Friday, January 24, 2014

Where Does the Buck Stop in Ireland?

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Harry Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States, used to have a sign on his desk that read: “The buck stops here.” The idea was that if something went so wrong that its causality could be traced all the way back to the President, then the President would take the blame. He was the man ultimately in charge, after all.

Where does that sign sit in Ireland in 2014? Where does the buck stop? Who, exactly, is in charge? As controversy swirls around three separate debacles – the Limerick City of Culture, the pylon menace and Irish Water – the sovereign people are no wiser about who’s responsible for these messes, and have no reason to believe that they won’t happen over and over again. Which is the single most depressing part about these stories.

Ballyhea is a townland in Cork, just outside Charleville, where the locals have been protesting the bank bailout for the past three years, and mean to continue. During the Dáil debate before Christmas on the Troika’s exit, many speakers made a point of extolling the Ballyhea protest as an example of heroism in the face of oppression.

But it’s not heroic. The Ballyhea protest is a complete waste of time. Spilled milk doesn’t go back into the bottle, the toothpaste doesn’t go back in the tube, Pat McEneany will never declare the 1996 All-Ireland Final null and void and the GAA will never offer a replay. It’s over.

If people want to get busy, if people want to focus their rage at the events of the past decade or more, they have to look forward and not back. We got badly stung by the crash. Surely we can salvage something by making sure the same mistakes will never happen again?

That’s what’s so particularly depressing about the Limerick City of Culture, Eirgrid and Irish Water controversies. Because it appears that we have learned nothing at all over five years of austerity. Nothing in the wide and earthly.

The new year’s daisy chain of disaster first came to public notice when Karl Wallace, artistic director of the Limerick City of Culture, threw the rattle and quit the job, thus notifying the nation that there was a Limerick City of Culture in the first place. As the tale unfolded, it turns out that there are a number of people in charge of the Limerick City of Culture but none of them seem actually responsible for anything.

It seems Karl Wallace resigned because he didn’t like the CEO, Patricia Ryan’s, attempt to censor some rap act. As Limerick’s chief current claims to artistic fame and achievement are the shopping-bag-headed Rubber Bandits, Ms Ryan will have her work cut out if she plans to censor those buckaroos. It’ll be like having Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd on stage by the time she’s finished – silent comedians.

On a national scale, we’ll get over the Limerick City of Culture. The pylon business is more worrying, because it looks now as though it will be a major issue in the local elections. People are upset, and crafty politicians are taking their chance.

Whatever about the rights or wrongs or the pylon issue, it is a fact that rural depopulation is one of the scourges of modern Ireland. It sometimes feels like the country is being funnelled either into Dublin, where all the multi-nationals, and therefore jobs, are, or else people are packing their bags and going to the other side of the world, the further away the better.

Jobs at home would stop this, and better power supply would help create those jobs in Mayo, and in Connacht, and in the rest of rural Ireland. It took the independent state fifty years, from 1923 to 1973, to bring electricity to all parts of the twenty-six counties. For a government to turn so many rural communities against rural electrification is an achievement similar to getting Aiden O’Shea to swap football for dressage. It’s a waste of his talents, it serves no good purpose and it’s kind of tough on the horse.

And then, there is the five of trumps sitting pretty in our hand, Irish Water, the nation’s latest quango. Reader, you are probably sick of reading about it already. The top brass of Irish Water spent two days before the Environment Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, with a net result of zero. Nothing changed.

The most insightful remark of the week came from an unusually subdued Luke “Ming” Flanagan of Roscommon-South Leitrim, who remarked “it is very handy to dish all of the dirt on Irish Water as that is how things work in this country. The HSE was set up in order that we could dish the dirt on somebody else when it came to health matters. That is how the country works.”

And it’s that simple. The issue is now politically dead. Whatever you think about how Irish Water was set up, fees paid to consultants, whether or not anyone knows the difference between contractors or consultants, how contracts were awarded, cost bases, bonuses and the whole shooting match you might as well tell the dog or the cat for all the difference it’ll make. It’s business as usual in the corridors of power.

And this is what people have to think about now. Not so much for the elections this summer, but for the general election of 2015 or 2016. The mantra last time out was change, change, change. The Limerick City of Culture, Eirgrid and Irish Water stories suggest it’s all the same, same, same. What are we going to do about it?

Are we going to throw our hands up and say they’re all the same, isn’t it the Germans that are running the show anyway? Or, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising, will the people say, no more? We don’t care about the voting age, equal marriage or the term of the Presidency. We just want a Government that won’t waste our money. Is that so much to ask?