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John Whelan: The Ten Commandments – the top 10 election issues in Laois-Offaly

In 2016 the big issues on the doors, in the media and the hustings were unemployment, emigration, pay cuts, austerity cutbacks and the most dreaded of all … water charges.

In just four years the political landscape has changed dramatically. Water charges which toppled the Government and broke the Labour Party are not even mentioned.

The talk is of ongoing job creation, opportunities and virtually full employment.

The challenge is to try entice home nurses, teachers, doctors and tradesmen who left during the economic crash, to fill the vacancies here in schools, hospital and building sites.

In place of austerity there are whispers of a return to ‘auction politics’ as the next government anticipates a capacity for increased spending off the back of a secure Brexit, buoyant tax returns and greater latitude from the EU Central Bank.

However, there will always be issues.

These are the top 10 issues we have identified which will inform and influence voter intentions here in Laois-Offaly as they prepare to vote on February 8 in #GE2020.

Even as we explore these issues news is emerging of TUI teacher union one day strike seeking pay parity planned for the first week in February.  Campaigns against increasing the pension age are also being formulated by the trade unions determined to ‘Stop 67’.

Crèche operators and workers in the childcare sector are up in arms over the challenges they are facing.

That’s not to speak of the ongoing farmers’ blockades, protests and pickets.

These are the Ten Commandments that candidates in Laois-Offaly will ignore or sin against at their peril. Though not necessarily unique to this constituency they are to the fore as the campaign intensifies and heads in to its final fortnight.

1 – The Hospital

The public concern around the staffing and status of the General Hospital in Portlaoise remains centre stage in this election.

Even though it is a contentious issue that goes right back over 20 years to the time that Brian Cowen was Minster for Health it rumbles on right up to the present day.

The big worry remains around the future of the 24/7 A&E service and repeated rumblings that it could be downgraded to a daytime only minor accident unit with knock-on ramifications for other services at the hospital.

The Light for Life protest in Portlaoise was two years ago and still the Hospital remains under threat of a downgrade.

Woe betide the politician or Government who would allow that to happen.

While there is no hospital candidate the issue resonates with voters right across the constituency who rely on the hospital and all candidates know that only too well.

Candidates who don’t make the Hospital their number one priority have little hope of attracting Number 1’s.

2 – Housing, Homelessness & High Rents

The vexed issued of housing lists, affordable housing, homelessness and high rents are all inter-connected and continue to defy those seeking solutions.

There are about 1,700 on the housing waiting list looking for some form of social housing in Laois alone. Homeless services in the county and the midlands are stretched to capacity as charities like Simon struggle to cope.

There are significant house building programmes in the pipeline from Laois County Council working in partnership with charities, voluntary agencies and approved housing bodies but the long lead in times are frustrating progress.

There are signs of a slow return to house building by the private sector but with demand continuing to outstrip supply prices remain high and unaffordable for many individuals and working couples.

This has put further pressure on the rental sector, with upward pressure on monthly rents for scarce accommodation leaving many to rely on Housing Assistance Payments (HAP) to help meet their monthly rent. HAP payments are now costing the Government over €700 million annually, a vast amount of money that some feel would be better spent in the long-term on building houses instead of subsidising landlords.

A resolution to the housing shortage seems a way off just yet.

3 – Health Services

Where to start?

Waiting lists, record numbers of trolleys on corridors, vacancies unfilled, a shortage of consultants, nurses and even GPs continue to fuel public frustration and deflate staff morale for the hard pressed front line staff in the health service.

Beds and staff which were stripped out of the system during the economic crash have yet to be restored, leading to backlogs and long queues.

Such is the level of under-staffing in hospitals, Fine Gael have pledged in their manifesto to hire 5,000 additional nurses and provide an additional 2,600 extra hospital beds.

Much promised investment and new services have yet to materialise such as the new hospital for St Vincent’s in Mountmellick and the new Day Care Centre for Monasterevin.

Smaller rural towns are battling to retain adequate GP cover.

