The over-riding and all-consuming priority for every politician in a parliamentary democracy is to hold onto his seat. (I derive intense satisfaction from not saying ‘his or her’ seat). Irish politicians, due to the multi-seat proportional representation system, are more sensitive than most, as there are only a handful of really safe seats in the whole country. To keep his seat the pol must keep his constituents happy. This involved diverting as much government largesse as possible to his constituency, and above all in avoiding closure of police stations, hospitals, schools quangos or any other publicly funded institution.
Now given the financial calamity that has befallen this country, the government has had to get around to taking such measures. Slowly, painfully, reluctantly, but it’s happening nonetheless. Predictably, as when a barracks get closed as in Athlone, or a hospital unit in Roscommon, the life of the local government representatives becomes a nightmare. And their careers are likely to be doomed come the next election.
Naturally, the pols do everything in their power to prevent such cash-saving actions. They cajole very Minister, threaten to leave the party, to vote against it, to join the opposition or whatever. The pressure on those around the Cabinet table is immense. They labour long into the night to find the least politically damaging way to implement IMF-mandated savings. Hugely unpopular measures such as those I've mentioned have to be taken, as do more general ones such as the removal of special needs teachers. Facing constituents in these circumstances must be a dispiriting experience. Small wonder that the battles are so fierce and prolonged.
Often the savings, like the few I've already mentioned, are quite small, say €10 million annually. But they still get shoved through. They scour every item of expenditure to save a million here, a million there. Always with an eye to the political impact (i.e. their careers). Awful, painful, career-ending cuts must be made.
But must they? Lying on the table, in all its glory, lies an annualised pot of about €700 million which the pols could redeploy overnight with zero impact on the voting public. The initiatives I've referred to, and dozens more, could be reversed and with cash left over. So why in the name of Jesus do they not grab the loot? Because it’s Foreign Aid. I.e. it’s going in to dictators’ Swiss bank accounts, or flying their mistresses for a weekend shopping at Harrod’s. Ireland has given Uganda over €100 million. Uganda has spent over €100 million buying, wait for it, jet fighters!
As they tear at each other around the Cabinet table, closing down a hospital unit to save a few million, why doesn’t someone say, no, scream, ‘why the fuck are we talking about closing a hospital here when we could keep it open, and a dozen others like it, by keeping what we toss away on foreign aid?’ Seems a reasonable question, doesn’t it?
Yet it remains, apart from some minor reduction, sacrosanct.