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Jim Power: Advice to politicians - Just be honest with the voters

Jim Power: Advice to politicians - Just be honest with the voters

After lots of shadow boxing and speculation, the general election has come a little bit sooner than many might have expected.

I was told by a government minister in December that the election would be called for May, but obviously something has happened in the interim that changed the timetable.

Politics aside, an early-February election has a lot to commend it.

Just a week before the election, the UK will have left the EU and, presumably, within days of the election, the trade negotiations between the EU and the UK will get under way.

At least Ireland will not have an election in the middle of the negotiations and most likely, the government in place when the negotiations begin will be the government in place for the duration.

Such continuity is good, because although the Irish government will not be directly involved in the difficult negotiations, it will be more than an interested bystander and will have input into the EU side of the negotiations.

Stability would be good, assuming that is what the election delivers.

It will be a relatively short campaign and we can be guaranteed that lots will be packed into the next three weeks.

A couple of days in, we are already seeing the clear battle lines being drawn and the issues that will dominate the campaign are quite clear, but obviously we can be guaranteed that the odd unexpected grenade will be thrown into the mix.

As I mentioned last week, the Government will seek to focus on its sound stewardship of the economy and will point to many successes relating to Brexit and the North, while the opposition parties will try to shift the focus of attention to the joint Achilles heel of the government, which is undoubtedly health and housing.

While these two issues are of immense concern to large swathes of the electorate and Government has failed to sort them out, I have certain sympathy with the position of the government.

The reality is that after 2008, investment in health and housing virtually ceased for several years, which was not sensible given the realities of Ireland’s growing and ageing population.

Once the economy emerged from the crisis in 2013 or thereabouts, the latent demand for housing came back with a bang and the lack of beds and frontline staff in the health service was cruelly exposed.

It was never going to be possible to suddenly turn the housing tap back on and deliver the level of housing supply that is required.

Likewise, it was never going to be possible to address the shortcomings in the health service in a short period of time, despite the significant overshoots and increases in health spending over the last few years.

The reality is that the legacy of the unprecedented shock that hit the economy in 2007 is still very real and it will take some years more to sort both areas out in an effective and meaningful way.

Perhaps those in power since 2011 — and particularly since 2016 — should have been more honest with the electorate and should not have created expectations that could never realistically be met in the timeframe of the life of a government.

There must be valuable lessons there for those who, over the next three weeks, will strive to form the next government.

Creating unrealistic expectations is dangerous in all walks of life, but particularly in politics.

For what it is worth, my advice to politicians who believe they have a realistic chance of being part of the next government is to manage expectations and be honest with the electorate.

Sensible, thinking people should reward that sort of honesty.

However, in the heat of a tightly contested electoral battle, the temptation will be to make all sorts of promises to spend vast amounts of money in every area of the economy, and at the same time reduce the tax burden on hard-pressed workers.

The reality is that Ireland still has a dangerously high level of debt and financial resources will, or at least should, remain a constraint on what politicians will be able to deliver in the next Dáil.

Voters should reward honest politicians who do not make unrealistic promises and should studiously avoid Greeks bearing gifts.

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