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Fintan O’Toole: Why is Ireland unable to solve basic problems?

The Republic is a rich, young, stable country. So why is it so dysfunctional?

Why does the State not work? Why is it chronically unable to produce effective, timely and fair responses to social crises? Why can it not tackle a crisis of homelessness that has been building up for years?

Why is housing provision so chaotic? Why do we spend enough money to have a first-class health service but end up with waiting lists that will top a million patients this year? Why are we unable to meet even modest targets to cut carbon emissions, making us by far the worst performer among comparable countries?

Why do key infrastructure projects like rural broadband or the Dublin Metro approximate the idea of infinity? Why can we not provide children in distress with basic psychological services? And so on.

Ireland is a rich country. It is a young country, with a very favourable ratio of people of working age to retired people. That young population is very highly educated. Ireland has one of the most temperate climates in the world, and even if it is not immune from the effects of climate change, it does not suffer the worst of them.


The island has been, broadly, at peace for 20 years. In its almost century-long history, the State has not been at war, invaded or seriously threatened with overthrow. Ireland does not have a large post-industrial rust belt. It is one of the most stable democracies in the world.

These are enormous advantages. So why has Ireland not developed a culture of governance capable of tackling the most obvious problems? Welcome to the seven deadly sins of the dysfunctional State:

1. Multinationals narrow the mind

The paradox of the way modern Ireland has developed is that governments can get away with failure so long as there is the one big success story. The single show that must be kept on the road is the attraction of multinational (mostly US-based) investment and we do it extraordinarily well.

But it has two negative effects – it narrows the mind and it makes it possible for the State to keep functioning as before even when it screws up very badly. Keep the multinationals happy and the rest will be grand – even when it’s not grand at all. Misgovernment can be tolerated, so long as a very concentrated part of society and the economy is healthy.

The narrowness of what counts as success in the Irish economy is breathtaking: the top 10 per cent of firms account for 87 per cent of value-added in manufacturing and 94 per cent in services. So what’s going on in the other 90 per cent of firms (especially the indigenous companies where most of us actually work) seems of limited importance.

For example, productivity – a key marker of economic health – looks good because it is rising in the inner core of highly successful multinationals. But this disguises the reality that most Irish businesses have actually experienced a decline in productivity in recent years.

And this is true of so many other basic markers of success. GDP can look spectacular if a handful of multinationals are shifting their capital in the right way. Just 15 commodities make up 90 per cent of goods exported from Ireland, so exports will look spectacular if those markets are thriving – astonishingly, just five firms account for a third of all Irish exports.

All of this has a huge effect on official thinking. It disconnects lived social reality from economic statistics. And it means that, so long as the bet on a tiny number of multinationals is continuing to pay off (God forbid it ever ceases to do so), there is no irresistible pressure to set other goals and meet them. The State can afford a lot of mediocrity: “ah sure it will be grand” is our motto because it is in part true.

2. Phoney political competition

The State should benefit from the fact that there is in reality extraordinary continuity of government. Every single government in the history of the State has been headed by one of two essentially identical centre-right parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. This has huge drawbacks, but it should mean at least that broadly the same policies are pursued over the long term, allowing serious and sustained structural approaches to problems. This is true in relation to what we might call the “prime directive”: keep the multinationals happy.

But on everything else, the very similarity of the parties has made it necessary for them to pretend that the crowd that’s in is making a hames of everything and the crowd that’s out can sweep in and start all over again. Phoney competition means that the largest parties will not do what is most obviously needed – agree and implement 10-year strategies in key areas like housing, health, infrastructure and education.

3. The supreme unimportance of ideas

Even more damaging than phoney competition is the way parties with hard ideological instincts but very soft backbones swing back and forth like pendulums: movement is side to side rather than forward.

Take Fine Gael and healthcare: one of the reasons things are in such a mess is that Fine Gael had a signature policy – universal health insurance. When it came to power in 2011, James Reilly spent his whole term of office organising the system around this idea. Then, in 2014, he was succeeded by his colleague Leo Vardakar who simply abandoned the whole thing because it was too difficult.

So a system spends three years being turned around and the next three years being set adrift. Thus, for example, a flagship gesture for Reilly was abolishing the board of the HSE. And a flagship gesture for current Minister for Health Simon Harris – from the very same party – is restoring the board of the HSE. This kind of stuff is possible only in a governing culture that has contempt for its own ideas.

