Friday, 7 November 2008

The luxury of daft ideas

I read an article in today's Irish Times by a guy called Turlough O'Sullivan. He's the director general of Ibec, the Irish employers' representative body. In the article, he complains that "Ireland simply cannot afford the luxury of public service" and calls for cutbacks and dramatically reduced headcount in them (in the light of the current recession).

This got me thinking about the quality of Ireland's public services. Or lack thereof.

Let's be clear about this: Irish public services, by comparison with those of most other European countries - including some much poorer ones - are pretty awful. Let's take some examples. There is no free healthcare. Going to see a GP will cost you 50-60 Euros. Seeing an ear consultant (and I speak from experience here) can involve a waiting list of one year. Dental care is inordinately expensive (so much so that in the light of the economic downturn, people are starting to view it as self-indulgent - and I have that information from a dentist). There is still no train to Dublin airport (and rail travel between regional towns/cities doesn't really exist). A letter posted from outside Ireland will take about 5 days to be delivered, after it has arrived in Ireland. There is no underground in Dublin, and the two tram lines there don't even connect. Buses are infrequent and the capital still doesn't have an integrated ticketing system.

I know I sound like one of those annoying people who's lived outside the country for too long, and maybe I've become said irritating type, but whenever I come back to the country I really am shocked at how poor the public services are. The contrast with Ireland's nearest neighbour, the UK - a country not renowned for the quality of its public services - is unbelievable. British public services start looking incredibly good once you've come back and tried to use the Irish ones.

Which brings me back to Turlough O'Sullivan. He is clearly having a laugh when he uses the word luxury in conjunction with Irish public services. There is absolutely nothing luxurious about them.

There is an obvious counter-argument to his recommendations of cutbacks: investing in quality public services, its staff and associated infrastructure can create jobs, and thus spending, and thus economic growth. Not to mention an improvement in the quality of life.

But I think the real reason why O'Sullivan likes the idea of cuts in our public services (and for the people who run them) is because people like him don't use them. I would suspect that he can afford a very nice health insurance package, generally travels by car instead of public transport and pays extra to courier mail when he needs quick and reliable delivery of it. These kind of people are not best-placed to make sweeping pronouncements on services that they don't use, and which other people rely on.

Ultimately if Ireland wants to be the modern country that its political and business leaders have been waxing lyrical about for quite a while now, it needs proper, sustained investment in its public services. What it definitely can't afford is cutbacks - or the luxury of daft ideas.

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