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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 28, 2008 @ 12:18 pm

    The Green Light

    Harry McGee

    A scene from George Orwell’s 1984 that has stayed with me since I read the novel as a teenager is when Winston Smith asks a friend does he have any spare razor blade as he has been using his own one for months.

    It came to mind this morning as I shaved with a blade that has lost its edge. I need to buy new blades and will think nothing of spening almost €15 on blades that supposedly glide across my stubbled chin as if it were a ski slope. The price of so many similar commodities (especially coffee; alcohol; convenience food etc) has inflated grotesquely in the past 10 years. Yet, we take all of these things for granted. The generation who really remembers want in Ireland are now pensioners. Even those in their 40s who have vague recollections of the 1980s have fallen victim to the collective amnesia that came with increasing prosperity.

    The Budget announced a fortnight ago wasn’t tough enough. We are now entering a global recession from which Ireland isn’t immune. The good ship of State is a leaky lightweight currach and it’s going to be cast adrift on turbulent seas.  The Government has only a limited number of tools at its disposal. One of them is to slash public spending and that means pain and sacrifice and hardship for many sectors.

    Now, there were a couple of hasty and poor decisions that Brian Lenihan and his Cabinet colleagues made when they decided where to insert the scalpel. The motive behind the medical card decision was correct; the method was madness. They should have (as Fintan O’Toole argues convincingly this morning) targeted the super rich for more taxes (and by God do they have a lot of ground to make up) rather than hitting on the lowest income earners. But there’s a persuasive argument that the cuts should have gone much much deeper.

    And now to this week’s theme, the education cut-backs. It’s terrible to see so many jobs (over 200 at the very least) having to be shed. But the question that has to be asked is the following: Are the cut-backs in education proportional to the cut-backs in other sectors?  And that’s taking social and long-term factors into account (such as the economic benefits that accrue from investment in education). If the answer is yes, then the cut-backs must stand. If the answer is no, then – and only then – can a review be announced.

    The political nightmare for Government is obvious. They’ve announced a harsh budget and every week they withdraw one of its measures. After a while the impact of the Budget is lost and the reputation of the Government is in tatters.

    However, that’s not to say that it should stand by every aspect of its Budgetary measures that relate to education. If there are glaring inequities or injustices, they should be remedied with funding coming from within the same sector. And they should be explained – the Government has enough highly-paid communications advisers to do just that (poor and all as the communications strategy has been over the past fortnight).

    Back to the razor blade. I’m not suggest that things get that bad though there are times when I look at our tiny garden and wonder is that corner big enough to grow a drill of potatoes?

    That said, things are going to get worse (for maybe two years or more) before they get better. Tens of thousands of people will lose their jobs. Banks will foreclose on some mortgages. Small businesses will be squeezed for credit and will suffer because of a lack of cash flow. The tide of unhappinness will lap up to every shore in this country and every shore in the world.

    My own sense is that most people (inlcuding myself) are in a bit of denial about how bad it’s going to be because it hasn’t affected us yet.. But it will. The rollercoaster that is the world’s stock market isn’t happening in a parallel world. It’s happening right here and right now.

    There are people out there who want the Greens to waver today, to deliver the Government some kind of an ultimatum on education.  The party didn’t do a good job last week selling its message. The combination of low visibility from its ministers and mixed messages from its backbenchers made the party look all at sea.

    The strange thing is that the party has hung in tough but has abjectly failed to get that message across. Do we need a new Government or a General Election at this moment in time? I think not, though  like everybody else I’m far more dubious about the long-time survival of this coalition. And will do so again after its meeting today when it says it will swallow hard on the education cuts (though I suspect it will look for a couple of concessions). It mightn’t win any popularity awards as a result but it will have shown itself as mature enough to stand its ground when the going gets really tough.

    Long enough and tough enough to blunt the sharpest razor blade.


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