That hoary old Irish political truism really has returned home to roost

The actuality of boom and bust economics is that we simply do not learn — we gorge until we vomit, writes Gerard Howlin

That hoary old Irish political truism really has returned home to roost

TODAY, Epiphany, is the 12th and last day of Christmas. The three wise men, or three kings, arrive bearing extraordinary gifts. Remembering that in much of the world it is today, not on Christmas Day, that gifts are given.

Joan Burton arrived early, sending the traditional heralds of newspaper reports before her, to announce her largess. We can, she tells us, have spending increases and tax cuts together. It is a little known nugget that she and Charlie McCreevy, a man I remain admiring of, studied accountancy together. Now it seems she was cogging his homework. Her answer to question No 1 on the exam paper is identical word-for-word with his. It is strange how the world turns.

Perhaps McCreevy will be invited as guest lecturer to the next Labour think-in.

It all reminds me of the sorry story I heard about Teddy. It was not alas a happy Christmas. Teddy is the adorable black cocker spaniel who lives with a closely related branch of the family. His welfare has been mainly due to a regime of regular exercise, lots of affection, and dog food in appropriate quantities. As a treat, Teddy was allowed tit-bits galore over the festive season. He even developed a taste for icing off the cake. Well, the sad result was that poor teddy was as sick — sick as a dog — for days.

Gorging isn’t good. Strange to say though that dogs, intelligent creatures, remember not to eat again what makes them sick.

One of the reasons, if not the core reason, this-auction/election is under way is because it is driven inexorably by the dynamics of our unreformed political process. Contrary to much speculation about the coming election, following-on from 2011 as being a further omen of major change in the political landscape, it is, I predict, back to the future. True the old two and a half party system is much diminished. Sinn Féin will be a much stronger party in the next Dáil and so will Fianna Fáil which will make a partial recovery.

There will be a plethora of others. But TDs are the ornaments on the Christmas tree, not the thing itself. It is the unchanged system that drives unchanging patterns of behaviour.

Firstly the diminished two and a half party system will still garner over 60% of the vote and probably closer to 65%. That is not the next wave of revolution. It is a substantial vote for continuity of some sort. More particularly the key point of continuity that will mark this election out as a return to an old normal, is that a handful of votes in a handful of constituencies will decide the outcome and make the difference between government and opposition. That hoary old Irish political truism has returned home to roost.

Reform, of course, is very important, or at least important in the sense that is taken off the table and not allowed become an election issue — or perhaps I should say, more accurately, a distraction. It was never ever going to be an issue for most people. The Government knows that.

Still it was politically astute and good housekeeping of the Taoiseach to intimate via media reports that he is intent upon reform; just a little nibble. His intimated promise to allow the next Dáil elect the Ceann Comhairle by secret ballot is to be welcomed.

It will strengthen an office fundamentally lacking the institutional architecture to do the job. It will not only strengthen the office vis a vis the Government but also in relation to the internal public service structures within the Oireachtas, many of which are badly in need of radical overhaul. Another promise is that committee chairs will be distributed on a pro rata basis among parties in the Dáil. This will ensure some greater measure of oversight sometimes.

Not all committees are equal of course. Which will be divvied out to what party and how?

And of course when a committee chair is divvied out to a particular party, who will also select the nominee.

I presume the party leader. Based on very little detail, it looks like a list system for committee chairs.

Nonetheless, it is a little progress, for which much thanks. Enda Kenny has form on these initiatives.

His ill-fated proposal to abolish the Seanad was announced at a Fine Gael dinner. It came out of the blue, including to his own party. These latest proposals do have a respectable provenance. It is interesting, however, that they came out as a filler over the Christmas holiday. It is as much about ticking the box, moving on and ensuring that there is a short answer when, as it will, the reform issue is raised during the election campaign.

The election itself, which has already taken shape, is ample evidence of the lack of reform, indeed an obdurate opposition to it by entrenched interests.

The ultimate driver of the auction/election is proportional representation channelled via multi-seat constituencies. Chronically weak systems of political and public service accountability exacerbate this. None has been addressed or fundamentally changed. Hence, unlike Teddy who is smart enough to learn, we do not.

The actuality of boom and bust economics is that we gorge until we vomit.

The Government has done good. It followed its predecessor’s commitments and reduced public spending, at first. Public sector numbers were also reduced. Our growing economy is because two government from 2008 to 2015, responded to crisis fearlessly. The politically insurmountable problem now is that the crisis is over. If once reduced, practically all previous structures have emerged intact, to gorge again.

We saw it first in the Lansdowne Road agreement when the Government appeased one, highly preferred sector, with coin from the public purse. It is more extraordinary therefore that this same preferred sector simply refuses to manage itself. Reports that only 148 out of 30,000 civil servants were deemed ineligible by their own managers to receive their salary increment are ludicrous. It is evidence again that a momentarily highly efficient department of public expenditure has largely failed to have any serious claims as a department of reform, or at least reform of the public sector which is its bailiwick. Of course, in autumn 2015 the Government at large abandoned any pretence of fiscal restraint. How this trajectory will fare when in 2016 it hits the concrete wall of EU fiscal rules remains to be seen. My fear is for the concrete wall.

On this day of gift giving, we might pause to inspect what we are offered. We will blame our politicians again as we did before. That is a self-serving excuse. The auction is on, because say what we might, it is what we want. When we vote in secret we consistently make choices that are not good for us, over the long term. But it is in our greed what we demand now.

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Wednesday, March 3, 2021

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