Laois has the lowest number of elderly care beds, wither public or private in the country – while 700 senior citizens remain in acute hospital beds nationwide as there is nowhere to discharge them to even though they no longer need to remain in hospital.

The backlog for those seeking home help care is currently over 7,000.

Abbeyleix Hospital

It’s not just the elderly who are on the receiving end of the deficiencies within the health service but the delays for speech and language therapies, dental and orthodontist treatment and mental health interventions for children and teenagers are no longer counted in weeks or months but years.

While the all-party Sláinte Care strategy appears to offer some strategic solutions, it is a 10-year plan and in the meantime hard pressed families, who can afford to do so, feel they must fork out for private health care, further fuelling the two-tier system so as to beat the logjams and delays that currently plague the public health service.

4 – Farm Incomes

Farmers are up in arms.

Their frustration with poor prices has brought them onto the streets in force and led to blockades, pickets and protests not seen in decades.

Such is the discontent, particularly among beef farmers, some have even lost fate in the longstanding farmer organisations like the IFA. A number of alternative groups have emerged to channel farmer discontent.

The disquiet around beef prices is also reflected in dairy, where the abolition of quotas and the encouragement to invest and expand involved heavy borrowing but hasn’t always yielded the promised dividends.

Disquiet in the tillage sector too with the value in quality grain prices.

Time and again farmers seem to find themselves at odds with the factories and the commercial outlets for their crops, while world prices for such commodities bear down on a country that exports the vast bulk of its produce.

Farmers wearing masks at a beef price protest. The protests have continued all year with little improvement in the price per kilo to farmers.

Cheap imports don’t help and even those specialising in premium food have been seen ploughing their veg back in to the ground. Farmers have hit out at supermarkets too for diving down prices and failing to return them a fair margin for their hard work.

Meanwhile rural communities and farm families are the meat in the sandwich in a festering row between producers and the beef barons who have cut the price per kilo to the bone.

The IFA will be looking for some answers and policy solutions to these issues when they hold a Laois-Offaly candidates’ debate in Rosenallis on Thursday, January 30.

5 – Climate Change

If poor prices aren’t enough to drive the poor farmers mad well then blaming them for climate change might just be the last straw.

It is safe to say that while climate change continues to climb up the political agenda the response can vary from, ‘Who Me?’ to ‘Save me Lord, but not just yet!’

However, when, even the hard-nosed Michael O’Leary’s Ryanair starts to advertise as the ‘Low Emissions and Low Fares’ airline there is something in the air regarding this climate change lark, despite what the deniers and Greta Thunberg bashers might say.

Laois County Council is taking on the challenge of retrofitting street lighting to low energy solutions, installing more car-charging points and adopting carbon reducing and climate change strategies and mitigation measures. Although one councillor recently described their best laid plans in this department as “all waffle.”

Most people are moving to play their part on reusing and recycling and awareness around the problem single-use plastics and the threats to biodiversity are becoming more mainstream.

Young families and students, appear more exercised and animated than the previous generations about the threats to the planet posed by our current lifestyles, carbon footprint, excessive waste, reliance on fossil fuels and mass consumption habits.

While everyone is being encouraged to play their part it is easier said than done.

In the areas of intensive farming, transport and energy this constituency is struggling to find a just transition for Bord na Móna workers, agree on sustainable alternatives and even common ground around renewable energy sources such as wind farms. All remain vexed questions.

One way or another climate change is not going away anytime soon…

6 – Cost of Childcare

For young working couples the cost of childcare remains a big financial burden. In some instances the cost is so excessive it is an impediment to their option of both parents working.

Crèche places are in big demand but they too are hard pressed to retain suitably trained staff, while spiralling insurance costs are a huge imposition on those trying to provide a viable service in this sector.

Workers in the sector although often highly trained and well qualified are not well paid. Owners and operators of child minding facilities say they are sympathetic but cannot afford higher wages, so recruitment issues prevail.

Between availability, access and cost some couples are left to rely on their extended family members for child-minding help.

