Back in 1987 Minister for Transport Martin Cullen’s predecessor, Padraig Flynn, sold a small – but pivotal – piece of land to National Toll Roads for €14m (in today’s terms). Last Tuesday, Martin bought it back for €600m which we will pay in annual instalments of €50m. The final figure will be nearer to a billion, when the cost-of-living clause is invoked by NTR.
So how did the Cabinet’s Clown Prince spin this humiliation into victory? Martin Cullen turned down RTE’s invitation to debate the deal with me on Morning Ireland last Wednesday (listen here). I appeared first and the Minister, in accordance with his demands, responded alone in studio.
Ministers like Martin Cullen prefer not to appear with critics. They often dictate terms to RTE demanding one-to-one interviews without irritants in the studio. They want a lap of honour. The spinners’ script sounds better without interruption.
Fortunately, my questions were nevertheless posed to him: Was there a consultants’ report in the undergrowth offering the Government three electronic toll options in the future? One is to toll the single point where the West-Link now stands; the second to toll selected locations on the M50, and the third to introduce multiple tolling, probably on all approach roads.
The Minister replied by pledging to keep to single-point tolling on the M50. He should have added the words “until May”. He was emphatic. So emphatic that he never answered the question: was there such a consultant’s report in the pipeline? There is. And it is dynamite.
The hidden political agenda is now crystal clear: announce that the barriers will be lifted in 2008. Say nothing about the consultants’ report. Head for the May General Election, promising clear motorways and single-point tolling.
Wait until it is over in June, then slowly leak the consultants’ report; soften up public opinion for tolling of the entire M50; express sorrow and surprise; agonise in public and then reluctantly toll the motorist to death in the early months of the new government.
Martin’s pledge is worthless. Do we not recollect Taoiseach Bertie Ahern pledging that the State would never buy out NTR?
Martin knows he cannot bind a successor. And, please God, he will soon not be minister for anything.
A mystery remains. Martin could press the “open” button today and relieve the pain of commuters stuck at the barriers. He could even experiment: open the gates at non-peak times and let drivers pass through free. Why not? Why wait for electronic tolling in August 2008?
The Government cannot take this chillingly logical step because they secretly plan a drivers’ crucifixion once the election is over.
By the time Martin has finished with the motorists, we will be screaming for the return of NTR.