A spring in their step
Government Ministers had a spring in their step when they returned to work in the New Year. Having endured a torrid year of criticism as living standards continued to fall, the economic outlook suddenly appeared brighter. Public finances were in better shape than had been expected at budget time; numbers on the Live Register had fallen; the exporting sector continued to grow and there were tentative signs of a return in consumer confidence.
It was only natural that Ministers with economic briefs should jostle for a place in this wintry sun. After all, there had been little positive news for almost two years and a number of major political hurdles lay ahead. Time was running out if they were to persuade the public their policies were working and that better days lay ahead if necessary social discipline was accepted. New taxation and inspection charges involving septic tanks, property and water services were being introduced to cut back on a € 14 billion budgetary deficit. Bringing down the cost of the public service by € 1.5 billion over two years, through voluntary agreements, offered a greater challenge. Local government will be restructured this year; local elections held next year; a referendum to abolish the Seanad and the prospect of a new EU treaty in 2015. It is not an agenda for the faint-hearted.
Despite that, there was a touch of hubris about Minister for Finance Michael Noonan’s comment that “barring war or pestilence” Ireland would meet or surpass its financial targets for the coming year. Of course, he may have received private reassurances about our sovereign debt. That would be further good news for a reviving economy. Minister for Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton paid tribute to the work of Enterprise Ireland that was driving exports and increasing employment throughout the regions and he anticipated further significant progress.
Before becoming president of the United States 20 years ago, Bill Clinton’s slogan was: “It’s the economy stupid.” So it is. For politicians and for the public, most things are possible so long as jobs and wealth are being created. A fundamental mistake made by both Fine Gael and the Labour Party before the general election was to make extravagant, unrealistic promises. Their failure to deliver on those commitments, because of external factors and the troika’s fiscal agenda, brought public criticism and internal party pressures. Minister for Communications and Energy Pat Rabbitte has chosen to blame the media for its “all-pervasive negativity” in the coverage of politics. Those are the comments of a Minister under pressure. Before the budget, unpopular actions were threatened on a daily basis. In that atmosphere, what response did he expect? Now that the economic gloom is lifting, however, the Government should review its programme.