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10 January 2002 Edition

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2002 - What needs to be done


Two things are certain about this year. Ireland is going to the World Cup and there will be a Leinster House election. In between, there are the little niggling issues, such as managing an economy that by any measure is faltering badly. The New Year has barely started and the announcements of business closures have continued unabated.

It is an indictment of the current coalition that in nearly every sector of the economy there are are unmet needs, failed strategies or just ignorance on the scale of the problem.

So what should the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrat coalition really be tackling in 2002?


The increased funding and new strategies proposed by Health minister Mícheál Martin to combat decades of neglect in our health service is to be the flagship of the coalition election campaign. Even though the much hyped launch of the plan late last year was dogged with teething troubles, the coalition partners are still going to promote heavily their campaign promise to eradicate waiting lists in two years.

This will be an impressive feat, given that waiting lists only fell 11% last year. At current spending levels, it will take nine years to end waiting lists. That's not counting the thousands of people waiting to get an appointment with a consultant.

The government has also still to face up to the recognition of the link between ill health and poverty and to clearly state what role the private sector should have in the health care system.

The reports this week that the government is considering selling a share in the private beds in the public health system to an Australian health care company are worrying. The short-term cash injection would not change the fact that half of the costs of these private beds are borne by the public system. The government would in effect be subsidising the profits of an international company.


House prices fell last year for the first time in nearly a decade, with Sherry Fitzgerald estimating that second hand house prices fell by 4.63%.

This doesn't mean the housing crisis is over, despite Fianna Fáil's continued harping on the €1.1 billion allocated to public housing this year. There will still be at the end of 2002 over €180 million spent subsidising private landlords rent demands, not to mention over 40,000 households waiting on some form of public or social housing.

Threshold, the tenants rights organization has highlighted in its annual report a 250% increase in illegal evictions between 1999 and 2000, while it dealt also with huge increases in complaints about rent hikes and short notice to quit dwellings.

Focus Ireland has highlighted just last December the plight of the 6,000 people they estimate are homeless in the 26 Counties. So we have in fact only scratched the surface of the housing problem in Ireland.


Last year, the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh found that there were 1.1 million educationally poor people in Ireland. That is over a million people with little or no formal educational qualifications. 19% of secondary school students are not completing their Leaving Certificate.

Add to this 24% of adults with some form of literacy problems and there are clearly huge inequalities in the provision of education. Two thirds of 26-County schools have some disadvantaged students, yet only £194 million is earmarked over the lifetime of the National Development Plan to tackle the problems in this area.

When you consider too that less than 1% of third level students come from low income households there is clearly a problem to be addressed in almost every aspect of educational provision.


One theme that is emerging as we gather pace towards a likely May election is the selective government announcement of spending, funding or new jobs. Expect this constant drip of 'good news' to continue with ever increasing frequency.

This week it was the lucky towns that will be connected to new gas pipelines being built to bring Corrib Gas ashore to Ireland. Last year, the Dublin government was forced grudgingly, after extensive lobbying, to concede that not only would the pipeline reach into the North West but that small towns would benefit from this resource.

There are a range of other pressing infrastuctural problems in the economy. The most visible are in power and transport. Expect more piecemeal announcements on these issues over the coming months.

They will not hide the decade of underdevelopment presided over by not just Fianna Fáil and the PDs but also Labour and Fine Gael during their terms of office.

Also crucial but bound to be ignored is the need to develop an Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure. The government has pocketed the cash from the sale of Eircell and Eircom, as have the ESAT shareholders. What has not been discussed is just how these companies' new owners plan to develop the telecommunication infrastructure on the island. The paltry €55 million earmarked in the budget for ICT shows how low this is on the government's priority list right now. It probably wouldn't build the car park in the Bertie Bowl.


Liam Lawlor left jail for the second time this week. Expect him to be the only one of our corrupt Golden Circle to have this unique experience. Expect also none of the Ansbacher names to be divulged before the election, nor for the Flood or Moriarty Tribunals to reach a conclusion either.

Rural Development

Foot and Mouth and the ongoing trials of BSE have left rural Ireland even more in crisis than it was at the beginning of 2001, yet still there seems to be no strategy in central government about how to rebuild the rural economy. Once again, the absence of any real strategy to deal with a crucial problem is amazing. Obviously rural interests are not deemed to be high on the coalition's election agenda.


It will be interesting to watch if any incinerator projects are actually started in the months coming up to the election. There has been much hype of the coalition's new bin collection schemes, with organised recycling collections finally started. This should not be allowed masquerade as a real waste management strategy. It is a positive first step, even though the service charge elements are unnecessary. Much more needs to be done. We need a massive reduction in waste generation and this means a much more serious input from the manufacturers of waste. Once again, don't expect this to feature on the election agenda in the coming months, at least not on the government's one.


So finally, we are officially the best state in Euroland at converting our punts into euros. Will we get a gold star at the end of the month? There is no denying the public's enthusiasm for the changeover. However, it would be a very silly government who think that they can rerun the Nice referendum again without addressing the core problems of an anti-democratic EU. But given the ostrich approach to some of the issues already outlined, don't' be surprised.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1