Archive for the Opinion Category

Lisboff

Posted in Opinion on June 13, 2008 by Editor

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red herring          Christmas turkey               dead duck?

Federalism
I have to declare that the views canvassed here are rooted in my unadulterated federalism. I am happy to be European and envision an Irish democracy that would be centralised from Europe but localised at regional/provincial and parish levels. Though I am very wary of globalism and cultural homogenisation, I like the idea of Europe as a force to rival the United States. In general too I have supported legislation that has originated in Brussels.

Lisbon Treaty
I do not think that any of the other EU-driven constitutional amendments have been negative and I believe that Lisbon essentially proposed more of the same – in changed circumstances.

Shocked
So I was appalled that our bigwig politicians sold the Treaty so ineptly to the populace. All the vim was on the No side; the Yessies were passionless. Only oily Dick Roche seemed to be au fait with the detail. Nor, despite Enda Kenny’s magnificent willingness to get three syllables out of the word Treaty, do I believe that the principal opposition parties made much effort – since a No vote was always going to embarrass the government more than them.

A Compromise
Why didn’t they just tell us that it was a compromise agreement between 27 nations altering the complex EU regime to reflect enlargement and the needs for more efficiency and to bolster the EU’s status internationally. That like most of the EU’s evolution it was neither a jolt to the right nor a jolt to the left, that the voting balance between small and big countries remains roughly as it was.

Indeed why didn’t they say anything that I can remember?

Instead they left it to a bunch of loony and dodgy rightists and the ultra-left at its worst, to set the mendacious agenda and paint the images in the public mind.

An exercise in democracy?
There are half a billion people in twenty-seven countries in the European Union. One country only – with a population of four million – got to vote on the Treaty. Of that four million only three million were eligible to vote and less than half that number actually did so. Of that number just over half voted No. Less than a million voted NO. But of that number how many actually said No to the Lisbon Treaty as opposed to No to unexplained legalese and buffoonish politicians? I would say, very conservatively, less than half. In other words less than half a million people out of 500 million really were against the substance of Lisbon. One thousandth of the EU citizenry put the spanner in the works.

If Europe dwindles as a force after Lisbon’s Irish defeat it will be a shocking exercise in anti-democracy.

Ireland’s new place in Europe
I think it will result in Ireland being perceived as arrogant. Throwing a turkey into Europe was the start of it. Voting No to an enhanced Europe is much more serious, especially after our schizophrenia over Nice. I predict following twenty years of being inexplicably fashionable, Ireland will now inexorably become as disliked as the British in Europe. Ironically our international superiority complex registered twenty years to the day after the death, with Ray Houghton’s goal in the England net, of our international inferiority complex.

So how did the mainstream politicians get it so badly wrong?
I think it was because they were terrified of saying the Lisbon Treaty was complex since they like earthy simplicities; because they hated to say it was a compromise because they have led us to believe we should only do what is in our unmitigated financial advantage; and because, being systemically visionless, they were unable to outline a vision of what Europe stands for and what Ireland gains and contributes to this vision.

And where do we go now?

Noises from Brussels suggest we’ll be invited to have another go – like we did with Nice. They’ll respect the vote but in a new sense of the word which requires the vote’s erasure. The problem is that there were no principal reasons why people voted No. Some form of parallel protocol will not work this time. You would have expected the massed political elite would have outmanoeuvred a disparate residue of outsiders and the misinformed, this time. But the motleyness itself made that residue impossible to counter. The No side only had to get lucky with one argument per voter. There is no reason, I believe, to think next time will be any different after we have been Euro-pressganged into an exercise in mature reflection.

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St Colmcille’s Hospital (Loughlinstown) and Healthcare

Posted in Opinion on April 30, 2008 by Editor

About me, the system and my father

“Doctor”                Loughlinstown Hospital                Mary Harney

Avoiding Health Issues and Health Insurance

Traditionally my attitude to health and health insurance has been simple:  I avoid them.

Avoiding Doctors

I haven’t been to the doctor since the eighties. I’m the sort of person who borrows antibiotics if he gets an infection. I once took the dog’s penicillin and it worked just fine.