4. Binge and purge, binge and purge

“Feast or famine” is the Irish way. The then Fianna Fáil minister for finance, Charlie McCreevy, infamously articulated his fundamental principle in 2002: when I have money I spend it, and when I don’t, I don’t.

This sums up the apparent determination of Irish governments to prove that John Maynard Keynes is for the birds and that we don’t need countercyclical fiscal policies. When the State is flush, money is spent, often without even the vaguest reckoning of costs and benefits. (The recent “granny grant” proposal from the Independent Alliance Ministers is an example: costs range from Shane Ross’s €70 million to Yale economics professor Cormac O’Dea’s €400 million a year; benefits relative to alternative ways of supporting families are unknown.)

And when the State is broke, all the things it should be doing to support a flagging economy, like well-costed infrastructure projects, stop dead. The alternation of crazed tax breaks for developers up to the crash of 2008 with a virtually complete halt to house building in the Great Recession deepened the dysfunctionality of housing provision.

Just as there has to be rigorous fiscal discipline in good times, governments must have the nerve to continue with sensible and necessary spending when the economy is in a downturn.

5. Accountable, moi?

Every time there is a scandal, the answer is always “culture change” or “systemic problems”. Cultures in public organisations do need to change and there are plenty of systemic problems to be addressed. But the very fact that these phrases are rolled out year after year, scandal after scandal, should tell us something fundamental: nothing will change without direct personal accountability at the top.

So, for example, when the cervical smear scandal emerged in May, the Taoiseach told us that “culture change” was needed to address “a failure of open disclosure by doctors and also a failure by senior management to make sure that that happened”.

This is almost exactly what Mary Harney said 14 years ago when the Michael Neary scandal emerged at Lourdes hospital in Drogheda and she promised that it "must mean a sea-change in culture . . . a systematic, continuous and open approach to error reporting and correction involving everyone in the healthcare setting."

Cultures change, not because they want to, but because they have to – and they have to when there are personal consequences for bad decision-making. Instead, ministers protect senior civil servants and are in turn given protection.

Tracy Cooper, who did an excellent job in establishing the Heath Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) as an independent inspectorate, told The Irish Times on her retirement in 2014: "The problem is we have never had any consequence so that if there is repeated system failure … Nothing really happens." She was speaking of the health service but her words apply to the entire system of government.

The 2011 Fine Gael-Labour programme for government recognised this impunity and promised to end it: “We will pin down accountability for results at every level – from ministers down – with clear consequences for success or failure. Ministers should be responsible for policy and public service managers for delivery.”

Dare one ask who might be accountable for the failure to implement this accountability?

6. The myth of the market

The enthusiasm with which Irish mainstream politics embraced the new gospel of “the market” is probably down to two things: its mimicking of old Catholic social teaching and its endorsement of sheer laziness. For most of its history, the State was under the sway of a Catholic doctrine which hinged on three simple letters: for. Thus the Constitution does not say that the State will provide free primary education. It says it will “provide for” it. Anything else and we were on the road to godless Communism.

So the State provides the money and the context – but must not actually do the stuff itself. This was meant to ensure church control of health and education but morphed very easily into the new religion of neoliberal doctrine in which the profit motive must always be present. So the State not only can’t control the health service, it can’t build new schools (even if the companies who get the contracts to do so have a habit of going bust) and it can’t build a rural broadband infrastructure and it can’t directly build social housing.

Happily this also means it doesn’t have to – and has someone else to blame when it all goes wrong.

7. Our low expectations

We put up with repeated failures on the national scale for three reasons. One is that, as Samuel Beckett put it, “habit is a great deadener”. We have had so few transformative moments of leadership – the Whitaker/Lemass revolution in 1958; “free” secondary education in 1967; the Belfast Agreement of 1998 – that we don’t expect or demand them.

Second, and somewhat paradoxically, we manage change for ourselves. Irish society has transformed itself radically in recent decades but it has largely been a process of the State responding to and formalising change (on same-sex marriage and the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, for example) rather than initiating it. So we’re used to getting on with a dysfunctional State that is way behind where we are.

And finally, we too are trapped in the logic of eternal crisis management. When things keep breaking down, you really need a quick fix. Patch it up and make do – until the next time. Until we repent these seven deadly sins, the next time will never be far away.