Miriam Lord: Leo’s Dáil lecture leaves TDs itching and scratching

Green Party leader was not won over by Taoiseach’s ‘rational’ approach to broadband

 Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is  itching for an end to the talking. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan is itching for an end to the talking. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

 

Some people, like the leader of the Green Party, might be hung up on one particular fix when it comes to sorting out the broadband problem or alleviating the housing crisis.

The Government, on the other hand, prides itself on taking a much broader view. As the Taoiseach pointed out during Leaders’ Questions, it likes to take a good run at things from every direction. A kind of scattergun approach, although Fine Gael’s policy pellets are suspiciously prone to peppering the habitat favoured by the hungry beasts of private enterprise.

“We take a rational, rather than an ideological view on this,” Leo Varadkar patiently explained to Eamon Ryan, who had been giving his thoughts on how our ongoing housing difficulties could be better addressed by the Taoiseach’s administration.

Or the National Announcers, as they like to style themselves.

Eamon is itching for an end to the talking, the promising and the launching around the two big issues of the day – housing and broadband. He wants the Government to stop faffing about with their private-sector deals and start delivering some straightforward, State-funded, lasting solutions to chronic public problems.

He sees a depressing similarity between the way the National Announcers have decided to tackle broadband and the way they have been trying to alleviate the housing crisis.

The whole sorry scenario is too much for the sensitive Green leader, who revealed that he was scratching himself a lot now. We feared it triggered an outbreak of hives in poor Eamon, and not in the beekeeping sense. Either that, or nits, which can also be stress related.

But, no, it’s due to the broadband, coming on top of the housing. Both of which, he said, seem to rely heavily on Government-promoted leasing schemes which are “effectively saying to private developers: You’ve a no-risk guaranteed income for 25 years and at the end of it, you own the asset”.

Take broadband, a facility which Eamon dearly wishes to see rolled out everywhere as soon as possible. Nonetheless, he was pleased to hear the Taoiseach say an Oireachtas committee would give his proposed national plan the full once over.

“The more I look at this deal – and I really want to support it – but the more I look at it, I’m scratching my head thinking how can we have a private developer contributing €175 million in capital when we’re contributing between two and three billion, and they end up owning the asset?” he wondered aloud.

“And I think the Irish people are scratching their heads on this too. They just can’t get around [the question] what do we get from that?”

The more Eamon thinks, the more the proposal doesn’t add up for him.

Social housing should be in public ownership for use forever and a day for the people of Ireland

The bidder, he pointed out, has only a small team without major backup. And yet, the Department of Communications has proven skills in this area, having delivered the metropolitan area network and brought in contractors.

“So I’m scratching myself and thinking: How do we win over the Irish public to sell to them a deal where we give all the money and someone else gets ownership?”

That set us off scratching too.

“I just can’t get beyond that,” he concluded. Might the deal be changed if the itchy heads on the Oireachtas committee start digging and find out something?

“What’s the chance of us changing the deal, either on the ownership end or some other end? Where is the flexibility? Someone said last night that it’s legally tied down now, but I don’t believe that’s the case. I think we have a moment for change here before we sign a contract,” said Eamon, hopefully.

The Taoiseach had left the chamber at this point as he had to catch a flight to Paris, but the Minister for Communications, Richard Bruton, was there to reply. Which he did, in considerable detail, because Richard has been living the National Broadband Plan for the last two weeks.

The answer mightn’t have been the one Eamon was hoping to hear, but neither was the door slammed in his face.

“There are fundamental constraints on what alternatives you can look at without starting afresh, abandoning this tender and starting a new procurement process.”

Earlier, the leader of the Greens told the Taoiseach that the issue of housing is “coming up at the doors right across the country” as the local and European elections campaigns reach their final week.

Polls

Leo didn’t need to be reminded about the polls – the Fianna Fáil leader did that when he had another pop at the Government’s financing arrangements for the rural broadband plan and questioned the timing of the deal’s announcement. Micheál Martin accused him of playing politics. “I would remind you it is not your money, it is the taxpayers’ money and you are electioneering here.”

It was all very Itchy and Scratchy and the Taoiseach bristled. If he hadn’t announced the Government’s decision he would have been accused of hiding the detail until after the election.

Nevertheless, the fact that a contract won’t be signed for months yet because the finer points are yet to be nailed down is definitely a cause for more head scratching.

Housing is not an election-friendly subject. “My assessment is the Government has completely lost the trust of the Irish people in this area,” said Ryan. Its political capital is “evaporating” in this area “because you are betting everything on a market where a market is unreliable”.

Echoes of the current broadband debate, he dryly noted.

He wants the State to take a more hands-on approach to developing State lands and welcomes the appointment of former finance department boss John Moran to the Land Development Agency.

But the State needs to do more than “just giving a fat cheque to the private sector for 25 years where we are paying over the odds and start recognising we can do this ourselves. We can build cost-rental housing that’s high-quality, close to the centre, delivers for a variety of different people – a mix of people in social and public housing, but at the end of it, we own the asset, not some other private operator”.

It’s the fundamental issue of our time, he told the Taoiseach.

“You’re privatising everything. We wanted certain things to be in public ownership. Social housing should be in public ownership for use forever and a day for the people of Ireland,” he added, a note of despair in his voice.

The Taoiseach agreed that they both agreed that people needed housing. But he favours a multi-faceted approach. If more people who are renting homes could be able to buy, that would be wonderful.

“They can’t! They can’t!” chorused the Opposition.

“We must approach it in four or five different ways” to address the problem in a “practical, non-ideological” manner, declared Leo.

Socialist Paul Murphy smiled and shook his head.

“It’s working brilliantly.”

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