FERGUS FINLAY: There’s something for everyone in Programme for Government, so there’s nothing of substance

The Programme for Government tackles 'crucial' issues such as turf-cutting rights and the funding of greyhound racing.

Programme for Government is cliche-ridden, and without priority or meaningful resource allocation, writes Fergus Finlay

O, what do you think of the new programme for government? Have you read it, studied it, parsed and analysed it? Has it affected your view of the human condition? Will it add to the gaiety of our nation?

Well, it should, God knows. It might be the most incoherent, occasionally frightening, and daft document ever produced by an incoming government, but it recognises the difficulties faced by community and voluntary groups, in relation to “VRT rates on vehicles” (and promises to examine the issue).

And it recognises the need for grant aid for underwater search and recovery. That’s vital, right? Almost as vital as the scheme for drain-cleaning that the Department of the Environment will “explore” with local authorities.

The programme says we want our urban centres to be safe, attractive, and prosperous places in which to live and work — and we’re going to do something about it. As for better banking, we’ll investigate the German Sparkassen model for the development of local public banks. So, we can all relax about that issue, too.

The new government (which, in terms of personnel, is substantially the same as the old government) now recognises the traditional right of turf-cutters to cut turf. (It will be fascinating watching the system penalise someone who has been given a right in writing (if you’ll pardon the expression).

And our wonderful new government also has the most detailed set of promises on agriculture I’ve ever read. There’s a separate set of commitments under every heading you could imagine — dairy, sheep, pig, poultry, the organic sector, horticulture, forestry, even commonage. There’s €15m for island farming, more money for horses and greyhounds (thank goodness) and we’re going to rebuild the sugar industry that we shut down years ago.

And (if Europe agrees) we’re going to recognise ‘forgotten farmers’ as a group with specific disadvantage. Quite right, too. I’m not quite sure who they are, but they definitely do sound as if they’d be at a disadvantage.

I wonder if any of the forgotten farmers were forgotten during the flooding. The programme for government points out, really forcefully, that “many farmers were adversely affected by recent flooding conditions. Payments … for farmers in very difficult circumstances will be finalised without undue delay”.

And as if that wasn’t enough, after the devastating flooding of last winter, “we will review the response protocols of the State, to examine if a more rapid and coordinated response to local incidents can be achieved”. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, all you public servants who worked around the clock during the last crisis. We’re going to review your protocols. That’ll teach you.

One area that has been forgotten — not a peep, a squeak, a murmur from one end of the programme for government to the other — is Irish Water. That, of course, is because that little controversy is, sort of, comprehensively dealt with in the agreement behind the agreement.

Which is to say, the future of Irish Water is set out in the agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail that preceded the Programme for Government. A lot of the other issues dealt with in that prior agreement — a sort of pre-nup, you might call it, to the actual marriage contract — are repeated in the Programme for Government (they’re cut and pasted, actually), but the programme is silent on Irish Water.

That raises the intriguing possibility that there are a number of signatories to the Programme for Government who had nothing to do with the FF/FG pre-nup, and are, therefore, not bound by anything to do with Irish Water. Whatever the reason, it is remarkable that the Programme for Government is silent on the single most controversial issue in the last Dáil term. Even though it’s silent on nothing else.

Don’t forget, this Programme for Government took longer to make than any other in the history of the State. Negotiators stepped in and stepped out again, and the finished document has all the look of something written by a kindly old aunt (with a few prejudices) presiding over a tuck shop. Everyone who came in looking for sweeties was given something.

There’s daft stuff, and there’s dangerous stuff. Some of it is both daft and dangerous. There’s a whole paragraph, for instance, that reads like a pilot scheme for national service. People “who would otherwise struggle to break out of disadvantage” (there’s a euphemism for you) are going to be offered skills associated with the Defence Forces.

The parents of children who have poor attendance records at school are going to be “monitored” to see whether or not the withdrawal of child benefit might enable them to buck up a bit and send them to school. A citizen’s assembly, whatever that is, will develop opportunities for “our aging population” (I’m one of them — should I be worried?).

Perhaps the most frightening, and incoherent, section deals with health. There’s page after page — whatever you want, we’re going to give it to you. “Tax instruments, and other incentives to support investment by GPs, dentists, and other professionals in primary care centres” (the Charlie McCreevy approach to better health care), coupled with the broadest of hints that privatisation of the whole service can be considered (the Mary Harney approach).

But don’t worry your head about it — we’re going to pay every manager in the bright, new health service to get an MBA (because a business degree is just what you need to run an accountable public-health agenda).

And there’s education. We’re going to develop a set of technological universities (strategically placed in the constituencies of independent deputies, I imagine). Of course, that will require some existing institutions to merge. But not, of course, “if a case can be proven, that, for geographical reasons, a merger isn’t feasible”.

So hospital managers are going to get MBAs, criminals are going to be tagged when they’re out on bail, there’s going to be a Schools Excellence Fund to incentivise parents (fee-paying ones, I assume) to improve their children’s education, and we’re going to do the ‘divil and all’ to make women more equal.

And it’s all going to be underpinned by bright, new Action Plans (action plans are capitalised throughout the document). One of the criteria for these Action Plans (nearly forgot the capitals, there) is that they will be developed in phases — and in phase one there will be a consultation process to secure buy-in from the media. That’s a genuine first — we won’t set out to address major problems without consulting the media beforehand.

You have to laugh, because otherwise you’d be in despair. When you realise it took 70 days to produce this cliché-ridden document, without any sense of priority, any meaningful resource-allocation, any underpinning philosophy, except ‘whatever you’re having yourself’, you really won’t know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe we’d all be better off if no-one (least of all the government) read it at all.


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