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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 23, 2008 @ 5:28 am

    Yes We Can

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    It’s a time of great upheaval and nobody at this stage can predict what the world will be like when it all settles down. The only certainty is that nothing will ever be the same again.

    The banking sector will never again have the same freedom from state supervision. Even right-wingers or very moderate social democrats are nationalising banks, sending in government monitors to keep tabs on their activities, or otherwise exerting controls that would have been unthinkable and laughed uproariously out of court only months ago.

    Amid the maelstrom and out of the myriad conflicting theories and analyses, a few other certainties emerge. Irresponsible lending practices and greed on a global scale played a major role getting us into this mess.

    The globalisation of the world economy and the increasing interaction of its components through the internet and improved communications meant, for example, that if a bucket-load of sub-prime mortgages went haywire in the American Midwest, the shockwaves were felt right throughout the international system.

    The financial institutions – or some of them – were throwing money at people who would never be able to pay it back. The term NINJA, for “No Income, No Job, No Assets”, is one of the more haunting acronyms to surface in the media.

    In 1929 and the early Thirties the world economy collapsed and the masses were thrown into poverty, confusion and political extremism of left and right varieties. Can this be prevented from happening again? Nobody really knows. The stock exchanges as I write are still rocky. Everyone’s future now has a cloud over it.

    At a period in history when the nation-state was increasingly being dismissed as an anachronism, this very entity has dusted itself off and taken centre-stage. Our own wee state in Ireland has been more active than most in seeking to preserve the banks and, by extension, the entire economy including the jobs and pensions of ordinary people from collapse.

    This is being written in China, a country that has so far been to a great extent immune from the storms and buffeting that have marked the international economic scene. Taoiseach Brian Cowen arrived in Beijing yesterday and your humble scribe is part of the media contingent who travelled here to cover his activities.

    It hardly needs saying that, when he concludes today’s programme, which included a meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao in the Great Hall of the People, a lot of the media questioning will be focused on events thousands of miles away back home. And it won’t be just the usual Irish media provincialism for a change.

    The Grey Rebellion against the cutbacks in provision for the over-70s continues. Reports from Dublin that Michael Lowry voted for the Government’s response to the Fine Gael private member’s motion on the issue would seem to indicate that the ruling coalition may have weathered the storm – albeit with a lot of damage to the hull and other critical parts of the ship.

    It’s a test of a society that it can compromise and even muddle its way out of difficulties and, with a lot of hard work and political skill, it just may be the case that the issue of medical cards for the over-70s can be dealt with in a way that means reduced expenditure for the state whilst preserving a substantial amount of the support previously afforded to our older citizens. Personally I would prefer free universal health care but the Government has set its face against that apparently. 

    The cost of the scheme as currently structured is probably unsustainable but the insensitivity of the initial Budget cutback could have been avoided if our political masters possessed a greater quantity of those two great essentials – common sense and the common touch.

    Eamon de Valera said that, if he wanted to know what the Irish people were thinking, he only had to look into his own heart. His opponents turned it against him and portrayed him as a kind of dictator but what he meant was that he regarded himself as one of the common people and therefore understood how ordinary folk think and react.

    The extent to which Dev was typical of the common man is a matter for the historians to debate but the fundamental point here is that, in his time, the political class were less remote from the people than they are now. They did not earn as much, in relative terms, and were not gifted with the same perks and privileges that now pertain.

    One suspects that many Irish people, as they look at the political scene, will ask where is the party that will forswear the massive salaries and emoluments that go with high political office: not just ten per cent but, say, fifty per cent. As the writer Jack London once said, when he came into money, “You can only eat one porterhouse steak a day.”

    One example – and only one – is the plethora of junior ministers. Time was they were known as Parliamentary Secretaries and there was only a half-dozen or so. Now the number has trebled and currently stands at 20 (for analysis of the issue, click here) and, although there is no identifiably clear task for  a lot of them to do, the public purse has been forced to take the strain. It would perhaps be invidious to name names but few of them will take up much space when the history-books are written, to put it very charitably.

    Fine Gael has called for the latest three such appointments (including a Green Party appointee) to be done away with but, if memory serves, a previous FG-led administration increased the numbers as a way of ensuring stability in the coalition government of the day – it was the FG-Labour-Democratic Left dispensation of the mid-90s.

    Why stop at three? Cut it back down to what it was before: half-a-dozen. That would be a start in restoring public faith in the political system. The amount of money saved would be significant and there would be more funds available for cancer services and care of the elderly. But more important would be the signal that would go out, that the spoils of office come second after the public welfare. This would impress the sceptical public as a real example of the patriotism Brian Lenihan spoke about in the Budget. Someone needs to say, “Yes we can.”


    • robespierre says:

      A man of reading such as yourself – I draw this assumption from your writing which is often bestrewn with literary and historical references – should be wary of using such hubristic intonations as “never again”. It has been said so often through the years.

      I remember canvassing in 2002 around a North Dublin constituency and being convinced that a change of government was inevitable despite the polls. The anger on the doorsteps over health issues, services for autistic children, parents with dementia was palpable. It was also widespread. People do vote on the economy – James Carville, etc.

      All that said you are onto something in reflecting on the dichotomy between the lives of public “servants” and the people they are meant to serve. A gap has most certainly developed and arcane practices like guaranteeing state jobs and teachers still drawing a third of their salary on top of their Dáil emoluments still persist.

      Rex Publica – kingship by the people. So on what issue will we finally throw off the yokes of civil war politics and vote on national issues that matter to all? When will we coronate ourselves to this end? Aristotle has interesting thoughts on the public spheres and private spheres and how people move between them in Nichomachean ethics.

      It comes down in simple turns to obeying the laws of natural justice. When the foundations of Maslow’s pyramid of needs is unjustly fractured and you find that the Joshua blowing the trumpet to bring it down is an old friend, Bertie’s old mucker Biffo, then there is no need for a battle hymn of the republic for the people to rise up.

      This is only the beginning of the cuts and the problem is that the government did not approach this with any clear strategy, they made cuts in the wrong areas and they have dented the public’s willingness to entertain future rationalisation. When the process of de-layering the HSE and serious examination of local authorities (do we need finance departments and call-centres for all of them, can you reduce the number of buildings, etc.) starts, to pick just two – the unions now have license to go on a jihad to protect the all workers in all grades at all costs.

    • Elaine says:

      Yes Minister. Jobs for the Boys.

      Purely fictional of course.

    • Ray D says:

      This small state has 35 or 38 Ministers despite the Constitution limiting govt to 15 Ministers. Some of the extra-constitutional Ministers have been delegated ministerial powers directly in conflict with the Constitution. What is the C&AG doing about it – nothing. If extra ministers is in line with the Constitution, why not make every Dail member a minister? I cannot believe that the creation of these extra ministers has not been tested and struck down by the Courts. No one cares.

      As regards the public sector, crazily, civil servants are allowed to work-up as many as 19 and a half extra days leave each year through flexitime. Madness such as this means that those in even the lowest grade of Clerical Officer have a minimum leave entitlement of over 10 weeks. The working-up of extra days is an unjustiified and unnecessary provision of the flexitime scheme, but no one cares. Eliminating it would allow significant reduction in civil serice numbers without any adverse effects on service levels.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      I was struck by the report on RTE from FAS about the outlook for the economy, which featured their chief economist. Why does FAS, a training and job placement agency, need its own in-house economist? And since he is their chief economist there must be even more of them in there. In FAS. Does the Department of Arts, Sport and Leisure have its own economist? Surely economists should be like IT folks in the civil service and exist to support the front- line work of others.

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