A year of public renewal

Tue, Dec 31, 2013, 01:00

We may be in the midst of winter but perhaps we can begin to think of an Irish spring. For the last three years of life under the Troika, Irish public life has been largely frozen. A single, overwhelming task has dominated political and civic life: the painful necessity of restoring the State to solvency. For most, this has been a rather bleak ice age – cold, harsh and inhospitable. Now, with the end of the bailout programme and signs of life in the economy, there is a discernible thaw. It is no sudden melting away of Ireland’s troubles, which are still deep and formidable. The ice is receding slowly, but steadily enough that we can begin to discern the underlying landscape.

We cannot, of course, look forward with blithe optimism. The National Economic and Social Council put it well recently when it said that, in the crisis after 2008, Ireland’s “relationship to the international system has been revealed as more one of vulnerability and dependence than we thought”. Ireland’s progress is indeed fragile. We are vulnerable to the vagaries of an international economy that has yet to fully engage with the structural weaknesses revealed by the crash. We are dependent still on the kindness of strangers: much of what happens here in the next decade will be shaped by Europe’s ability or otherwise to deliver on the promised breaking of the link between sovereign and banking debt.

Dull fatalism, however, is just as self-deluding as careless optimism. One of the long term dangers of the Troika process is that it could entrench an attitude of dependency, an embrace of powerlessness. The truth is that, even while retaining a sober realism about Ireland’s vulnerabilities, we must also focus our collective minds on the things that are within our own grasp. The Government – and the people – have done much to restore Ireland’s shattered global reputation by showing that it is not doomed to be a basket case. Now is the time to lift our sights and aspire to something better than not being an international pariah. 2014 must be a year of genuine public renewal.


Three key areas

That renewal can happen in three key areas. The first and most important is jobs. There are some encouraging signs that, even in adverse circumstances, the economy is generating significant employment. But there remains an urgent national task – every bit as urgent as the fiscal crisis that sparked such drastic action. After five years of high unemployment, Ireland is entering the very dangerous territory of generational joblessness. The starkest statistic is that one in four Irish children is growing up in a household where no one at all is in paid work. The Growing Up In Ireland studies have shown that the effects of the crash are already translating into serious levels of disadvantage for children at the bottom of the heap. The long-term personal, social, economic and fiscal consequences of creating a generation detached from the world of work are intolerable. There is a need for much more urgency in the discussion of how to get people back to work and how to keep those who are out of work connected to society and the economy.

The second area for renewal is political and institutional reform. The Government parties talked a very good game about the need for a “democratic revolution”. They were right to believe that the crisis revealed – to quote NESC again – that “our overall system of collective decision-making and public governance has been shown to be extremely weak”. That is a remarkable (though sadly justified) admission from an official body. But the pace and scale of political reform have been wholly inadequate. The two big reform proposals – giving Dáil committees strong powers and abolishing the Seanad – have been botched. Reform of local government, which has enormous potential for democratic engagement, has been timid. Now that it has some breathing space, the Government can start again on the process of real long-term reform of governance at every level and rediscover the radical spirit with which it entered office.


Social solidarity

Thirdly, there is a need for a renewal of the spirit of equality and social solidarity. The bailout years have been divisive: while many in society are relieved that things have not been as bad as they threatened to be, others have experienced enormous financial stress and despair. These stresses cannot be waved way, but Ireland can reset its compass in the direction of the inclusive republic of equal citizens that it aspires to be. We are entering a time when public policy will have more capacity for choices than it has had since 2008. Those choices can be exercised in a way that tilts the balance towards equality.

The days of irrational exuberance are long gone and no one expects the turning over of the calendar to wipe away our problems. There are, though, good reasons to believe that, with a greater sense of purpose, Ireland can be an appreciably better place at the end of 2014 than it was at the start.

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