A week less ordinary

Week 25 of Dáil sittings since it began a lifetime ago in early March started with my day in the High Court with ACC on Monday, the operation on my shoulder in Beaumont on Tuesday, and back to the Dáil on Wednesday morning to challenge the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton on Ireland’s failed approach to job creation over the years. An extract from my address:

“Would the Minister agree that for a long time the Government has concentrated on foreign direct investment? It is great that we have foreign investment here; unfortunately, however, there is always a temptation for such companies to move to countries where their costs are lower. For too long, we have not concentrated enough on indigenous industry. This is a major problem for us. In Wexford, where 20,000 people are already unemployed, 80 jobs have been lost at Sola ADC Lenses. I have not seen much effort being put into the creation of indigenous industry in the Wexford area and in Ireland generally. This is a major problem. It would be a feather in the cap of this Government if it changed track and put far more resources and effort into the development of indigenous industry.”

On Thursday, I again challenged the madness of selling a portion of the ESB. I asked Minister Brendan Howlin, “Will the Government establish what it believes to be a fair price in this regard and will it, if that cannot be achieved, refuse to sell? It is not rocket science that this is not a good time to sell. It will be hard to get real value for a minority stake in the ESB, just as it is hard to get value in respect of anything in this country at this time. I know that only too well. Will the Government set a figure below which sale of this minority stake would not make sense?” He replied, “In response to Deputy Wallace’s specific question, let it be crystal clear that if we do not get value for any State asset we will not sell. There will be no fire sale of any asset. We are not time bound to get bad value for this country and taxpayer. That will not be done”.

The same day, I asked Minister Joan Burton “if, following the observation during the UN review of Ireland’s human rights record that austerity measures should not disproportionately impact the elderly, she will guarantee that the State pension and the free travel pass will be protected in Budget 2012”. She replied, “I am very conscious of the needs of people on social welfare and fully understand that a wide range of groups depend on the welfare budget for vital support. In the context of a very tough budgetary environment, I will do my utmost to protect the most vulnerable people in Irish society, including retired and older people in receipt of social welfare pensions and the free travel scheme.” To which I said, “There can be no doubt that the Government’s austerity measures have had the greatest impact on the more vulnerable members of society, including the elderly. A new report published by researchers at UCD and St. Mary’s Hospital in the Phoenix Park, Dublin, shows that more than 10,000 elderly people per year are subjected to some type of abuse, of which the most common is financial abuse. Funding must be ring-fenced to protect the vulnerable members of society. Such people, who include many of our older citizens, are already in extreme difficulty even before the inevitable further cutbacks are introduced.” Going on to speak about the challenges for older people in keeping warm in the winter I added, “many older people have difficulty keeping their homes heated to a safe level. I recently received information from a company called Wexford Viking Glass which installs glass in window frames without taking the frames out, offering an increase in insulation levels of 60%. The company has proposed that the Government consider abolishing the VAT on its services in order to assist its business and promote efforts to improve insulation in older homes. Taking out the entire window involves a great deal of labour in terms of re-plastering, re-painting and so on. Replacing the glass only is a tidier job and much more cost-effective”. Minister Burton seemed very interested in the idea and promised to look further at it.

On a different subject, I should mention that I intend to vote ‘No’ in the upcoming referendum on the 30th Amendment to the Constitution giving powers of inquiry to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Only eleven of us TDs voted against the relevant legislation when it went through the Dáil, which is frightening in itself – it always worries me when all the main parties agree with each other. There has been inadequate debate, the legislation has been rushed, and this would give dramatic new powers to the government of the day, not the Oireachtas and may exclude a citizen’s right to appeal to the courts. Amending our Constitution is no joke, if in doubt vote ‘No’.

On Tuesday of Week 26, I raised the issue relating to the lack of supervision in the construction industry with reference to the nightmare that is Priory Hall in North Dublin. I said to the Minister -  “As the Minister of State knows, I have raised these issues before. He has indicated that the introduction of mandatory certificates of compliance for builders and designers of buildings will confirm that statutory requirements of building regulations have been met. That will not mean anything unless there is on-site supervision 100% of the time by an independent authority. An engineer would not know what kind of steel went into a foundation unless he or she was present on the site to see it. The engineer would not know if the required amount of concrete was poured, if the damp-proof course went under the wall or if the fire stop went into the cavities or the openings. When there is an inspection once a week or once a fortnight, an inspector can only see what is visible and cannot see what has already been covered up. If we expect something worthwhile from an architect or engineer signing off, they should have an assistant on-site at all times if they cannot be there themselves. That assistant could vouch for what is being signed, as it would not count for anything otherwise. There is no doubt that the lack of local authority control is a major issue. I know only too well that there was not enough personnel for the job and the people did not have enough time to get around. One might have had a visit from a building control person once during a two-year site contract. When a floor certificate is sought at the end of the job, the Department official checks only what he or she can see. That person will ask if certain elements have been included and the developer will always tell the person what should have gone in. The Government must try to understand what goes on in the industry and many areas must be given thought. Will the Government consult people in the industry who know what is happening because it must do so? The people doing the paperwork will not give the required cover in the area.”

To finish, I’d like to refer back to a piece I used from the English Guardian newspaper last week when discussing the present European crisis. Referring to a book written all of fifty years ago by Leopold Kohr called ‘The Breakdown of Nations’, the writer said – “Drawing from history, Kohr demonstrated that when people have too much power, under any system or none, they abuse it. The task, therefore, was to limit the amount of power that any individual, organisation or government could get its hands on. The solution to the world's problems was not more unity but more division. The world should be broken up into small states, roughly equivalent in size and power, which would be able to limit the growth and thus domination of any one unit. Small states and small economies were more flexible, more able to weather economic storms, less capable of waging serious wars, and more accountable to their people. Not only that, but they were more creative…Bigness, predicted Kohr, could only lead to more bigness, for ‘whatever outgrows certain limits begins to suffer from the irrepressible problem of unmanageable proportions’. Beyond those limits it was forced to accumulate more power in order to manage the power it already had. Growth would become cancerous and unstoppable, until there was only one possible endpoint: collapse.” Sound familiar? Not a bad take on where we are now with the European project.

The end of another week that was far from ordinary – to tell you the truth, I don’t remember a boring week in my lifetime.