Ireland’s suffering is only intensified by its loss of the art of good-policy making

Journalist Deirdre O’Shaughnessy did a long post yesterday on a very personal experience she had in Patrick Street in Cork recently. It’s worth reading the whole way through to get its fuller effect, but the point she makes at the end is worth highlighting…

…while we are all distracted by Irish Water and suspicious greenways and TDs’ fraud, our society is crumbling, and, distracted by our own private struggles, we are letting it.

Yesterday the death of a homeless man in central Dublin  triggered a debate around the government’s capping of the Rent Supplement, which has pushed many families into Bed and Breakfast and record numbers onto the streets of the Republic just as the winter weather hits.

Like the closure of women’s refuges it represents a pressing down on service budgets at the extreme edge of social policy. Relatively speaking the numbers are small, but the stories which emerge speak directly to Ireland’s self conception as a caring society.

The public debate invariably falls back into mutual recrimination, allowing one famously libertarian Irish MEP to remark:

He has a point. Long term policy arcs were all the rage in the post war era in Ireland as much as in the UK. Massive public house building programmes were a feature in both jurisdictions, but for much of the last forty years, successive governments as deferred to market demand as the prime locus for social action.

But Jason O’Mahony also has a point when he argues that there’s a dishonesty about an undernourished policy sphere in which everything is weighed and tested against local parish interest as opposed to the interest of Dublin or the broader interests of the country.

He offers the plumping for county hospitals over regional centres of excellence:

Some years ago, a number of Irish politicians knowingly sentenced some their constituents to death. A report by experts pointed out that small local hospitals did not have the experience, capacity and technology to provide specialist care in the case of heart attacks.

In effect, the report said that a person who had a heart attack on the steps of the local hospital stood a better chance of survival if they were flown by air ambulance to a regional hospital with a dedicated experienced unit who dealt with heart attacks every day.A rational analysis of the report would have led to a debate about how to ensure that such an efficient air ambulance unit could be provided.

Instead, in Ireland, the local deputies argued that every small local hospital should have such a cardiac unit, a proposal that was not only impractical but if attempted to be implemented would suck resources from other parts of the health service, thus resulting in unnecessary deaths from non-cardiac related illness.

Why did they do it? Why did these elected representatives knowingly campaign for a policy they knew would actually kill some of their constituents? Primarily, one would suggest, because their constituents demanded it, and in a democracy, the voter is always right. Even when he or she doesn’t read the report or just plain refuses to accept its findings because he or she simply don’t like them. The voter rules.

When the voter is then standing over the grave of his or her wife or husband who died on an operating table from a heart attack, in the local hospital, it’s not their fault. It’s the health service’s fault for not providing a world class cardiac unit in a tiny town. The local deputy will attend the funeral and agree that the wife or husband has been let down, despite having known this would happen from the expert report. And so on it goes.

Now there are many considerations here.

When Peter Geoghegan and I visited Roscommon on our mad one day dash through a greater swathe of the country than either he or I had anticipated, we heard that what filled people with dread was the thought of needlessly dying on the road to Galway.

Yet a functional solution is hardly rocket science either. David Allen Green wrote a blog for the FT recently trying to clarify what policy is and what it’s not…

…a policy is about obtaining an outcome which otherwise would not be obtained but for that policy being in place. It should thereby make a difference. If the same things would happen (or not happen) anyway – regardless of any particular policy being adopted – then you do not really have a policy, unless perhaps that policy is just one of pure laissez-faire.

He concludes…

The deeper problem is that there is often little political advantage in good policy-making. The voters and the press find the exchange of slogans and the performance of gestures comforting. Most people who take an interest in politics are preoccupied by the soap opera of the personalities involved, or in the exercises of tribalism and sentimentality which usually pass for national political debate.

This is not surprising, as good policy-making is as boring as any other detailed exercise involving the competing interests of other people. Nonetheless, it still needs to be got right. Good policy is the considered course of action by which a supposed public benefit is accomplished, which otherwise would not be accomplished, by the best use of the resources available. It is grounded in reality and thought-through as to its consequences. But get policy wrong and instead of the desired benefits there may be further and unintended problems, or even nothing achieved at all.

Quite. From an age of broad (perhaps stultifying) consensus we are entering an age of prolonged divergence. In the process as O’Mahony notes…

…democratic politics is becoming less and less tolerant of long term planning. It’s attracting candidates who are thinking more and more short term, sometimes just to Friday afternoon or the following days newspapers, candidates who aren’t interested in anything that they can’t wave at their voters before the next election.

O’Shaughnessy’s story probes a crucial sidenote to all of these matters. She describes in Hobbes’ terms a life at the margin that remains what it always was, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”.

The true mettle test for Irish democracy lies not in its willingness to pay attention for the moment it takes to blame the inherited plutocracy, but to persevere for “an outcome which otherwise would not be obtained”.

Politics will always be politics, and in the game of who eats whom, as Arbitrary Constant notes politics will always trump policy. It’s our means to establish, understand and communicate a workable public will that’s missing.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty