In the 1982 snow Garret FitzGerald had gone for a break to Tenerife and was stuck in the sun, writes Fergus Finlay
SO, NOBODY suffered too much hardship. There was one outbreak of crime, in Dublin, but apart from that there was an amazing outpouring of community spirit all around the country. People went out of their way all over the place to make sure their neighbours were as warm and dry as possible.
We got through it. Of course it’s possible that the aftermath will reveal some tragedy, but so far it seems to have been a crisis for which we were very well prepared.
We may even have been over-prepared. But how that was a bad thing I can’t begin to imagine. Nobody was left without electricity for too long, and nobody, as far as I can see, was put at risk. The contingency planning was exemplary.
There was of course one big winner. Old Mr Brennan. If the events of the last few days proved anything, they proved that Ireland is still in love with its white sliced pan. The only thing I saw approaching panic was on the faces of people confronted with empty shelves where the sliced pans used to be. Soda bread you could still get, but it was universally seen as a miserable substitute.
I spent a bit of time in and out of hospital last year, and one of the things that always amazed me was that the one thing you could always have, at any hour of the day or night, was tea and toast. And the toast was always made with sliced pan. It convinced me then that even in the health system, comfort food is seen as more important for people who are unwell than anything else.
And when everyone is snowed in, the only Irish comfort food we need is the white sliced pan. Perhaps it’s time for us to create a great frozen stockpile of white sliced pans, stored maybe in the Curragh, so next time the National Emergency Coordination Group (NECG) can direct army lorries full of frozen bread to keep the populace calm. It’s grand, frozen bread is, when it’s well toasted. A cup of tea and a couple of slices of hot buttered toast and we can cope with anything.
But to be serious, and speaking of the NECG, what an amazing job they did. I looked Sean Hogan up, because we never seem to see him except in a code red weather emergency, when he takes the reins of the national response.
He’s always there, a calm and reassuring if increasingly dishevelled presence — the poor man always looks as if he never gets a wink of sleep from the start of the crisis to the end, or if he does, it’s on a camp bed in the basement of Government Buildings. When it’s over, he goes back to his day job as Head of the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management in the Department of the Environment. And we don’t see sight nor light of him until the next crisis.
If he was British, he’d be Sir Sean Hogan by now, knighted for his services to keeping the country calm and going. And Evelyn Cusack would be Lady Cusack. Calm, authoritative, always on top of her brief, and an expert in persuading us all to get ready but not to worry too much.
In times of crisis, of course, we all need parent figures. Sir Sean and Lady Evelyn have become the mammy and daddy of our national weather crises, and we’re all so much better off for having them around.
In a way, though, they are iconic figures, representative of a wider public service that operated throughout the bad weather with extraordinary professionalism. We seem to spend half our time slagging the public service in Ireland, and there have been times when the division between those who work in the private sector and those who work for the public has been quite bitter.
But when we need them, our public services rise to the occasion. From the electricians who worked in appalling conditions to restore power, to the guards and nurses and doctors and firemen who kept the country going, and who turned up for work because it’s what they do. The next time we’re in a particularly begrudging mood, maybe we should remember how well they serve us when we need it.
I’m old enough to remember the snow and freeze of January 1982. In my memory, it was much worse, in part because we were so poorly prepared. The taoiseach, Garret FitzGerald, had gone for a Christmas break to Tenerife, and was stuck there in the sun, while Ireland was crushed by snow and ice. His poor tánaiste, Michael O’Leary, became known ever after as the Minister for Snow.
Back then, we didn’t have a single snow plough in the country (we eventually imported some from Canada). The Army had lorries and shovels, and they did a manful job. But people did die, and hundreds of animals, especially in the Wicklow mountains, froze and starved to death. People got stuck on trains for hours on end, and homeless people suffered the worst.
We knew nothing about global warming or climate change back then, and we’ve learned a lot since about how to deal with the extreme weather it throws up. I do hope that one of the lessons we learn now is that we need to get our act together when it comes to our miserable record on greenhouse gas emissions. That needs to be seen as a real and ongoing emergency.
When all is said and done, isn’t it just as well that we were able to rely on the professionalism of a real public service. I shudder to think what might have happened if our misnamed and hapless Strategic Communications Unit had been put in charge.
It’s misnamed because when a unit like that becomes the story, it can no longer be called strategic. And it’s hapless because the controversy it managed to generate over its carry-on completely overwhelmed the thing it was trying to promote. Imagine a government publishing a multi-billion euro development plan, and the only publicity it manages to attract is around the cack-handed way it tried to promote it.
I don’t know whether the strategic communications unit was tempted to try and redeem itself by offering its skills and expertise to help us through Storm Emma and its aftermath. But if they did, I’d like to think the grown-ups in the room would gently advise them to go away and leave it to the real professionals.
WE’VE always known that there is a difference between good communication and poor communication, and the events of the last week have shown that up in stark relief. The Government’s approach to promoting its plans needs to be rethought. But if they’re looking for a template, they couldn’t do much better than going back to basics.
Maybe they should consider asking Sean Hogan and Evelyn Cusack to take a career break and take charge of the communications effort. No — strike that thought. In any crisis we need Evelyn and Sean, with all their credibility, right where they are. And keep them well supplied with tea and toast.
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