Self-interest has brought us to this sorry pass

 

INSIDE POLITICS:The notion of ‘national interest’ is beyond many of those who are engaged in party politics, writes STEPHEN COLLINS

AN ASTONISHING aspect of the Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign was the lack of activity by so many TDs and their local organisations across large swathes of the country.

Many of our politicians simply didn’t bother to mount a serious campaign on an issue that has such profound implications for the country’s economic future and its role in the world for a generation to come.

The half-hearted approach to the referendum of so many of those involved in all the pro-Lisbon parties starkly contrasts with the frenetic activity they engaged in during the comparatively trivial local and European elections in June. It seems the notion of “national interest” is simply beyond the ken of many engaged in party politics.

Even the way the old Fás controversy was reheated by the Opposition for paltry political gain, at a critical stage of the referendum campaign, showed scant regard to the imperative of securing a Yes vote.

To be fair, our leading politicians at least tried to pull their weight. The Taoiseach and his senior Ministers put in a strong effort, although they were conscious that in the light of the Government’s deep unpopularity that could be counter-productive. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny went on a gruelling national tour and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore showed political courage by trying to convince a sceptical working-class electorate that a Yes vote was the right thing to do.

Other committed pro-EU politicians like Dick Roche of Fianna Fáil, Lucinda Creighton of Fine Gael and Ruairí Quinn of Labour campaigned as if their own seats were on the line but, sadly, they were the exception rather than the rule.

A large proportion of households were never canvassed at all and many didn’t even receive any literature from the Yes side.

The failure of our major parties to mount a full-blooded referendum campaign is a symptom of an ailing political system.

For so many TDs, the only thing that matters is their own seats. Most party organisations are now based around the election of individuals and lack any wider concept of what they are in politics to achieve.

This personalised, issue-free concept of politics is precisely what has brought the country to its current sorry pass. The absence of real political debate in the 1997 to 2007 period facilitated government decisions that led inexorably to the collapse of the public finances. It also allowed our planning system to spin out of control, taking the banking system and the whole economy with it.

In government, Fianna Fáil ratcheted up public spending at a much higher rate than economic growth year after year – without providing the tax base to underpin it – while the Progressive Democrats and Charlie McCreevy slashed income tax without regard to public spending commitments.

On the opposition side, mock indignation and constant, mindless heckling of government speakers in the Dáil took the place of reasoned, robust debate.

One of the reasons Fine Gael and Labour did not win the last election was that they avoided challenging the Government’s fundamentally flawed economic policies. Instead they concentrated on the soft option of health, which can be so easily manipulated to achieve scare headlines in the media. In the event, health didn’t pay the political dividends on which the opposition had counted.

The debasement of political debate has now become a really serious problem that is threatening the country’s viability. It has brought about a situation whereby not only the voters but most of the TDs seem to have no grasp of how precarious the state of the public finances really is and what the options are.

The commitment by Gilmore this week that Labour in power would not countenance public-sector pay cuts was a depressing sign that even at the most senior level in the Opposition the penny still hasn’t dropped.

The bad-mannered assault on Colm McCarthy by a range of vested interests on Frontline, Pat Kenny’s new television programme, last Monday night showed just how difficult it is to have any kind of rational debate about public spending. The situation in the Dáil is not a great deal better and TDs on all sides seem to have no idea of the kind of decisions that are urgently required to rescue the public finances from disaster.

The emphasis being placed by the Greens, in their current negotiations with Fianna Fáil, on the need for measures to transform Irish politics actually goes to the heart of the problem. The Greens want to reduce the number of TDs, abolish corporate donations and to change the voting system.

While their proposals have been widely ridiculed by TDs of other parties, they make a lot of sense. Unless there are fundamental changes in the way politics works, the mistakes that have brought us to the present position will be repeated, assuming we ever get back on an even keel.

The Greens are also being much more realistic than many others by accepting the need for public sector pay cuts as part of the budget recovery package. It is a signal that the Greens have come to terms with the big budget changes that will be required.

Whatever happens in the coming days, it should be clear to everybody in the political world that things cannot go on as they have for the past decade or more. It will probably take an election, or even two, to wake the electorate up to the real peril facing the country, but politicians could at least make a start by focusing their energies on the national interest, rather than their own immediate self-interest, in the weeks and months ahead.

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