21 October, 2009

Driving to drink

There's no getting away from alcohol in Ireland.

The pic shows a two and a half storey high ad for Jameson whiskey facing a local authority flat block in the centre of Dublin. In other parts of the city alcohol advertising is even more pervasive. The controversial JCDecaux billboards that went up earlier this year target drivers and are dominated by ads for Heineken and Southern Comfort, and in recent weeks lamp-posts in town were draped in banners announcing Guinness's 250th anniversary. Some days the smell of fermenting hops from St. James's Gate even reaches as far as Kildare Street.

Wasn't it Diageo that found themselves in difficulty a few years ago when they started giving away tricolours with a pint of plain plonked in the centre of the flag? That company sends Oireachtas members an occasional newsletter celebrating their alcohol products, and take care in ensuring that public representatives know about their tips for responsible drinking through sites such as DrinkIQ and MEAS -the 'Mature Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society'. Worthy though those initiatives are, I suspect their total budget is less than 1% of what the drink industry spends on advertising their products. The Licensed Vitners also sends an invitation every Christmas to their annual knees-up for TDs and Senators, but so far I haven't taken them up on their drinks offer.

Don't get me wrong, I'm fond of a drink myself, but I do think we need to move alcohol away from centre-stage. I don't think alcohol should be tied into sports sponsorship - I'd much prefer if such funding came from general taxation.

Drink driving has hit the headlines in the last few days, with Noel Dempsey's proposal to reduce legal blood alcohol limits to the norm in other European Counties. The rate is proposed to come down from 0.08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.05 BAC for most drivers, and 0.02 BAC for professional drivers, learner drivers, and for the first two years after you've passed your driving test.

Apparently Fianna Fáil's Parliamentary Party had an animated discussion of the issue last night with a fair amount of support for maintaining the status quo. I can understand that feelings run high on this issue. There's even one or two Green Party members in Dún Laoghaire who have voiced their concern to me on the Bill, and that's in a constituency where most residents have a pub that's a short walk away. They have pointed out that we should enforce the existing laws rather than extending them, and feel that there should be a graduated system of penalty points that might start at 2 points for being slightly over the limit and extending to losing your license for much higher blood alcohol levels.

The Oireachtas is a predominantly male institution, and it tends to concentrate on very male concerns. Any proposal to cut down on drink-driving gets a chorus of male disapproval, but I don't recall hearing too many TDs talk about the need for more mini-buses to get older people (mostly women) to and from Bingo.

I haven't got too many representations from constituents on changing the law on drink driving, but I can see that for many non-Dublin TDs and Senators the issue has loomed large. I'd hope that any debate around this issue might concentrate people's minds on the need to have decent planning. This can ensure that more homes are within walking distance of the pub, -and indeed the church and school for that matter. However, if you have a laissez-faire approach to planning that allows you to build houses almost anywhere, then you shouldn't be surprised if high numbers of people are killed driving to and from the pub. Thankfully the Public Against Road Carnage (PARC) group have done much to raise awareness and tackle driving deaths on Donegal's roads, a county that has one of the highest levels of road deaths.

Road conditions, fatigue and speed also contribute to road deaths. Sgt. Colm Finn, head of the Forensic Collision Investigation Unit based at Dublin Castle, said in 2007 that the normal speed limit of 80kph is quite often too fast on rural roads in places like Donegal, and mentioned road conditions as a factor. Lowering speed limits can reduce accident rates, and has the added benefit of improving fuel consumption and lowering carbon emissions. Fatigue has also been identified as a contributing factor in road deaths.

There's a lot we need to do to reduce the role of alcohol in Irish life. One of the areas where I found agreement with Michael McDowell was on the issue of small café-bars that could counter-act the rise of the super-pub, but even his limited proposals were easily defeated by the drinks lobby. Eamon Ryan in his role as Minister for Communications and Mary Harney as Minister for Health are working on measures to further tighten and refine existing codes to protect the nation’s health from excessive alcohol advertising. I'd be happier if they completely banned alcohol advertising and sponsorship, and put a health warning on the label. I don't believe that the voluntary codes are working. As least we now have random breath testing, which is a step in the right direction. Dr. Gerry Hickey from Alcohol Response Ireland has done good work on raising public awareness of problem drinking and is well aware from his own work of the damage that alcohol can cause.

