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Nirvana around the corner?

by Frank Schnittger Thu Apr 23rd, 2020 at 02:41:24 AM EST

Letters to the Editor, Irish Times. The realities of forming a government

Sir, - If we are to believe Fintan O'Toole and Una Mullally, nirvana is just around the corner and all we have to do is boot Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael out of power (Fintan O'Toole, "FF and FG have produced a colouring book for adults", Opinion & Analysis, April 21st; Una Mullally, "Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael exposed as intellectually dead", Opinion & Analysis, April 20th).

There is no mention, never mind analysis, of the alternative policies on offer from the vast majority of TDs who were elected in February on a platform of booting Fine Gael out of office, and who have as yet, unaccountably, failed to form an alternative government.

Could it be that these change- supporting TDs are all clamouring to join the opposition because they realise that anything but nirvana is likely to be on offer over the next few years?

Not only will the economy have to be rebuilt from a base at least 10 per cent lower than we achieved in 2019, but the costs of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis, together with the costs of Brexit, global corporate tax reform, global trade wars, and combating climate change will have to be borne before we can even think of regaining the average standard of living we enjoyed in 2019.

Certainly we can address issues such as income inequality, housing, healthcare, childcare and care of the elderly, but we will be doing so, in all likelihood, out of an economy and tax base far smaller than we enjoyed in 2019. The notion that some of us are not going to have to pay a lot more tax so that more of us can benefit is fanciful. We will be lucky to retain existing benefits even if we all pay a lot more tax.

Certainly, in the short term, we can borrow more to ease the pain. [Last Monday] We paid off a €10.6 billion debt taken out in 2004 which was costing us €450 million a year in real money ("State will save close to €450 million a year as it redeems a €10.6 billion bond", Business, April 20th). Right now we can replace that borrowing at near 0 per cent interest rates, but how long will that last when almost every nation on earth tries to tap the debt markets on a vast scale?

And with Italy on the verge of bankruptcy, I wouldn't be counting on the EU and ECB to come running to our rescue.

As the Chinese curse would have it, we live in interesting times. - Yours, etc,


I know I am beginning to sound like a broken record, harping on about the inelegant Kabuki dance being carried out by Irish political parties and Independents trying to avoid all responsibility for the clusterfuck which is likely to hit the Irish electorate in the next few years. It is a subject I have already addressed in two other letters to the Editor published in the Irish Times "Hurlers on the ditch" and Irish Independent "Political passengers looking for an easy ride...".

On this occasion, I also come dangerously close to becoming a deficit scold when underplaying the degree to which much increased borrowing can become part of the solution. But I am beyond exasperation with a political system which appears to reward political spin rather than substance; inaction, rather than action; and avoiding, rather than taking responsibility.

The name of the game is simple. Get someone else to take the fall for all the difficulties that lie ahead, claim it is only because of a lust for power that they seek office, and then reap the benefits of electoral alienation and dismay at the next election: all the while claiming the moral high ground unsullied by the costs, compromises and trade-off actually required by the much changed economic circumstances we will find ourselves in post Covid-19. Always assuming there is a post Covid-19, and we are not faced by the prospect of Covid-20, Covid-21 and Covid-22 ad nauseam.

Fintan O'Toole and Una Mullally are not bad writers, and both can be described as coming from a broadly progressive social and political space. But they do themselves and progressive politics a disservice by coming up with simplistic, utopian, and fact free diatribes proclaiming that there is a simple solution to all our ills - we must merely get rid of the old conservative parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and all will be well.

For one thing, this underplays the degree to which the nominally progressive parties - Sinn Fein, Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and a number of groups and individuals under the Solidarity, People before Profit banner are themselves divided and unable to work with each other. Not to mention a large scattering of Independents more interested in securing benefits for their own constituencies and support bases than they are in formulating any kind of coherent strategic framework for national policy.

It's not as if, between them, they couldn't come up with a broadly progressive and counter-cyclical set of economic and social policies which could address many of the challenges facing Ireland in the future. The problem is they aren't even trying, such is the collective "rabbits stuck in the headlights" angst of the Irish political system at the moment.

But they are happy to snipe from the sidelines as a tiny minority government made up of 35 out of the 160 TDs elected in February, and including a few ministers who lost their seats in that election, make decisions with dramatic implications and consequences for the future, in the sure and certain knowledge that sooner or later that government will come a cropper, perhaps due to circumstances beyond it's control, only to face the full onslaught of public frustration at the disaster that is unfolding around us.

It may already be happening. Public frustration at, and tolerance of the lock-down is fraying at the edges. Various dinosaurs of times past, including Michael McDowell: "We must ease the coronavirus lockdown", are positioning themselves to reap the benefits of any failure, both professionally and politically. The same Michael McDowell, former Tánaiste (deputy prime minister), Leader of the now defunct Progressive Democrats Party, and ideological leader of the neo-liberal revolution which ultimately led to the economic crash of 2008-13 and who has since managed to re-invent himself as a senior lawyer and senator elected by university graduates.

Oozing the self-entitlement and privilege of a scion of the political establishment (he is a grandson of Irish revolutionary, Eoin MacNeill), he is trying to re-position himself, Trump style, as a populist leader, in spite of the fact that he makes a very comfortable living within Ireland's parasitical legal establishment, which undoubtedly, even now, is rubbing its collective hands with glee at the amount of litigation that will be enabled by the losses people have suffered due to the pandemic.

It is this fear, of a possible counter-revolution by neo-liberal and even neo-fascistic forces within the Irish political and economic establishment, that makes me so intolerant of the utopian dreams of Fintan O'Toole (the best artistic and social writer of his generation) and Una Mullally, a representative of the woke liberal feminist revolution, which are so utterly disconnected to the realities of Irish politics and economic life at the moment.

In reality, I am not quite so pessimistic. Ireland may be able to borrow its way out of the immediate crisis and even bounce back relatively quickly provided there are no future waves of the pandemic. What's a few more billion added to the national debt provided interest rates stay low. Expressed in terms of Ireland's inflated GDP, Ireland's national debt has reduced from 120% to less than 60% from 2013 to 2019.

And even in terms of the more realistic GNI* measure, Ireland's debt/GNI* ratio has declined from 160% of GNI* in 2012 to less than 100% last year. Many jobs have been lost, and some may never recover. The Irish tourism industry, in particular, seems a lost cause for the next few years. But Ireland is well placed in the ICT, Pharmaceutical,  Med Tech, Fin Tech, financial services and food industries to recover even in the face of the head winds mentioned in my letter.

But first we need a Dáil populated by grown-ups. I fear it will take a general election to force many of them to face the new realities of the next few years. Certainly it is difficult to see a stable government with a strong mandate for change emerging from the present Dáil. Another general election may well be our only option, and that can't happen while the pandemic is in full flow. So we are stuck with a government only 21% of the Irish people wanted, and one which certainly doesn't have a mandate to lead us into any kind of future.

But it is the only one we've got, until the political system grows up. Writers like Fintan O'Toole and Una Mullally can give us some interesting perspectives, but Utopia simply isn't on offer right now.


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