New Deal for a Suffering Nation?
Deaglán de Bréadún
Due to some technical glitch, this Inside Politics column from last Saturday doesn’t appear in the normal way on the website (except for the e-paper of course) which means I don’t get the usual comments from readers. Here it is and any civil response is most welcome.
We are told that when innocent Russians were arrested and taken to
Stalin’s concentration camps in the 1930s, their initial reaction was,
“Za chto?” or, in English, “What for?”
Irish citizens might be excused for reacting in the same way when they
look at the punishment meted out to them for economic crimes that they
did not commit.
We all know who was to blame: the banks, the property speculators and
a political system that was dozing at the wheel.
We are the ones paying the price but the message from our ruling élite
is that, if we grit our teeth and make the necessary sacrifices, then,
in the words of the old song, “There’s a good time coming”.
Even with a change of government in the next few months there will be
no short-term relief, just a redistribution of the pain to other parts
of the body politic.
A feeling that there was greater “parity of pain” in the official
response to the crisis might be some consolation but it would be a
palliative, rather than a permanent cure for public discontent.
Yet the depth of the crisis is such that it is bound to have political
consequences. Our economy has been hit by a life-threatening disease,
not just a head-cold or dose of the ‘flu.
Something’s got to give. There has to be a change in the political
culture. Our economy may be subject to epidemics or even plagues, but
we cannot allow ourselves to be caught unawares and unprepared like
this in the future.
One is reminded of the celebrated Daily Mirror cartoon by Philip Zec
at the end of the second World War, portraying a wounded soldier
limping home with the laurels of victory and peace and the heartfelt
plea: “Don’t lose it again!”
When Noel Browne became Minister for Health with the inter-party
government in 1948, the Irish people were cowering before the wrath of
a dragon called Tuberculosis. When he left in 1951, that dragon had been slain.
That was a proud achievement. So too was Donogh O’Malley’s
introduction of free secondary education – a move that was engineered
by himself and Sean Lemass when the finance minister in that
government, Jack Lynch, was out of the country. It was in turn a
reaction to Fine Gael’s progressive “Just Society” policies at the
We need to get in touch with our inner Noel Browne and Donogh
O’Malley. We need to slay the dragon of financial insecurity,
inequality and fear of the future.
In Britain the sacrifices of 1939-45 were followed by a post-war
settlement based on achieving full employment, greatly-expanded social
services, free universal healthcare and enhanced educational opportunity.
The prospect of reaching that promised land must have sustained many a
citizen in the dark days of conflict. The notion seems to be gaining
currency that a similar ideal is needed here, to get us through the
Browne and O’Malley were members of fairly conservative and cautious
governments but their success showed that if you are stubborn and
committed enough and can acquire the requisite funding, you will
achieve your aim. Browne had access to Hospital Sweepstakes money and
O’Malley used the Taoiseach of the day to circumvent Department of
The economic turmoil here and elsewhere, especially in Greece, has
been accompanied by a less overt, but nevertheless real, crisis of
Opposition parties may crow over the Government’s poor showing in the
opinion polls but if they were in power, the likelihood is that they,
too, would be “taking a hit”. People have lost a good deal of faith in
our democratic institutions and their ability to cope with a crisis.
The only way to remedy this is to convince the populace that things
will never be the same again.
One of the features of the 1945 British general election was the
numbers of young soldiers in uniform who contravened the regulations
by going on political platforms to say they were not prepared to
resume civilian life under the conditions that prevailed in the
The hardships of today cannot be compared with the 1930s but the
essential point remains that we need something better than politics as
It is said that the words of “There is a good time coming” were sung
by passengers on the emigrant ships as they sailed into New York
harbour from the Old World: we need a New World here in Ireland, but
who will give it to us?
The next Dail is likely to have a very wide representation from across
the political spectrum. The indications are that the electorate
is in the mood to test new programmes and try fresh approaches. There
is a lot of wild talk about “burning the bondholders” and cutting our
links with the euro, but it’s all part of a rich, new tapestry.
We shall definitely see a large number of fresh faces and it promises
to be an assembly like no other in our recent history. Perhaps out of
that mix, ideas could emerge to ensure that a bright spring and summer
will follow the winter of our discontent,
We are entering upon a critical but potentially exciting and
innovative period in our political development. It would be good to
think that, in the process, the obvious faults and flaws in the system
would be eliminated.
It would be good to think that clientelism and cronyism could be
brought under control and manners put on the banks and financial
institutions. It is time to end the sense of entitlement that
privileged sectors of our society feel as they pay themselves enormous
salaries and bonuses.
At present, homeless people are sleeping rough within fifty metres of
the Leinster House front gate: it is time to end that shame. Can we do
it? To coin a phrase: Yes, we can.