Michael McDowell: New dynamism needed to overcome Ireland’s economic long Covid

Torpor in public affairs risks creating a society stagnant and underachieving

Everything seems to take forever in Irish public affairs. Every major project gets mired in controversy and, frequently, in lengthy and massively expensive litigation. Hospitals such as the children’s hospital and the new maternity hospital take decades to plan, get approval and get built. Transport infrastructure is bogged down in policy and planning disputes. Twenty or 30 years after the first plans for a Dublin underground rail system were first put forward we are still years off the commencement of construction. Completion dates are still in the distant future. Plans for Luas network extensions lie on shelves unimplemented. Nobody seems to care if huge sums are spent planning projects that are quietly abandoned or deferred beyond the political time horizon.

It does not have to be so. In the Victorian era, a great rail network was planned and built in record time. Irish cities were given electric tram networks in the early 20th century. A much poorer, more unequal and far less technologically resourced society seemed capable of doing infrastructural development far more quickly and better than we are today.

Perhaps one major infrastructural programme that was successful was the major motorway construction programme of the early noughties. And for some miraculous reason it succeeded against guerrilla campaigns featuring tree-huggers in the Glen of the Downs, and semi-druidic objectors who wanted to save the “sacred space” of the Tara-Skryne valley, and those who wanted to preserve the extremely vestigial traces of Carrickmines castle.

For the record, the Glen of the Downs is still a picturesque wooded valley, the motorway to Navan was built on a line that took traffic much farther away from the Hill of Tara and the valley space is still sacred for our latter-day druids, and most of the vestigial remains of the castle at Carrickmines are mouldering away inaccessibly in a roundabout. The court system was extensively deployed to achieve these outcomes.

Just imagine where we would be if the existing motorway network had been left for construction in the hands of various county councils building 10-mile stretches if and when money was made available. Environmental objections to the Galway ring road have stalled that project for decades. Balanced regional development has hugely benefited from the partly-built motorway programme which will inevitably be built out when the Green party exits office. The cars may well be electric, and the trucks and buses may be hydrogen-powered, but Donegal and Derry deserve and will see their road infrastructure built at some point in the future.

Litigation

Implementation of the Kelly report on civil litigation is belatedly to receive government approval in the coming weeks. Going to law needs to be faster and cheaper. Litigation is not an activity that needs to be expanded; but justice needs to be accessible and its administration needs to be efficient. Simple cases have become more and more complex and slower and slower over the last 40 years. Litigation is now a strategic tactic because of its expense and delay.

Delay in trying criminal cases is growing and has achieved legendary proportions. The time frames for criminal prosecution in Ireland, the UK and the United States are radically different. Trials that took one or two days 50 years ago take one or two weeks today.

Planning litigation is seriously damaging to our economic wellbeing. It isn’t just the rich and the powerful that suffer. The legal debacle over flooding arising in a turlough at Lough Funshinagh in Co Roscommon is a case in point. Saving people from having to abandon their flooded homes because of European Union laws relating to environmental impact of emergency works seems daft. But that is our present-day reality. The demolition of a wind farm at Derrybrien bog is a monument to a society that has become detached from reality. Telling elected members of local authorities that they must de-zone land zoned for homebuilding during the middle of a housing crisis is not merely counter-intuitive; it is daft.

Stagnation

We can be smug about our real economic achievements; but we should be very careful that we are not creating a society that is stagnant and underachieving.

Public impatience at inactivity, procrastination and delay is, I think, approaching breaking point. While our public service has served us well in many ways in the past, people cannot understand why Covid made the obtaining of birth certificates and child passports so difficult. Working from home is all very well but the State has to perform its functions in a timely way.

Getting people back to work in the hospitality sector should be a priority. Many people are cynical about schemes to fund artists while restaurants and cafes can only open part-time.

I really hope that our Government feels the public mood. It’s not only their skin that is in the game. We need a new sense of dynamism to overcome social and economic long Covid.