THE defining image of the recent national emergency, The Flood, was that of Madame Burton tumbling from a canoe in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Her mishap summed up the government’s cack-handed response to the catastrophe.
Of course, at first sight choosing a canoe to get around the flooded town was a touch of PR class as it evoked memories of Walt Disney’s socially-minded Princess Pocahontas in her native American boat, dispensing kindness and guidance to those less fortunate.
But, sadly, no sooner had Minister Burton set off to commiserate with people whose businesses, farms and homes had been destroyed then she went legs-up into the Nore. The outcome of the shameless Labour photo stunt was a very damp elderly lady without much stately dignity!
Not that her political cronies behaved any better. Who can forget that remarkable Irish Examiner pic of Taoiseach Enda Kenny vacantly staring into a flooded Shannon in Athlone, surrounded by a bunch of grinning acolytes? For all the world, he looked like a disappointed King Canute who, having commanded the oncoming rush of water to halt and not wet his feet and robes, realised that such a miracle was just not going to happen.
Interesting too that, in the first days of The Flood, Kenny visited only his own constituency, but in response to public criticism, he eventually descended upon a devastated Athlone. He was then accused of having done so in a veil of secrecy, that he limited his official call to party supporters affected by the flood, and that he held his press conference in an Army barracks because he didn’t want to be challenged by outraged members of the public.
Out of his depth
As for Environment Minister AK Kelly, he too was reluctant to leave dry land during the festive season and, early in the catastrophe, encouraged mini-minister Simon Harris to bat for him – which the lad did until he put his sodden feet in it.
Out of his depth (excuse the pun) in environmental matters, Harris suggested the EU might be held responsible for opposing flood barriers and dredging rivers on the grounds that birds, fish and frog species were protected under EU law.
Within hours, the European Commission hit back, rejecting out of hand any possibility that EU environmental rules were to blame for the flooding. The Commission said Harris’ comments were ‘completely without foundation’.
It reminded the hapless mini-minister that the EU did not ban dredging and that the Floods Directive did not include detailed rules on how member states managed their rivers. ‘This is decided by the member states themselves,’ the Commission tartly explained. ‘Nothing in the EU Nature Directives dealing with birds and habitat stops action to protect lives and property’.
Indeed, in the event of ‘over-riding public interest, the EU specifically allows action, even when a protected area and its wildlife are damaged in the process,’ it indignantly told Harris.
The EU’s humiliation of the minister was grist to the mill for Sinn Féin MEP Liadh Ní Riada who held the FG-Labour government (and the previous Fianna Fáil one) responsible for the ‘disastrous failure’ to dredge rivers and streams: ‘The rush to blame the EU just adds insult to injury,’ she said with some justification.
Mickey not spared!
Nor was Our Mickey spared the wrath of a saturated populace. The future twenty-six counties Taoiseach (in his own mind) confined his fluvial visitations to parts of Cork, as any self-centred Leesider would do, natch. When asked why he showed little interest in anywhere else, Martin replied that it was not his responsibility to visit other crisis-hit spots, as he was not the Taoiseach! Charming!
At least Paul Colton, the Protestant Bishop of Cork, Cloyne and Ross, was on the ball when he claimed that at national level there was no one in charge of the emergency response. He regretted the lack of co-ordination and said that, while local authority workers, emergency services and defence forces personnel responded well, people looked for someone with overall responsibility.
Launching a flood fund appeal to help people in Bandon and Midleton, the Bish described the response to the calamity as largely ‘self-help and neighbourly help’. Without that, people would have become homeless and suffered hunger, he said.
More is inevitable
And the future? Who knows, other than that more flooding is inevitable.
Of considerable significance is the fact that frustration in Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bandon and Bantry is rapidly turning to anger. Action is needed from the politicos and not just words, as this newspaper pointed out last week.
The response to the flooding had been too slow, the Star said, and it highlighted the Bandon Business Alliance’s criticism of Cork County Council for taking over €1.1m in rates every year and then ‘absolving itself of responsibility to traders.’ The group is now threatening to stop paying commercial rates from next June if flood relief works have not started by then.
In Skibbereen, a floods committee has directly appealed to Labour’s remote and apathetic Minister Howlin to ensure, for God’s sake, that the town’s Flood Relief Scheme is given top priority in 2016, and to sign off on the project before the election. ‘Fat chance of that!’ observed our Labour-weary friend in Dinty’s!
Independent councillor Michael Collins put it well when he described the whole of West Cork as ‘a disaster area’. Sinn Féin’s Cllr Paul Hayes wryly commented that every time a flood occurred there was a sense of ‘here we go again’.
But at least the councillors are united in their objectives. They want emergency legislation that would facilitate the cleaning, dredging and maintenance of rivers. Otherwise, they say, the flooding calamity will be repeated and overflowing rivers again will damage homes and businesses.
Some good news
But it’s not all bad news: Last week Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), which was formerly the National Roads Authority, announced it would fund a plan to raise the road surface of the N25, the main Cork-Waterford road that was badly flooded near Castlemartyr.
Because the road is part of the EU trans-European transport network, TII has requested Cork County Council to begin works immediately. Wow! Won’t the people in Bandon be impressed!
But, wait a sec, isn’t TII the outfit in charge of the Jack Lynch Tunnel and wasn’t said tunnel closed for 12 hours a few weeks ago because of a drainage problem that a man with a bucket could have fixed? As a result Cork suffered the biggest gridlock ever in its history – 70,000 vehicles stuck in a traffic jam!
Oh, and here’s more good news: Kenny is considering holding a March election in the hope that after an appropriate passage of time the anger generated by FG’s negative response to the floods will have, well, ‘receded’.
Another example of government contempt for the plain people of Ireland?