The icons of our austerity are piling up. And they’re nearly all about people who are comfortable, far too comfortable, telling people who have little or nothing why they have to suffer more. The suffering that will be inflicted in next month’s budget will be deep and wide-ranging. It will involve cuts to allowances for hard-pressed families and cuts in essential services for many of the same people.
And yet it’s not being debated in those terms at all. I listened to as much media as possible the other day, when the Minister for Finance announced that the target for this year’s budget would be €6 billion in cuts and taxes.
In the immediate aftermath of the announcement, not a single question was asked about the crushing injustices that would be involved in reaching that target. Instead, almost the only question asked, again and again, was “how will the markets react?”
Of course, the answer to that question was already clear anyway. Our leaders have become so incredible, and their position so unstable, that the so-called markets wouldn’t react positively if the Holy Trinity descended on Government Buildings in a golden carriage.
After all, we are governed by people whose idea of economic forecasting appears to be to think of a number and then double it. Three billion becomes six billion overnight and 7.5 billion becomes 15 between one budget and the next.
And if their economic forecasting is bad, their banking forecasting has been entirely catastrophic. As Prof Morgan Kelly said in a recent article, “it is a testament to the cool and resolute handling of the crisis over the last six months by the Government and Central Bank that markets now put Irish sovereign debt in the same risk group as Ukraine and Pakistan, two notches above the junk level of Argentina, Greece and Venezuela”.
And I doubt if the markets were too impressed either by the deputy leader of the Green party, Mary White, “fighting the good fight”, as she put it, on behalf of the “most vulnerable people in Ireland”, our old age pensioners. They’re not the most vulnerable people in Ireland by a long stretch. Some pensioners are extremely vulnerable, that’s absolutely true. But there’s more than a few pensioners in Ireland who are quite comfortable indeed, thank you very much. But where was the deputy leader of the Green Party last year when her Government attacked only genuinely vulnerable people in the budget? When they cut the carers’ allowance and the disability allowance, dumped thousands of children below the poverty line by cutting child benefit and left high and middle incomes untouched?
Of course, we weren’t teetering on the brink of an election then, so vulnerable people didn’t matter. When we’re very close to an election, all pensioners have to be seen as equally vulnerable, not because they are but because they’re capable of mounting a strong and effective political campaign themselves. Hypocrisy, it seems, is another of the icons of austerity.
Actually, so is the word “austerity” itself. In his brilliant new book ‘Enough is Enough’, Fintan O’Toole talks about austerity as something that has value and a sense of nobility. He’s right. We often think of the founders of our state as men of austerity, people prepared to make personal sacrifices for a greater cause.
But not any more. An austerity programme nowadays is simply a programme of cuts visited on people who don’t have a voice. It’s only the logical corollary of Charlie McCreevy’s principal economic mantra – “when I have it, I spend it”. When we don’t have it, poor people will be given cheese instead.
In all of this, do you know what the most dangerous thing is? It’s the constant messaging that we have to accept it – that anger, as we’re constantly told, is a poor substitute for policy. Well, if there’s any message we should be resisting, it’s that one. We have to make sure our anger is kept intact, for one reason above all. It’s the only way we can make sure this never happens again. Right now, they’re the two words that matter most – “never again”. And they’re the only two words that we can influence through our anger.
This Government will lose office, and soon. That’s certain. It will be replaced by a government that I believe will be a better one and almost certainly a government that has a secure and stable majority.
But that government will have no choice but to implement a real austerity programme too. Blood, sweat, tears and sacrifice lie ahead, no matter what happens.
But a real austerity programme involves leadership and shared sacrifice. Real austerity starts at the top, with a cap on high-level incomes and an end to the luxurious sense of entitlement that our leaders have become accustomed to. Real austerity means real purpose and real leadership, with a vision of where we’re going, and not just a mechanistic recitation of lists of cuts. And it must also involve a return to real accountability. One of the grossest features of the years of the Celtic Tiger was the development of a political culture in Ireland where, as long as goodies were being handed out, it became more and more difficult for anyone to question or challenge policy. If we had tracked it, we would have seen that our system was becoming less and less democratic every day.
GOVERNMENT became more and more centralised. Parliamentary procedures were constantly undercut by the use of things like the parliamentary guillotine – which in turn resulted in a whole range of things being enacted into law without ever being debated. Parliament itself became less and less relevant – and more and more comfortable in its pay and allowances.
This might all seem a bit irrelevant in the face of our current crisis. But here’s the thing. In the years of the Celtic Tiger, as parliament began to matter less, vested interests moved in to fill the power vacuum. The political influence of the major developers and the bigger bankers was hugely instrumental in developing a regime that served their interests, and it did so behind closed doors.
It’s not a coincidence that the finance minister who wanted to let it rip, and the political ideology that underpinned it, hated notions like freedom of information. And it’s no coincidence the same people developed massive quangos they could hide behind, organisations that could take life-changing decisions without their political masters having to account for anything.
Whatever happens now, we can never afford to forget this lesson.
Governments that are allowed to get away without being accountable to the people always end up beholden to vested interests instead. While we’re rebuilding our economy, inch by painful inch, we need to be certain that our next government, the government we choose, listens to us – first, last and always.