well, we had done here, and while it’s led to stability and steady economic growth, the residues of the crash and the measures chosen to deal with the crisis have yet to be swept away by a government that, since 2017, has far too often shown a greater interest in spin than reality. It has failed to offer help — or even a shred of hope — to the entire generation of young people excluded from home ownership by soaring prices and untenable rents. Our housing system is broken; the homeless family count has increased by 380% since October 2014. More than a third of those in emergency accommodation are children, some of whom might, as the Taoiseach hoped more than somewhat glibly, might have been found by Santa yesterday.
These are statistics that would be even more disturbing if the ‘hidden homeless’ — women and children in domestic violence refuges, sofa surfers, and rough sleepers — were included. Staff shortages persist in our health sector and our police and defence forces. These are the characteristics of an underlying economy which, when seen in conjunction with regional imbalances between Dublin and the rest of the country, remains disfigured.
The tracker mortgage rip-off by the banks so generously bailed out by taxpayers, together with the spectacular cost over-runs in the National Children’s Hospital and broadband plans, have combined to spread across the country the perception that we have a government that, when it’s not impotent or incompetent, is incontinent or at the very least relaxed about the management of state spending and who gets what in perks and privileges from the magic money trees in Dublin and Brussels.
This year, a Cork MEP unable because of disability to attend and vote in any of the parliament’s sessions since 2014 resigned his seat with an entitlement to severance payments of more than €350,000 over the next two years and a pension pot of €1.4m, these payments being in addition to his €105,000 salary. Fine Gael’s Cork North Central TD Dara Murphy fell on his expense account after blind eyes could no longer be turned to his novel employment arrangements; he’d claimed his full salary and expenses allowance despite being mostly absent from the 32nd Dáil since 2017 because he’d also been employed as the European People Party’s campaign director in Brussels. But shed no tears; when doors close in Europe, others open. Mr Murphy has taken a €150,000-a-year job in the office of Bulgaria’s EU commissioner. Let’s hope his contract there prohibits double-jobbing.
Let’s hope, too, that Fianna Fáil’s TDs resist the temptation to vote on behalf of colleagues who are not in the chamber. Some of this phantom voting was said to be accidental, as was the unlucky incident in which a Fine Gael TD fell off a swing, injuring herself so badly as to warrant a personal injuries claim, except that she was able to run in a 10km race three weeks after the fall.
Accounts of all these follies might one day be printed on the state-of-the-art €808,000 machine ordered for the Oireachtas before anybody checked to see if there was a room immense enough to accommodate it. No matter; it’s only public money … €236,000 was found for the necessary state-of-art re-building work.
Ireland deserves much, much better.