December 31, 2006

Make politicians accountable for antiquated road network

Posted in Celtic Tiger · 22 comments ·

The other day, I visited a highly profitable multinational company in the west of Ireland. The complex was high-spec, the workers well-paid and well-educated. Despite (or maybe because of) being in a non-unionised plant, workers’ terms and conditions were far better than most heavily unionised workplaces.

The place was spotless and, as the largest employer in the town for over 20 years, the firm seemed less like a footloose corporate opportunist and more like a fully-fledged member of the community.

The overwhelming sense was that this was a well-run place, staffed by Irish managers and workers, profitable and organised.

There was a sense that this is the way corporations in the modern world should operate: to the highest standards and with the minimum of fuss.

This is an image of the Ireland that we could all be proud of. It is a snapshot of the Ireland which features in IDA brochures.

This is high-tech Ireland where best practice is applied and quality is delivered. Remember this place is run by Irish people, not Germans. So we are capable of delivering.

We are not a chronically disorganised nation and when we put our mind to it Ireland can be world-beating. We just need a vision that aspires to this, sets targets and does not tolerate shoddiness.

But something happens when you leave this workplace. You depart the world of ‘‘what is possible’’ and re-enter the old Irish world of ‘‘what is tolerable’’. The most visible expression of the other Ireland, the ‘‘what is tolerable’’ Ireland, is our lamentable road system.

Driving back from Mayo to Dublin in the freezing fog last week on boreens with no markings, no signs, no lighting and no verges, where the margin separating life and death is wafer-thin, reminds us all of why we have to shout stop. Dicing with death is no fun with four Polish lads in bomber jackets driving a left-hand-drive Audi Quatro up your ass, while the oncoming super-truck, laden down with 07 Renault Clios, clips your wing-mirror at 80 miles an hour.

We have an election coming up and we need to show the cronies who run our country that this road hell is not good enough.

The entire four-and-a-half-hour ordeal was an appalling experience, particularly when contrasted with the what-is-possible world of a smoothly operating multinational.

The crux of the issue is respect. Any government that believes it is fine to preside over a road network like ours has no respect for us. It smirks in our faces, knowing that we will take it.

Our national road network is a disgrace and driving on it is terrifying. The road from Westport to Longford is a joke. In parts, it can be no wider than a suburban street, yet it hosts lorries, juggernauts and super-trucks hurtling in either direction, throwing off muck and dirt. There are no signs at junctions. In fact, the only information proffered clearly is an outdated Special Olympics host town proclamation.

Howl ong do you think we will be told that Ballaghadereen is host to Qatar – and do we care at this stage?

Why do we tolerate this? What other country has a population that puts up with this type of nonsense? How is it possible for a highly productive, educated, and largely, well-behaved electorate to vote in the same people who cannot even build a road network comparable to countries with half our income? Not only are our roads dangerous, they are stressful, filthy dirt-tracks which are more suited to the poorest areas of Latin America than a rich, western European nation. If money is not the problem, what is?

The problem is attitude and management.

It is the second-rate attitude and management of the organs of the state. The pathetic ‘‘road works’’ between Castlebar and Longford are a good example of this.

On at least three occasions, a lad with a ‘‘stop/go’’ sign emerged out of the fog to announce major roadworks. These ‘‘works’’ amount to nothing more than a couple of JCBs, five immigrant fellas in a hole, watched by a few of our own who were smoking butts. This was not a roadwork, but a patchwork community employment scheme which knocks off at 5pm. Where are the motorways that are standard in other civilised nations? Most tellingly, why do we tolerate it?

The problem is our own low standards, which encourage our politicians to disrespect us and allow contractors – usually mates of the politicians – to rip us off.

Do you think the Irish management of the US multinational I visited in Mayo would tolerate such low standards? Do you think they would still be in their jobs if they did? Could you imagine such a lack of ambition or vision being rewarded in the real world?

I realise that our politicians do not have a magic wand that can provide instant solutions, but how hard can it be to build a road? They are the managers and, although they might not realise it, they are employed to make the country run. The buck must stop with them.

In other countries, Portugal being a good example, the road network has been upgraded substantially in the past ten years. With the exception of the Dublin-to-Belfast route, everything here has been a shambles. There is no point trumpeting the Port Tunnel – it’s only a little over three miles long. Think about the huge task of building a motorway system in alpine Austria. Now that’s impressive.

The central point is that two Irelands exist. There is the respectful, high-tech world, where many multinationals and Irish companies operate, exposed to competition and keen to attract the best staff and the best customers. On the other hand, there is the offensive, pre-historic world of the Irish state, which doesn’t give a damn about the public and is managed in away which suits internal vested interests. This is best exemplified by the road network.

We, the drivers of Ireland, should impose our own NCT – a road NCT. If the roads in your area do not pass such a test, the politicians should be voted out. Simple accountability directly linking the political class with the state apparatus might focus a few minds.

