Pat Leahy: The need for urgent Government action has never been greater

Housing is fast becoming the political ground-zero for the Coalition

Micheál Martin: he has declared Covid is no longer the top priority of Government – because housing is.  Photograph: Getty Images

Micheál Martin: he has declared Covid is no longer the top priority of Government – because housing is. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Most of the time government moves slowly. Often this is because of the institutional inertia to which every large organisation tends. But sometimes it is with good reason: usually far-reaching decisions that affect millions of people’s lives and cost billions of euro are not to be undertaken lightly or without detailed consideration.

Unlike the opposition, or indeed those of us who report and comment upon their activities, government plays with live ammunition. That’s power, I suppose. Our law-making process, with its numerous stages, its checks and balances and its high degree of time-consuming transparency, reflects this.

But the world has speeded up. One of the lessons of the pandemic is that sometimes governments need to act quickly, on incomplete information, mindful of the need to prevent the perfect being the enemy of the good.

This is sometimes hard and risky, and it is certainly alien to Irish politicians schooled by experience to be cautious and to avoid upsetting people. But it is necessary.

As the pandemic recedes – and this week that Micheál Martin declared it was no longer the top priority of Government, because housing is – there is a danger that the great machine of government chugs down a few gears, contemplating a summer that if not quite restful, is less tumultuous than it has become accustomed to.

This would a great mistake. The need for urgency has never been greater. Without it the Government could soon find itself is desperate straits.

All governments need a sort of forward momentum to sustain their political capital and credibility. Politics is always future-focussed, and governments need to maintain visible progress and conspicuous purpose in pursuit of their goals. This is one of the great advantages of government – the ability to control the agenda, the power of executive action.

It’s a double-edged sword, of course. If you’re in charge when things are going badly wrong for lots of people – as they are in the housing crisis – then there’s nowhere to hide. The buck stops with you. Hence the need now for a fierce urgency in government, not just to address the social problems that have been piling up during the past year, but to preserve the coalition itself.

There are three areas where there is a special need for urgency in Government at present: housing; Covid; and everything else.

Housing

Housing is fast becoming the political ground-zero for the coalition. Pressure on housing lists, on rents, on house prices is likely to increase in the coming months as the economy reopens, resulting in an even greater political and media clamour on the issue.

The Government has been pummelled for a fortnight on the role of investment funds in the housing market, but a greater problem than investment fund overreach is the shortage of supply in the market. The funds can be scared off from buying up batches of suburban semi-Ds one way or another; but generating greater supply in the housing market is a more complex and time-consuming task.

At this week’s Cabinet meeting the Taoiseach told his Ministers, effectively, that housing was the new Covid. But getting results requires more than just a plan of campaign; it requires muscular implementation. The structural blockages and delays between central government and local authorities will simply have to be overcome.

Covid

The nature of the Covid crisis is being transformed as the vaccines work their magic. But it is still a race against time to get as many people as possible vaccinated, as quickly as possible. The rates of vaccination have accelerated in recent weeks ,but they have yet to achieve the sort of warp speed necessary if the target of 80 per cent of adult by the end of June is to be met – not to mind the Tánaiste’s suggestion that everyone could be offered a vaccine by then. There is zero chance of this happening unless all levels of the system are operating with a high degree of urgency.

Privately Ministers admit that where political problems have arisen, they have sought to solve them by throwing money at them

This is not the case at the moment. One of the barriers to acceleration this week has been the tardiness of the National Immunisation Advisory Council in revising its recommendations on the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines.

Frankly, Government is tearing its hair out about this. Niac is within its rights to issue whatever advice it wants, though a restrictive recommendation would mean a slower rollout of the vaccines, with all the consequences that entails. But it is extraordinary that the body seems to think it can take its own sweet time on the issue. It’s not clear whether it stems from medical and professorial standing on its dignity, or just a function of clumsy processes; either way it does not display the urgency that is required.

Everything else

The need to gradually bring the public finances back under control after more than a year of pretty much unrestrained spending will gradually move to the centre of the Government’s actions over the coming months. The readjustment will not be done quickly but it will involve choices that the politicians will not relish.

Privately Ministers admit that where political problems have arisen, they have sought to solve them by throwing money at them. That era will soon end.

How does the great machine bring urgency to bear on its operations? By political leadership and official implementation; by constant attention to deadlines; by setting targets and insisting they are met; by persuading everyone to co-operate; and when that fails, by finding ways to compel them.

Incidentally, one of the ablest practitioners of these arts is the new secretary general of the Department of Health Robert Watt. There was a political controversy about his proposed salary increase to €290k recently (in the end he did not take it). When the proposed new €250k salary for hospital consultants was mooted last week, nobody raised a whimper. Mr Watt and his lieutenants will be earning their money in the coming weeks.

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