A new administration would be better able to lead us out of this economic mess
DURING THE first eight years of my career as a Fine Gael frontbench spokesman, I continued to write for The Irish Times, until in 1973 I was appointed minister for foreign affairs.
Then, as since, I sought to avoid political partisanship. This was recognised by some in Fianna Fáil because during my first six months as a spokesman in the Seanad, I was approached by five TDs from that party with requests that I use my column – rather than the Seanad – to criticise aspects of their own government’s policy about which they were unhappy – for what seemed to me to be genuine public interest reasons.
Yes, there were, and still are, disinterested people in Irish politics who can put the public interest before party politics. One of those who approached me at that time was Erskine Childers, who asked me to address critically in my column inflationary features of the policies of the government in which he was then tánaiste.
Perhaps I should add that in the public interest politicians sometimes also co-operate across the floor of the House. On two occasions I was able to respond to a request from within Fianna Fáil to help block a government policy change thought by some in that party to be undesirable.
It should be more widely appreciated that this system survives only because a small and dedicated minority of active members of political parties – totalling between them now no more than perhaps 2 to 3 per cent of the adult population – throw themselves wholeheartedly into the fray, contesting election campaigns vigorously.
For this dedicated public service they receive remarkably little thanks and sometimes even a lot of ill-informed abuse.
In Ireland retired party leaders have usually stayed out of the public eye. So, in choosing in 1991 to return to my earlier role of social and economic commentator, I was embarking on a very different path from most of my predecessors.
I realised then that in seeking to write reasonably objectively about social and economic issues, many of which may have party political implications, I might sometimes disturb members of the party that I had formerly led, but I hoped they would forgive me for this. Until around 2007 this did not cause too much of a problem, but from 2003 onwards I had not been able to hide my alarm, as an economist, at the threat to our society posed by the impact of the government’s inflationary policies on our international competitiveness – and also at Fianna Fáil’s stimulation of a housing boom it should have been actively curbing.
And I am afraid I failed to hide my dismay when in the subsequent 2007 general election both Opposition parties failed to indict Fianna Fáil for these disastrous policies – choosing instead to join with the government party in proposing to the electorate even more tax cuts and extra public spending.
That was a pity, because between the 2002 and 2007 general elections, Richard Bruton had courageously led Fine Gael in criticising some of Fianna Fáil’s damaging policy decisions, such as its ill-thought out decentralisation scheme and its disastrous benchmarking policy, and I felt this electoral strategy devalued his earlier work.
It seems Labour and Fine Gael felt it necessary to pull their punches because they feared losing votes if they criticised what they thought the electorate then saw as the superior economic competence of Fianna Fáil.
More recently, while expressly refusing to comment on the relative merits of the National Asset Management Agency and the alternatives put forward by the Opposition parties, I urged that they concentrate their main legislative efforts on the only scheme that was actually before the Oireachtas, viz Nama.
I have also urged the importance of resolving the bad banking problem as rapidly as possible and have supported the adoption of a budget that would bridge the fiscal gap by €4 billion.
It has to be said that Fine Gael has consistently supported a fiscal adjustment of this magnitude – as Labour has now also done – in their case with more emphasis on tax increases than on spending cuts. And I do not think the Opposition has been given sufficient credit for having rallied to that unpopular fiscal stance – as Alan Dukes also did back in 1987 when he led Fine Gael, in what became known as the Tallaght Strategy, to support necessary spending cuts proposed by the Fianna Fáil government.
(Incidentally, contrary to a myth that grew up in the 1990s, to the personal disadvantage of Alan himself, the Tallaght Strategy did not damage Fine Gael electorally. To the contrary: in the subsequent 1989 general election, Fine Gael won four extra seats.
I want to conclude by saying that once this Government has taken the necessary first steps to start undoing some of the damage inflicted on our economy, it would be better for it to be replaced.
I do not hold this view for partisan reasons. My concern is that the Government that caused this crisis clearly feels unable or unwilling to admit its responsibility, and is, therefore, singularly ill-equipped to persuade the electorate to accept the very tough measures needed to resolve it.
An alternative government would be free from that inhibition, and could, therefore, I believe, do a better job at leading us out of the mess we are in.
I also feel that our international reputation would benefit from a change of government.