Alison O'Connor: Each decade brings stark choices that impact our nation’s children

We still live with the scars of that time and those traumatic memories [of the horrendous austerity] will live on, writes Alison O'Connor.

Alison O'Connor: Each decade brings stark choices that impact our nation’s children

We still live with the scars of that time and those traumatic memories [of the horrendous austerity] will live on, writes Alison O'Connor.

This week 10 years ago I brought a new life into the world.

Needless to say I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was happening elsewhere, instead feeling blessed, overawed, and a little overwhelmed by the new addition to our family.

If I remember anything about what was going on outside it was the snow and how cold it was and how those frigid conditions, that seemed to continue for weeks, meant that myself and the newborn were confined largely indoors for what seemed an eternity.

But as we approach the end of this decade a quick flick through the domestic and world events of 2009 has reminded me how lucky we were not just to be blessed with a healthy baby, but that the infant, as all infants do, kept us so busy it was a much-needed distraction from all the doom and gloom that was going on.

It’s sad to be reminded that this was the December that Brian Lenihan, then minister for finance, stood and delivered a budget with a speech where he began by saying the country was facing the most challenging fiscal and economic position in a generation.

The budget involved a plan to try and deal with these awful circumstances and he spoke of “significant uncertainty” and “difficult choices”.

This was in response to our economy imploding, the banks going into meltdown, and construction practically ceasing.

The worldwide economy was in a downward spiral but we had the unproud boast of being one of the worst hit after years of living it large. On that budget day, the then taoiseach Brian Cowen sat beside his finance minister as Lenihan delivered all this further frightening news in the Dáil chamber.

It’s so sad still to think that Lenihan received a cancer diagnosis just later that month and died in 2011. Cowen suffered a very serious illness this year and it must be such a relief to his family to be able to celebrate Christmas with him, although there is a long road to recovery ahead.

We still live with the scars of that time and those traumatic memories will live on as the people who endured the horrendous austerity years always have an eye over their shoulder wondering when and if such an epic crash could hit us again.

That psychological hangover makes it a difficult decade to judge in the round, especially as it was the decade that brought us Donald Trump and Brexit.

It was the decade that brought us populism on a scale that we could never have imagined — the dictionary definition of that being “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

Now we end the 10-year span with Boris leading Brexit and a distinct possibility of Trump returning to the White House in next year’s US elections.

As if that wasn’t enough we will have our own general election in the new year and we will be called on to make decisions on where we want our country to go in the 2020s and which political party or parties are best placed to bring us there.

We shall also display exactly how swayed we have been ourselves by this populism unfolding all around us and to which, for a long time, we looked as if we were inured.

The good news is that economically we are largely in far better shape than we were a decade ago, even if many still struggle and the prospect of a hard Brexit — this time brought on by the UK’s ridiculously unrealistic determination not to extend the withdrawal period and insistence that complex new trade arrangements would be concluded by the end of next year.

We don’t want to dwell on that awful time of austerity but it is important to remind ourselves how far we have travelled in the intervening period.

When it comes to choosing who will govern us next, we are not in the position we were; for instance, in 2011 when we were to the pin of our collar and frankly in a state of acute fear for what the future held for us. We wanted to punish Fianna Fáil.

We did so with a crushing defeat for the party when its seat number in the Dáil was reduced from 78 to 20. In 2016 a number of us disagreed vehemently with Fine Gael’s central electoral message of “Let’s keep the recovery going”.

It was seen as a disconnect between the party claiming far too much credit for a recovery that far too many people had yet to feel. As a result its seat number was reduced to 50 with a large loss of 26 seats.

That ill-fated slogan would be far better suited to this election — in fact it would even seem a little outdated given that we’ve all settled into and have a little more faith in our economic stability — albeit with the scars still to show for our experiences at the start of this decade.

The two subjects that Fine Gael fears in this general election are health and housing. They are correct to do so.

The party is exceptionally vulnerable on these two — citizens being able to afford and access healthcare and housing would be considered basic rights by most decent people.

Even those who are getting on well in their lives feel distress at the plight of those who cannot and may not ever be able to afford to buy or even rent their own home.

You read of a young child who has had their chemotherapy postponed, or another whose scoliosis surgery has been delayed yet again, or a 90-year-old woman left on a trolley for more than 48 hours, and you think this is not the sort of country in which you wish to reside.

A party that has been in power for almost a decade will try and convince us that by the end of the next decade they will have sorted out our hugely unequal health system.

The timescale is not quite as long for the housing and homelessness situation.

Its main opposition will tell us that its own plan is far better while the smaller parties will tell us that if we give them enough votes, they will keep the big guys honest in government.

It will be quite a choice to make at the start of this new decade.

Apart from those two big issues, a third, even more crucial one, which will put political parties under the cosh is in terms of what they will do on climate change.

At the end of this next decade the decisions we make will be the ones on which we will be answerable to the now 10-year-olds like mine, and all the other children in the country.

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