Johnny Fallon

Irish Political Commentator

Archive for the month “October, 2014”

Government to abandon sinking Irish Water Ship?

Irish Water is now in deep trouble. Worse, the problem will quickly become a political one if it is not contained. Sadly, governments have a tendency to realise this too late and act too slowly to prevent it happening. This should have been a turning point in the government’s fortunes. They had no major difficulties in the budget. Everyone stayed on message and they could hope that they would see better days. However, in almost the blink of an eye the government is getting swamped with a new difficulty. This one may very well become the litmus test of how it is judged.

Charging for water was never going to be easy. When it was first proposed many years ago during the Celtic Tiger the idea had one ambition. To reduce water waste. That is simple and something that everyone can buy into. As people came around to the idea gradually they expected that in an ideal system we would only be charged for what was wasted, the usage over and above what was the norm. Things change though. The recession changed the whole idea of water charges. No longer were they something to help reduce waste, now they were there to raise revenue. Successive governments failed to invest in our water systems. Those problems now haunt us. This government moved to introduce the charges but did so with much too great a haste. Firstly, they were not honest about the charges. From the outset people have been confused about what they could end up having to pay. The discussion around allowances was a mess. It became quickly apparent that the system was not up to scratch and rather than water charges fixing it they were not going to help at all. Further charges would be applied for leaks, further investment needed. Further call out fees. People had no confidence in the system and yet we proceeded to go ahead. Everyone knew we were taking the engine of a banged up Lada and sticking it under the bonnet of a Mercedes and then telling the customer if it breaks down you will bear the cost.

Caesar Augustus, a man who was himself a brilliant administrator adopted the motto ‘make haste, slowly’. The government would have done well to listen. Decisions should be taken with speed but their implementation should be careful and considered. Unfortunately the government had two men on point duty that were not suited to this task. Despite all the criticism of Phil Hogan I respect his willingness to take decisions, however once he took any decision; it has been his hallmark to leave the management and implementation to someone else. Time and time again he took decisions but paid little heed to what happened after. Pat Rabbitte was a man who made his career on the back of media performances. As minister he showed himself happy to be led by whatever he was told. This was not a man interested in rolling up the sleeves and getting to work, he was a figure head minister, the guy you send out to bat.

This meant that Irish Water was set up with a distinct lack of political leadership. The company has created a culture that is borne out of groupthink. Far too many are drawn from the same background. Far too much acceptance was given as to how the business could run. There was no thought of efficiency or competitiveness, why should there be? It had no competition and seemed devoid of any voice with experience of competition. This in turn has resulted in a lack of empathy with customers. Irish Water views itself as an organisation in isolation. The customers are not part of it. The rewards or its spending are no concern of customers. It seems there was not one voice that stood up and asked how this would look to customer who had no jobs? People who struggled and had no perks and yet had to pay the charge? If you want to communicate your organisation then you must understand your customers. You must empathise with them. You must base you case for charges on an understanding with them. Instead, Irish Water has been convinced that what it does is nobody’s business.

Its set up is now in a mess and it is on the ropes. The last anti water charge march had one difficulty. It called for all charges to be stopped and it was impossible to see that succeeding. The next march is in a different environment. The call might remain but there is a clear achievable objective. A halting of charges until the system is sorted and set up properly in a manner people trust. Some will demand it be scrapped altogether but the government cannot concede that. Scrapping the idea totally would destroy the budget and leave them seeking borrowing of almost a billion for water works. By having it under the guise of a semi state the government has removed this from our balance sheet. A neat accounting trick to save a billion that shifts the requirement onto the shoulder of the semi state and out of our national budget. However, the Charges themselves will only bring in 300-400 million. The government could certainly afford to drop this while leaving the semi state in place. It would seem wise now for the Government to be decisive. Halt the charges and pull back. Review Irish Water and its set up and the charging scheme. Then a new government can focus on looking at the matter after an election.

This will not get better. Trust has been lost. People who do not normally protest are starting to feel conned and objecting to paying. It will turn very bad very quickly and the public smells blood. Either government TD’s act to defuse this now or they continue to try and push on, if they do that, they will drown together or separately in the murky Irish Water.

How my own struggles helped me care about those with Depression

I have never been a person who suffered from severe depression. Overall I am a pretty tough cookie and a fairly upbeat type of guy. Trying to understand depression could be a challenge. Why would a multi millionaire be depressed? Why don’t people just get on with it? These are questions you struggle with and it takes time and effort to try to understand and educate yourself about the true nature of something like depression.

The problem is that we don’t always make that easy as a society. I may not be prone to depression but there have been times in the last few years when I got an insight into it that I never want to have again. There have been times, particularly tough economic times, when my own health walked a fine line. It gave me an insight into the pressure people feel and just how little compassion, care or support there is when you need it. That made me think a lot about people who suffer from depression and mental health issues. Trying to imagine being in a place from where there seems no escape and where no one can understand.

At the height of this recession I took a hit like so many other people. The business I was involved in just kept getting slower. The pay cheques stopped. The pitches became more and more competitive and then you make the mistake of chasing any kind of work at all. After a while it became apparent to me that I had to change things. It’s not an easy thing when your wife tells you there is nothing in the fridge, the bank account is over drawn and Tesco won’t take credit. I was putting in long hours and then finally turning up €80 here and a €100 there. The health insurance went, and then the mortgage headed into arrears. The fact was we simply couldn’t survive.

