Some things stop you dead in your tracks when you are scrolling online. This week on Twitter, Fine Gael launched a petition calling on energy companies to cut prices for households. Next week, they might have one asking if people want lower taxes, or are in favour of Santa Claus.
The petition, fronted online by party senator Garret Ahearn, is purely performative politics at a time when what is needed is substance. It is all about the headline and nothing about the detail. Irish political debate – the bit that matters, as opposed to the shouting in the Dáil during the week – is about who can do best in the messy and complex world of actually getting things done.
Let’s just look at the energy market. The big players like the ESB have been running up record profits, but this is entirely due to their electricity generation operation, rather than over-charging the punters. The rules of the energy market are that companies cannot use profits in their generation arm to subsidise their consumer arms. They can’t sell below cost to consumers, in other words.
There are really important issues here about how the Irish energy market is set up and how prices are set, determined in part by EU rules and in part domestically. There are also questions about whether energy bills will stay higher than we have been used to and how policy should respond to this – for example, by using the promised tax on windfall profits to compensate those who need it.
None of this important debate is advanced by a petition calling on companies to cut prices, which they will probably start to do at some stage anyway, as long as wholesale prices don’t shoot up again.
Yes, there are gaps between Sinn Féin at one end of the spectrum and Fine Gael at the other, in areas like tax policy. But a lot of the big economic and budget arguments are settled
Politics is often about performance, of course. As a senior party operator put it to me many years ago, when I asked how a particularly ambitious policy would actually be implemented: “That is a job for a man (and senior civil servants were largely men in those days) with a blue suit and brown shoes.” I am no judge on this as a fashion statement, but the point is that politicians see themselves as legislators and direction-setters, rather than functionaries; as policy-setters, rather than doers. But what we need above all now, at a time when a lot (if not all) of the big arguments about economic direction are settled, are politicians who can make sure stuff gets done.
This will not be easy. Just as Ireland got caught by a failure to anticipate the scale of housing need arising from economic and population growth after 2015, we also clearly do not have the capacity in much of the State machine – the civil and wider public service – to deliver on the scale required. This has created a credibility gap in Irish politics, a lack of trust in what can actually be delivered.
We have seen it all before: the failure over many years to deliver on successive housing plans, the eternity it is taking to get any shift on building on State lands, the snail-like delivery of major projects such as the Children’s Hospital, the failure to meet climate goals, the slow-bicycle race that is Sláintecare, and so on. And the other manifestation of the lack of State capacity are shortages: of houses, apartments, hospital beds, consultants to perform operations, mental health services and so on.
Nor is the problem confined to the current Coalition, though they do control the levers right now. Does anyone really believe that the Labour Party in government could get one million houses built over the next decade, or that Sinn Féin could ensure sufficient progress is made by next April so that ending the eviction ban then would not lead to a spike in homelessness?
Come the next general election, there will indeed be rows about policy. And yes, there are gaps between Sinn Féin at one end of the spectrum and Fine Gael at the other in areas like tax policy. But a lot of the big economic and budget arguments are settled. Everyone agrees that the State will spend a bag of money addressing the housing issues and roughly what a future health service will look like. The key issue for voters is who they believe can expedite this. Who has the energy and ability to push things through? In this context, it is no coincidence that the Government has put one of its more effective operators, Paschal Donohoe, in charge of the massive investment under the National Development Plan.
The big players like the ESB have been running up record profits, but this is entirely due to their generation arms, rather than over-charging the punters
Lying behind this are serious capacity issues and blockages across the State system. Stephen Garvey, the chief executive of Glenveagh, one of the big builders, pointed out at a recent conference that An Bord Pleanála has 70 inspectors and 15 board members to regulate the entire planning system, compared with the Central Bank, which has 1,100 staff to regulate the financial system. The Central Bank was beefed up massively after the financial crisis – and the resources of the planning system need the same treatment, urgently.
The State’s resources have expanded rapidly in recent years, driven by the influx of foreign investment. Tax revenue has doubled since 2015 and the number of people at work has risen by 600,000, or more than one-third. As a result, the State is not short of cash to do things. But having received the advantage of a massive influx of cash, Ireland has to get better at spending it.
The capacity of the State to manage the economy, and to provide services, has not expanded with the economy. Addressing this is a long-term challenge. It requires more than setting up a few new quangos. But this is what Irish politics needs to be about: the practicalities of delivering for people, with all the complexity this involves.
Wrap it up in a political message, for sure. The vision thing has its place. But the big issue now is not direction: it is delivery.