It looks like a general election is likely. I come from a long-term Fine Gael family, and worked for Fine Gael for a number of years. That said, my politics has always been driven by policy. I have never bought into the idea of politics as just a brand you unthinkingly endorse. I have on occasion voted for Labour, or the Greens. I voted Green in the locals and Fine Gael in the Euros.
I am completely undecided over who to vote for in this election - though the likes of Sinn Féin, Aontú, PBP and the various alphabet soup far left parties are absolutely out. I have fundamental policy differences with Fine Gael on this occasion. Firstly, electing any party to a third term is ill-advised because by then they are so institutionalised by government they usually reek of arrogance. Fine Gael in particular do so. They usually do in government in any case. A classic 'rational-legal' party, they are entirely at home by process and tend to need a strong coalition partner like Labour to rein in their worst tendencies (and Fine Gael rein in the worst tendencies of Labour). I was worried by Fine Gael being in government without Labour - and all my worst fears were realised. Fine Gael has become insufferably self-righteous, woefully out of touch and blinded to reality.
As someone dealing with depression, I have seen the public health system up close – and it is not a pretty picture. Fine Gael policies have made it worse in key areas, as it applies theories and presumptions that are not merely wrong but counterproductive. Basic services are at break-down. Treatment that I needed quickly took three years to get – by which time the illness had gone from mild to critical and life-threatening, entirely thanks to government policy. I do have some sympathy for them in one sense. A key problem was the disastrous creation of the HSE by Micheal Martin as Minister for Health. It created such a monstrous mess of a bureaucracy that trying to untangle it, much less fix it or abolish it, is almost impossible. Many of the worst problems that dog the health service are a direct result of the policies of Martin, and Mary Harney, for example, mass closure of beds and hospitals, and creating a bureaucratic monster so overstaffed at bureaucrat level that it now swallows up an appalling amount of the health budget and, barring mass forced sackings of many of the bureaucrats, and abolishing many of their roles, it will continue to be a monster that swallows up funds that are needed in hospitals and to hire vital on-the-ground staff.
But as set up by Martin, there is no command and control leadership the minister can use, as the HSE is akin to its own country that fights off any ‘interference’ and is big enough to be able to. I doubt anyone can really tame the HSE monster, and it is so big it is almost impossible even to abolish. It is a perfect reminder that if you create a mass bureaucracy you need to know what you are doing and get it right. Get it wrong, and because of its size you may not be able to fix the mistakes later.
Homelessness and lack of housing is a serious problem, but Fine Gael is critically incapable of solving the problem – simply because of its blind devotion to the market and wrong belief that the problem is that the right conditions have not been created yet to enable the market to flourish. Fine Gael, like many right-of-centre parties, genuflects before the market and thinks the solution to every problem is a better market. They are oblivious to the fact that it is an entirely discredited theory that in the past gave us a notorious famine, the tenements, mass emigration and mass poverty. It has never worked anywhere, ever. Yet they cling to it as an article of faith. Every approach they have adopted to the housing shortage is based on “let’s get the market fixed”. So if builders aren’t building enough houses, the Fine Gael approach is to axe planning controls that were “restricting the market.” And axe design standards to give people living in the buildings proper standards of life – as that ‘obviously’ is restricting the market too. And axe the right of people to challenge ill-considered developments as they too are supposedly ‘restricting the market’. And abolish restrictions that take into account historically sensitive locations because they too are ‘restricting the market’. Fine Gael’s approach, frankly, under the catastrophic Eoghan Murphy, the worst planning minister since the notorious Kevin Boland in the 1960s (whose decisions on Dublin we now curse), is to screw proper planning, the rights of residents and occupiers, any concern for history or heritage, or pretty much anything and give developers what they want, because that will supposedly ‘get enough houses built’. Except it won’t, but will create catastrophic problems that will haunt future generations and be cursed by them.
For me, Murphy’s screwing up of planning to help developers is a deal-breaker. Unless Fine Gael says it will reinstate the planning rules he scrapped, then I simply cannot vote for the party. If Fianna Fáil, Labour or the Greens commit to reversing his planning policies, they will get my vote. It is that simple. As a historian I am aware of how big a deal his catastrophic mistakes are. Planning is no minor issue. Get the planning rules wrong, and they produce outcomes that directly affect people’s lives pretty much forever – because it is so hard to row back a catastrophic planning mistake. If you, as has happened, row back on proper size of apartments, people for decades to come will have to live with those new cramped unhealthy spaces. If you scrap controls that protect heritage, the loss of that heritage is permanent. You cannot get back what you have destroyed. The planning mistake that was high rise in Ballymun in the 1960s haunted the northside of Dublin, and the residents of the complex, for decades – leaving people to live their lives in a botched planning scheme that ended up almost unfit for human habitation.
So planning is not some minor point. Get it wrong, and it can create long-term impacts on ordinary people that can destroy the physical and mental health of people, their quality of life, generate social and personal alienation and add to state costs in terms of the necessary health costs to deal with the side effects. None of that is understood by this government.
The market will never solve the housing crisis. The market is not about providing homes, but generating profits. That is fine. There is nothing wrong with profit. As with the famine, with tenements, with emigration, with poverty, only the state and local government can provide the solution – never the market. An extensive state-building and local-government building programme is needed for houses at a cost ordinary people can manage. Nor is the homelessness problem simply a product of a lack of houses. Many of the people homeless are in fact homeless not because they haven’t got a home but because of psychological issues, drink and drug issues, they got kicked out for or could not cope with living in a home. Different types of medical supports and inventions are needed there.
So for me, planning is the deal-breaker with Fine Gael. I will vote to get the government’s incompetent meddling in planning reversed. That is my bottom line.
➽ Jim Duffy is a writer.