Fine Gael: lasers and analogue – an audit of promises

'An analogue government for a digital age' was one of the clever sound bites devised from Enda Kenny's Presidential address at the Fine Gael ard-fheis on 6 May. He spoke of 'a world where we can send laser pulses 24 million km towards the planet Mercury', of a billion Google searches a day, of nine billion e-mails a year. The message was Fine Gael equals high tech, nano-second high performance, a digital party for a digital age. The reality is more prosaic, as an analysis of the promises 'rolled out' at the party conference reveals. By Vincent Browne

Ministerial performance: "Fine Gael and Labour will set new, exacting standards in Ministerial and public office. Any Minister reckless with the people's money will be fired." (Enda Kenny)

What about collective cabinet responsibility? All decisions are supposedly taken collectively, so if a Minister wastes money it is done with the authority of the cabinet and the Taoiseach. So what is this about sacking ministers who waste money?

Taxes: "We are committed to a real low-tax economy. Therefore, there will be NO rise in Personal tax. No rise in Corporation tax. No rise in Capital tax." (Enda Kenny)

Same as Pat Rabbitte. First, no tax increases, then (and only then) improvement in public services.

Private Hospitals: "The Government wants to give public land for private hospitals. I believe that this is wrong." (Enda Kenny)

This is a significant commitment and draws a sharp distinction with government policy.

Drunk Tanks: "Get the drunks out of A&E, Put the weekend warriors into drunk tanks. Fine them, Hit them where it hurts, in their pockets." (Enda Kenny)

Posturing. Fine people who have committed no crime? Drunk tanks where? No medical supervision of the "weekend warriors" who may well be ill, as well as drunk?

Crime: "Criminals in Ireland are getting away with murder. There is no respect for law and order. Across the country, crime is soaring. Detection rates are falling". (Enda Kenny)

Some criminals have always got away with murder. There was never a 100 per cent detection date for murder. Crime is not soaring. The crime rate has remained in the region of 85,000 – 105,000 per year for over 20 years, veering up and down in this range. The crime rate is influenced hugely by variations in reported sexual crime, which is unrelated to the incidence of sexual crime. Recently, an increase in the reported incidence of drunk driving and speeding, may not reflect any increase in the incidence of these crimes, rather greater Garda surveillance, which, presumably, Fine Gael welcomes.

Sentencing: "When it comes to sentencing, I want the people to have a voice. I will insist that every time a guilty verdict is handed down in a serious case, the prosecution will stand up and propose, in court, the sentence that reflects the people's view. The Oireachtas should decide the range of sentences – minimum to maximum – to be handed down. Judges will retain their independence in setting the sentence. But if that sentence falls outside what the people envisaged, then I will require that judge to explain his reasons in open court." (Enda Kenny)

This is almost all hogwash.

What difference does he think it would make to sentencing what a prosecution barrister might say? Judges explaining their reasons for sentencing in cases involving serious crimes? This is done as a matter of course already and anyway judges are constrained by the guidelines laid down by the Court of criminal Appeal.

Bail: "I will introduce new legislation to make it tougher for anyone accused of a serious crime to get bail. And if they do get bail, I will authorise that that person be electronically tagged." (Enda Kenny)

What might this legislation be? That bail be refused in cases where the accused is prosecuted for a serious offence? Could that be constitutional? As for tagging, is it really proposed that people, who are innocent before the law, be tagged while on bail?

Suicide: "Suicide is the greatest cause of death in young people. More people die by suicide than by road accidents. Research shows that up to 90 per cent of those who take their own lives are suffering from a psychiatric condition. I will be pressing the Party to include in our discussions with the Labour Party a firm commitment in Government to provide in the area of child and adolescent psychiatry... (he went on to propose a detailed list of measures necessary to deal with the suicide phenomenon, plus costings)." (Dan Neville)

This was by far the best speech of the Ard Fheis and this outline of policy is by far the best of Fine Gael policies. And it comes from a "deputy" spokesperson, Dan Neville. What does it say about Fine Gael that its best spokesperson is not on the frontbench?

