Friday, February 26, 2010

Why does the state not value the work of carers?

Today I attended a forum organised by the Carers Association at Waterford Institute of Technology. I took part in a panel discussion on a broad range of issues facing carers. It is truly amazing the work that carers do. Caring for someone involves long hours, patience, love, understanding and dare I say a little frustration. It also brings rewards and as one carer put it, enjoy it as you will miss it one day.

This was the sixth event I attended on the issue of caring. They are always thought-provoking as you hear of the difficulties, challenges and obstacles faced by carers. You also hear of the love for those they care for and I am always lifted by their determination to have their voices heard. I genuinely believe that most politicians do not understand the issues facing carers. Carers do a job yet do they not get adequately paid. They recieve a small payment which is means tested and below the minimum wage. They save the state a fortune yet their work is not recognised. They receive little training or counselling despite in most cases becoming carers overnight. Respite care can be difficult to organise with the respite grant not going far enough.

Despite promises a National Carer’s Strategy has not been published. This is necessary as we need to deal holistically with the needs of carers. Very often the focus is on income support but this is only part of the picture. We need to deal with the heath, education and training need of carers. A piece meal approach is simply not good enough.

I attended a lot of pre-election events organised by carers. Some politicians turn up, some do not. For most they listen, they promise and yet they fail to deliver. Surely if they truly valued the work of carers they would deliver. Carers are remarkable people. The local Carers Association provides a wonderful service. Its co-ordinator Nuncy Murphy has been nominated as Waterford Person of the Year. This nomination is a sincere acknowledgement of the work that all carers do. Let’s hope that one day they get the state support that they need and deserve.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How we blew the boom Las Vegas Style

It was not so long ago that the Irish Economy was seen as one of the strongest in the world. Politicians and economists globally pointed to how a small country on the edge of Europe had one of the fastest growing economies in the world. Low taxation, light touch regulation and borrowing were the cornerstones. Ireland was rich and the rising tide would bring home all boats. The Celtic Tiger sandcastle would last forever despite its foundations being built on sand.

You must first understand where you went wrong before you put things right. The key word here is bubble. The construction bubble brought inflated land prices and overpriced houses. Government policy encouraged the bubbles growth. This sparked a borrowing mania that saw thousands of young families borrow heavily for properties worth a fraction of the price. The financial bubble made this possible and saw an elite borrow billions and use banks as their own personal cash cow. Bankers abused their positions and the regulator turned a blind eye.

Ireland’s version of casino capitalism failed. Our Las Vegas style boom finally went bust as it did in other countries including the US. One place that went even crazier than us was Dubai. Up until recently Dubai was seen as an ‘oasis of opportunity’, the king of the free-market economy. Extreme wealth for the rich, zero taxes for business, un-regulated banking and turning a blind eye to corporate corruption were celebrated and envied. Until of course the economic crash and the rude awakening as Dubai cancelled on its debt. The sand castle collapsed.

Why is it important to understand the past? Well it is said that you cannot solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. This is true. We need a new vision for Ireland. Not empty rhetoric or a utopian dream but a real vision for the future. It is time for genuine republican politics. We need to get our priorities right and learn from our mistakes. Casino capitalism will always fail. A republican vision for the future is about meeting people’s basic needs: a job, food, housing, health, education, and a sustainable environment. It is about a banking system that works for all citizens. It is about offering unemployed people work by creating an environment in which jobs can be created. Things can be better but only if we make the right choices.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dysfunctional and incompetent Government should follow O Dea and resign

Willie O Dea’s resignation as Minister for Defence was an inevitability that took too long to happen. Telling lies about a political opponent is one thing but to cover it up and lie to a court is something else. Willie is a trained barrister. He knew the law. He knows right from wrong. He knew exactly what he was doing. And he was trying to do down a political opponent in the run up to the 2009 local election. Like so many political controversies it was not the original wrong that tripped him but the cover up and subsequent lies.

This blogger does not seek to dance on his grave. He has resigned and paid a price. But I confess that I have no sympathy for the man’s position. His demeanour in the Dáil as motions of no confidence were tabled was the personification of arrogance. The sight of the Minister sniggering and smiling was unseemly to say the least. The Green Party are now trying to claim credit for his departure. What rubbish. They rolled out, one after the other to defend the indefensible. It was a mix of political and public pressure which finally forced them to act.