In this election year, it’s time to shout and put issues, not spin or party politics, at the centre of political debate.

Dear reader, I’ve got to head underground and bury myself in a new book project, so I’m taking a few months sabbatical to research and write. The column will return later in 2007. Happy New Year!

  1. Niall Doherty

    David, how right you are! At the end of the day it is the road network that is primarily responsible for the alarming road death rate in Ireland.

    Rural roads are disgraceful and third world. The lack of consistency in road markings, the maintenance and erection of signs and the non-existant lighting would not be tolerated in any other ‘developed’ country. Again spot on!

    Time for the responsibility for the road network to go private? Go to New Zealand and gasp at the what they do!!

    Political will is badly required here.

  2. Best of luck with the book. We look forward to your return.

  3. Germaine

    Hurry back soon,!!!
    Our sanity depends on it.!!!!

  4. Ray

    You might take a look the book “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke”, if you are looking for ideas and new trends.

  5. Aidan

    I hope that you will be back with your columns soon. They are always a pleasure to read.

  6. john

    We have had the same government for the last 10 years,all the indicators say they will win the next election also,so why should they bother fixing the roads,its not an election issue.
    As you said in your previous article,we are an infantile nation, we still only see whats in our pockets,as time moves on we will value infrastructure as a quality of life issue and demand better.
    For now we are a nation of immediate needs and wants, the government see this and play to it.
    We are also a placid people with little sense of outrage.

  7. laura

    Fair point about the roads, but surprised to hear of workers in a multinational being “well managed” and “well paid.” I remember working in a dept of 500 in one multinational where these days about 85% of the workforce earn just 11% more than what the minimum will be in a few months time. Six years ago new hires were getting 44% more than what it was at the time. Even in the non-manufacturing sector, wages are being heavily pressed downwards against competition (and sparkling new offices) in Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur, not to mention China.

    Even one IDA bleat of creating “300″ jobs in a certain giant in one major city is hilarious when pals who work there tell me it not only has less than 100 staff, but about 50% of those are short term contractors earning barely 19k a year – and some of the permies are just getting the minimum wage.

    For every neatly scrubbed hi-tech and “quality jobs” churning multinational, there are 5 low grade near sweatshops ignoring the working time directive, hiring all new staff on short term contracts on the minimum wage, providing little or no training or staff development and zero job security. As I often point out, 3 of the firms I’ve worked with since mid 2000 trumpeted propaganda via the IDA of 500 jobs between them between 2000 and 2004: less than 170 of those jobs still exist a couple of years down the road, in one case an entire department which initially boasted of creating 60 jobs closing down within 2 years having created a grand total of, wait for it, 6 jobs (only 1 of which by the way paid more than the so-called average industial wage).

    Wait a minute – doesn’t that sound just like Ireland’s roads?

  8. Mark

    ……………and don’t forget the trains, the buses, the airport etc!

    But seriously David, I think it’s a little naive to think that we only have bad roads because we tolerate them. You say vote these eejit politicians out, Fine, but who do we vote in? They are all impotent. I personally blame Bertie for things like this……….I wish we had a LEADER (who I don’t know…) rather than the second-rate football manager we fawn over at the moment. Actually, I just have to get out of here…..

  9. SpinstaSista

    Good luck with the sabbatical, David. Maybe the roads will have improved when you come back?

  10. Ciarán Mc

    Right – our transport network has not had the focus and planning that we deserve. You are right – many cross country routes are not getting the right priority and funding. Nevertheless, you paint a picture that is far darker than the reality I have seen. You said “In other countries, Portugal being a good example, the road network has been upgraded substantially in the past ten years”. But our roads network _has_ been substantially upgraded in the last 10 years. Take the N15/N17 from Letterkenny to Galway. 10 years ago one would have passed through Donegal Town, Ballyshannon, Bundoran, Sligo Town Centre, Collooney, Knock, Claremoris. Now all of these are by-passed with fine roads. There are still stretches to be done – for example the Ballybofey bypass is about to start and there’s a new section to start between Grange and Sligo (part dual carriageway I believe) but the standard of the current road is vastly superior to what was there 10 years ago. Same story from Dublin to Galway. Now dual carriageway from the capital to Mullingar, and very soon to Athlone. Plus bypasses at Loughrey etc. Also on lesser used roads – say to Killybegs in west donegal – the road there 15 years ago was barely driveable. Look at the improvements on the road to Cork from Dublin. For sure, in the past contracts were badly framed and there was poor oversight and slow progress, now though, road building is quite impressive. Credit where it’s due. If anything, the main flaw in our transport policy is that roads have taken too big a slice of the cake. Not enough effort has been put into integrated city transport and public transport in general.

