We had a glimpse of times past and times present this week and it wasn’t pretty. The phoney war of the general election is well under way. Policies and promises are already being dispersed like guns at a Donald Trump rally, writes Michael Clifford.
Typical of much of it was a policy launch by Fianna Fáil on crime. At the launch, Justice spokesman Niall Collins brought up rural Garda stations.
“Fine Gael and Labour closed 139 Garda stations, saving a measly €556,000 while rural communities are left unprotected,” his press release thundered. “This policy was extremely short-sighted and has increased rural isolation. The principle of community policing has all but been completely eroded by the Government.” This sterling defence of rural Garda stations might lead one to believe that Fianna Fáil would reopen them once in power. But Mr Collins told the Irish Examiner’s Elaine Loughlin that decision would be up to the Garda Inspectorate.
That little vignette goes to the heart of what passes for politics here. In opposition you surf all waves of discontent, but once you assume power you change your principles and keep the head down.
It is safe to say that the Garda Inspectorate will not recommend the re-opening of the vast majority, if not all, the stations. And should Fianna Fáil be in power after the election, they will shrug shoulders and say ‘let’s all move on’.
The rural station issue is indicative of a wider malaise. There is no planning for anything that might generate short-term discontent, even though the ultimate goal is long term improvement.
In a proper political culture, plans would have been set in train years ago to close those stations. Most of them dated from the 19th century when the motor car was a novelty. The nature of crime was a world away from today. The character of society was also from a different planet.
In a proper political culture, a long-term plan for closures would have been announced. A period of wind-down would be initiated during which a proper system of patrolling and operating satellite clinics would be developed. This transition phase would allow time to reassure citizens in affected areas that the closures will not impact on their peace of mind. Only then, when the proper groundwork is completed, and compensating measures fully implemented, would the stations close.
Instead, it took a collapsed economy to tackle what should have been completed a decade previously. The political classes are petrified to do the right thing when there is a short-term cost.
A similar case could be made in relation to hospitals. Since 1970 a succession of reports recommended consolidating the number of hospitals, while retaining community and some diagnostic facilities. For at least 20 years, experts in emergency medicine said that fewer emergency facilities with greater throughput was the best solution for the population as a whole.
Yet precious little was done until recent years. A proper political culture would have accepted the inevitable and concentrated on ensuring that centres of excellence and ambulance services were fully resourced to accommodate the closures. Only then would the outlying Emergency Departments (ED) be closed down.
Instead, it’s been piecemeal and haphazard. One obvious example is University Hospital Limerick, which has had major Emergency Department overcrowding. The closures of facilities in Ennis and Nenagh have added greatly to Limerick’s problems. Why wasn’t the centre of excellence properly developed before the other EDs closed? Why wasn’t there a transitionary period of years focused directly on making the leap?
The challenge of developing the country in a sustainable manner has been there for about 50 years. In the mid-60s, the United Nations commissioned a planning report on behalf of the government. The Buchanan Report was published in 1969. It pointed out that major change was coming to a country that had until that point been predominantly rural. Buchanan recommended that there be nine areas designated for growth in the state, including Dublin, Cork and Limerick/Shannon.
This was based on projections about long-term urbanisation in the Western world. The government of the day examined the proposals for three years before throwing it out the window. A scattergun approach to development was favoured instead in case anybody outside the growth areas might be offended.
Thirty years later, the National Spatial Strategy (NSS) recommended concentrating on 18 locations across the State, again in the name of ensuring long-term sustainability. The strategy was to be a blueprint for locating decentralised agencies of government. And what happened? In 2003, Charlie McCreevy pulled out his scattergun and sprayed 53 locations in the State with decentralisation, including goodies for ministerial constituencies.
It was a political masterstroke which showed contempt for the long-term future of the country. Nobody outside the NSS’s 18 locations was left disappointed. Everybody got a slice of the pie. Plenty of work for builders and auctioneers everywhere. A stroke to be referenced right across the State at the next election. And the real cost was placed on the never-never.
A report to be published soon by the Department of the Environment is expected to be highly critical of McCreevy’s stroke. Decentalisation dealt a near fatal blow to the NSS. The strategy limped on until finally in 2013 Phil Hogan put it out of its misery.
The latest attempt at implementing a plan in this vein has just been put back until after the election. It was revealed last week that the new 20-year national planning framework will not be published until the votes are all counted. Once again, the future of the country is playing second fiddle to the ballot box.
The imperative is that nobody be disappointed by a plan that earmarks growth for some areas and not for others. If form is anything to go by, the framework will be the source of some torturous debate by the new government before being shelved. Let the children worry about the future because there might be short-term political cost involved.
Right now, everything that was predicted by Buchanan nearly 50 years ago is coming to pass. Industry, and particularly foreign direct investment, is determining where growth will occur. Foreign companies have no stake in the development of the State so they all congregate around fewer centres than envisaged by previous plans.
The chance to shape a State of balanced development has passed. This, as much as anything else, is at the heart of the two-tier economy emerging from recession. A failure to act on forecasted change, and plan accordingly, has left large tracts of rural and even urban Ireland to fend for themselves. That truth needs to be acknowledged even at this late stage.
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