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Growing old?

by Frank Schnittger Wed Apr 29th, 2020 at 03:31:10 PM EST

As an old radical I now sometimes find myself in the unaccustomed and uncomfortable position of defending a conservative party led government. There was a time when I couldn't locate myself anywhere on the Irish political spectrum, such was my disenchantment with everything that passed for politics in Ireland.

I could just about associate myself with campaigning groups like Amnesty International and the Irish anti-Apartheid movement but never felt comfortable with the idea of joining any political party. As Groucho Marx is reputed to have said: I refused to join any club that would have me as a member.

I initially failed college in protest at the totalitarian behaviourist psychology that was being taught there. The only way to disprove the Skinner-box rat psychology was to refuse the reward of performing idiotic tests that passed for an education in human behaviour in anything other than a caged environment. Failing a test meant exclusion from the examinations required to progress to the next year. The college was "sympathetic" but all academic appeals were turned down.

I eventually graduated in politics and sociology after a hiatus of two years spent travelling and working odd jobs around Europe and Morocco - the best education I ever had, and with the sociology faculty then dominated by Marxist theorists.

When I joined the workforce after college I did so almost as a secret agent for my own personal revolutionary party. I certainly couldn't identify with the values of either a privileged managerial elite or what I considered the faux trade union militancy of a relatively privileged workforce. I ended up being extremely privileged myself, involved in almost every radical change project within the company, and never having to endure a routine job which would have destroyed me.

But it is still with some irony that I write the following letter to the Editor of the Irish Times, perhaps the establishment organ in Ireland, which has lately been giving a lot of space to rather facile criticisms of the government, perhaps in an attempt to seem relevant to a younger generation.

A Chara,
Your Correspondent, Mark Paul, is the latest to join a veritable cottage industry of Irish Times scribes who apparently know how to run the country far better than those charged with the responsibility for doing so. (Blame for expected extended lockdown shifted onto the public, Opinion, 28 April)

Castigating the government for its failure to reach its own ambitious Covid-19 testing targets, Mr. Paul would clearly have been much better able to overcome the global shortages of testing kits, reagents, and dedicated lab capacity.

But he also fails to acknowledge that Ireland has actually done much better than many other advanced economies in this regard. Ireland's testing rate of 31,179 tests per million inhabitants actually compares quite favourably with France (7,103), the UK (11,245), Sweden (11,833), the Netherlands (12,240), the USA (17,885), Germany (24,738), New Zealand (26,690), and even Spain (28,779) and Italy (30,547). (All figures taken from Worldometers.info.)

It remains to be seen whether the current downward trend in new infections as identified by our rapidly expanding testing capacity will enable a substantial easing of the lockdown on May 5th., but in the meantime a little more balance in your reportage would be appreciated.

Recent Fine Gael led governments have at least four achievements to their name which make them compare rather favourably to almost any preceding government in my lifetime. I am therefore prepared to cut them some slack when considering their other, rather obvious failings. These achievements can be summarised as follows:

1. Economic recovery from 2013-2019.

Fine Gael first took office in 2011 after a Fianna Fail led government had presided over a disastrous property boom and crash followed by the infamous bank guarantee. The debt/GDP ratio rose to 120% as private debts were socialised, unemployment rose to 16% and austerity was implemented right across the economy.

Fine Gael can't claim full credit for the recovery, but nevertheless unemployment went down to 5%, the debt GDP ratio halved to 59% over the past 10 years, Household debt/GDP went down from almost 120% to 40% and average weekly wage rates have been rising since 2015 to a rate of 3.5% p.a. over the past two years. Not everybody has benefited equally, but there appears to be a collective amnesia about just how serious our situation was only 10 years ago.

2. Constitutional reform

I lived through the 1980's where, following a visit by Pope John Paul II, a triumphant Catholic Church waged war on "liberalising trends in society". Although illegal in any case at the time, it mobilised all conservative forces to force through constitutional bans on abortion and defeated a referendum to allow divorce meaning no reformist government, no matter how timidly, could initiative reforms in these areas.

It was not until the 1990's that people were given the right to seek a divorce or receive information and allowed travel abroad for an abortion without risking prosecution on return. My late wife lost her job as administrator of an adult education centre for refusing to remove leaflets from its information centre which mentioned the possibility of an abortion abroad in the context crisis pregnancies for medical or other reasons.

Again, Fine Gael can hardly be said to have led the reformist charge, but without the support of a major conservative party and some deft leadership, the referenda permitting same sex marriages (2015) and abortion (2018) would never have been passed by the two thirds majorities which effectively ended all debate on those subjects.