Jessica Walsh, Sarah O’Keeffe and Eimear Burke at play at the official opening of the Jelly’s Tots Creche in Abbeyleix.

A variety of different proposals are being put forward by all the parties in this election to alleviate the pressure on families.

The ones that make most sense and help working couples the most will surely garner support in the ballot box.

The childcare sector has planned a day of protest and creche closures for Wednesday, February 5 to highlight their grievances.

7 – Pension Age

At the other end of the spectrum the thorny issue of the pensionable retirement age has shot right back onto the political agenda.

The pension’s time bomb went off unexpectedly in the middle of the campaign leaving the parties and candidates scrambling for answers that wouldn’t antagonise the highly potent and not-to-be-messed with ‘grey vote.’

It used to be that 65 was the qualification age for the State pension. Rumblings of upward changes in the pensionable age go back as far as a 2007 green paper amid mounting concerns around affordability and shifting demographics.

It was something then insisted upon by the Troika (European Commission, European Central Bank and the IMF) when Brian Cowen’s Government called in the cavalry as part of the bailout deal. But it was the new Government of Fine Gael and Labour who actually acted to give the changes legislative effect in 2011 with the age increasing to 66 in 2014.

It’s due to go to 67 in January next and up to 68 in 2028.

There is now a trade union campaign underway to ‘Stop 67’. To add to the confusion and the reawakening of opposition to the pension changes it has emerged that the equivalent age in France is 62 and the EU average is 64. And a public-private rift has also raised its head as it appears than many public sector workers are insulated from the impact of the changes with a designated interim payment to them on their retirement which doesn’t apply to the self-employed or private sector employees.

To rub salt in the wound details have been emerging in recent days of the sweet heart and far more preferential pension entitlements available to retiring TDs and Ministers, some of which can be collected as early as the age of 50.

Sinn Féin are promising to return the pension qualification to age 65 if elected to Government; Labour want it pegged at the current 66 while both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael struggle to come up with a coherent response with transitional payments promised and the prospects of further reviews and reports.

In the meantime private sector workers, many who are compelled to retire at 65, are being forced to having to sign on for means tested unemployment benefit to bridge the gap to the new retirement age, which continues to stretch out in front of them.

Currently the old age pension costs the taxpayer about €8bn per annum with a further 21,000 pensioners qualifying annually and the price tag to sustain it at present levels increasing by about €1 billion every four years.

This one’s going to run and run, way beyond the election, with lots of unhappy campers in their Sixties not going to take 67 for an answer.

8 – Crime, Law & Order

To its credit the previous FG/Labour government re-opened the Garda Training Centre in Templemore which had been closed by Fianna Fáil – they say mothballed – and one way or the other Garda recruitment ceased as one of the cost saving measures under the beleaguered Cowen administration.

Slowly but surely Garda numbers are increasing but finding it hard to keep pace with retirements and demand.

While there have certainly been notable Garda successes, crime continues to hit the headlines and cause concern right across all communities.

It has an even more heightened resonance in Laois as the Minister for Justice is our own Charlie Flanagan and Fine Gael have always fashioned themselves as the party of law and order.

Raids on rural homes and thefts from farms, the lack of Garda visibility and numbers in towns like Mountmellick and Portarlington and the ubiquitous presence and availability of cocaine in all towns and villages remain a big worry.

Even as the election campaign got underway the feuding drugs gangs and criminality are never out of the headlines, their deeds and viciousness getting more and more barbaric.

There has been talk of the need for special courts and special powers of incarceration, otherwise known as internment, have been mooted.

As if Minister Flanagan and Taoiseach Varadkar hadn’t enough on their hands, leaked documents this week from the Garda’s own Emergency Response Unit (ERU) suggest that all is not well internally in the ranks who are highlighting the shortage of personnel, lack of resources and out of date equipment in the elite armed unit.

The Government have embarked on a series of significant reforms within the Gardai, recruitment continues to enhance numbers and visibility and there is a commitment from the Minister to deliver on a long awaited and badly needed new Garda Divisional HQ in Portlaoise.

