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The cosy cartel of the taxi-drivers 

MUCH as I'd like to join everyone else in kicking the crap out of the taxi-drivers, I'm afraid there's a bit of a con-job going on here. Truly, I have as many reasons as anyone else for putting the boot in, but I'm convinced that if you listen carefully to what's going on you'll hear a soft, rustling noise in the background. It's the sound of wool being pulled over people's eyes.

It's true that for years anyone dependent on taxis for getting around this flea-bitten capital city has been treated with contempt. There are fine, professional drivers out there, and quite a lot of them. But there are a lot of cowboys. As a group, they maintained a stranglehold on the social and business life of the city.

Drivers who didn't have a licence, so-called "cosies", were forced to pay £250 a week for the right to work. They had to pay that money to the licence owner, before earning a penny for themselves. To own a licence was to be a little baron, with the right to extract money from hard-working cosies and to harass hackney drivers. Some people owned several licences. In order to maintain this racket, the public had to be deprived of the transport we required, forcing us to queue for hours or increasingly simply to stay home rather than put ourselves through the misery of finding a way out of the city centre.

So the taxi-drivers are on strike this weekend? Really? How can we tell? The service is hardly any worse when they're off the road than it was when they were working.

There is good reason for the public anger. Yet, look around you aren't there some quare hawks lining up to kick the taxi-drivers now that they're down?

Looking at the TV news on Friday evening, there was Bertie Ahern, from Zagreb, telling us how the Government had to act. Good man, Bertie. Leadership in action. But for years Ahern tolerated the taxi rackets, knowing damn well what was going on. His Government, and its predecessors, protected the rackets (for whatever reason, and it is one of the real political mysteries of our time).

Incredibly, it dawdled, offering licence holders a second licence in a vain and time-wasting attempt to persuade them to relax their grip on the city. And the Government would still be soft-pedalling on the issue if it wasn't for the courts.

The "expert" economists are lining up to praise "deregulation". They dismiss lightly the plight of some taxi-drivers who paid huge sums for licences. Yet these are the gents who for years convinced the politicians that public transport should be starved of resources. Those policies helped create the traffic chaos and create and shore up the taxi rackets.

Every right-wing crank in the country is lining up to swing a boot at the taxi-drivers, sneering at the genuine terror of those drivers who mortgaged their houses in order to get in on the rackets.

Business types demand respect for law and order. Hold on, folks, the rackets were no secret. The taxi licences were advertised for sale, in newspapers, for £70,000 and £80,000 a shot. The banks were happy to lend money to, and to profit from, the people mortgaging their homes in order to get into the taxi rackets.

The political establishment and predominantly Fianna Fáil cosied up to the rackets. At the last general election every second taxi in my area was painted with Fianna Fáil slogans.

The PDs are strutting around, claiming to be "standing firm" behind "deregulation". They desperately need an issue with which to curry public favour, to recover the credibility they lost in the O'Flaherty scandal.

There was no "deregulation". To deregulate is to take a decision to change the way a sector is administrated. There was no political decision. A judge ruled that the rackets could not continue the dawdling, hesitant politicians had no choice.

They are still trying to look after their erstwhile taxi-driver friends, to come up with a compensation scheme, without arousing too much public anger. 

The drivers are not helping their politician friends by throwing their weight around.

Instead of one kind of chaos we now have another kind of chaos.

We know that the interface between business and politics is slick with greasy money. The tribunals are now uncovering the details of events of a dozen years ago. Perhaps in years to come some inquiry will reveal what exactly was going on behind the taxi rackets. And what's going on behind the Dublin pub rackets.

In the meantime, let us not prattle about "deregulation". It's more regulation we need, not less. We need political decisions made and enforced about a transport system geared to our needs, not the needs of financial interests.

And that is not what is happening.

No one "deregulated" anything. The political establishment tolerated the taxi rackets until the rotten set-up broke down under the weight of its own corruption. No politician deserves credit for anything in this mess. They didn't lead. They stumbled. And as the taxi-drivers thrash around, seeking to prolong the existence of the rackets, the politicians have slapped a "deregulation" label on events, as though they had some idea of where they are stumbling.

Yes, kicking taxi-drivers might make us feel good. But things are a bit more complicated than some would have us believe.



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