As I write it seems that the Taoiseach has kicked the issue into touch, saying that any change might have to be looked at in a cross-border context. That will probably remove any imminent threat of revolt from the back-benches. Personally I'd favour the proposed reduction, and I suspect that we'll return to the issue early in the new year, if not before. The UK and Ireland are out of step with the rest of Europe, and I'd like to see the limits lowered.

12 October, 2009

Deireadh seachtaine maith

"Deireadh seachtaine maith?" asked the teacher as I dropped the kids into school this morning. "Go h-an mhaith!" I replied.

Looking back, there were five intense challenges over the last ten days, and we got through them all. The Lisbon vote was followed by the hiatus over the Ceann Comhairle, then came the final hours of the Programme for Government negotiation on Thursday evening and approval from the Reference Group, followed by the two crucial votes of Green Party members on Saturday - one on the Programme itself, and then one on NAMA. We got through them all.

I took this pic just after 8.30pm on Friday evening. At that stage the Green Party Reference Group and our negotiators were holed up on the third floor of Agriculture House. Mary White is in the foreground and to her left are John Gormley, Colm O Caomhanaigh, Cllr. Mark Deary, Paul Gogarty, Elizabeth Davidson, Cllr. Vincent P Martin, Roderick O'Gorman, Dan Boyle, Trevor Sargent, Andrew Murphy, Trish Forde-Brennan, Stiofain Nutty and Damian Connon. John Downing's reflection is in the window and Eamon Ryan is just out of shot. It was a crucial moment, did we have a deal or not? John Downing was counting down the minutes to the news, yet we knew that crucial parts of the small print had not been signed off on. Like any agreement there has to be trust, and we went with the line that the deal was done in time for the 9 o'clock news.

The line by line work went on until ten. At that stage the Oireachtas staff were locking us out of the third floor and we had to go up to the fifth floor to continue till near midnight in a Department of Agriculture Conference Room that Trevor allowed us to use. Stiofain then took our edits back to Government Buildings where Noel Dempsey and Eamon Ryan worked with their teams till after 7.30 am. By the end of the night Fianna Fáil and the Green Party were eventually working off a single PC on the master copy. That was followed by a logistical nightmare of trying to print 20,000 pages by 10am. Copiers in Government Buildings and Leinster House were cranked up, and someone from John Gormley's office headed down to Reads and took over four copiers. There was even someone sent out to Stillorgan to a copy shop. That's why the documentation was delayed in getting to the Convention in the RDS until after 11am. Never again! The Programme was given first directly to the members so that they could see it first-hand, rather than through the media lens. The Sunday Tribune carried criticism from eco-socialists saying we had sold out, while the Irish edition of the Sunday Times led with the line that new taxes were on the way. I guess if you're getting equal and opposite criticism when you're in Government you're probably doing OK.

Look, let's have no illusions about it all. There is an avalanche coming down the hill in the December Budget. We have committed to cut €4 billion off current spending next year, the year after and the year after that. The next few years will be tough, and as the man with the green mohawk put it: "I said to those who have joined this government: I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat."

Interesting to think that facing across the table from each other at the negotiations were a business women, a former businessman and former Community Youth Worker from the Greens; and two former teachers and a lawyer from Fianna Fáil. They were well matched.

The Programme is transformational and here's a few highlights:

-we're establishing a €100m Enterprise Stabilization Fund and €200m Green Fund in AIB and BOI as well as a deposit account that will be ring-fenced for lending to Green projects. Recommendations from the Farmleigh Global Irish Forum will be implemented, as well as continuing the work laid out in the 'Building Ireland's Smart Economy' Framework;

-promotions within the Public Service will be on the basis of merit, eliminating seniority as a determining factor in public appointments. Senior appointments from Principal Officer upwards will be open to applicants from the the private and other sectors, and someone from outside the Civil Service will chair the Top Level Appointments Committee;

-limiting restrict direct political donations to political parties or candidates to individual Irish citizens and residents only and facilitate a system where donations from private bodies, including businesses and corporations, can be made to a political fund which will be distributed to political parties in accordance with their electoral performance in the previous Dáil election;

-reforming the system of expenses for members of the Oireachtas to ensure the system is transparent, vouched and open to scrutiny, including the regular publication of such expenses. This system will be verified and verifiable;

-reforming local government in Ireland to strengthen the strategic role and function of regional authorities in planning, transport, water and waste management;

-moving from taxes on labour to taxes on resources. That will include site value taxation, a carbon levy and charging for treated water, with a free basic allowance;

-spending twice as much in future on public transport projects as on roads;

-an end to stag hunting and fur farming, and the adoption of the principles and 5 freedoms set out in the Scottish Animal Health and Welfare Act;

-a Climate Change bill that will give a statutory basis to the annual carbon budget to reduce emissions by 3%;

-honouring the commitments to our children given in our 2007 Manifesto with good news on class sizes; Capitation Grants, no third level fees and a referendum on children's rights.