Tonight I attended an important event in Waterford City Hall to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the local Council of Trade Unions. The plight of ordinary working people was well characterised by the speakers. Willie O Dea’s resignation is welcome but what we really need is for this dysfunctional and totally discredited Government to go. The 29,000 people out of work in Waterford deserve better. We are being badly served by this Government. Willie O Dea’s resignation might mean the Government limps along for a bit longer. If the Green Party had any backbone they would withdraw from Government, precipitate an election and let the people pass judgment on this incompetent, corrupt and out of touch Government.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Phoney war continues

The Dáil is a great craic all the same. Nothing happens for ages and then all hell breaks loose. In the last few days we witnessed a lot of hot air and false outrage. Enda Kenny is a man desperately trying to be something he is not. He is competing with Gilmore for who comes across as the most outraged, most upset, most passionate and most in tune with public anger. It’s funny and cringe worthy at the same time. Meanwhile Gilmore spouts endless clichés and offers nothing by way of an alternative. He has still to offer a clear and credible economic alternative to the present Government. It’s a classic case of style over substance.

What we are witnessing is a phoney war. Remember Lisbon. Remember the cosy consensus between the Government and the main ‘so-called’ opposition parties. Yes to jobs, yes to investment and yes to save the economy was the mantra. Since Lisbon was passed we have lost more jobs with record numbers of people signing on. The real issue here is not about Lisbon. It is to point to an economic consensus shared by the main political parties. In truth Fine Gael are a slightly more conservative and right wing version of Fianna Fáil. Labour is not much different and has yet to provide a credible policy platform.

The phoney war is entertaining. Sharp Dáil exchanges make good telly. Kenny trying to outdo Gilmore is fun to watch. In the end it will not make a blind bit of difference to families who are struggling to pay mortgages, pay bills and put food on the table. It will not create a single job or get people back to work. It will serve a political purpose and may in the end provide new faces in Government. However new faces will not bring new ideas or new polices just more of the same. And more of the same is the last thing we need. The phoney war will continue and the misery for so many people with it. But it makes good telly right?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A vision unfolding before our eyes

The 30th January 2009 is a day etched in my memory. I got a number of calls from anxious and angry Waterford Crystal workers who were occupying the visitors centre. The dreaded news had arrived – the factory was to close. Truth be known we all knew it was coming. It was like a slow death in a family - you know it is coming but it does not ease the pain. Workers who had given years of service were fighting for their jobs, redundancies, pensions and dignity. It was a tragic end to a wonderful journey. One of the best programmes ever made for local radio was on the story of Waterford crystal produced by Liz Reddy. It was a magnificent story of the highs and lows, the joy and the pain of working in 'the glass'.

I grew up across the road from the Kilbarry plant. Like most Waterford people many members of my family worked there. When on holidays and people asked where you were from, they instantly linked Waterford to crystal. Waterford people are rightly proud of the connection and the tradition. It is something that we cannot afford to lose. And we almost did.

I say all of this as I am truly taken aback by the speed in which the new crystal venture is being delivered. I stood on the Mall today and looked on in amazement at how far advanced works are on the old ESB site. It has silenced the critics and the naysayer’s. It has enthused people who love Waterford and want to see our city progress. And this is only phase one. The next step is to construct the iconic building on the quay and progress the Viking triangle. A conference on this theme will take place in the city this year. As the main crystal project moves from the Mall to the Quay it opens up the possibility of creating a ‘craft village’ on the ESB site. It is hard not to get excited about all of this. The new vision is unfolding before our eyes. It may never ease the pain for those workers who were so badly treated but it is surely greater than how it was initially described – salvage from the wreckage.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Political resignations – are we missing the point?

Politics is a frustrating game, the art of politics even more so. The Irish political system is in need of radical reform yet its low standing with the public means there is very little debate about how we fix it. The departure of George Lee has divided people; some see him as a hero who was not prepared to be cannon fodder for a party while others see him as petulant and unprepared for the hard slog. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between.

What is undoubtedly true is that the Irish political system is badly served by ‘parish pump’ politics. The political system is dominated by special interests, corrupted by clientelism and dynastic politics, and resistant to change. The Oireachtas has consistently failed to exert sufficient scrutiny over the government and public bodies, and its composition reflects neither the talents nor the diversity of our people. A political system which is a carbon-copy of the British model, largely unreformed since partition, does not equip Ireland to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In this blog I offer some of my own views and not necessarily those of the party. I do so to initiate debate and to think outside the box. We need to find ways of strengthening the capacity of the legislature to hold Government to account. This has to involve fundamental reform of the Dáil, the Seanad and local government. I would give consideration to the introduction of a list system to elect a proportion of TDs. While the direct election of the Taoiseach may be an idea too far, why not allow the Taoiseach to appoint cabinet members based on their expertise in relevant areas rather nominating them from among members of the Oireachtas. This will have its pitfalls and the danger of political patronage is obvious but it is surely worthy of debate. I would also like to see a cull of QUANGOs and unelected bodies to cut back on waste and improve transparency and efficiency in decision making.

