Harry McGee: Political culture appears at odds with progress

Fleeting ministerial tenures point to short-termism inimical to change

Eoghan Murphy has been Minister for Housing for two months and is unlikely to last any longer than any of his predecessors.  Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Eoghan Murphy has been Minister for Housing for two months and is unlikely to last any longer than any of his predecessors. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

We are now on our fourth Minister for the environment and/or housing since 2011. That’s an average of 15 months per minister. There are relegation-threatened managers in the Premier League who hold on to their jobs for longer.

The current Minister, Eoghan Murphy, has been there for two months and is unlikely to last any longer than any of his predecessors.

Next month he will will publish a review of the current housing strategy, Rebuilding Ireland. Ostensibly it will be a brand-new strategy, ditching some of Simon Coveney’s ideas and adding some of his own.

For its part Rebuilding Ireland is only a year old. It replaced a strategy published by Alan Kelly hardly 18 months previously.

Both strategies can be summarised thus. We can turn water into wine within a time frame of four years.

When it comes to ministers for health we are not doing all that much better. Simon Harris is number three since 2011. During that time a big-ticket proposed reform – the ill-conceived universal health insurance strategy – hit the buffers and was replaced by a hazy aspiration .

Harris has been there for a year and has at most another 18 months in the job. Without disparaging his efforts, Harris will leave the health service more or less as he found it, preserved in aspic as it has been for a generation.

Irreconcilable clash

The quick turnaround of ministers in such vital areas highlights an irreconcilable clash between our myopic political culture and the longer-term interests of societal reform. The latter almost always requires a ration of gruel. You would be scouring the menu of politics for a long time before coming across that item as a main-course option.

Over a century ago, the novelist HG Wells neatly summed up how politics responds to such quandaries: “In England we have come to rely upon a comfortable time lag of 50 years or a century intervening between the perception that something ought to be done and a serious attempt to do it.”

The political system, with its cyclical nature and all its uncertainties, does not lend itself to long-term planning. Addressing the housing shortage and homelessness crisis will be horrendously costly and logistically complex and will take a long time. It’s all very well saying we have a budget of €5.5 billion and will be building 25,000 to 30,000 houses a year by 2021, and will provide 47,000 social homes in that time, and effectively end homelessness.

How the hell do you do that? As Murphy has discovered already, when the box arrived there were no operating instructions and many of the parts were missing.

There are huge data gaps on vacant homes, for example. Already there is drag on many targets. An early target to move all homeless families out of emergency accommodation has been abandoned.

The most stand-out example of a deficit between ambition and delivery is the repair-and-lease scheme, where landlords are given a grant of up to €40,000 to repair run-down accommodation. In return they enter into a lease agreement for social housing. The official target for that is 3,500 units by 2021. So far, the take-up has been seven. There are sluggish starts and then there are non-runners.

Ditto for health. In a rare bout of realism breaking out, the programme for government was modest indeed in its plans for the health services, targeting specific reforms (more emphasis on primary care) and problem areas such as delayed admissions and waiting lists for treatment.

But that lack of ambition reflects the political reality that for all the claims that have been made about new politics, the bottom line is that not much gets done.

Inertia

That inertia cannot continue indefinitely. It’s in the nature of politicians to avoid confrontation, and follow the path of least resistance. But there are times when they have to do things that aren’t crowd-pleasers. And that what’s distinguishes the unpleasant task of decision-making from posturing. Unfortunately, that tends to happen at times of crisis rather than when it is most opportune, when the economy is performing strongly and when it is all mundane.

The coalition government formed in 2011 is a good example of that. It made many mistakes but it also steered the economy into a better place. There remain many inequalities and many injustices and deficits (look at housing) but the fact remains that the unemployment rate has fallen to 6.3 per cent (from 15 per cent only five years ago) and that employment has also returned to the 2008 peak of more than two million.

Sure, as Pat Rabbitte once remarked, the troika was correcting that government’s homework, with its memorandum, conditionalities, and three-month progress reports. It involved some major reforms (water charges, property tax, legal services, public-service expenditure). I remember a European Commission official saying the troika provided political cover for the government to implement painful corrections. In essence, the government could get reforms through and transfer the blame to the unpopular overseers.

Some happened. Some did not. What is certain is that to achieve meaningful reform in health, in housing, in tackling inequality and in climate change, a strong administration will be required. Deep minority government will never achieve that.

Whenever the next election happens, even if there is an indecisive result, a decisive outcome would be more desirable. People talk of national governments during times of crises. They could probably be far more effective when politics is more settled.

Given the current arithmetic, if meaningful reform is to take place the only options for a proper working majority would be the three unthinkable ones. That is either a grand coalition between the two big parties, or one or other of them forming a coalition with Sinn Féin.

Unfortunately, it is more likely that politics will opt for another caretaker manager in the hope we won’t drop into the relegation zone.

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