Crisis may help parties develop new level of maturity


INSIDE POLITICS:Playing fast and loose with the State’s finances will no longer be an option for Fianna Fáil, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

THE SCALE of the banking disaster, coming on top of the crisis in the public finances, has generated a mood of despair, but if we are to learn any lessons it might be more constructive to contemplate why the country’s political leaders over the past decade allowed all this to happen.

It is not just politicians and bankers who have to examine their consciences. Trade union and business leaders ratcheted up clearly unsustainable pressures on the exchequer, while the general public was happy to believe that the State could provide a never-ending source of largesse.

One thoughtful politician believes part of the answer lies in the fundamental belief systems of our major parties, arising from their history since the foundation of the State in civil war.

The value system of Fianna Fáil involves a deep sense of loyalty to the party and the nation but a much weaker sense of loyalty to the State, whose existence it initially denied. By contrast Fine Gael has always stressed loyalty to the State which it founded, with party and nation very much in second place.

There is an element of caricature in these definitions but a substantial amount of truth as well. The buccaneering attitude of Charlie McCreevy and Bertie Ahern to the public finances, the concession of clearly unsustainable impositions on the exchequer, like benchmarking, and the willingness to let the bankers and developers become “too big to fail” showed an unconscious disregard for the long-term security of the State.

Throughout the early years of the 21st century Fianna Fáil ministers never stopped boasting in the Dáil about how they were spending more and more taxpayers’ money on a range of worthy initiatives such as extra welfare payments while simultaneously reducing the tax burden. Part of the mantra was to contrast this generosity with the parsimony of the Fine Gael-led rainbow government that preceded them.

It is no accident that the last crisis in the public finances was also created by profligate Fianna Fáil policies in the late 1970s when the party was swept to power on a giveaway manifesto that was also obviously unsustainable.

Fine Gael, in government with Labour in the 1980s, wrestled with the legacy of that misgovernment but was trapped in a stalemate by the ferocious opposition of Fianna Fáil to virtually every single measure it attempted to introduce. In opposition after the 1987 general election, Fine Gael under Alan Dukes took a very different approach and, under what became known as the Tallaght strategy, supported a Fianna Fáil government in the effort to get the public finances back in order.

The major political difference between the current crisis and that of the 1980s is that the party responsible for the policies that created the mess is the one still in power and attempting to clear it up. Cutting public service pay and welfare payments and setting aside substantial exchequer funds to bail out the banks are deeply unpopular measures. Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan is taking them because if he does not the sovereign Irish State will fail in its responsibilities and institutions such as the European Central Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will end up running the country. By contrast, in Opposition, Fine Gael is suggesting there are soft options available on all of these fronts and is behaving more like the Fianna Fáil of the 1980s than remaining in tune with its traditional values.

For the sake of the country, though, it is to be hoped that those leading Fine Gael actually know the score and will be prepared to govern wisely when and if they do take power.

Simplistic but potentially dangerous solutions like advocating default on bank debt may be fine in opposition but they do not augur well for the party’s approach in government.

The view of the country’s problems taken by former Fine Gael leaders like Garret FitzGerald, Alan Dukes and John Bruton is, hopefully, a more accurate reflection of how the party will behave in office than some of its wilder rhetoric might indicate. As for Fianna Fáil, one small positive from the current crisis would be if it marked a final coming of age as a responsible party of power rather than a populist movement that periodically plays fast and loose with the State’s finances to win and hold office at all costs. If the party does go into opposition after the next election, it could demonstrate a new level of maturity by supporting a Fine Gael-led government to keep the public finances on track, rather than opposing it for short-term political gain.

Given that the State is burdened with enormous challenges for years to come, both parties would do well to ponder the observations of that great Irish politician and patriot Tom Kettle. In his presidential address to the Young Ireland branch of the United Irish League in 1905 he said: “Politics is not as it seems in clouded moments, a mere gabble and squabble of selfish interests, but it is the state in action. And the state is the name by which we call the great human conspiracy against hunger and cold, against loneliness and ignorance; the state is the foster mother and warden of the arts, of love, of comradeship, of all that redeems from despair that strange adventure which we call human life.”

With luck the hard things now being done to preserve the State from ruin will work and, in the longer run, lead to a more mature form of democratic politics based on rational debate about the real choices that face society.

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