Back to the bubble

Leinster House is not the most normal of places to spend time. Coming back into the Dáil chamber after seven weeks’ recess was a bit strange, even though I would have been in the Dáil office most days during those seven weeks. I do find the work very interesting and challenging, but also very frustrating at times. Having spent most of my life working in the real world I am still a bit shocked that there is such a disconnect between the Oireachtas and the world outside the gates. So many of the TDs display a serious lack of understanding of the lives of ordinary people, and most of them don’t even have a grasp of what it’s like to try and run a small business. You can read, write, and theorise ‘til the cows come home but if you haven’t gotten your hands dirty out there then it must be difficult to come to terms with the reality of it all.

The first few days back ‘inside’ (sounds a bit like an institution, but that’s probably because it is one) were certainly of the ‘frustrating’ variety. Having been away for a bit, I was taken aback again by the level of pretence, the amount of role playing and the refusal to be straight up about things and the refusal to call it as it is. The urge to scream was certainly strong. I raised a few issues like the septic tank controversy, third level education fees, water wastage in the system, and the sell-off of 25% of the ESB but it wasn’t until I spoke for a lengthy period on the financial crisis that I managed to get any satisfaction out of the place. Speaking to the Minister for the Environment, I insisted that many people had septic tanks which were no longer functioning within the regulations, but had been built according to planning regulations in the first place – it is not fair now to expect the people pay for the necessary changes, just because the regulations have changed. The minister, Phil Hogan, agreed with me.

On the education issue, given that there is a shortage of funding, I asked Minister Ruairi Quinn if he would not consider making parents who can well afford to pay contribute the full fees at 3rd level, so that those who have difficulty paying anything can be facilitated to attend. The flat payment of €2,000 is very challenging for many families, so if we are serious about giving the maximum number of people the opportunity to attend 3rd level we need to facilitate those who can’t afford to pay by asking for full payment from the better-off, for example, families earning over €150,000 per annum. On the water issue, the government is planning to spend €500 million installing water meters and €450 million bringing water from the river Shannon to Dublin, and yet refuses to spend the necessary money fixing the damaged pipes which cause over 40% of our water to leak into the ground. Madness! An extract from my speech:

“If the government is to do anything about water, surely controlling the level of waste must be a top priority. I agree with the government tackling different elements of waste in the system throughout society, but I also believe there must be a greater emphasis on investment in the water infrastructure, tackling the problem of leakage and, at the same time, creating major employment. Replacing these pipes will be a very labour intensive project, with at least 80% of the cost going for labour and 20% for materials. It would be a very good move by the government to get involved in this. In the current economic climate, given the effect of austerity measures on the ordinary people of this country and given that any money raised from water metering is unlikely to come back into the system and help to improve it, we should concentrate on fixing the pipes, introducing more cost-effective measures and more environmentally friendly ways of providing water supplies for households. The latter would also help to create a great deal of employment.”

I also got to speak on the government’s plan to sell 25% of the ESB which, for me, amounts to bad business. Here’s an extract from my piece:

“I do not believe it is a good idea for the State to sell its interests in the ESB. I have studied countries throughout the world which have dabbled in selling their electricity and I do not see many positives in many cases. More often than not, this leads to higher prices for the consumer, to poorer service and it has little to offer. At present the ESB is turning a profit in Ireland. It employs many people and it goes without saying that any profit it makes stays with the State. If we sell a profit-making establishment such as the ESB to private investors, naturally the profits it would make would go God knows where. More than likely, it would employ fewer people and there would be less revenue for the Government in the long term. The notion of selling utilities is not a good one for any State.

I am all in favour of competition. I see nothing unhealthy about competition in any area. If some other private company sought to come in and compete with the State-controlled ESB I would have no issue with it. However, I do not believe there is any merit in the State losing control of its utilities. The Government would get little for selling 25% of it. Who in his right mind would buy 25% of the company? If we sell 25% of the company it will only be a matter of time before the Government will sell the remainder at the first chance it gets; it amounts to the thin end of the wedge.”

I also spoke on the financial Bill before the House. Here is an extract from my contribution:

“Members will vote on this EFSF proposal and while I am not an economist, if anyone on the Government benches is interested in having a bet with me on whether it will work, we can meet outside to put down a wager, as I do not believe it will. Having started with 17 countries in the eurozone, three have been bailed out, which means the other 14 will guarantee borrowings for three. When that number increases to four, only 13 will remain to do so. This group could then fall to 12 countries and could eventually fall to just ten countries. I do not see how it will stack up in the long term and cannot envisage its survival. Moreover, I do not believe many people in Europe can envisage it working out either. I wish to cite a small piece from today’s edition of the Financial Times by Peter Spiegel that discusses this very topic. He wrote:

“The sum of €440bn was intended to ‘shock and awe’ financial markets in May 2010 during the first Greek crisis. The EFSF has since evolved from a temporary set-up to help small peripheral countries into a multipurpose firefighter to assist large banks and bigger eurozone economies such as Italy and Spain. Most analysts believe it is too small for the tasks it will soon be called on to perform. Because increasing the size of the fund has proved controversial in many creditor countries – particularly Germany, Finland and the Netherlands – senior officials have tried not to discuss options publicly for fear of spooking parliamentarians who must approve the new powers...”

Given the Italians owe €1,900 billion and realisation is slowly dawning that Italy’s position is much worse than had previously been known and that, in recent weeks, matters have begun to unravel for French banks, developments in Europe have amounted to sticking plasters. No real solutions to the financial crisis that is swamping the whole of Europe have been put in place. The reason the Germans, who are the kingmakers, have been sitting on the fence to an extent is that they cannot make up their minds as to whether they really want a European Union that is a fiscal union. Such a union is coming down the tracks if the Germans choose it. Their alternative is an exit from the euro and they are yet to make up their minds as to which option to choose. Either way, the idea that Ireland will retain much financial sovereignty is pretty fanciful at this point.

The transfer of private banking debt to sovereign debt, with three years of deflationary budgets across Europe, has proved too much to bear. For some reason, Ireland does not seem to be interested in being active, rather it is reactive. Things happen to us, not because of anything we are doing but because something happens elsewhere in Europe which has an impact on us...What has been done for the domestic economy? I run wine bars and coffee shops, while my son runs clothes shops, and the system is failing. The amount of money in the pockets of those coming through the doors is decreasing. That is what austerity does. We have to invest, as what we are doing is not working. We are draining the system. That people will have more money in their pockets if it is constantly taken from them is akin to taking blood from a patient and thinking he or she will be well afterwards...

On SNAs, I listened to the Taoiseach this morning as he tried to defend the situation at St. Senan’s and it was hard to take. He is economical with the truth and how he uses words. I will give him credit for the way he does it, in the sense that he is crafty, but there is no honesty. I have spoken to many of the parents and met the children involved and what is happening is draconian. Children with SNAs who were in mainstream classes are not attending them this year. They were progressing at a fantastic rate and the parents were delighted with them. Now, however, they are back at square one and regressing. I know the Government inherited a poisoned chalice from the previous Government which destroyed the place. However, surely it must believe the primary purpose of any Government is to look after those in society who most need our help, but that is not happening”.

Welcome back to the bubble that is Dáil Eireann.