This week lots of commentary was concerned with the big stuff, like 9/11 or Michael McDowell and all that. But sometimes the little stuff tells us almost as much about our society and how it works (or doesn’t).
Listening to the Taoiseach informally kicking off his election campaign in the past few days, he used the word “community” again. All politicians love a bit of community.
These days, the economic philosopher of choice is that nice man who wrote all the books on bowling alone, Robert Putnam. He focuses on a concept called “social capital” and why if we all had more time for each other, the world would be a better place.
Putnam’s specialty is the erosion of community which he contends is actively held together by clubs, village shops and public spaces including public transport.
He believes that all western society is becoming atomised, with too much individualism and this trend is making us unhappy.
The Taoiseach is Putnam’s self-confessed number one fan and he suggests that if we could generate as much social capital as we do investment capital, Ireland would be a better place.
And it’s not just the Taoiseach. At the Fianna Fail bash the other day, the journalist Tom McGurk was similarly talking about the problem of the fracturing of our communities, apparently to great applause.
This is laudable as far as it goes, but any football trainer knows that getting the big vision right is all about doing the little things right and this is why the rhetoric rings hollow.
There is no consistent thinking in Ireland. We say one thing and do precisely the opposite with, it seems, nobody seeing the link from the micro to the macro.
Let’s start with something as inconsequential as car parking attendants in suburban South Dublin. I realise fully that the trials and tribulations of the average Volvo driver in Dalkey might not be a national emergency but it serves to underscore a greater problem for the country, namely an inability to join the dots.
There is a glaring inconsistency between aggressive car parking regulations in the suburbs and the desire to foster the use of public transport.
Have you noticed the gradual spread of double yellow lines in suburbia? Do sneaky increases in double yellow lines which appear overnight, annoy you? Well, me too – particularly, when they snake out for miles around train stations. We have brutal enough public transport as it is, without further dissuading those of us who want to leave our cars at home but have to drive the few miles to our local train station.
In suburban Dublin – take Monkstown for example – there are huge lines of parked cars backed up a mile of so from the Dart station. Many people who use public transport have to drive some distance to the train/bus station. The reason for these traffic overloads on suburban estates far from train stations is not that the commuters do not want to pay a small charge for parking, but because it must never have struck the corporation that we all don’t work three hour days.
Has it ever dawned on the Corpo that suburban commuters who work in Dublin, Cork , Galway or Limerick and use public transport to beat the traffic, tend to be away from their cars from 8am to 7pm? They can’t feed the meter every three hours. How would your boss in the IFSC feel if you said I’m just popping out to for two hours to feed the meter? So what choice does the car driving suburbanite have but to park a miles away from the train station? For many this is just one obstacle too many so they drive all the way.
If we want to promote public transport, then make it easy. Give people the incentive to abandon the car. This would be good for both the environment and would reinforce this idea of community that the Taoiseach says he wants to foster.
Public transport is the very centre of the community that our politicians talk about. It is the most obvious expression of democracy, shared experience and the sense of “all of us being in it together” that we experience every day, yet it is being undermined. We are charging people extra for it and, more importantly, in a society with more money than time, we are inconveniencing people.
So here we have an example where one state agency – the corporation – is actively undermining the attractiveness of another, Irish Rail. In an effort to raise finances for itself, the corporation, is actively undermining the finances of Irish Rail, without providing a transport alternative. Therefore, everyone loses and the sense of community is relegated by the very agency – the corporation – which is supposed to be looking after the community.
The attack on community by traffic wardens gets worse in suburban towns and villages. In recent months, the blight of double yellow lines and metered parking has spread.
Think about your town, are the street full of painted lines, not just on the main street but down the little alleys and in around corners beside the barbers?
This actively dissuades people from shopping in local shops and markets. It is far easier and less hassle to drive to the superstore off the M50 with its huge free car park. So in its effort to raise finance, again we see a money-making racket actively undermine local life.
LET’S get things straight – our country’s traffic gridlock is not caused by locals popping down to do the shopping in the local town or village. It is about commuting and non-existent planning.
The only reason that there are double yellow lines in places like Dalkey and metered parking is to raise cash for the council.
In the process, those businesses that are trying to compete with the big guys are put at a dreadful disadvantage.
At the margin, this might cause a small local shop to close up, to be replaced by and an estate agency or mobile phone outlet.
However silly this is in Dalkey, imagine how people in Clifden, Kenmare, Bantry or any other market town in the country feel about this?
In rural Ireland, the car is a gelling agent for the community.
It brings people together and yet its use for local business is being attacked by officious main-street tax collectors. Joined up thinking, how are ye?
Now I realise, that this is hardly the biggest problem facing the country but it does go to the core of an Irish dilemma; namely: the left hand does not appear to know what the right hand is doing.
We eloquently talk about great visions, but forget that all big ideas are only the sum of small ones.
They are the product of hard work, attention to detail and local organisation.
With the double yellow line fiasco, we show that Ireland has a long road yet to travel.