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The printer of our discontent

County View

County View
John Healy

It might be the run-in to the panto season, but the Gaiety and the Olympia, it has to be said, have been upstaged this year by Leinster House. The fiasco over the Dáil printer (‘a total pig’s ear’, in the words of one TD) casts an unwelcome light on our strange lack of ability to get right even the most basic demands of mathematics.
To recap: The Dáil ordered a printing machine, costing €808,000. The supplier advised that the machine would require a ceiling height of 3.16 metres, but yet the in-house architects failed to notice that the room designated for the printer had a ceiling height of only 2.5 metres. In other words, the printing machine was two feet too high to fit into the room.
In a letter to the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, the clerk of the Dáil, Peter Finnegan, last week gave an overall breakdown of the costs of the new printer, the works that needed to be carried out on the room to ensure it fitted, the cost of outsourcing printing while the new printer is out of action, as well as the cost of storing the printer. The total cost now excedes €2 million.
To be fair, anyone can make a mistake. And, if we are honest, we don’t seem to be very good at figures. Our education system might rank up there among the best in Europe, but when it comes to basic arithmetic, getting two plus two to equal four seems to stump us every time.
The printer misfortune came just a few days after a ‘seriously erroneous statistic’ was found to have turned up in the Ryan report, the Commission to Enquire into Child Abuse in Institutions, which had made for such painful and harrowing reading. The report had concluded that some 170,000 children had passed through the industrial schools and orphanages in the 30-plus years under review.
Unfortunately, someone had added up the figures incorrectly, a fact which has only now come to light. What happened was that the report’s compilers added up the yearly figures at the end of each year, failing to take account of the fact that many of the children had already been counted in the previous year, and in the years before that. The result was that the figures had been double or even treble counted to the extent that, when the mistake was finally discovered, the figure was revised downward from 170,000 to 42,000.
Those readers with a longer memory will recall the infamous incident of some years ago when another counting error led to a €3.6 billion miscalculation in the national accounts. The then Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, admitted to a ‘humiliatingly schoolboy error’ in his department, where a €3.6 billion loan to the Housing Finance Agency was counted twice in the national accounts. It took some explaining on the minister’s part to our overlords at the ECB as to how such an error went unnoticed, especially when his department had been alerted not once, but twice by their colleagues in the National Treasury Management Agency.
But then, more recently, the NTMA itself was in the firing line when an error in entering a currency trade resulted in a loss of €720,000, to the taxpayer.
Much of our profligacy with public spending is linked to our penchant for vanity projects, those flagship schemes which fuel political egos even when more mundane but pressing matters are calling out for attention. Dublin City Council has just given the go-ahead for a €23 million white-water rafting facility at George’s Dock (right next to where homeless people sleep in the street) that will cost punters €50 a pop to use.
It has been roundly condemned by, among others, former Minister for Justice Michael McDowell. But, true to the adage about people in glasshouses, he in turn was scathingly reminded of his ministerial folly of forking out €30 million for a new prison site at Thornton Hall. Fourteen years on, the site (the cost of which is now €51 million), still lies idle.