    I know you mention Portugal – not one of Europe’s richest nations – but you also refer to the quality in most other ‘civilised nations’. But far too often people compare with Britain, France, Germany, the US. We have only had the last 10 or 15 years of prosperity to work with. Sadly the previous generation of cowboys vandalised our economy. But the rich nations I mention had long periods of economic prosperity and/or empires spanning the world.

    I do not want to undermine your argument that we should hold our politicians accountable and push for world class standards here. I’m behind you there. But we should also acknowledge that much has been done recently in a short time.

  11. Laura

    If you work in manufacturing, then you are going to suffer a huge downward squeeze in your pay and conditions. Multinational or not. Or, as the efficiency of your plant increases through better mechanisation, you will likely lose your job.

    Irish firms are happily world-class also in treating employees like caged rats when it suits them. That is not the preserve of multi-nationals. There are plenty of greasy shopkeepers in Ireland too, as per Yeats “Easter 1916″.

    Sure, the multinationals play the tax break game. So do the greasy shopkeepers in their Enterprise Ireland annual reports. That’s life. Do you want a job or not?


  12. Ciarán Mc

    I agree that we cannot blame multinationals for our working conditions. In the main, working conditions are pretty good and we have a lot to be thankful for. And Irish employers wouldn’t be one jot better, and are often worse, than their foreign counterparts.

    Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with striving for better conditions – and there is good reason to believe that our conditions are under pressure, as mentioned above, by competition from parts of the globe where workers are treated with contempt.

    In that sense I would take issue with your dismissive tone when you say “That’s life. Do you want a job or not?”. If this attitude had been adopted over the last 100 years we’d still be working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, with scarcely any holidays. Come to think of it, that’s exactly whats happening in parts of Asia right now. It’s not where we want to be is it?

  13. Fair point Ciaran.

    I didn’t mean to be as dismissive as it sounded. However, we do need to be realistic.

    In my opinion, there is no point in people on sinking ships (=heavily subsidised farming, low value commodity manufacturing) looking for better conditions. They should be looking for liferafts and the next ship.

    I can’t see why people should not be looking for government support for these businesses, but should either try to find a way to make these businesses work, given globalisation, etc. (for example, focus on organic farming, higher value artisan products, etc.) Or reskill – tough and all as that it is.

    What I’m badly articulating is that I too often hear the French/German style socialist argument about protection for the worker, which ignores the fact that it’s a waste of money protecting jobs in some industries which are going down the tubes. And it costs us a lot of tax payer money.


  14. maurice walsh

    Dear David,

    I was happy to see one person around RTE who had stolen fire from heaven which you used to fuel the thought processes of some couch potatoes. I am not surprised you are taking a sabbatical. You have done your job with gracefully, and I hope you got the loot for it.

    The roads need attention from engineers who have also stolen some of that fire. We need CYCLE TRACKS all over rural ireland because of all the building. People can no longer SAFELY WALK OR CYCLE on any county road. People need exercise. It is not on for isolated house dwellers to have nowhere to walk in today’s Ireland – to walk or to cycle. The roads are the MOST PUBLIC IMMEDIATE AND PRACTICAL of the properties we own jointly. Roads need priority.

  15. See link about Civil Liability Act, interesting .

  16. Conor

    Spot on as usual Mr McWilliams.

    In 1999, the much touted NDP was announced which would see the completion of a network of motorways/high quality dual-carriageways between Dublin and a number of major towns/cities across the country to be completed by the end of 2006 along with a number of time-saving public transport initiatives and other infrastructure projects. Now we have reached the year 2007 with less than half of the NDP’s work (at least on the transport side) completed. The rest of the work is being intergrated into the holy-grail of ‘Transport 21′ due for completion in 2015 – We as a self-confident, aspirational, wealthy nation can no longer tolerate sub-standard infrastructure.

    We have closed and broken the gap with other rich nations in terms of wealth for a number of years. Before we were playing catch-up, but in my opinion, the reasonable time in which to do so has passed. With nearly two decades of unbroken record economic growth we should have more to show for the fruits of our labour. No longer can we confuse unnavigable backwaters with major transport routes. No longer should we allow the sprawl into Deckland.

    Is it not unreasonable for the Pope’s Children to ask to live within two hours of their place of work? I and many of my generation grew up in Dublin and now live in far-flung towns such as Kinnegad (lovely place but fifty miles from Dublin). Proper urban planning at the early stages of the boom could have allowed for apartment living in the city and its enviorns earlier on.

    A proper roads network could have prevented some of the loss of competitiveness in the economy seen over the last five years. An intergrated public transport system, the like of which are seen not only in Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, but in poorer cities like Madrid and Lisbon would prevent much of the stress and heartache endured by the stakhanovites toiling in industrial estates.

    The boom is coming to an end. Whether or not the landing willl be soft or shocking remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure – we must act now to consolidate the gains achieved since 1987. We have an opportunity at this very momnt which I can guarantee we will never see again, at least not in our lifetimes.