Sure, I'd like to see firmer time-lines and detailed costings, but often political documents are more poetry than prose. The budget will make the costings clearer. Changes in demarcation and work practices can save billions. I think it is a decent Programme, and given that we've implemented half of the original Programme for Government from when the Government was formed over two years ago, I think we should do fine.

October's been a pretty crazy month so far. Let's see how things fare between now and Christmas. As the introduction to the new Programme states:
"Teastaíonn spiorad an Mheitheal anois níos riamh. Spiorad an chomharsanacht, spiorad an chomhoibriú."

08 October, 2009

Eleventh Hour

It's late, and I'm tired.

It's been a tough year for the Country, for the Government and for the Green Party.

This week has been one of the most difficult I've faced in my 27 years in the Party. If we don't conclude talks tomorrow morning with Fianna Fáil on transforming the Programme for Government we walk.

I was on Late Date on RTE Radio One earlier this evening saying all of this. It was curiously cathartic to talk about how I felt and outline where things are at. Our team -Mary White TD, Minister Eamon Ryan and Senator Dan Boyle, have had over forty hours of talks over the last eight days with Ministers Dermot Ahern, Mary Hanafin and Noel Dempsey. I don't know if we can reach agreement. From the start we've been emphasising jobs, political reform and eduction as being key areas where we need to transform this government. There's been progress, but the clock is ticking.

Our membership have called a special convention this Saturday in the RDS in Dublin to decide whether or not we stay in government, and whether or not to support the NAMA legislation. We require a two-thirds majority to stay in government. A motion to vote down NAMA and end our participation in government would also require a two thirds vote. The bar is set high to stay. This will be the fifth time this year that members have met to discuss crucial issues for the Party.

The strains and stress take their toll. At a personal level its becoming increasingly difficult to manage the huge demands that are being made on all of us. There's a balance that has to be struck between family life, responsibilities to the constituency, to the Green Party, and to Government. You can never get it all right, but between the normal demands of a Dáil constituency, the responsibilities to attendance and participation in Dáil committees and votes, and the concerns of the Party it can be a mountain to climb. Oh, and I left out the work life-balance part.

I'm trying to be fairly philosophical about it all, but it's not easy. I really believe that green ideas are crucial to getting us through the current economic and environmental challenges. We've got to move Ireland from the boom-bust buildings and big cars fixation into an Ireland that's better planned with a more diversified economy. It'll involve green jobs - in the digital economy, agriculture, renewable energy, sustainable construction and smarter travel. It will be based on confidence in the political system, investment in education and proper planning. There has to be a move to resource taxes, and away from taxes on labour. I believe the Green Party is best placed to help guide, lead and transform politics through the tough decisions that lie ahead for several years to come.

I met someone from the Labour Party today. She talked about how necessary it is to have Green Party as a force in Irish politics, to tackle energy and climate change issues. I also bumped into a Fianna Fáil back-bencher who spoke in desperation about the need to be relieved from the necessity of almost daily funeral attendances of constituents to allow him to concentrate on policy and legislation. The political system requires systemic reforms.

There's a yearning for so many of the ideas that the Green Party brings to the table, whether it be on environment challenges, local government reform, or matters as simple as Safe Routes to School. Its a tough, tough time to be in Government. The John O'Donoghue issue was the straw that almost broke the camel's back for the Greens. I'm hoping that it will act as a catalyst for all of us to reform, and transform the politics of business as usual.

Politics is never easy. I remember having intense debates and rows twenty-five years ago about whether the Greens should be a campaigning NGO or actually contest elections. We chose the latter, and entered a world that is rarely black or white, and that has many shades of grey. Looking back, I think that was the right choice.

I've been on the phone a lot in the past few days talking with Party members. I'm telling them that if we do get a deal that transforms the Programme for Government, then we'll put it to our members on Saturday and ask them for supoport. I'm saying that the NAMA vote is a tough one, but that we have got changes in the Bill, and there are more to come, and that on balance I believe it is the best option to deal with a banking crisis that was not of our making.

A lot depends on what happens over the next 12, and perhaps 48 hours. I'll try and keep you posted.