3. Brexit

Although Brexit was hardly an existential issue for much of Europe, it risked re-opening the wounds of a civil war in Ireland and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Although never explicitly stated, the Good Friday Agreement, approved by large majorities in two referendums north and south was predicated on both parts of Ireland being within the EU and part of "an ever closer union". The reintroduction of border controls including the closure of most of the 300 border crossings along the 500km land border would have been disastrous for peace and stability going forward.

With no mean amount of political skill, the Irish government and diplomatic corps succeeded in having Irish concerns raised up front and central in the EU negotiating position to the astonishment of the British establishment who cared only for the dynamics of the British government requiring far right English nationalist and DUP support.

Effectively retaining N. Ireland within the EU Customs Union and Single Market also reduces the damaging economic effects of Brexit which had the potential to disrupt the increasing integration of the economies, north and south. Again it is easy to take this diplomatic success for granted in hindsight, but without effective leadership that was never a guaranteed outcome.

4. Management of Covid-19 Pandemic.

Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael, Leo Varadker, has been accused by one of his own party candidates of lacking empathy and being on the Asperger spectrum. That is a criminal offence in Irish politics where politicians are expected to remember thousands of constituents names and the individual concerns they might have brought to them some years ago. But his medical training stood him in good stead when it came to understanding the public health and epidemiological advice on Covid-19 and turning abstract concepts of exponential growth into unprecedented social and political interventions.

While the UK (and N. Ireland) vacillated and changed policy on herd immunity, testing, contact tracing, the closure of schools and non-essential businesses, and the cancellation of mass events, the Irish government acted in relatively early and resolute fashion to try and contain the infection. Actions which at the time shocked most people with their severity and which now, a mere few weeks later, appear to have been only just in time to contain the pandemic within manageable limits.

Now of course, with the benefit of hindsight, the government is being criticised for allowing airports and ports to remain open, for having had inadequate stocks of testing equipment and PPE on hand, and, in Mark Paul's article, preparing the ground for a possible lock down extension by citing breaches of the social distancing protocols.

But what is the government supposed to do? Ignore the rise in travel and social activities that has been reported by numerous sources? The infection rate has come down markedly and some easing of lock-down restrictions may be possible on the next review date on 5th. May, but if many restrictions have to be retained, is that all the government's fault? And all because all preparations have not worked smoothly for a pandemic caused by a disease unknown a few months ago, and whose epidemiology and symptomatology is only now being slowly understood?

Methinks some journalists are being rather wise after the event, and some of them are the same journalists appalled at the draconian measures initiated by the government only 6 weeks ago. Whatever about forgetting about the dire straights we found ourselves in 10 years ago and refusing to give any credit to a government which helped us overcome them, forgetting the collective communal state of mind only 2 months ago when sports fans were raging at the prospect of their favourite mass sports events being cancelled is a bit rich. I know we live in a 24 our news cycle, but I expect opinion columnists to have a little more sense of perspective.

So am I an unalloyed supporter of the Fine Gael led Government now? Hell no. But in comparison to what was on offer from the opposition benches for the last few years, and even the last few weeks, they have done rather well. And I am not going to give the opposition parties a free pass just because they haven't had the opportunity to make an even greater mess of things.

Sinn Fein has been a bit of a disaster in the governance of Northern Ireland , failing to provide any government for three years, providing almost no leadership on Brexit, and going along with the British government failure to close schools and businesses until shamed by the Irish government into demanding it.

The smaller parties of the left in Ireland are terrified of entering the government because of the challenges facing the government over the next few years, and therefore have fled to the safely of the opposition benches, where they can snipe, criticise, maintain their intellectual purity but not have to actually lead a change for anything.

The Greens were a junior partner in the disastrous Fianna Fail led government which more or less bankrupted the country, and have failed to show the intellectual heft or leadership that they have become more than a one issue party. A very important issue, to be sure, but hardly the only one which needs to be addressed post Covid-19.

Fianna Fail are ideologically almost indistinguishable from Fine Gael these days, although cute enough to hide their right wing proclivities behind populist rhetoric. They have even less leadership potential in their ranks than Fine Gael, and would probably only add incompetence to the conservatism of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.

The chief issues besides Covid-19 and the economic fall-out from the pandemic that any new government has to address are the public housing crisis, a childcare crisis, and the creation of a single tier public health service with the capacity to meet ongoing and exceptional healthcare needs. All three will cost a lot of money at a time when the economy and tax base will be facing the headwinds of a global recession, trade wars, Brexit, corporate tax reform and climate change.

An ideologically driven market led government cannot address these problems, particularly one beholden to the professional and rentier classes which benefit from shortages in public healthcare and housing - the providers of private health care and housing.

So I am still where I was in the days of my youth without a party to support. But at least I am a good deal happier about it. I have been fortunate enough to have been able to make my own way in life with the support of a lot of other good people. The party can come later!


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