Ireland is covered in a blanket of snow. If you listen carefully, you can hear pipes bursting all over the country. Electricity supply is spotty. Heating oil delivery is delayed. In fact, the country is closed for business.
Unlike other countries in the Northern Hemisphere, Ireland has little experience in the application of emergency plans. In November half the country was under water. In 2010 snow and ice have conquered the land. Indeed weather forecasters speak often of ‘treacherous’ conditions. I wonder whether shopping in Newry or the weather conditions is the worst betrayal.
It has taken two weeks for the media to cover the weather conditions because until Dublin is effected, it might as well be happening in another country. Once Dublin is snowed under the weather becomes headline news. Now that it has, media commenters have spoken of ‘national emergency’ and ‘critical situation’ but no state of emergency has been declared. The army has not been called out. Government Ministers are conspicuous in their absence. In fact, the Minister for Transport Noel Dempsey is on holidays and does not intend to return to declare an national emergency.
Whatever about Dublin, it is the rest of the country that has been suffering. There is not enough grit to cover secondary roads and most roads in rural Ireland are secondary roads. Cars are abandoned on the roads and Accident and Emergency Departments are overflowing — except in the areas where A&E have already closed due to budget constraints.
In the past, supplies of grit would be given to local farmers to grit their own stretch of road. The system worked and permitted those in the locality to move outside their front drives but now insurance conditions do not permit amateurs spreading grit in spite of the number of volunteers. Hundreds of people have been snowed in since 24 December, including elderly people living alone.
Footpaths are not gritted in any part of the country. Whether this is policy or as a result of the lack of grit is unclear.
Stocks of grit run low every day. The situation reaches critical mass each day when the population wonders whether the supplies will reach the local government authority and whether the machines will be out clearing the road. It is exhausting to be in a constant state of uncertainty and doubt. Parents do not know whether their child’s school will be open or not, whether they can get to work or must stay home with the children one whether a babysitter can make it through the frozen estate safely. Workers have to decide whether it is worth keeping the job at the expense of one’s life. The rest of us have to decide whether to risk the streets or eat the last moldy banana in the fruit bowl.
Whether by a lack of imagination or lateral thinking, grit is being imported from Holland and Northern Ireland, rather than using our national resources. Sand, ash and salt are all effective substitutes for grit. Instead, it is imported and as a result supplies are constantly low.
As they often are, insufficient funds are responsible for creating this crisis. Responsibility for road works devolved to local government but local government does not have the budget to cope with a protracted spell of snow and ice. The local government budgets’ were slashed in the past two budgets, which had added to the sense of defeat that permeates the country.
Dublin ground to a halt this week. The airport closed. The buses stopped. Thousands of commuters were stranded because it snowed. It is embarrassing to be caught on the back foot like this. Finland has temperatures of -20 degrees celsius and their buses are running on time. The roads in London are gritted and drivable even after five inches of snow. But dear old Dublin cannot cope with two inches of snow despite three weeks of forewarning. I suppose it is not wholly surprising when snow, floods and leaves show up the incompetence of the ruling elite.
The focus has been on commuters with the media providing such safety tips as ‘do not go anywhere unless it is necessary’, ‘take care’ and ‘drive slowly’. But the real focus is on the government and their lack of leadership. The Irish people are living through unprecedented times of crises. Aside from the economic mess, we are living through the third month of national disaster without a hint of leadership or a glance of our elected representatives. What does it take for the people to say ‘no more’, now that the government has once again proved it lack of true grit?