Driving at the end of a long day, it is easy to imagine things. To be concentrating on the road and think you saw something that, on reflection, could not have been there. Passing through a village, a jeep with re and blue lights on the roof passed the other way. ‘Castlecomer Fire and Rescue’ was emblazoned in white letters across the bonnet. It must have been an illusion, how would a small Irish town have a fire and rescue service? Two nights later, a similar vehicle passed by, this one bore the lettering ‘Thomastown Fire and Rescue’.
Two sightings could not be a matter of imagination: an Internet search revealed the vehicles to be part of the county fire service and not a local community enterprise.
In France, they may well have been owned and operated by the council of the local commune or town. On French beaches, the sight of the ‘Sapeurs Pompiers’ vehicle from the local village would be familiar. They seem to provide emergency cover for almost every eventuality, from putting out forest fires to rescuing swimmers.
It always seemed odd that services would be so localized; that the van parked in the car park at one beach would be operated by a council different from that which operates a similar vehicle that is parked in car park a couple of miles up the road; it must generate huge volumes of bureaucracy. Perhaps it does, but things in France do seem to run well.
The governmental system, rooted in the communes and going up, tier by tier, to the national government in Paris, can cause huge frustration to those who must deal with the constant completion of forms and constant requirement to deal with officials, but look at the way in which French towns and villages are kept, and compare them with what we tolerate in Ireland.
It was a dogma of the Fianna Fail-Progressive Democrat government that we must have ‘light regulation’, that private enterprise would provide all we needed, that the unfettered free market would provide a long term, sustainable quality of life. The dogma of the Right is as flawed as the dogma of the Left, who believe that the State can deliver everything, in its failure to understand human nature – people tend to be naturally selfish and people tend to avoid responsibilities if they can do so. The French system, cumbersome as it is, takes account of those human failings; it allows individual freedom, but ensures that freedom is exercised in a way that contributes to the life of the community.
Not only does the French system deliver clean streets, fine public amenities, and a sense of local responsibility, but it produces an expectation that all will be done well. The French simply would not tolerate what we accept; there would be demonstrations, ‘manifestations’, at the sort of governance and public service considered acceptable here. If those Fire and Rescue vehicles really did belong to the local towns, it would be part of an administration of the country very different from what we have.