Broadband: "Fine Gael supports the principle of using all available and viable means to achieve (full availability of broadband) in the shortest time possible, by the use of the most modern technology, including wireless, satellite, cable or copper wire thereby making the service available to the public." (Bernard Durkan)

Yes, but did Fine Gael oppose the policy which led to the crisis in broadband – the facilitation of the sale of Eircom to Valentia (led by Tony OReilly), which was directly responsible for the crisis today?

Education: "As of April this year over 50 per cent of our schools still do not have access to the National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS). Fine Gael wants to see every school in Ireland have access to this vital service.

"Fine Gael has proposed that all schools prepare an Annual School Report which would give a holistic view of the activities of the school. School drop-out rates have continued to grow, with a quarter of all children in the most disadvantaged areas missing more than 20 days in school, and no effective service to really challenge this. The Early Start programme hasn't been expanded since it was introduced under the Rainbow Government in 1997. Change for the better is about addressing these issues, and ensuring that education is a real priority for Government." (Olwyn Enright)

This is pretty disappointing. The central issue, disadvantage in the educational system, will be merely "addressed"! The commitment to more information on schools is important as is the commitment on the psychological services.

Health: " Set up of a number of 24 hour Urgent Care Centres in areas that have either no local A&E or where the A&E departments are particularly under pressure.

"Fine Gael is committed to delivering four 150-bed community care units with step-down, respite and rehabilitation beds. Our Health Screening Programme will keep people healthier for longer. Our free GP care to all children under 5 will reduce the cost pressures on parents with young children. We are also committed to increasing the number of beds in our hospitals". (Liam Twoomey)

Most of this is very familiar and mirrors what the government parties have been promising for some time. So what's the difference?

The Urgent Care Centres seems hardly different from A&E departments. The four 150-bed community care units could make a difference, but how long would they take to introduce? As for more productivity on the part of medical staff? Isn't that a refrain of Mary Harney?

Health screening? Fine, but done by whom and at what disruption to the present services?

Free medical care for everyone under five. A good idea in principle (early diagnosis of problems, care for children on the margins of poverty, etc) but the GPs will demand extortionate "incentives" to provide this service, almost certainly demanding a multiple of the fees they get for looking after children who are covered by medical cards (as happened when medical cards were extended to people over 70). So this may incentivise doctors to concentrate their attention on looking after rich kids rather than poor kids. Another disaster in the making.

Carers: "Financial supports will be improved by removing the spouse's means from the means test for the Carers Allowance payment. As it stands, a small number of elderly people and widows/widowers are disqualified from receiving the Carers Allowance because they are in receipt of a State pension. Fine Gael in Government will allow these carers receive a half payment of the Carers Allowance on top of their State pension as a mark of recognition for their work". (David Stanton)

Is that it? Minuscule improvements in conditions and allowances and grants for perhaps the most caring and committed people in society?

Decentralisation: "We shall undertake a serious audit of the Decentralisation Programme. We will implement those proposals which can achieve the critical steps necessary for successful completion; we will drop those elements that do not have the ingredients for successful delivery; we will not move the core planning units of departments away from the capital where they must contribute to coherent policy making across Government." (Richard Bruton)

A difficult issue of Fine Gael for outright opposition to decentralisation could cost them seats in marginal constituencies, including Enda Kenny's Mayo constituency. But at least there is a commitment not to move core planning sections of departments and a commitment to an overall "audit" which could open the way to the abandonment of the scheme.

Transport: "We need the big investments in rail, in Metro and Luas. Our population and our economy demand it.

"Fine Gael will, immediately on entering Government, liberalise the bus market, in Dublin and in the other cities, to dramatically increase capacity.

"The State must never again relinquish control over a major national strategic piece of infrastructure (such as the road network). It is time now to re-evaluate the tolling policy in its entirety. We will move immediately to a barrier free electronic toll facility. In the meantime, where those barriers cause queuing, they will be raised.

"If roads are to be tolled, all such tolls will be State tolls".

Fine Gael has no qualms about massive investment in infrastructural projects that have proved massively costly, with low public benefit (eg Luas, scheduled to cost around €280m for three lines and ended up costing €760m for two lines). The commitment to liberalising the bus service is significant but it would be more significant if there was a commitment to investing in quality bus corridors.

The reservations about private investment in the roads project and of private tolling is also significant and will fit in with Labour's stance. p