MICHAEL WOLSEY: How Fine Gael has shot itself in both feet
GOVERNMENTS rarely do well in local or European elections. Voters do not see either event as terribly important and usually take the opportunity to give parties in power a bit of kicking.
They don’t need to look for an excuse this time out. Fine Gael has shot itself in both feet with two of the most ill-judged schemes anyone could imagine: the National Broadband Plan and the proposal to transfer power from the chief executive officers of councils to directly elected mayors.
Presumably the party thought it was on a winner with the broadband plan, announced in the run-up to the elections in anticipation of votes from grateful rural Ireland.
But rural Ireland does not feel particularly grateful, in part because it has learned to distrust fine promises from this Government, but mainly because rural Ireland is not a unit that thinks, talks and acts as one.
Rural Ireland is not a monolith. It is small towns and villages, farming communities and commuter colonies. Some of it is dying; some of it is thriving. And some of it already has good broadband – as good as is needed for small businesses and social use.
Rural Ireland knows there are simpler, cheaper ways of spreading broadband than this ruinously expensive scheme to bring fibre to every door.
KilkennyNow.ie recently featured a report about a company called Imagine that is supplying fast broadband to rural areas for about one-tenth of the price of the Government’s plan. It brings fibre to a network of masts, then uses the latest 5G technology to make a direct wireless connection to the home or office.
Imagine reckons it can reach 400,000 of the 540,000 rural homes which could be covered by the National Broadband Plan.
Other companies are using wireless technology to bring broadband to seemingly inaccessible places such as the Aran islands and Kerry’s Black Valley. So the Government should not really be surprised that rural Ireland, like urban Ireland, sees the broadband plan as a money-waster not a vote-winner.
The plan for directly elected mayors will do less harm to Fine Gael in the short-term because it is only an issue for voters in three council areas – Cork city, Limerick and for our neighbours in Waterford.
But if the proposal is rejected in even one of these plebiscites it will damage the party’s credibility because this wasteful scheme is purely a Fine Gael invention. Nobody asked for it. Nobody for a minute thought that, just because greater London, with a population of almost nine million, has a directly-elected mayor, it would be a wise move to have one in Waterford, with city population of less than 60,000.
If the idea is approved in the three plebiscites, the Government is threatening to foist directly-elected mayors on the rest of the country, spending large amounts of money to usurp the powers of experienced CEOs and fix something that is not broken.
Fine Gael has always been regarded as party of fiscal probity. If you thought it time for a bit of expansionary spending you turned to Fianna Fáil, but if the purse-strings needed tightening, and careful judgment exercised, then Fine Gael was your only man.
The party is losing that reputation through these spendthrift measures, combined with the disgraceful over-spending on the National Children’s Hospital and the way it has been surrendering to public sector pay demands.
The reputation for good money-management has sustained Fine Gael through its entire lifetime. Whatever else the party squanders, it should not squander that.