Staying Young
I try to take reasonable care of myself. I am 42, but think of myself for all purposes as 31, and do not intend getting either sick or old for many years. Several times a week I shake myself and thank Nature that I am 31 and still young and healthy (except for my back which doesn’t count). On some important level I worry that providing for ill health or old age could be instantly self-fulfilling.
So I have not bothered with pensions or health insurance. Until recently ….

Getting health insurance
Drenched in a fug of BertieAhernesque non-ideology, thinking vaguely of my children and suspending denial about that back, I decided a few weeks ago to buy a VIVAS discount healthcare plan thingy on the internet, even though I have no real idea what VIVAS is and don’t believe in healthcare, still less PRIVATE healthcare. I’m now worried if I have any spare cash I’ll buy a pension. Prophylactics against decline.

Worried by my behaviour, I have decided it is time to work out what I think about healthcare and take the consequences.

Doctors
I hate doctors. They never told me anything I had not worked out for myself. They expect you to call them Dr and manoeuvre you into doing so. In hospitals they sweep around the place and don’t explain anything.

I think I dislike the inequality of the Dr/Patient relationship. It is humiliating to have someone know more about you than you do yourself, especially about something that really matters. Worse still if they are overcharging or hubristic. And it is calamitous if they are wrong, or you think they are. About you!

My own largely irrelevant instinctual antipathy to doctors is reinforced on a more serious level by recent mistakes in medicine relating to breast cancer in Portlaoise and the removal of a child’s wrong kidney.

A 1999 study in the US revealed that 98,000 people died as a direct result of a mistake by a clinician every year, and one million more ended up significantly worse off than they were when they were admitted. In the US, more people die receiving treatment than perish from car and plane crashes, suicides, falls, poisonings and drownings. In other words, by the time you finish reading this piece, an American citizen will have died as a direct result of a bungling medic. Or, as the British Medical Journal put it, baggage handlers have a better success rate at their jobs. This is all according to an excellent article by Jennifer O’Connell in last week’s Sunday Business Post.

Good Luck
I don’t think about health problems for myself (except for that back) and most of the time I don’t know anyone who suffers from them. Essentially I have a long-standing cosy and abstract lack of practical interest in the national health system. I’m lucky.

Quality of Life and Health
Having an interest in planning I am concerned with the national quality of life. On an academic level I know that health is an Important and problematic component of it.

Marching
In this spirit I was happy to join a friend on her fact-finding mission to the recent giant health-services march in Dublin City Centre, though I am not a natural marcher. I was a little unhappy that most of the banners failed to offer specific solutions, beyond terminating the PDs.

What do I want/When do I want it?

Marching is all very well but it is important to be constructive about what you want. You have to outline your goals before you can meet them. For healthcare the aims must be surely be equality and efficiency – the vision and the strategy respectively. I suspect the health system in Ireland, like for example the post-War education system in Britain, is caught between ideology and practicality. Allowing equality to be sacrificed for alleged improved efficiency. It is this that accounts for the PDs’ infatuation with co-located private and public hospitals.

If I was involved I’d monitor and measure the outputs of the health service and strive to improve them annually.

I also believe in equal access to healthcare and it is clear that Mary Harney has little time for equality of any sort in any sphere. Although the health strategy is called “Quality and Fairness” Susie Long died after waiting seven months for a colonoscopy, while private patients wait just days for the procedure.

Systemic problems
I have honestly never heard a clear and plausible vision articulated of precisely where the service is going wrong, though the marchers clearly thought that was self-evident.

I guess it must be highly significant that both the Department of Finance and Comptroller and Auditor General have said the HSE does not spend money efficiently. I also feel it cannot help that only 1000 public hospital beds have been added when three thousand were promised in 2001.

I suppose my suspicion is that the health service is run in the interests of those who run it, especially the (I think overpaid) consultants whose contracts have not yet been finalised and whose numbers have not yet started to increase. This reflects the Ahernesque national willingness to indulge the noisiest vested interests [See blog, Bertie Ahern below]. Another big Irish problem is that no-one ever bothered to define the respective areas of responsibility of the HSE and Department of Health. In March Mary Harney said no one person, including herself, is responsible for the “systemic failures” that led to the failures to diagnose breast cancer in nine women in the Midland Regional Hospital at Portlaoise – and she can’t guarantee it won’t happen again. And no-one is assigning responsibility for the unintended removal of that child’s kidney.