The question we must ask ourselves is this – are our political institutions the vehicles that fully reflect the values, aspirations, talents and ideas of the Irish people? I say no. While my ideas may not be popular, even within my party I offer them as a basis for discussion and debate. After all that is what politics is all about.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Our revenge will be the laughter of our children

I was six years old and I was sitting on the stairway in my home as relatives discussed some dramatic news. I knew it was dramatic by the tone of their voices and the occasional swear word. Bobby Sands had died. I vaguely knew who he was. He was a guy with a beard who was in jail and was refusing to eat. I was instinctively suspicious of his motives and as someone who was brought up to respect law and order, I believed only bad people were in prison. I had no idea of struggle, of state violence or of armed resistance. I was puzzled as my elders seemed to sympathise with the gaunt man with the beard. I still remember the moment very vividly and it had more of a profound effect on me than I realised at the time.

Some years later and being a little older and wiser I learned of another man who was in prison and who people were talking about. It was Nelson Mandela. This time I was able to do some research and form my own opinion as to his circumstances. And as I did so I became enraged. I learned about apartheid and the treatment of black people in South Africa. The whole notion of apartheid angered me. Maybe it was my obsession with the adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the story of the drifting journey of Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, down the Mississippi River on their raft. For me this story was one of the most enduring images of escape and freedom of my childhood. I was appalled at the concept of slavery and instantly empathized with the struggle of Mandela.

20 years on and the memories of Bobby Sands and Nelson Mandela still inspire me. On his death bed Bobby Sands wrote ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children’. There was no hint of bitterness. Today children in the North of Ireland and South Africa live in better places. Things are not perfect but they are better. I celebrate the 20th anniversary of the release of Nelson Mandela and salute the man’s extraordinary courage. He is one of the greats.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Is increasing the speed limit on outer ring road necessary?

A debate on increasing the speed limit on the outer ring road took place at this months City Council meeting. A motion was tabled by Fine Gael Councillor John Cummins to increase the limit from 60KPH to 80 KPH. This blogger approached the issue with an open mind and listened intently to the arguments in favour - the speed limit was simply to low, the road is an effective carriageway and limit should reflect this and secondary roads off the ring road had 80KMP limits. And then bang the killer punch arrived. The proposer confessed that the Gardai are opposed to increasing the limit and the city council Director of Services pointed to the need for costly engineering improvements if the limit was increased.

And it got me thinking. What material difference would the limit increase have on the motorist and how much time would you save if you travelled the full length of the road. The answer is seconds. I am sorry but increasing the speed limit on a road with adjoining footpaths to save a few seconds is not something that can be justified. An argument was made that the increase was needed because motorists were travelling 80KMP anyway. I do not believe motorist habits should determine speed limits and regard has to be given to the advice of the experts. For the record I drove the road today and was happy to stick to the 60KMP limit. A report is being prepared for all councillors and I understand that it will advise that we stick with the current limit. I will find it difficult to go against such advice but I look forward to the issue coming back to council again for final consideration. To readers of this blog, if you have an opinion on the subject matters drop me a line.

Monday, February 8, 2010

George Lee departure leaves Fine Gael reeling

When I first heard the news that George Lee was to resign his position with RTÉ and run for Fine Gael I was gob smacked. George was consistently critical of Government economic policy and offered a sound and considered critique. Given that you cannot put a piece of paper between the economic policies of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael it seemed a strange choice indeed. I assume he looked at Fine Gael riding high in the polls and as the largest opposition party it presented him with the best opportunity to get into the heart of Government.

Maybe he genuinely felt he could influence Fine Gael policy to such an extent as to turn it on its head. It is not surprising that it took George only nine months to find out that this was not possible and that Fine Gael does not offer an economic alternative to Fine Fáil. It was inevitable that he would become frustrated with Fine Gael.

This is nothing short of a fiasco and amounts to a further waste of taxpayers’ money as another bye election is on the cards. It is a PR disaster for Fine Gael. So what now for George Lee? And what does this say about Enda Kenny’s leadership. As an old Chinese proverb goes – may you live in interesting times.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Public suffer as HSE embargo takes its toll

As applications rise for payments under the community welfare system due to cuts in social welfare payments and with more people out of work local community welfare officers are unable to cope with the rising demand. This is not the fault of the staff who are trying their best but is a direct result of the national HSE staff embargo.

The Government needs to increase the number of community welfare officers available in Waterford in order to cope better with the rising applications from members of the public seeking help. While the Minister for Social and Family Affairs is rightly creating an extra 115 posts to meet increased demand in her own department people are being turned away from the local community welfare office due to insufficient staff numbers arising from the HSE embargo. This does not make sense as over 70% of the community welfare budget is funded by the Department of Social and Family Affairs.

