Strategy has lofty ambitions but is scant on detail

Analysis: First economic strategy since bailout exit is big on aspiration

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny  at the launch of A Strategy for Growth, Medium-Term Economic Strategy 2014 - 2020, with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, at Government Buildings, Dublin today. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

An Taoiseach Enda Kenny at the launch of A Strategy for Growth, Medium-Term Economic Strategy 2014 - 2020, with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, and Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, at Government Buildings, Dublin today. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

Tue, Dec 17, 2013, 19:58

It’s a bit like 1922 when the only real signs the State had won its independence was that post-boxes were painted green instead of red.

Now, the visual evidence of our newly found (economic) independence is that the replacement of the infamous memorandum of understanding with a more traditional document entitled ‘A Strategy for Growth’.

The 65-page document launched this afternoon in Government Buildings is the first economic document produced since late 2010 that is free of the scrutiny and supervision of the Troika of international lenders.

So gone are the onerous targets and the quarterly reports and the detailed requirements and ‘conditionalities’ that were the hallmark of the Troikas MOUs.

They have been replaced by a short, nebulous document that has lofty ambitions (full employment and a zero Government General Balance by 2020) but is scant on details

There is no shortage of ambition. The Government foresees robust growth from 2017 and all of the 310,000 jobs that were lost since the crisis being restored bring the working population back up to 2.1 million. Both Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore focused their attention on jobs. Mr Kenny said 2014 would be the “year of jobs” for the Government. Mr Gilmore said the jobs would be sustainable jobs in an export-led economy unlike those created during the Celtic Tiger years.

And so how will it all be done? Where’s the master plan? The regaining of sovereignty will mean that the glasshouse-like transparency of the Troika years will not continue. Targets will not be set out as before nor will there be quarterly reports and analysis nor the public scorecards produced by the IMF and the EU Commission.

The language used in the 65-page document says it all by, well, not saying it all. This is epitomised by this very vague description of the overall aim of the strategy:

“This strategy provides and overarching high-level integrated whole-of-government framework to drive and facilitate the development of appropriate sectoral and horizontal policies which will be refined over the next few months to take account of this strategy.”

In other words, each Government department will have to draw up its own specific plans and they will be supervised and monitored by Cabinet Committees and, if made available to the public, will only be done so indirectly.

We will have to wait and see as to the how detailed the individual Department plans are and (more importantly) how public and how easily-accessible oversight information is.

It is patently clear from Ipsos mrbi opinion poll in The Irish Times last week that a majority of the population approved not only of the intervention by the Troika but also about the transparent nature of how the programme was implemented. To an extent, the Government has followed this model of quarterly assessment in its Action Plan for Jobs (although there is no independent or outside scrutiny). But the indications are there may be creep back to some aspects of the unhealthy ‘rún daingean’ mentality of Government Departments and the public service.

The document does set down some very ambitious targets. In summary they include an almost halving of unemployment rates to 8.1; improving growth rates of 3.5 per cent per annum from 2017 onwards, as well as a reduction of the General Government balance from its current rate of about 7 per cent of GDP at present to 0 per cent by 2020.

However, the policy initiatives are very general and lack the specificity we have grown used to with the Troika. Picking one example at random, one of the goals for transport is “we must ensure continued investment in our transport network in order that we can maintain the gains achieved to date”.

That is not an untypical sentence. It is so vague and general as to be meaningless.

The exception is the coming year where some 25 actions are listed. Some are standard (the Budget) but others are new (assessment of strategic investment bank; new aviation policy; construction sector strategy). It is a nod towards the influence of the Troika but not much more than that.

Elsewhere, the document mainly restates current policy, first principles and general policy aspirations without giving details as to how it will be achieved. The Taoiseach described it as a ‘roadmap’ and one which all Government departments will have to comply. But as we found over a tortuously long period after independence, you need more than a pot of green paint to really make sovereignty work.

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