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Irish Politics

Short-termism of National Broadband Plan is typical of this government

Just as we thought that the National Children’s Hospital massive cost over-run might have been a one-off from which the Government and the permanent government in the civil service would draw a serious lesson, we see the Government over-ride the advice of its most senior financial civil servant, Robert Watt, against committing to the national broadband scheme on the ground, among others, that the €3 billion price tag might prove to be a huge underestimate of the final cost which might be of the order of €5 billion.

More worrying still, the wisdom of attempting to put a fibre optic cable connection into every home in Ireland is itself coming under intense scrutiny. Harry’s Magee’s analysis in the Irish Times of how unusual such an outcome would be, especially for a country like Ireland with its scattered rural population, throws the spotlight on the viability and desirability of the entire project.

Redacting the envisaged capital contribution by the licensee in papers provided to members of Dáil Éireann on grounds of “commercial sensitivity” seems ridiculous.  The Government is accountable to Dáil Éireann under the Constitution.  How can members of the Dáil properly hold the government and the project up to scrutiny if they are prevented from knowing the relative size of the investment to be made by the licensee in comparison to that envisaged by way of Exchequer contribution?

It is dangerous to Paschal Donoghue’s reputation as Finance Minister that he should so publicly override the advices emanating from his own department.  While some people have wondered whether such a public dispute is unprecedented, I can assure my readers today that in the past on occasion senior civil servants sent dissenting memoranda directly to the cabinet, bypassing their own minister, and justified doing so on the basis that they did not wish to compromise their minister as regards his personal stance on the issue.

If the national broadband programme could indeed cost closer to €5bn, the value for money issues and calculations would come into sharp focus. 

I have a sinking feeling that Fine Gael has somehow persuaded itself that it is more important, in advance of the local and European elections this month and a possible general election in the autumn, to appear to be committing to broadband for every house in the country than to postpone a decision with a view to examining alternatives and value for money issues.

This form of short-termism is becoming typical of the government.  The reform of local government and the possibility of directly elected mayors have likewise been put on hold by means of a phony public consultation and meaningless series of plebiscites in some cities.

Again, reform of local government has been kicked down the road with a view to making it a non-issue in the local government elections.

This form of political cowardice is also to be seen in relation to the local property tax.  The government has again postponed any decision on its reform and has put a temporary hold on scheduled revaluations leading to major increases in the tax for householders, especially in Dublin.  A phony consultative process is underway in respect of reform of the LPT designed, yet again, to make it a non-issue in the coming electoral season.

In the same vein, the Metrolink project and the BusConnects project have been carefully manipulated so that yet more public consultation will take place before any votes are cast and hard decisions are made.

When the Metrolink project was originally unveiled, the NTA claimed that they would carry out a cost benefit analysis in the future but explained that it would have been premature to do so before unveiling their plans for public approval. Nonetheless, the Government committed to the project in its major capital expenditure progamme last year.

Readers of this column will remember that €170m was spent on planning Metrolink before any final decision was made on whether to proceed with it.

At the time, I was bold enough to suggest that the NTA’s €3bn price tag was, in all probability, an underestimate of its cost and that the ultimate price tag might be of the order of €4bn.

On social media some people involved in the Metrolink project engaged in anonymous criticism of me for exaggerating the costs involved.

You can imagine then how I felt when the Taoiseach this week, while defending the €3bn price tag on the broadband project, commented that such expenditure had to be seen in the context of other major capital programmes including Metrolink which the Taoiseach said was likely to cost “between €4bn and €5bn”.

RTE asked Paschal Donoghue whether he was aware that the original €3bn price tag for Metrolink had grown, in the Taoiseach’s mind, to between €4bn and €5bn. Paschal said that he had not received any additional figures in relation to the Dublin Metrolink project.  He said that such a cost increase would be “considerable” but he said that he has “always acknowledged that building the metro is a huge and very complicated project”.

I need hardly remind you that the government abandoned its proposal to cannibalise most of the Luas green line for the Metro project in the face of strong opposition from the commuting public which had learned for the first time that the Green Line might be closed for up to four years.

Again, I had been doubted by the same people on social media when I claimed here that the original estimate of a temporary closure of the Green Line for months rather than years was a gross underestimate of the length of the disruption.

Metrolink has re-entered the consultation pipeline reserved for all controversial political decisions. 

Like the problem experienced in the London sewage system and colloquially known as fatbergs, the political postponement pipeline is backing up badly while the Government struggles to avoid alienating the electorate in the run up to the local, European and general elections.

Fine Gael is haunted by the idea that postponing a general election may represent a missed opportunity to maximise its vote.  Hesitation in going to the country has cost the Fine Gael party dearly in previous general elections.

The electoral truce between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael while the Brexit crisis remains unresolved seemed sensible a few months ago. 

But the extraordinary prolongation of the Brexit process and debate at Westminster has created a situation which the brownie points that Leo Varadkar was earning in the minds of the public by holding fast for Ireland’s national interests are being dissipated by the government’s mishandling of a number of issues ranging from the mortuary in Waterford to the crisis in beef prices to the National Children’s Hospital to Metrolink and, now, the national broadband plan.

Simon Harris, the author of the disastrous “free” re-testing of the cervical  screening decision, wished to equally appear decisive in his unambiguous undertaking to build a new mortuary in Waterford hospital, a decision which has been more than five years on the desk of successive Ministers for Health.

Does anyone think that he will stage a photo call when the temporary refrigeration facilities are commissioned at the hospital? 

Does he look forward to cutting the ribbon on the new mortuary in a few years’ time?


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