Where is the Democratic Revolution and its Economic Counterpart?


 Lucinda Creighton TD, The Reform Alliance

Our so called “political culture” provides an easy and convenient means of excusing much of what characterises the very worst of Irish officialdom.  Sometimes it suits us to blame the prevailing “political culture” rather than hold those in positions of genuine political power and influence to account.

For some reason we seem content to decry the political culture that delivers a health system that is repeatedly compared to Angola, an education system which has unacceptably high levels of illiteracy, a social security system that incentivises people not to work and often fails our most vulnerable, yet we rarely really hold the politicians which feed off this so called “culture” to account.

The absence of political leadership is a much greater cause of inertia and crisis in our system than some vague notion of a poor political culture.  The phrase “Systems Failure” is too often used as a crutch to mask the lack political leadership.

These failings have been accepted and institutionalised within Irish political life to the point that leadership has become defined by the metric of electoral success and the preservation of status quo. Tweedledum seamlessly becomes Tweedledee. The link between ideas and electoral outcomes no longer seems to have any place in Irish elections.  Politics has been reduced to a game of personalities and seat numbers.

It hasn’t always been so.

On Sean Lemass’s retirement as Taoiseach in 1966, the Irish Times appraised his legacy.

“From his concept of Ireland came employment for thousands upon thousands, and if his concept changed later with a changing world, he was consistent in his application.”

On Garrett Fitzgerald’s end as Taoiseach in 1987, the Times had this to say:

 “Garrett FitzGerald has been one of the strongest influences in the public life of Ireland for perhaps two decades.  He spoke a new language, breaking away from the Civil War lexicon of many of his older political confrères.  He spoke of economic growth, of the challenge of Europe, of peace and reconciliation in the North, of tolerance and pluralism here in the South.”

Both of these political leaders, Lemass and Fitzgerald, had very clear and coherent visions of how they felt the country should develop and prosper.  These visions were largely driven and delivered upon by the strength of their leadership and were catalysed by pivotal moments in Irish history.

For Lemass, high unemployment, heavy emigration and slow growth in every aspect of the economy provided the background for him to drive through economic reforms that at the time were opposed by a multitude of vested interests.

Where Fitzgerald may not have succeeded in economic reforms, he transformed the relationship between church and state and for the first time in history he permanently institutionalised Ireland’s role as an equal partner, alongside Britain, in determining the future of Northern Ireland. Garret was unquestionably the driving force behind these reforms.

These developments could not have been made possible but for his ability to persuade the Irish people, and equally, the Irish people were susceptible to persuasion because of a rapidly changing social environment in Ireland.

Pivotal moments in our very short history created the environment for these two towering political leaders to drive through visionary change. Their leadership which, combined, lasted for less than 15 years had a more enduring positive impact on this country than all previous and subsequent Taoisigh.  It is not, however, just individual political leaders who have the capacity to shake up the status quo.

It is easy to dismiss the Green Party’s contribution to Irish politics, given their undoubted centrality in the decision making surrounding the economic and financial crisis the State faced in 2008.

However, it is only fair to recognise that the Green Party did bring the so called “Green Agenda” into the mainstream long before any of the major political parties were concerned about reducing carbon emissions.  The party tapped into a European and global movement that created awareness amongst the public and policy makers alike, thus ensuring its ideas were either adopted or modified by the other parties.

The arrival of the Progressive Democrats in 1985 brought about an ideological attack on the State’s defunct role in the economy and society that had never before been crystallised by either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil.  As Ireland’s economy began to improve, the promotion of low taxation, low public spending and privatisation became a politically palatable offer for the three major parties. There is no question though that the very creation of the PDs led to substantive changes in how all parties viewed tax and expenditure.  The PDs were electorally successful because of the combination of visionary leadership and an electorate disillusioned by Haughey’s autocracy.

The programme that Fine Gael ran on in the last general election was the much derided, and oft repeated, five-point plan.  At the risk of giving any political correspondents here a severe headache, it is worth repeating what they were.

Number 1 was to help protect and create jobs. On this metric, it has to be said they have been reasonably successful.  The total number of full-time employed in Ireland has increased by 46,400.

Number 2 was to keep taxes low while meeting deficit targets.  This ambition has not quite been achieved. The headline rate of income tax has not increased, but income eligibility for paying the higher rate of tax has significantly reduced.  Property tax, increased motor tax, soon to be introduced water charges and the slashing of tax relief for health insurance means that the proportion of income paid to government by the average worker has in fact increased substantially.