    All aspects of our ailing transport system must be upgraded, this means the promises made in ‘Transport 21′ must be kept. Our economy must diversify away from the few sectors it is overly-reliant upon – the supply of houses can only create its own demand for so long! And most pertinent of all – the inefficiencies of our public sector must be rooted out. Lack of co-ordinated management in our hospitals is killing people. Inflexible syndicalists must learn that any further improvements in their working conditions and to an extent pay has to come with the responsibility of more market-orientated reforms, not necessarily privitisation but of flexiblity of working practices.

    We must act now or experience a breast reduction no wonderbra could ever uplift

  17. Billy

    The piecemeal, labour intensive policy of random pothole filling is an 1950s DeValera inspired old fashioned Fianna Fail policy. It was designed to make the job as labour intensive as possible.

    This practice and policy has not changed and we are left with old fashioned DeValera nonsense ever since.

    He an his cronies ripped up the railways. Ripped up the tram lines in Dublin. Closed the western corridor railway, declared air travel for rich people and sold their planes to the British and declared that road travel was for the rich too.

    What we are stuck with now is Fianna Fail politicians basing their “thinking” on DeValeras failed policies and ideas. Old fashioned, luddite and narrow minded.

    The state of the roads is the result of this 1950s mindset. The state fo broadband is the same way. No foresight. The “founding fathers” of dubious parentage themselves wanted Ireland to be a Catholic, poor and nationalistic pollyanna. What we got was cronyism, corruption and tiny groups putting roadblocks on the resources we have all paid for many times over.

  18. when you leave the high tech factories you enter a surreal third world country ruled by farmers, developers and corrupt (and incompetent) politicians. The beginning of the answer is to get fianna Fail out. Then the hard part begins..

  19. The Willinator

    David, I just watched big pre- election leader debate on TV tonight (RTE 1 Primetime). I was hoping your theme of accountability would figure largely in the debate but unfortunately I was disappointed.

    Enda Kenny never pushed the accountability theme. This is a really important issue for many people I know. Accountability will drive better service.

    On Crime in the debate: Bertie admits that “it’s a disgrace” that a criminal in a high security prison is able to phone liveline show. I agree Bertie, but last I heard the Governor of Portlaoise is still in a job! SACK HIM, he needs to know that if he doesn’t sack his prison wardens for giving room service to gangland crime bosses that he will loose his job.
    Anyone every walked into a garda station and notice how slow they are to come to the counter? They are lazy bas tards. Make the ones we have — work, never mind getting another 2,000.

    Local Government: County Engineer allows city water supply to become contaminated by incompetence and inaction. SACK HIM NOW! (After 5 years working in private industry I am now working in local authority for past six months. It’s a joke how little work im given. There is no hurry on anyone)

    Health: 40% of employees are administrators. Will some get the f… in there and start handing out p45’s…. Pay for the redundancies. You will be saving money after year 3

    I could go on and on. For me it’s not about spending billions on more this and more that. It’s about proper management of resources and accountability in Government. Just like your article and the example of the road network.

    Debate Winner: Miriam O’Callaghan. I thought she looked pretty hot!

  20. I was 13 years out, in UK and EU and am now coming up to 2 years back. I did well abroad – made a little money, built on my decent Irish education, got a family. Back here, the public sector seems largely unchanged – introverted, slow, self-protecting and largely irrelevant to people like me. But also far too large and with low standards.
    I find labour relations in Ireland puerile – at a time when other countries are coming to terms with notions of personal brand, managing ones own career, taking responsibility, a part of Ireland still is focused on outdated notions like ‘jobs’, ‘labour’, ‘management’ etc.
    I happen to believe that the only worthwhile future for small island countries like ours is in innovation – turning knowledge into saleable services and experiences which are skillfully marketed to those likely to care. Yet the establishment view – Enterprise Ireland, IDA and much of the population, is that R&D investment equates to innovation investment. There are even those who still regard manufacturing in Ireland as sustainable, as long as it is hi-tech.
    Because the country is essentially uninterested in innovation and the establishment of business unrelated to property speculation, I now join the other knowledge workers who commute each Monday morning to other EU countries, to practice our professions in countries where our skills are valued. As the multinationals progressively decamp to lower cost Eastern European US-friendly locations, more and more of my cohort will tumble out of their jobs as they refuse to relocate to Poland, theCzech Republic etc. That community of managers with global experience, and the best available training in applied technology and marketing is the one I pin my hopes on. With honest and realistic support, people like that can drive the future wealth generation the island will need, post property bubble and after medical device manufacturing is a memory


  21. [...] The first article from the archives is about the search for some meaning at Christmas as the nation continued to splurge in late 2006 and the other article from that week about the state of the roads. [...]

You must log in to post a comment.
× Hide comments