I recently got a close-quarters look at the system.

My father
My poor seventy-nine year old father found himself two weeks ago in the back of an ambulance at one o’clock in the morning unable to breathe properly.

St Colmcille’s (Loughlinstown) Hospital
He was taken to the nearest hospital to our family home – to a public ward in St Colmcille’s Loughlinstown Hospital with what turned out to be pneumonia in both lungs. It seemed to take a week before the doctors worked out the best medication for this. We thought of moving him to somewhere more prepossessing like St Vincent’s but the dangers both to his health and to his morale seemed disproportionate. Somehow too there is something impersonal and alienating about these sprawling part-private hospitals. Meanwhile he was stuck for what turned into two weeks in a fluorescent yellow public space that was a cross between a ward and a corridor, with the prevailing misery spiced by the intermittent agonies of the elderly patients. St Colmcille’s started life as a famine workhouse and has probably always been a sad place. And yet my father was not complaining.

Death trap?
The staff (in this case including the doctors) have been vastly obliging and friendly. Still, my confidence in Loughlinstown Hospital – and, I was told, morale in the hospital – was not helped by the front-page news last week that 16 elderly people died there of hospital-acquired superbugs in 2007. The Dublin County Coroner’s office implied St Columcille’s Hospital was the least hygienic in Dublin. In other words Loughlinstown Hospital is to be avoided like the um plague.

Contradiction

Getting back to the patient himself, fortunately he missed the news story and he has nothing but positive things to say about Loughlinstown, particularly the staff . The unattractive conditions do not seem to have been important to him. I can only think that because the hospital is all public wards there is not the underpinning of inequality, the humiliating sense that some of the motivation for some of the decisions – and therefore for some of the staff – is PROFIT rather than patient benefit that undermines the sense of solidarity in adversity that seems to me to drive Loughlinstown Hospital.

Conclusion
My conclusion is that in health, as in education, lack of vision and strategy, vested interest and hypocrisy account for a lot. Inequality underpins our system. Surprisingly, systemic lack of equality can be at least as frustrating for patients as lack of efficiency. In general, healthcare is good, though bad, sometimes shockingly bad, at the edges. It is one of the consequences of being rich and European as a country, that we have a right to be angry about this.

Harder thinking on global warming

Posted in Opinion on April 14, 2008 by Editor

images-2.jpgimages-1.jpgimages.jpg “funny man”                                patio fun                  funny old world

OISIN COUGHLAN OF FRIENDS OF THE EARTH argues cogently in today’s Irish Times that we have to stop flying so much. Can this be the same Oisin Coughlan who told Harry McGee [IT 25 January] that Friends of the Earth did not campaign against a second terminal in Dublin airport, because of “the current inadequacy of the airport”?

The government intends to double Dublin airport passengers to over 30 million between 2005 and 2030 with the new terminal and a new runway – both recently permitted without proper assessment of their greenhouse gas effects and opposed by few environmental organisations. It is shocking that Friends of the Earth consider the “inadequacy” of the airport justifies inducing this level of demand when as Mr Coughlan eloquently notes “if aviation continues to grow unchecked it would account for all our permitted emissions well before 2050. All other polluting activity including much that is essential for human survival – would have to stop”.

The coalition government has adopted a reasonable target of 3% average annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. It is important that our infrastructure reflects a desire to reduce emissions too. At the moment we are building and expanding airports, roads and ports (for carbon-heavy imports) as if global warming didn’t exist. It is likely that this is how the Ireland of the future will be environmentally delinquent despite, ostensibly, so much current good will.

It’s time for environmentalists and government, including the Greens, to be honest and hard-minded and to join up the thinking. The debate on global warming in Ireland is primitive and unanalytical. We need to recognise the following:

Only governments can stop runaway global warming. They need pressure. From us!

Let’s go back to first principles.

When the known facts change we should change our minds – and our behaviour.

