A sense of shame should spur us on to real change

Sat, Nov 20, 2010, 00:00

IN SIDE POLITICS:Parties hoping to take power should be ready to take decisive action from the moment they take office

THE SHAME and humiliation felt by many people at the abject failure of leadership that brought the country to its current pass is understandable, but the sooner we get over it and focus on clearing up the mess the better.

This is not to minimise the impact of the loss of sovereignty involved in having to accept a multibillion euro bailout and all the strings attached. That it has come to this is an appalling reflection not only on our political leaders but on the society that elected them.

Back in the 1950s, when Ireland was a genuinely poor country, the then taoiseach John A Costello remarked: “We are as proud of our economic independence as we are of our political independence and we are determined that we will not incur foreign liabilities and commitments which are not within our power to meet.”

Since that time not just once, but twice, we have been plunged into serious recession by the profligacy of Fianna Fáil governments.

In the aftermath of the extremely popular but disastrous 1977 manifesto, a government led first by Jack Lynch and then by Charles Haughey embarked on a borrowing spree that plunged the country into a recession for almost a decade.

Back in the summer of 1981, there was serious talk of the International Monetary Fund having to come in to bail out the country when the Haughey government spent most of the annual budget in the first half of the year in an attempt to win a general election. That prospect was only averted by the prompt action of the new minister for finance John Bruton, who brought in an emergency budget to stave off bankruptcy.

Over the past decade, history repeated itself with a vengeance. The supreme irony is that the competent and careful rainbow government led by John Bruton, with Ruairí Quinn in finance, was rejected by the public in 1997 in favour of another walk on the wild side with Fianna Fáil committed to tax cuts and giveaway budgets.

So where do we go from here? It is now imperative that the budget on December 7th is passed to restore some shred of national self-esteem.

The political and public reaction to that budget will say a lot about whether we have really learned any lessons from all that has happened.

In all the commentary of the past few days, the glaring fact that we can no longer afford to live way beyond our means, as we have been doing for the past few years, has not figured very prominently.

The real test for Irish society will be how it copes with adjusting its living standards downwards, by a relatively small amount, so that the country can be put on a sustainable path for the future.

If the budget has to be harsh, it is essential that is seen to be fair as well. That means that cuts in public spending will have to start by hitting those who benefit most from the public purse.

For instance, it is ludicrous that a bankrupt country has probably the highest-paid hospital consultants in the world. If people on welfare and pensions are going to be asked to accept cuts, a start should be made with the overpaid consultants.

It would also help the public mood if the vastly overpaid tribunal lawyers were given their marching papers and the judges who preside over them told to report in jig time or pack their bags.

Unfortunately it is not only the higher paid who will have to take a hit. The fact of the matter is that public service pay, welfare and pension payments here are all way above the levels in Britain, whose government is offering to help bail us out. That simply can’t continue indefinitely.

If the Coalition in its dying days refuses to face up to the issue, the EU/IMF team should do it for them rather than allow essential decisions to be postponed for another year.

Once the budget is out of the way, it is imperative that a general election be held as soon as possible. Only a new government with a strong mandate will be capable of implementing the four-year plan.

It is now blindingly obvious that our multi-seat system of proportional representation played a big role in bringing us to where we are. The system throws up elected representatives who are good at constituency work but who have little interest in, or capacity for, policy debate or innovative thinking.

The introduction of single-seat constituencies with a top-up by a list system to retain proportionality is one of the essential building blocks of reform. Enda Kenny has made a start by proposing that the number of TDs should be cut, the Seanad abolished and a list system considered, but he needs to go the whole hog – and quickly.

Any change will require approval from the electorate, but now is the time to do it as voters may finally have come to realise that the political structures are part of the problem.

Radical reform of the public service will have to go hand in hand with political reform. The “permanent government” has to take a large share of the blame for our current crisis. Not only did senior civil servants not stand up to the foolish policies of their political masters, they colluded in handing over power to the social partners, who also played their part in running the country into the ground.

Inertia and demoralisation are now widespread in the top ranks of the public servants and a massive shake-up is required.

The task facing a new government will be enormous, so it is vital that the parties hoping to take power are prepared for decisive action from the moment they take office.

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