Number 3 was a promise to deliver smaller and better government.  Both of these promises have been demonstrably unfulfilled.  The abolition or merger of 100 State agencies was promised by the government but instead only 45 have been abolished and 33 new bodies have been created leaving a net reduction of just 12 out of 100 state agencies that were promised for rationalisation.

Better government also requires genuine public sector reform.  There has been no meaningful reform of the public sector, with the exception of arbitrary savings in working hours and salaries.  The most basic requirement to create better government is that there are consequences for senior management failure.   These do not exist and are nowhere on the horizon.

Number 4 was the pledge to create a completely new, fairer, more efficient health system.  The major planks of Minister James Reilly’s health reforms relating to the provision of direct care have spectacularly failed.  The HSE continues to run a budget deficit of hundreds of millions each year, young doctors are leaving our shores because of third world working conditions and the glut of administrators within the service remains untouched.

Finally, number 5 promised an overhaul in the way our political system works and to stamp out cronyism and low standards.  Of all the unfulfilled promises, this is the most galling, because it is the easiest to achieve.  All that is required is political leadership.  The cronyism that persisted in Fianna Fáil for over a decade, and that I spoke about in a previous speech I delivered at the MacGill Summer School, is as prevalent as ever within the current government.  Sadly there is no real commitment to drive it out of Irish public life and we are all the poorer for this abject failing.

It may justifiably be argued that on one priority, namely generating employment, the government has largely delivered on its pledge.  But what next?  What vision for the future of the country exists?  Is the future of our country going to again be fashioned by a club of developers, wealthy tax exiles and domestic bankers?  There is no evidence to suggest any dramatic shift in focus.  There is no radical economic vision being offered.  Where is the democratic revolution and its economic counterpart?  Was it for this – more of the same – the people voted in record numbers three short years ago?

Across Europe, new visionary political leaders are beginning to emerge. The far right gains in France, Austria and Greece are not the vision I am referring to.  Of course we have to be vigilant to these populist and racist movements but there is a spark of something else emerging in countries that have experienced crises, like in Italy and Slovenia.

In Italy, the election of Matteo Renzi as Prime Minister has transformed the political dynamic.  The effect of Renzi’s election does not get much coverage here in Ireland but the credibility he exudes domestically and internationally has been a monumental stabilising force for the Eurozone.  In the European elections in May, Renzi’s party, the Social Democrats, bucked the trend in Europe by taking 40% of the popular vote, fending off challenges from the extreme left and the extreme right.

Renzi, a 39-year-old ex–boy scout from Florence, won the allegiance of the Italian electorate by promising to reform Italy’s political and economic systems.  He pledged to modernise Italy’s labour market by allowing companies to hire people on three-year temporary contracts.  He vowed to balance the budget by drastically cutting public spending and by prosecuting tax dodgers, valued at an estimated €100 billion euros annually.  He also wants to simplify the country’s notoriously complex political system by reforming parliament and passing a new electoral law.  Critically, he has not pandered to the populist euro sceptic rhetoric in Italy, but rather has outlined a vision for cooperation, reform and persuasion at EU level.  Take note Mr Cameron – the Italian people have responded in their millions.

In Slovenia, a country with an economic profile not too dissimilar to our own, a party that was created six weeks before the recent general election won 36.8% of the vote.  The election came about amidst a background of a banking crisis and political corruption.  The leader of the new party did not offer populist solutions, but offered to reduce the budget deficit and restore trust and pride in public institutions.

The crisis has finally generated in some parts of Europe, albeit to small degrees, visionary political leadership.  Such leadership is the only possible catalyst for meaningful and enduring reform.  It is extraordinary that in the aftermath of the economic catastrophe we have experienced in this country, no really radical and inspiring vision and leadership has emerged.  Yet.

It is clear that the conditions for fundamental change exist.  The questions are who, when, what?  There are many people both within and outside the political system who believe in a better Ireland, who believe that politics can be less cynical, more honest, more transparent and who believe in an economic vision which empowers Irish people, making them masters of their own destiny rather than slaves to the market or the State.   Those people must soon stand up and be counted.  Ireland deserves better and the window of opportunity will not be there forever.


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