Science is now saying that global warming is an unambiguous fact, that we are disproportionately responsible in Ireland, and that it will threaten the lives of billions of people and of whole species worldwide.

Why no Change?

So why is Dublin airport set to double its capacity with general approval from schizophrenic media that purport to acknowledge global warming and its dangers? Why was the debate on Shannon-Heathrow connections conducted (even by the Greens) as if aviation is self-evidently good, why does a weekend bargain-hunting in New York seem normal to Aer Lingus and why is irresponsible Ryanair not a national embarrassment? Why are SUV sales up 30% over the last year? Why are “patio heaters” respectable?

The problem

The dramatic party-pooping truth is that the rich West needs actually to REDUCE emissions 90% by 2030 to avert a rise of more than one and a half degrees heat which could cause the Greenland icecap to melt and the Amazon forest to die, precipitating runaway global warming. Maybe, to be fair, 95% here in Ireland.

How to deal with it

The inconvenient truth is that for Greenhouse Gas Emissions it’s not the Power of One it’s the Power of Government to tax, impose individual carbon limits and insist on sustainable development only.

Power of One and Power of Government It would be nice to think that the power of one is enough. We need just change incrementally, turn off that last light before we go to bed, , fly off on eco-holidays only, believe what the lifestyle supplements tell us – that we need to consume more green goods rather than simply fewer goods. We do this and that nasty depressing stuff can’t happen. In fact this thinking is dangerous in practice and in principle.

The solemn truth is that we could not all as individuals just reduce our emissions by 90% without massively adulterating our quality of life. Of course we should admire those who try but it is not fair to make of saving the planet individual martyrdoms. Gestures will not be enough. Just as with the phase-out of CFC aerosol sprays, only if government changes the framework can individuals save the planet fairly and, even more importantly, effectively. Our efforts should be targeted on changing government, on applying our power to theirs.

Ireland
Ireland Is one of the worst countries for annual greenhouse gas emissions per person: at 18 tonnes; the UK for example is at 11. Sweden, with a population of 9 million, emits less greenhouse gas than Ireland. We have also exceeded our Kyoto increase limit by nearly 100 per cent several years before the deadline.

The Coalition government is committed to 3% average annual emissions reductions. This is the right commitment if it is met. It will be captivating to see how serious this government is in its first year. Certainly we have heard the radical target. We have not yet heard the radical means.

I believe three years into their term of government the greens will panic as it becomes clear we will not meet these targets. The first year is not going to produce the requisite reduction and after that it will be catch-up. As dealing with climate change was their justification for entry into government they should be doing much more.

What government should discourage
I want to take a few sectors that no politician will tell you the truth about. These rampant, but apparently taboo, contributors to global warming will simply have to be stifled.

Aviation
Aviation, which is overwhelmingly an activity of the richest elements in society, is responsible for between 4 and 9 per cent of the climate change impact of global human activity (more in the EU). But because of air travel’s extraordinary projected growth rates, according to the Tyndall Centre on Climate Change, the UK’s best known academic body specializing in climate change, aviation emissions will amount to at least 40% – and possibly 100% – of total allowed emissions at least there by 2050. Nor, despite the gyrations of Richard Branson, is technology going to change the gross carbon addiction of aeroplanes: the International Panel on Climate Change says “there would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades”.

Clearly we must join up our thinking on flying and global warming. Yet a vision of burgeoning aviation prevails everywhere it matters. Even the august Irish Times speaks out of two corners of its mouth on this issue. You cannot avert climate change catastrophe and be neutral on aviation expansion. The time for reporting growth in aviation as if it were manifest progress is over. And so we cannot be impressed by Ryanair’s recent announcement that it expects to double its passenger numbers to 100 million in five years’ time, or that Dublin Airport, pursuing the current government’s policies, is planning and developing for a doubling of passenger numbers to 30m annually by 2020 and for up to 40m by 2025 or by Fine Gael and Labour’s desire for a new airport to serve Dublin – presumably supplementing expansion of the existing airport.

