Pat Leahy: Government is fixated on all the wrong things

There are more important issues than Garda whistleblowers and Fine Gael’s leadership

The horrifying revelations in recent weeks about the Tuam mother and baby home and the Grace case; the expectation of an imminent triggering of Brexit; the continuing strong economic growth and the proliferation of demands on the resources it generates, show how much clear-sighted and decisive government – one that identifies and prioritises the national interest – is needed now.

But that will be impossible while we remain transfixed by the past, and confused by the present.

It’s been clear for a long time that this country has a good deal of learning about, and coming to terms with, the full, true story of our past

There are and have been many good and decent things about Irish society and the institutions that scaffold our public life; there are also dark sides, a heretofore hidden underbelly of abuse and ill-treatment that targeted particularly women and children whom society, with its religiously inspired norms, shunned and excoriated, and sometimes demonised and dehumanised.


Many of the pregnant women and girls hunted into mother and baby homes with such gruesome consequences were cast out first by their families and, probably, their fathers. What a monstrous thing to do.

But important and all as it is to come to terms honestly with our past, it is not more important than the future. And this country is facing enormous pressing problems, challenges and issues that require the attention of Government and of the wider political world it operates in.

The CSO reported on Thursday that the economy grew by more than 5 per cent last year. The numbers show how much we now rely on these impressive rates of growth. But there is no guarantee this will continue, and every reason to fear that external factors such as Brexit and Donald Trump will retard growth in the coming years.

There is no market for caution in politics, but there has to be one in government. That is what good government is about.

Biggest challenge

People may be fed up of hearing about Brexit but they’re hearing about it all the time because it is the biggest challenge facing this country since the crash. It’s difficult to think of anything more important than avoiding a repeat of that.

The Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) warned on Wednesday of a “virtual wipeout” of food exports unless the British agree a free trade deal with the EU. But the noises from both sides indicate that a deal certainly cannot be taken for granted.

In the absence of a trade agreement between the EU and the UK – an outcome that Ireland can perhaps influence but not decide – the trading relationship between the two blocs would revert to WTO rules.

This would mean tariffs being lumped on many goods crossing the Border or traversing the Irish Sea. Those tariffs are not, in many cases, a few per cent: in the case of many food and agricultural products, for example, they are up to 50 per cent. This has the potential to destroy not just businesses but whole industries. People not talking this seriously do so not because of their phlegmatic nature or cooler judgment but because they do not understand the magnitude of the threat.

Contrary to some reports, the official response to Brexit here has been comprehensive and energetic; indeed, it is a truism to say that the Irish civil service was a lot more switched on to the realities of Brexit than its British counterparts.

But with article 50 about to be triggered, the focus will move more to the political stage, where political leadership, strategic nous and a ruthless focus on the interests of Ireland will be needed.

Perhaps these qualities will be evident in the approach of the Government to the forthcoming political negotiations. But you certainly couldn’t say that they have been the hallmarks of its approach to anything else lately.

Other challenges abound, too.

Financial Armageddon

A day after the IFA report, Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe warned public servants that if they want to be taken seriously when they look for pay increases, they will have to continue working the longer hours and maintain the reforms implemented to ward off even worse pay cuts imposed when the State was teetering on the edge of financial Armageddon a few years back.

The forthcoming public sector pay negotiations require hard decisions and tough implementation; the latter is the mainstay of effective government. Making choices is one thing; bending the system to the will of the political leadership requires patience and application.

There are longer-term issues that require attention. One builder reported during the week that it is now 30 per cent cheaper to rent than own a home in Dublin; generation rent is being squeezed and squeezed. The health service is perpetually on the brink of a crisis, with spiralling costs threatening to eat up every bit of discretionary spending the Government might have, and more. Sooner or later the country has to start making decisions about abortion. And what else? You can make your own list.

The complete political focus of the past month has been on the resolution of the Garda whistleblower controversy, the leadership of Fine Gael, the rows over water charges, the mother and baby homes and the Grace case. All are important. None is remotely near to being the most important issue facing the country right now.

No doubt politicians would complain with some justification that the media has been just as fixated as they have on these matters. But it is not the media’s job to govern. People close to the centre of power privately admit that the Government is utterly distracted.

Perhaps that will change when the Fine Gael leadership is settled. But if it doesn’t change, and change quickly, then this Government will no longer serve any useful purpose.