Prior to the introduction of the HSE embargo the agreed Community Welfare Officer compliment was 18 and half yet the current number of CWO’s locally is 14. According to figures recently released by SIPTU, applications for medical cards rose 20 per cent between 2007 and 2008 in some regions; while claims for supplementary welfare increased 45 per cent and claims for mortgage assistance were up 70 per cent over the same period. In addition, mortgage assistance claims have increased by another 12 per cent since Christmas. Community welfare officers are dealing with families struggling to pay mortgages, put food on the table and pay lighting and heating bills. The basic fact is that more people are in need yet are finding it more difficult to get into the system. In Waterford people are constantly turned away from the Community Welfare clinic as the numbers are simply too great.

The HSE embargo is a crude instrument and does not reflect the changing reality on the ground. Given that most of the Community Welfare system funding comes from the DSFA I am calling on the Government to be flexible and make an exception to allow for the placement of extra staff in this area. At the very least the agreed staff compliment of 18 CWO’s in the Waterford office should be met.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

City Council should develop a Waterford City Green Tech Plan

Waterford City has traditionally been heavily dependent on manufacturing for jobs. This has in many respects thwarted entrepreneurial activity in the city and left us vulnerable as the jobless figure heads for 15,000. The current strategic focus on tourism as a key economic driver is sensible and deliverable. The recently launched ‘Destination Waterford’ venture in tandem with the new Waterford Crystal project and the Viking triangle plan will undoubtedly position the city to maximise its potential in this important area. But is this enough?

I see this as only one piece in the jigsaw and we need to develop other industries in the city. One of the emerging industries internationally is in the area of green technology. Waterford City is well placed to take advantage of this. Waterford I.T. has leaped forward in terms of their research focus in recent years and the Eco-Innovation Research Centre is one its three centres of excellence. To take full advantage of this I would like to see the city council develop a City Green Tech Plan. The plan could have as its core aim the need to optimise the availability of SEI and Science Foundation Ireland funding. Indeed Science Foundation Ireland has grown dramatically the amount of research in R&D clusters around the state. Waterford City could become one of the countries leading areas in Green Technology.

Having a city green tech plan would focus our minds on practical things that we should be doing. It would encourage us to maximise the use of indigenous renewable energy such as wind, biomass and bio fuel, prioritise funding in local renewable energy projects and work with local education providers in maximising our potential in this area. We could for example work with the local VEC to make free retraining opportunities available to unemployed trades-people to qualify them as energy rating assessors, or in the installation of solar, wood-pellet, ground heating and mini-wind turbines, as well as energy-saving and insulation systems. The potential is endless and I think a City Council Green Technology Plan would pull all of the stakeholders together and position the city as a national driver and leader in the area of green technology.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Dishonest marketing and packaging of products a disgrace

The proliferation of ‘Head Shop’s in this state is causing huge concern for parents and people who work in the field of drugs. Products are being dishonestly marketed and packaged to be something they are not. A whole range of products for sale in these shops are in fact a clever substitute for cocaine, ecstasy and cannabis. The packaging entices young people to buy the products for personal use yet the small print says they are not for human consumption.

Products sold as bath salts have street names such as ‘Hurricane Charlie’ or ‘Snow’ but are in fact cocaine substitutes. Ecstasy tablets in capsule form are sold as plant food and cannabis substitutes are sold as ‘Herb’ and ‘Spice’. One of the real dangers is that nobody knows the effect of these products. Lads in China and Eastern Europe are constantly producing new versions of these products which are completely untested. In reality we do not know what is in them. If you purchase a product from a pharmacist you have confidence in what it is you are buying because of the strong regulatory systems in place. The chemical composition of most of these products is unknown. This potentially makes them as dangerous as the drugs being sold on the streets. The absolute minimum required is the putting in place of a regulatory framework to deal with this.

The legal sale of such products is also making it more difficult to win the battle for the hearts and minds of young people on the issue of drugs. When they can be bought so easily, so cheaply and are marketed in such a ‘cool’ way how are we to convince young people that taking drugs is harmful.

A casual observance of these shops shows a steady trickle of young people eager to make a purchase. You can get advice as to which party pills (Ecstasy) are the strongest and which will give you the best ‘buzz’. Most people have no idea what it is they are putting in their mouths.

This creates a real problem in the fight against drugs and means we have to re-double our efforts in educating young people. It is horrifying to think chemical products are being sold in such a dishonest way and that young people especially are being enticed to use them. Undoubtedly these so called ‘Head Shops’ must be subject to new and robust regulation. At a minimum we must put in place robust guidelines as to how these products are packaged, marketed and sold. The bigger and more important battle is to successfully educate people about the dangers of these products and drugs generally.