Aviation has had its day, though the aspirations of the airline industry do not yet reflect this. In another world it might be possible to get excited about new jobs in Aer Lingus or the idea of a nice new airport for Dublin but in OUR world air travel, especially for leisure purposes, now needs to be repressed. Depressingly, trains and even boats do not necessarily seem to be much more efficient than planes, though ultimately trains can be fuelled by renewable electricity. Still for the moment the lesson seems to be to avoid long-distance travel.

Roads
Apart from bypasses, it is a mistake – because they encourage carbon waste, – to be building motorways. The present Government’s plan is to build, widen or upgrade 850km of roads, costing €18 billion, over the next eight years. The thrust of this consensual political policy has been to encourage use of the private car since new roads induce new demand. As a result at the beginning of 2007 Ireland contained 2,296,393 vehicles. This total represents an increase of over 500,000 vehicles (37%) since 2000 and an increase of over 1 million vehicles (82%) since 1995.

Beef
At 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, agriculture accounts for more than any other sector of the economy including – alarmingly – transport, more than in any other EU country and almost double the proportion in France where farming accounts for just 17%. More than half of this is produced by cattle digesting grass and flatulently belching methane. It can be reduced by keeping cattle indoors – not an attractive, green option, killing cattle younger or sowing grass that includes organic acids. Individuals can avoid eating beef that depends on an animal, bred for human consumption, eating a disproportionate amount of vegetable matter. But try telling that to the IFA or Supermacs.

Imports
Clearly flowers grown in Zambia or Chinese strawberries depend on aviation. Ireland depends on imports of many goods from China. We import goods to the value of € 3.7bn from China annually. As of 2000-2001, China’s economy was three times more energy intensive than even the US’s so buying Chinese imports, while keeping emissions off Ireland’s national emissions register is a sign of an unsustainable economy. We need to review the sustainability, including long-term economic sustainability, of much of our trade. This is not yet an issue of respectable political debate but it will become one.

How Government should use its power
A good primer on how to achieve the 90% reduction is George Monbiot’s HEAT (Allen Lane 2006). For a start governments will need to introduce a carbon rationing and trading mechanism for individuals. Environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” should tax carbon-squandering and subsidise low-carbon goods and technology. Particular sectors require nuanced measures.

For homes, government must massively improve building regulations so houses are perfectly insulated against cold and heat (“passive houses” already do this).

For electricity, generators can strip the carbon dioxide out of fossil fuels before they are burnt and bury it. According to a recent German government study, European governments could pool electricity supply and demand that renewables including cross-continental wind and wave, Saharan thermal and Icelandic geothermal comprise80% of the total using breakthrough high-voltage DC cables to avert the dangers of inadequate supply when the weather is unhelpful in parts of the continent. A study in July suggested using hydroelectric reservoirs and vanadium flow batteries could increase this figure to 100%. We need to be realistic about how much domestic wind and solar power can help in Ireland – there obviously and simply isn’t much sun in winter for example – but government can incentivise developers to transform all buildings into mini-power stations adding up to local energy networks or “the energy internet”, using generators instead of boilers and generating not just heat but electricity also. Longer term, if governments promote research it is likely that hydrogen could be produced in the home, with the waste heat, generated in the production, used to warm the home. And on a larger scale local authorities should integrate District Heating systems into new developments, as with the Dublin Civic Offices.

For transport, cars are unsustainable. In Europe average fuel efficiency has actually been in decline as people buy bigger cars than ever before. Hybrids are simply not different enough from the average, biofuels take up too much land, seem to require a lot of energy in production and tend to be generated from palm oil which generates other environmental problems including deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia where it comes from. Again, governments need to provide incentives for use of new car technologies. Hydrogen cars will be exciting but will not be widespread for at least twenty years. Electric cars could have worked well but were killed off by all their stakeholders as shown in the movie, Who killed the Electric Car?” Meanwhile the solution again lies with government which must improve public tranport. Sustainable transport should prevail, predominantly buses which are flexible but should be rendered outstandingly luxurious – with coffee machines, internet access, movie-screens etc; and run on expansive dedicated laneways. Rail, trams and metros have their own more glamorous place.