I took the decision to change and focus on what I was good at. I wanted to set up a new business but it would take time and space to develop it. I started applying for jobs instead. Most never replied to me at all. Those that did thought I was too senior for the role I was applying for or not able to bring enough business with me to secure a more senior position. Eventually I decided I had no option but to try, at least, to get my own business going. However, I couldn’t let the family starve. I had paid my stamps for 15 years and decided it was time to swallow my pride and sign on. This made things worse. My intention to try avail of my entitlements to tide me over while I got things together was scuppered by absolute incompetence in Social Welfare. They tried to argue I was not entitled to anything. They decided this without even talking to me. I went in, I handed them bank statements, figures, details, anything they wanted, it was ignored. I was told it had to go to the Appeals board. It took a full year. I watched my family struggle. Avoiding doctors because you don’t have the cash. Terrified everytime you buy groceries that your card will be rejected. The bank ringing up asking when you are going to sort your mortgage arrears. The pressure was incessant. After a full year, the appeals board finally heard my case and decided I had been correct from the outset and was entitled to my payments. It was bitter sweet after all the rows and hardship it imposed.

However, I could now avail of some other helpful schemes and try building my business as I had planned over those long months. It took time. It was slow. Nobody walks in and offers you a €20k contract. Meanwhile the bank keeps ringing. I might be growing the business fast enough to put the basic food items on the table but not to shoulder all the bills that were hitting too. I went to the bank; I did what they tell you. I engaged. They didn’t want to know. They said they had no options. No offerings to help. Eventually they agreed to go interest only for 6 months. They took so long to process the paper work you end up hitting arrears again. It hung over us like a sword of Damocles for 6 months. The pressure became unbearable. Every day was about fighting. Fighting for work. Figting for an entitlement. Fighting with banks. Fighting with ourselves. After many government initiatives the bank wrote to me offering a split loan mortgage. I jumped at it only for them to withdraw the offer again. They didn’t care, they had met their targets the government had set by simply making the offer. This was soul destroying stuff and on top of it all I had a growing business that was looking ok but needed all my attention to try and develop it, attention I didn’t have.

My head felt like it was going to explode everyday. A fear hung over me from which there was no escape. Eventually one night after losing out narrowly on a good contract I sat in front of my computer. I sat there staring at the screen all night. I wondered why I was bothering. In that one moment I felt everything would be better without me. If I were gone maybe people would help. Maybe institutions would back off and give some space. Maybe someone would start to care and maybe my family would benefit. I took down a box of tablets and got ready. However, something else kicked in. That highly rational logical part of my brain that has been my lifelong friend over my emotional side. I thought who would find me? What would my wife do? living here alone? What would my kids think? How would this confuse them, hurt them? There was so much I still had to tell them, teach them and show them. I couldn’t do it. I dejectedly went to sleep. Felling somewhat trapped. I couldn’t escape, this was my cross to bear. It was only an hour or two of sleep before I awoke to the phone ringing and my good friend Ian White, had a piece of work for me. To say I could have cried on the phone that day would be an understatement. He had no idea just how much that call meant. I shook myself down and got to work. Two days later a TD called me and asked me to carry out some research. Those calls saved me.

From there on life has certainly not been plain sailing. I am still far from out of the woods financially but there is no doubt that I am making good progress and things are a lot better now. Finally, I am starting to think of the future and build. It’s a long road but I have learned more about business and making a success of it than anything I had learned before. When you are going through hell, keep going. You come out stronger and more knowledgeable on the other side.

I am still learning to make room for others and what they are going through. Those times were bad for me but I was lucky that I could think in a logical way. Some people are robbed of that, it becomes impossible to see something differently and raise their spirits. That’s not a weakness it’s just as much of an illness as anything that lands you in a hospital bed. I have come to understand that people can’t ‘just get over stuff’ or ‘think positive’. We all need to remain aware of that.

When times are hard you find out who your friends really are. You should never forget them. I put a quote on my desk from the film Rocky Balboa that says ‘It’s not how hard you hit, but how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward that counts’

Be kind to your mind.

Ministerial woe of Heather Humphreys

It’s no fun being a Minister. You wait your whole political life to get appointed and then when it happens you face only problems. Heather Humphreys is learning these lessons the hard way. This week has not been a good one. The Taoiseach may say he is taking responsibility but it’s difficult to see Heather Humphreys emerging from this with any self respect intact.

She has spent the last few days wandering about with all the effectiveness of a frustrated giraffe. Clearly visible but unable to make a sound. You see there are only two possible scenarios and neither look good.

Firstly, if we take Enda Kenny’s story at face value, then a rogue official went to the Minister. So, we are led to believe that Heather Humphreys, a senior Minister, was effectively told what to do by an FG party official and she capitulated. There is supposed to be a certain authority that goes with being a Minister. A certain belief that, as the representative of the people, you are not easily pushed about. Instead it plays out like a scene from ‘Yes Minister’ where the hapless Humphreys has no real clue what is going on but does what the party official wants as surely they know best. If that’s true then it will be hard to believe that Humphreys can ever be seen as a strong politician of conviction again. Instead she appears to be a party makeweight at the cabinet table.

There is another scenario. Perhaps she felt the Official was speaking on behalf of the Taoiseach. Perhaps the official implied this in the discussion. Now, it is more understandable that a Minister jumps when the Taoiseach asks. But if this is the case then the official does need to be named and resign if it is true that Enda Kenny had no knowledge. This is not happening because if Humphreys felt that was the case, then, for the sake of her own reputation, she needed to say that. She didn’t. Her vow of silence leaves the matter in the Taoiseach’s hands. He is not too worried about what the official said. Only Heather knows who the message was implied to have come from.

The mute swan of Monaghan has left her reputation in tatters by either blindly following party officials or else by lacking the conviction to state who actually said what. It would seem that survival is all that matters even if it comes at great cost to your reputation.

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