Fintan O’Toole: Five reasons why nobody believes the Government’s capital plan

Where’s the evidence that the Government can actually do big things?

Anyone who’s ever had children will remember the moment. You walk into a room and find your lovely three-year-old radiating bliss. He looks at you and lights up the room with a beaming smile.

He expects you to share his joy and to shower him with approbation. He has just drawn a lovely picture in lurid colours all over your newly-painted white walls. When he sees your scowl, he is shocked and utterly uncomprehending.

This is what the Government is like. It can’t understand why so many citizens can’t see the lovely picture it has made. Or why grand plans like those unveiled with such fanfare last week are not greeted with hugs and kisses.

Ireland desperately needs not just long-term planning but long-term delivery. Even if there's something absurd about a government at the end of its term making promises for what will be done by the government after next, it's better than the eternal crisis management that generally passes for governance. The problem is the delivery bit – where's the evidence that the Government and the unreformed systems it has kept in place can actually do big things?

Let’s just take five big things that the Government itself set out to do in its current term.


First, the retrospective recapitalisation of Irish banks by euro zone rescue funds. Success! It was achieved in June 2012. The Taoiseach congratulated himself on his powers of persuasion, as well he might: “Because of the cogency of the arguments made around the table, agreement was reached to make that major move and break the link between sovereign and bank debt. That was a seismic shift in European policy.” He told the Dáil that “recognition of Ireland’s unique circumstances and special case will be dealt with as such”. And what happened? Nothing. Interest payments on the bailout money alone continue to cost as much every year as all the tax cuts and spending increases about which we hear so much.

Second, remember universal health insurance? It was undoubtedly the Government's flagship social reform. James Reilly produced a detailed blueprint in the form of a White Paper. And then his successor Leo Varadkar very politely tore it up. Even the term "universal health insurance" has been quietly dropped, in favour of "universal health care", whatever that means. Varadkar promised a new road map by the end of the summer. If it ever appears it will now be politically meaningless.

Third, consider a chronic but eminently soluble problem: a church-dominated primary school system for an increasingly pluralist society that forces large numbers of non-Catholic children to attend confessional Catholic schools. The Government set out to solve this problem by somehow persuading the church to hand over large numbers of its schools to other patrons. This was one of its key long-term social reforms. How many schools have been “divested” in this way? One – and that under conditions that have proved almost unworkable. For all the shapes that have been thrown, the primary school system is almost exactly the same as when the new Government set out to alter it radically.

Fourth, the big environmental project: Irish Water. It is hard to remember this now, but the idea of setting up a national water utility actually held a lot of political promise. After all, the existing system was pretty abysmal, piping into our everyday speech lovely terms such as "boil-water notice" and "cryptosporidium". But, in the words of the great Irish policy analyst Richard Harris, someone left the cake out in the rain. It would be hard to imagine a bigger screw-up than water meters with no real incentives to conservation, conservation grants that have nothing to do with conservation and are not actually grants and a scheme to keep everything off the State balance sheet that vaporised like a vampire in the sunlight.

Fifth, of course, is the "democratic revolution". A botched referendum on powers for parliamentary committees. A botched referendum on the Seanad. A completely abandoned promise to use the guillotine on the scrutiny of legislation only in emergencies. No serious reform to the mechanisms for public service accountability. A shrinking, instead of a deepening, of local democracy. A further centralisation of decision-making through the Economic Management Council. The complete failure to open up, as explicitly promised, the budgetary process. A Constitutional Convention that was used as a fig leaf for inertia and to which the only real concession was a failed referendum on the age of candidates for the presidency.

Scribbles on the wall

These, bear in mind, are tasks the Government set itself. They were not forced on it – it told us it could do these things. In most cases, it actually set out to achieve these goals and made a complete hames of the job. None of these issues was essentially about the availability of money or the constraints of the troika. They were all about political capacity – the ability to set out clear goals and move steadily towards them. And what we got were just scribbles on the wall. Instead of beaming up at us and waiting for applause, the Government should remember that big plans go nowhere if the system for delivering them is stuck.