So we’re going to need to change – and radically. Indeed so radically that very few will be willing to do it unless everyone is seen to be changing. And that – except for pioneers, zealots and martyrs – will require government action.

The most important thing is for governments to impose individual (tradeable) carbon limits. Then if you fly to New York return for a hooray’s stag-weekend, emitting 1.54 tonnes of carbon you must reduce your emissions elsewhere in your lifestyle. This is a month of current average emissions per head or nearly a year’s emissions when we reduce by the 90% required to save the planet.

Then we need environmental fiscal reform “eco-taxation” to send a price signal in favour of low-carbon products.

Finally, only sustainable development should be allowed from now on. This should be incentivised. Unsustainable development should be disincentivised and, where appropriate, prohibited.

You can deny global warming or just deny its significance for you – and your significance for it. You can believe in the supreme value of improved light-bulbs – that incremental change will see us through – if you want. But it is not true. We have to pull together to force government to act radically and early. You can deny it but you’ll have to reinvent Politics and Science to suit your complacency. And you’ll be in the company of flat-earthers and smoking/cancer link deniers. That, for you and me, O well-travelled, beef-eating, Consumerist, future-denying reader, is the Inconvenient Truth.

Have I missed something about Brian Cowen?

Posted in Opinion on April 12, 2008 by Editor

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A lot of Brian Cowen, more to come

If Bertie lasted a decade Cowen, who seems a lot more careful, will almost definitely be with us for much longer. Brian in 2008. Brian in 2012. Fine Gael for a few months before they screw it up – around say 2016. Then back to Brian until 2020. Then Brian for the Aras. Until 2034. Brian Cowen, everywhere every day until we’re all dead. Like it felt with Bertie.

Fianna Fail have obviously chosen this man because they think he has great qualities and the media coverage would be serviceable in a totalitarian state. All we ever read is that he is intelligent, articulate, Fianna-Fail-through-and-through, someone who doesn’t suffer fools blah blah blah. Nobody has challenged this consensus – and yet give them time and they’ll all come ’round!

For the moment I have a few nagging questions. What has he done up to now as a Minister? Isn’t it partly his fault that our economy has major structural problems? Has he ever said anything that I should really remember? Is that gruff/Biffo thing all there is or is there something else there? Have I missed something?

The only thing I can think of is that the media, which after all aggrandise Enda Kenny who has all the gravitas of an over-coiffed moth, feel they must be constructive to the new man. But constructive at what cost to their credibility?

I remember after both Bush and Brown were elected, thinking that they had unusual personalities that would ultimately (soon?) fatigue people. It seems to me Cowen is in the same bracket. He always looks like someone has just extracted one of his teeth. He is stuck in irritable gear. Of course Fianna Failers love the annoyed act as they seem permanently in search of a missing parent (see song-singing blind adulation of Dev, Haughey, Lemass, the Flynns etc).

Anyway, below is an article from Mark Hennessey, typical of many current articles that fight to lionise the new leader and much more informative and well-argued than most. Where I see only a scowl, Mark Hennessey somehow sees a leader who can be “softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough”, a man who aims to be a “visionary technocrat” like Sean Lemass. This man is a paid political commentator, does he not realise that the phrase is a base political oxymoron? Bertie Ahern says Cowen has a “brilliant” mind and Senator Mary White says there is “magic” when he speaks. In support of this sort of mythology The Week in Politics last week treated us to footage of Cowen laying in to Senator Feargal Quinn who had criticised the National Development Plan as lacking coherence or vision. The implication was that here was a heavyweight. Cowen released his inner bluebottle all right, but in substance he waffled. On and on about how big it was, how much would be spent, what a difference it would make. I listened and there was definitely nothing about a vision. Quinn looked terrified but he was, in fact, right.

Brian Cowen does claim to be republican and a patriot. Mark Hennessey thinks that’s an attractive touch but surely republican is code these days for having no vision. Eamon Ryan spotted a vision (well he would) in some speech Cowen gave at the Royal Irish Academy where he mentioned the environment. But generally he doesn’t even get as far as the environment. And the same speech shows his vision of equity stops at a shifty reference to equality of opportunity, rather than any sort of equality of outcome. What really feeds this guy’s buzz, and no doubt he’d be horrified to hear it said – though it permeates nearly all his speeches, is the uninspiring notion of PRODUCTIVITY.

