An indifferent year in office

 

THE OUTCOME of the referendum on the EU fiscal treaty may offer evidence of the electorate’s ability to distinguish its own long-term interests but it is also likely to define the effectiveness, or otherwise, of this Government. Having served an indifferent year in office, Ministers are now facing their greatest challenge. Former Green Party leader John Gormley said that being in a Fianna Fáil-led government was like living in a mental asylum.

Stressed-out ministers and financial pressures have not gone away with the change of government. Aberrant behaviour surfaced before the recent budget when the public was threatened with dreadful impositions in the belief that lesser cutbacks might be acceptable. Even then, mistakes were made. The poor suffered disproportionately. Public dissatisfaction with the Government has since grown to 70 per cent.

The prime cause can be traced back to extravagant pre-election promises. Among other things, Fine Gael and the Labour Party undertook to burn the bondholders; renegotiate the terms of the EU-IMF bailout package; create 100,000 jobs in five years and revive the economy. In Brussels, they discovered the weakness of their position: Ireland is a small fish in the European pool and borrowers do not dictate terms. There would be no choice between Labour’s way and Frankfurt’s way. What the troika said, went.

Recognising and accepting that harsh reality is still a work in progress within the electorate. The arrogant attitude that sent a turkey to represent us at the Eurovision song contest at the height of the boom may have dissipated. But a sense of entitlement, a belief that others will rescue us – even from ourselves – persists. Euroscepticism and nationalism grow as living standards fall. Fianna Fáil’s decision to back the fiscal treaty does, however, offer hope for rational politics.

Within Government, reform is being taken seriously. Public service numbers are falling under the Croke Park deal. State assets are being prepared for sale. A jobs programme has been launched. Unemployment levels have stabilised. And a property tax of sorts has been introduced. In spite of that, a projected shortfall in economic growth threatens the domestic economy. The reluctance of banks to lend to small businesses has made matters worse.

Last month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny interviewed his Ministers on the progress each was making in implementing aspects of the programme for government. The outcome was a flurry of activity and announcements involving legislation, administrative change and political initiatives. It was a useful exercise that should be repeated on a regular basis. Ministers have endured a torrid 12 months, during which a referendum to increase the investigative powers of Oireachtas committees was defeated. Distrust of politicians was a key factor. An analysis of the campaign concluded that a successful referendum would require adequate consultation, clear explanations and convincing justifications for change. So, has the Government learned from that?