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!

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