No – Cowen will be more of the same. More ad hoc policies rooted almost entirely in economics but with just enough of a social side to convince the mostly unimaginative commentators.

And he sometimes drinks, Hennessey implies – unless I’ve misread the IrishTimespeak which also echoes a recent insulting  Sunday Independent piece – to shirt-dirtying excess. And at least we will have a Taoiseach who will sing.

Is it all enough?


Cowen looks to Lemass as he lays out vision of future [From Thursday’s Irish Times]

ANALYSIS:The new public face of Brian Cowen was on show for the first time yesterday, writes Mark Hennessey.

FOR YEARS, most of the public has seen Brian Cowen as Mr Grumpy. Yesterday, he put forward a new public face: softly-spoken, gentle, statesmanlike, but quietly tough.

His first outing as Fianna Fáil leader-designate was a triumph, laying out the first chapters of his leadership to come, while respecting current office-holder Bertie Ahern.

Through it all, he spoke of words not often heard in Ireland outside of the realm of “the fourth green field” and bar-room republicans: patriotism, duty and service to one’s country.

The benchmark for Cowen is not Ahern, even if he mentioned him frequently, but Seán Lemass, and in particular, the Lemass of the 1960s, the visionary technocrat.

If backed up by actions, a Cowen-led government – one that has a minimum of four years to make its mark – should offer a very different perspective to that presented during the Ahern era.

In style, it will be quieter, with less of the celebrity-focus brought to it by Ahern, who built a significant part of his success on making his own life a soap opera for the public.

Though he has been left a united party by Ahern, Cowen faces major troubles on the economy, unemployment, the Lisbon Treaty and, crucially, the sclerotic public services.

For over a decade, Ahern worked in partnership with trade unions in a deal that delivered industrial peace, but not reform on the scale needed.

Change has been bought and often bought dearly. Now, change must continue, and accelerate and not be bought by a Government happy until now to sign cheques to stave off trouble rather than take hard decisions.

Cowen insists that the public service status quo cannot be sustained, and that change must come, but by agreement, not conflict. Indeed, he makes the point that the unions have already accepted it under Towards 2016.

Quick to declare full support for Minister for Health and Children Mary Harney, Cowen ended any speculation – the little there was – that she will be moved next month.

Her actions were taken with the agreement of the Cabinet, and “in compliance” with Government policy, he told journalists.

In fact, Cowen, who is not popular with many in the health services from his time in the Department of Health, went further, and questioned the motives of some of those opposing the HSE.

Many of the HSE’s “critics are, in fact, using their criticism as a ruse to maintain the status quo”, he declared in strong words softly spoken.

Making it clear that there will be no changes to any of the hospital reforms currently under way, he warned that “parochial arguments” could not override patient care.

However, it is not clear, and it may not become clear for a long time, what Cowen will do in the face of wilful obstructionism.

Will he just talk or will he bark? Will he, if necessary, bite?

Throughout his career, Cowen has always been the quintessential Fianna Fáil loyalist; once dismissive of junior coalition partners, contemptuous of enemies. However, he has learned, or he wants us to believe he has learned, at the feet of a master how to make coalitions work.

Asked yesterday if Fianna Fáil could secure an overall majority – once the holy grail of the party’s ambitions – Cowen seemed to indicate that while it would be nice, it did not matter very much.

Coalitions are where politics are at for the years ahead and Cowen seems intent for now on not being the man to wreck Fianna Fáil’s reputation as a partner – one that could keep it in power for years to come. However, junior Coalition partners should not look for too much after his litany of compliments to Labour’s Eamon Gilmore in recent months.

The tactic fulfils a number of objectives: it makes the Greens and PDs nervous and therefore more acquiescent; and it damages Enda Kenny’s ability to put forward an image of a “government-in-waiting”.

For anyone listening closely to Cowen yesterday for the first time, he would have presented an attractive image – one that is closer to the reality than his public image.

Uncomfortable with applause and anxious to get away from television cameras, Cowen has not lost touch with his roots or background and is less ego-driven than most in politics.

