December 2, 2009
Have you ever bothered to look at the statues on O’Connell Street? There are the obvious ones of Larkin, O’Connell and, of course, Parnell, but there is also one statue of a character called John Gray. Leopold Bloom in ‘Ulysses’ walked past the statue of John Gray and was equally flummoxed, asking who was yer man? It is interesting that Bloom — a man obsessed throughout ‘Ulysses’ by water — could have been so ignorant about the man who made Dublin’s taps gush with fresh pressurised water.
Looking around at the devastation of the floods all over the country, I thought of John Gray and whether we had a politician of the stature of Gray now. Who was this redoubtable character who has been lost to history? And why would he have anything to do with the predicament we find ourselves in now?
John Gray was a Protestant nationalist, founder of the precursor of the Irish Independent — the ‘Freeman’s Journal’ — a surgeon and a MP, first for the Liberal Party and then the Home Rule party. He was a keen supporter of Daniel O’Connell — in fact, he was the man who raised the money for O’Connell’s statue on O’Connell Street.
But what makes Gray stand out was his determination to rid Dublin of the filthy sanitation that had afflicted the city’s poor for generations. Dublin’s ghettos, swelled by migrants fleeing the famine in the west and south, suffered recurring bouts of cholera and typhus. In response to one of these disasters, Gray, at that stage head of Dublin Corporation as well as the Surgeon General, decided enough was enough. He reacted to these natural disasters by taking on Ireland’s commercial vested interests and creating the best urban water and sanitation system in Europe.
He saw opportunity in disaster; when others panicked, he saw what to do. He embarked on a huge public infrastructure project — the Vartry Reservoir scheme in Wicklow.
Now, just think about our floods and the opportunity they offer. The floods give us a chance to build a public works scheme that ensures these floods never happen again. Gray saw the cholera outbreaks in Dublin as an opportunity to make the city permanently better and we should do the same by building the best flood-prevention system in the world, in the knowledge that climate change will make what happened in the past few weeks a regular occurrence.
Until Gray’s initiative, Dublin’s water was taken from the canals and controlled by the canal companies as well as by some of the rail companies, who owned parts of the canals. Obviously the canal water wasn’t fit for human consumption and was making matters worse for the unfortunates who drank it. In addition, without a highly pressurised water system, firefighting in Dublin was a rudimentary business. Gray sought to change all that, to break the control of the canal and railway companies and create a modern water system. He forced the parliament in London to finance his scheme in the face of opposition from the vested interests.
The scheme included the construction of a large reservoir in the Wicklow Mountains, 520ft above the highest point in Dublin city. The water was then transported to the city through a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel cut 160ft below ground level (a considerable feat in 1860s Ireland). The tunnel is still used to this day. At the end of the tunnel there begins 17-mile-long mains to Stillorgan from where it was distributed throughout the city.
Other than the obvious health benefits provided by the Vartry scheme (which were huge), it brought an end to the fear of fire that had stalked the city for generations.
Fearing the age-old Irish weakness for land speculation ahead of a political rezoning, Gray bought up all the land around the reservoir in Roundwood and sold it back to Dublin Corporation for the same price after Parliament had decided to go with the idea. (Compare this politician’s approach to land speculation with some of his modern counterparts!)
Now let’s consider the opportunity the flooding tragedy presents. We need a new flooding system. This will involve flood gates, flood banks, canals, sluices — in other words, a grand public-works scheme, some of which will be labour intensive as it will involve thousands of lads digging ditches.
But who has an interest, in these straitened times, in financing such a public-works scheme? Well, the obvious place to start is our insurance companies. Insurance companies hate natural disasters, as they have to pay out hugely. This upsets their nice actuarial models about how much cash they are likely to pay out over the course of their policies. Insurance companies are highly liquid. They take your money today and only have to pay out in the event of a claim. Thus they are cash rich. They normally invest this cash in stocks, bonds and property, or some combination of the three. They don’t like floods as it means they have to liquidate their investments to cover the flood claims, so they would prefer to have a proper flood-prevention system.
The State obviously needs to provide a flood-prevention system to the citizen to prevent the horrible devastation we saw in the past few weeks. Finally, given huge unemployment, we could do with providing jobs to guys laid off from the sites of large construction projects that will give them hope and give us better infrastructure. This is precisely what the Americans did in the Depression, starting with the Hoover Dam project.
But these days, the big question is ‘who will finance it?’ With Ireland in cutback mode, anyone suggesting large civic public infrastructure works is regarded as being slightly off the wall — as the mantra is that we have no money. In fact, we have money and loads of it. It’s just a matter of looking for it.
According to the Irish Insurance Federation, insurance companies have â‚¬73bn in assets. That is money we have paid to the insurance companies, which is now invested in financial assets. This is a huge amount and is directly related to them being granted a licence to provide insurance to us.
Given that they would like to have no freak weather mishaps over the next 30 years to avoid having to pay out huge amounts, the State should suggest that the insurance companies of Ireland finance the civic project that is a national flooding infrastructure. If they don’t play ball, maybe they should be compelled as a quid pro quo of doing business here that they have to spend some of their Irish surplus on Irish government recovery bonds.
Surely that is a better policy for the Irish State than allowing — in the middle of a credit crunch — billions of euros of Irish insurance premiums to be invested in foreign stock markets by insurance companies who operate here under government licence?
The floods are an opportunity to change. We have the money, the manpower and the ability — all we need is John Gray-style politicians who can see that politics, like economics, is the art of the possible.