But it is the issues of the day that dominate the public discourse and fuel unease in an electorate seeking assurances that they are safe in their homes and on the streets of their own towns.

Meanwhile don’t mention the war, aka the controversial RIC commemoration proposal which backfired so spectacularly on the Minister and the Government just as the election was called.

9 – Rural Decline and the end of peat harvesting

Poor roads; brutal broadband; population decline; difficulties in securing planning for one-off houses (even on your own land); post office closures; businesses shutting down leaving only derelict shopfronts; lower farm family incomes due to poor prices; pubs on their last legs and last orders; schools and GAA teams struggling to make up the numbers; lack of availability and access to a GP; falling employment in traditional sectors like Bord na Móna and Coillte; negligible public transport; fear of crime and a reduced Garda presence…

The list goes on and on as rural communities, small towns and villages are not feeling the love or the recovery. They can only look on in envy at the relative prosperity of places like Portlaoise and the amount of resources and investment pouring in to the county town.

This situation is nothing new and not unique to Laois-Offaly but country people aren’t seeing much signs of ‘the recovery’.

The winding down of traditional peat harvesting by Bord na Móna is a case in point. The planning and preparing for alternative opportunities, upskilling, retraining, redeployment and investment to offset the impact on communities across the constituency have all been left until very late in the day, even though this scenario was well flagged as far back as the 1980’s.

Instead of taking responsibility and providing solutions the mainstream political parties prefer to point the finger of blame on the green agenda and environmentalists.

This hot topic will be explored in a TG4 documentary, ‘Gan Fód’ which airs on the Wednesday week, February 5 at 9.30pm, just a few days before polling day and asks the loaded question, ‘Will the Midlands become Ireland’s rust belt?’

10 – Spiralling costs of Insurance

Time and again small businesses are told they are the resilient backbone of the economy. However, the rocketing costs to business and the self-employed of insurance in particular is a huge problem. Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty has earned kudos for tackling the issue and exposing some major inconsistencies in the stance of the insurance industry itself.

Business leaders like Supermac’s and Killeshin Hotel owner, Pat Mc Donagh have been on the warpath over this issue for years. Along with others he is not impressed in the role of the legal profession in the whole claims and excessive awards merry-go-round. Even when business owners defend and win their cases they still have to pay out for hefty legal bills.

The Laois Chamber of Commerce Business Breakfast in The Killeshin Hotel with Pat McDonagh, owner of Supermac’s & Papa John’s Portlaoise interviewed by Ronan Berry, presenter of “Looking After Business” on Midlands 103. One of the country’s leading businessmen he has been a long time critic of the insurance industry and excessive insurance costs.

In recent times activity amenities, festivals and child care providers are among those crying foul and going to the wall over insurance premiums they cannot afford.

Successive governments have failed to get on top of this one and the small businesses unable to meet the insurance premiums being demanded of them are faced with the prospect of having to call it a day.

It is an area that requires effective government intervention to address everything from bogus claims to an onerous and protracted legal process which very often appears to excessively reward trivial and vexatious claims.

The whole issue became a major embarrassment to Fine Gael and was the undoing of their outgoing TD, Maria Bailey in the affair labelled ‘Swing Gate.’

See Also: Laois-Offaly election count confirmed for Portlaoise 

See Also: 15 candidates to contest general election in Laois-Offaly on February 8

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John Whelan has been a journalist, commentator, columnist, political analyst, campaigner, politician and publisher ever since he was 17. Having been Editor of the Leinster Express, Offaly Express and the Leinster Leader he has also contributed extensively on a number of issues to all of the country's flagship titles and programmes including the Irish Press, The Irish Independent, the Star, the Sunday Independent, the Sunday Business Post, The Sunday Times and Prime Time. He is founder of Communicate Ireland a PR, public affairs, event management and media services company. He is the author of the popular camping blog, Vanhalla - Camper Heaven.