But even his constituency of Laois/Offaly was given a polite warning not to have an undue sense of entitlement or to take advantage of him or the office he will occupy in a month. “They will also know that in taking up this job that my responsibilities are national and that my responsibilities are to all the people of Ireland,” he told a local radio reporter.

The same message, perhaps, needs to be heard, and may have already been heard by some of those who have been his closest friends in the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party over the decades.

Yesterday, some of them were ushered to seats at the front at his press conference. For some, it is a sign of preferment to come. For others, it is all they will get, but, perhaps, not all they will expect.

The softer image will be key. Cowen is a thoughtful, intelligent man, for the most part in private, but he can be a bruiser, particularly when faced with those he believes are not his intellectual equals. The political difficulty is that while men might find his demolition of enemies attractive in a pugilistic sort of way, the majority of women do not, and are not likely to be any more forgiving of such conduct from him as Taoiseach.

And Cowen is going to have to become more attractive to women voters if Fianna Fáil is to thrive. Ahern will be a hard act to follow with female voters.

Finally, the office of taoiseach will force changes on the lifestyle of a man who is social, blessed with the constitution of an ox and enjoys a drink or two.

So far, he has twice sought to set the bar as high as possible for journalists who might try to pry into his private life and that of his family. Cowen, however, knows that such a request will go unheard in some media quarters.

The image of a taoiseach, seen frequently in print with a pint in hand, may meet with a public smile for a time, if not forever, but it is better not to give ground to those who might exploit it.

Cowen is careful to obey the proprieties and not to talk as if he is taoiseach until he takes over on May 7th and forms his government after he receives his seal of office from President Mary McAleese. In the meantime, he will pay all due respect to Bertie Ahern, who is thanked by his Fianna Fáil colleagues for what he did as leader, but, if they were honest, most particularly for choosing to go when he did.

In the cruel way that will mark the passing of this political leader, even if it does include a US Houses of Congress speech, Ahern will appear as a man increasingly forgotten but not yet gone in the month ahead.

© 2008 The Irish Times

Dublin City Architect

Posted in Opinion on March 18, 2008 by Editor
OPINION
20 March 2008

Quayside Fridgeimages2.jpgthe-anna-livia-statue.jpg
Fridge                                 Spike                                     Floozie

SO THEY have finally knocked down the book market on Capel Street Bridge which I can see from my window.

To the outsider it always looked like a line of grey refrigerators that were nearly always closed and out of which things like window-blinds were occasionally sold, but to Dublin City Council they were bookstalls.

Responsibility for this mistake rests ultimately with Jim Barrett, the newly-retired Dublin City Architect, whose idea they were and who recently received a lifetime achievement award from Opus for “a high level of excellence, insight and achievement in his field over an extended period of time”.

The bookstalls were not his only contribution. Where they lead can the gas-guzzling Nuremberg-style braziers on a largely unused Smithfield be far behind on the runway to architectural oblivion? While they’re at it the City Council could also remove the somewhat clumsy Calatrava Bridge on Usher’s Island, the second-rate new granite all over the City, the hard-surface refurbishments of Ormond Square and Jervis Park and the taller-than-proposed office block with the toilet-block side-elevation, on the former civic green space on Dame St.

They won’t have to demolish the Chime in the Slime or the wibbly-wobbly bridge as they’ re gone and never happened respectively. Or the original elephantine scheme for Spencer Dock which Mr Barrett supported but which was refused permission on appeal.

Most of these schemes were non-contextual, non-green, functionless, “big” and carried out top-down without much regard to the wishes of the citizenry or local community. Terminal criticisms you would think.

In deference to sustainability and because his legacy is not entirely negative, the demolition squads should be permitted to leave the refurbishment of City Hall and arguably the Boardwalk, though the pointless spire may have to follow the Floozie in the Jacuzzi (which pre-dates Mr Barrett and is missing in action from O’Connell St en route to the Croppy’s Acre), which we all got a bit tired of.

Mr Barrett’s legacy is very mixed. With the appointment of a new City Architect, Ali Grehan, it is time for a general rethink.