Time to take medicine, no matter how bitter it tastes


INSIDE POLITICS:A finely crafted report makes it clear that our problems cannot be solved without widespread pain, writes MARK HENNESSY

COLM McCARTHY’s enemies will seek to portray him as a right-wing, heartless Thatcherite, who refuses to heed the needs of society. But he has done the State some service if only to make people think of the unthinkable.

His report is not a silver bullet for all of Ireland’s ills. The headline expenditure cut of €5.3 billion, including teachers and hospital staff job losses, is ghastly, and enough to make any minister for finance sitting in his Merrion Street office blanch.

So far, the “Snip” announcements have been responded to by many as if they are Holy Writ, and the Government has been happy not to rule any of them out. But McCarthy is enough of a realist and a veteran of the political world to know that many of the ideas contained within it will never be implemented and, perhaps, some should not.

Beautifully-written, it does flog a few horses that have been around for years, including the need to find ways to force doctors to use generic drugs.

Such magic-wand solutions have rarely produced much worthwhile, while the fascination for outsourcing in the report can be questioned given the past inability of the State to limit such bills.

But the report has put forward bitter-tasting options, including social welfare cuts. Months ago, Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan did the same, pointing out that there would have to be decreases if there was sustained price deflation. And there has been.

Should social welfare rates ever be cut? Should they be cut last? Should they be drastically reformed to root out waste and abuses (and they exist, and by the score) to ensure that those most in need are protected until the last?

Extra taxation should be levied, but not in the form of income tax. People should not be discouraged from going out to work. We should pay property taxes, we should pay for our water and we should stop behaving as children thinking that services can be provided for nothing.

But, equally, we cannot have a situation where Middle Ireland is always the mug forced to pay more. Social welfare cuts may be the last thing to be done, but, if it has to be then so be it.

The report’s focus on health, education and social welfare makes it easy to portray McCarthy and his colleagues as hardliners, but his opponents must make it clear where savings can be made.

Siptu president Jack O’Connor has poured scorn upon it, favouring a stimulus package to get people to spend what they have stored away. It is a well-articulated argument, and one would dearly wish to believe that he is right in thinking that such a stimulus and extra taxes on the rich are the way to get us out of this hole. However, I doubt that this can be done without pain for all.

Some realities have to be faced. Firstly, a decade-long boom when money could be thrown by the State at everything was funded by Lotto-style winnings from property taxes, and other one-offs. Those taxes are long gone, and will not be coming back any time soon.

However, the services they funded are still around. General taxation must rise to pay for them, or else we have to accept that some must fall. Undoubtedly, reforms could save some programmes. More could be done for less, but this will mean that public sector workers – who are as reluctant as any to accept change – must abandon old ways.

The Impact trade union general secretary Peter McLoone, an admirable and thoughtful individual, was quick to line up his artillery on the lawn, warning of sustained strikes if pay cuts or compulsory redundancies are enforced.

However, McLoone has already said several times – dating back two years to the Patrick MacGill summer school – that they had to realise that reform was coming, and they should seek to manage the change, rather than be crushed by it.

Many in the health service work crucifyingly hard for patients, but the service is littered with restrictive practices that can stand comparison with the worst of the nonsense tolerated for decades from trade unions in Fleet Street.

Teachers can look to their own laurels. Perhaps Batt O’Keeffe last year exaggerated the impact of sick-leave days, but the idea of 31 days of uncertified leave is a joke. McCarthy is right when he says that Ireland is over-governed and over-administered.

Local authority numbers, he says, should be slashed. Some serve counties with the population of a Dublin suburb, yet they have all the paraphernalia and privilege that has built up around local government.

Such a reform plan would be opposed from both above and below in the local authorities themselves, and by significant local opposition, where small counties will fear that they will be outvoted by larger neighbours.

So far, Fianna Fáil TDs have focused on the hopes of savings from reforms because they are less dangerous to their political survival. But they are wrong. The reforms of local administration may produce savings, but it will not do so for years. Harder, bitter choices will have to be taken long before then, whether by a government chosen by the Irish people, or the International Monetary Fund.

Colm McCarthy has used logic, but also some of his long-held bile about parts of the public service, to produce a fascinating report.

Everyone tells us this when something worthy is produced. But this time you should read it.

Stephen Collins is on leave