Closing chapter of a remarkable 20-year winning streak


Over this past year, international disasters were a reminder that even countries which are enjoying good fortune can never take this for granted, writes Martin Mansergh

Since 2001, New York/Washington, Madrid and London have been subjected to suicide bomb attacks, and the solidarity which Ireland might one day need has been shown by us.

The Asian communities which were victim to the tsunami and the earthquake in Kashmir needed urgent outside help. Apart from the direct aid given, they were a catalyst for the Government to revise its timetable for reaching the long-agreed UN development aid target of 0.7 per cent of GNP. That goal has been reset for 2012, with firm interim measures to reach 0.5 per cent by 2007 underwritten by the Minister for Finance in the Budget.

The Minister's predecessor, EU commissioner Charlie McCreevy, has recently outed himself as an admirer of Mrs Thatcher. Yet he led Ireland into the single European currency. As a minister, he also fully supported and underwrote social partnership and worked well with the trade union movement. As commissioner, he had the sense to see that the services directive, in its original form, would not fly. Those looking for a full-blooded Irish Thatcherite revolution may have as long to wait as the hard left for their sort of revolution.

Although the economy continues in sparkling form, creating a record 95,000 jobs in the latest 12-month period, doubts and uncertainty surround a threatened erosion of the productive base, both in manufacturing and agriculture, and also the sustainability of the construction boom.

Yet new jobs continue to be created in the multinational sector. Most farmers are ending the year in the black, thanks to the single farm payment. If any of them glanced at The Economist, long-standing arch-enemy of the Common Agricultural Policy, they would have been heartened by two headlines on the front cover of its Christmas issue: "The bad EU budget deal" followed by "The dismal WTO deal".

If ESRI economists care to look at the way the building boom has taken off in the past couple of years outside Dublin they would be confirmed in their belief that any threat is not imminent.

The Government, while it will be under growing electoral pressure to make forward spending commitments, will get more credit for pacing progress than for attempting to satisfy or appear to satisfy all demands. With the tax-cutting era over, and a policy of keeping income and corporation tax rates low, widening the tax base is more than balanced by non-indexation of indirect taxes. Available resources are being poured into social services and infrastructure, with a lot of results to show for this.

Politically, the next 18 months will be an effort to clarify the nature of the alternative on offer: what policy changes, if any, they involve; and what risks a total change of government might pose to the continuation of what, overall, has been a remarkable 20-year winning streak.

One issue where clear differences have yet to emerge is foreign policy, which requires a careful balancing of ideals and interests. Neutrality involves a high degree of restraint.

The more strident voices in the anti-war movement are anything but neutral in their attitude to the United States. Ultra-left American figures like Professor Noam Chomsky can be invited over to lacerate his government and ours. He is unlikely to change tacit public support for Ireland's cautious diplomatic approach in a dangerous world, which is aligned with UN support for the multinational force in Iraq yet shares the disquiet across Europe at any possible indirect and involuntary involvement in facilitating the use of extra-legal counter-terrorism methods.

The year 2005 was the final watershed for the Provisional IRA. Patience with procrastination, prevarication and blatant acts of criminality finally ran out. The gain for peace should not be squandered.

The danger in the double agent saga is that the peace process may be seen by some former militants as a hoax or scam in which Sinn Féin is given the run-around - something they have been so good at giving everyone else, first on decommissioning, and to this day on policing. With elections looming, single-mindedness on the part of the Taoiseach and some willingness all round - where necessary to put the consolidation of peace before party interest - will be required to get the executive and assembly restored.

Anyone listening to the political barrage from all sides would have to believe that Sinn Féin's full involvement in the political process is a greater menace to Irish democracy than a full-scale IRA campaign ever was. Should we be giving even the impression that we feel so insecure? What happens if the broad public declines to believe claims that today's Sinn Féin are political demons extraordinaires without precedent in Irish history?

The DUP, like the Ulster Unionist Party under the leadership of James Molyneaux - understandably, given the cacophony in the background - now appears to believe in indefinite procrastination as the safest tactic. The price for that is that the terms of trade do not improve with time. If stabilisation of the constitutional position is what they want, then they should look at what Welsh and Scottish devolution has achieved.

Refusing to work Northern Ireland as a shared political entity, even after the IRA verifiably ceases all activity, would do no long-term favours to the cause of the union and will only encourage Sinn Féin to advocate bypassing implementation of the Good Friday agreement.

The economy is the Achilles heel of the union, with the North over-dependent on pubic spending and in danger of falling further behind in certain key respects. The confidence which restored devolved government and a renewed impetus in North/South co-operation would bring might help to stem that trend.

The new year will be one during which the political drift will have to be halted. It will be time for negativity around the peace process to be reined in.