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The bizarre, fake fight over toll road prices

The populist outrage of the week, over in Oireachtas-land, has not, surprisingly, been the situation in East Wall. On that, after all, our political parties are agreed: The protestors are, if not villains, at least patsies for villains. The only question up for debate on that issue has been which of Government or Opposition could be more vehement in issuing condemnations of the uppity dissenters.

No, the real issue, so far as they’re all concerned, is…. Toll road prices:

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said he cannot give “solid cast-iron commitments” to prevent toll road increases from the start of next year “because there are contracts involved”.

He told Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty it would not be responsible to give such a guarantee but said: “We will work with the Department of Transport and Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) to see if we can come up with solutions between now and the first of January.”

In the wake of news that tolls are set to increase from the start of next year Mr Varadkar said the companies involved “will want their contracts to be honoured. And they will go to court if they’re not, by the way, and probably succeed”.

In many ways, the debate about Toll Roads sums up Irish politics.

If you are a motorist, then there are many things which are directly in the power of politicians which add to the cost of your commute. Politicians are responsible for setting the level of your annual car tax. They are responsible for the VRT – the extortionate VRT – that you pay when buying your car. They are responsible for more than half of the price of every litre of fuel you put in your car. They are responsible for the tax you pay on your insurance premium every year. They are responsible for the cost of your annual or biannual NCT test. They are responsible for the cost of renewing your drivers licence. I am, doubtless, forgetting some additional costs that they have levied on motorists.

In other words, if politicians really desired to alleviate the cost of commuting, they have a legion of possible avenues to do it.

So, naturally, all political debate is directed at the one thing over which they have no power – the cost of road tolls.

As it happens, and on the merits of the issue, Leo Varadkar is right: The Government, many years ago, signed a contract with the companies operating the toll roads which allows those companies to raise prices over time. The toll road operators are doing nothing illegal, or wrong – they are simply exercising a contractual right given to them by Government. There is nothing Government can do about it, without being sued for breach of contract.

In addition, and at the risk of sounding out of touch, the issue at hand is a very minor one for the vast majority of us who are not daily commuters on the M50. And even for those who are, the costs are relatively minor: For someone taking 10 trips a week on the M50 (to and from work, twice a day, five days a week) the total additional cost is €6 per week. Much less, in other words, than the impact of the cost of fuel, which Government could mitigate more quickly, and without any legal obstacles, simply by reducing fuel duties.

And yet, this is the issue on which the opposition believes the Government is not doing enough. It’s laughable.

And it is, I would argue, a symptom of our broken politics. All those other costs on motorists I listed above? Opposition politicians have no issue with any of them. If they are voted into power, they will do naught to address them, and in fact may make them worse.

Irish politics these days has very few dividing lines. On all of the big questions determining how the individual experiences life within the state, there is absolute unity. No matter which of them we elect, the cost of commuting will rise as a result of our perceived duty to the fight against Climate Change – even as Americans pay 25% of what we do for fuel. On immigration and crime, they are united. On the health service, every single party wants more money, and no reform. On taxes, not one of them wants to reduce our taxes meaningfully.

The result of this unity is that they occasionally need things that politicians can’t control to fight about, to differentiate themselves in the eyes of the public. But here’s the thing: The contracts for the toll roads are signed, sealed, and delivered. The costs will rise regardless of who is in power. And they all know that – even, and especially, those politicians leading the charge on this stupid row.

You’re being played, here, with false hope. Meanwhile, more important debates simply don’t happen.

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