Gerard Howlin: Micheál Martin was wrong to pin his hopes on Christmas

There is no version of Christmas imaginable that will not require a hard pushback on every seasonal impulse, says Gerard Howlin
Gerard Howlin: Micheál Martin was wrong to pin his hopes on Christmas

There is no aftermath of a GAA county final as raucous as Christmas in a supermarket

Monday night’s announcement by the Government of a new lockdown is level 5 for slow learners. 

The cost of the two-week delay since Nphet first advised action will take time to compute. One cost is political. It is a pity Nphet’s advice then was leaked before Government had a chance to consider it. 

The kneejerk response that followed was a bigger pity still. It was a loss of composure at the centre of Government and wilful opportunism on the part of the Tánaiste Leo Varadkar.

If there is an upside to what comes into force from midnight it is that nobody was caught unprepared this time. The writing has been on the wall. The unbudgeted cost, however, is enormous. Over six weeks from midnight, we will run up additional debt of about €2bn: €1bn in additional expenditure and €1bn in lost taxes. That is for six weeks only, in a scenario where there is no certainty of an exit.

In focusing on what we face tomorrow morning, understandably we may not see the wood for the trees. But the wood we are walking into is enormous. 

It is going to be the economic context for a generation. It will leave permanent cultural and political marks too. Because of the measures announced on Monday, the challenge and cost of reversing out of what were to be purely temporary measures is now much more difficult. We have arrived at full socialism, on a capitalist tax base. It is not just incongruous; it is irreconcilable.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin made a mistake pivoting his speech on Christmas. It is understandable, as it is the main pagan festival in our culture. But it may not be realisable. Reopening in six weeks might not be possible if the virus doesn’t retreat sufficiently. But if we do, that poses another challenge. There is no aftermath of a GAA county final as raucous as Christmas in a supermarket. It is a mass event, which, as normally practised, would be a breeding ground for the virus. There is no version of Christmas imaginable that will not require a hard pushback on every seasonal impulse.

Today there is much talk of misery, and there is a lot of it, but those in work have been saving, not spending. There is pent-up demand. And there is a wall of money to satiate it. Opening up prematurely once was a mistake. The pressure on the Government to balance competing needs in six weeks’ time will be enormous.

Of long-term cultural consequences, one is the quiet asphyxiation of the Catholic Church. It is dying of apathy. There will be an aftermath, but it will not be the same. Covid-19 will be seen as the assisted dying of the post-Famine Irish Church. Secularism without, desacralisation within, and the body blow of child sex abuse are the underlying causes. 

Taoiseach Micheal Martin pictured speaking at media briefing. Picture: Julien Behal
Taoiseach Micheal Martin pictured speaking at media briefing. Picture: Julien Behal

But Covid-19 has disconnected an older generation and it has further weakened an already fragile sense of sacramental obligation. Patterns have been broken which, even reconnected, will never be as strong. What was dying slowly is now being buried in front of our eyes. Indifference is the only identifiable witness.

Because Christmas is now based in the supermarket and not the stable, there will be no indifference to any attempt to wind down the increased benefits flowing from the exchequer. There is no appreciation either of how relatively brief the window is before what is being given out must be reduced and then abolished. 

By default we now have effectively a national living wage of €350. Politically the pathway back to a basic social welfare rate of €203 is dangerous. When level 5 grips tight in a few days, up to 200,000 additional people will be eligible for payments. By and large, both in the budget last week and in this week’s announcement, the economic decisions taken have been the least worst possible. 

But near-silence in the public conversation on the consequences is unnerving. It is the aftershock and unwillingness to reduce what was supposedly temporary expenditure that is now the dire threat to the economy.

A divided Britain has also been revealed by the virus. Brexit, on whatever terms it arrives on December 31, will bring its own pressure to bear on the internal cohesion of the UK. What is now clear is that regardless of how that plays out, a Britain composed of four governments is already less than a united kingdom. 

On health, Boris Johnson leads an English government only. Its remit is in turn limited by devolution within England, where powerful mayors such as Andy Burnham in Manchester and Sadiq Khan in London challenge the authority of central government. They control swathes of administration, large budgets, and ultimately local police forces without which little can be enforced. 

The pandemic has exposed the receding limits of the domestic powers of the British government at precisely the moment it is about to jump off a cliff edge internationally.

 A Covid-19 test centre in Dublin. Picture: Sasko Lazarov /
A Covid-19 test centre in Dublin. Picture: Sasko Lazarov /

Years from now, it is the deep-seated consequences to current events that will matter most. Here the greatest consequence will press hard within two years at the very most. How do we reduce our dependency on debt to subvert current spending and how, within months, do we start to wind back on the avalanche of money unleashed on the economy? 

By 2050, only 30 years from now and less than the span of a working life, the dependency rate of workers to pensioners will go from 5:1 today to 2:1. Those two workers are young today but our debts will be their burden.

This is a country that is allergic to tax, and is now addicted to spending. I do not see the leadership required to walk us back economically. Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath are competent. I am absolutely sure they can see over the cliff edge they have walked us up to. 

What will be required, however, is not slow adjustment but politically painful decision making. I question the capacity and will of the Government to make those decisions and carry them in the teeth not just of political opposition but of well-organised economic sectors who will be determined to hold what they have.

It's old hat now, but the stupidity of leaving Sinn Féin out of this mess, and out of government, beats Banagher. The malice and the stupidity of what says it is the left in this country in opposing a genuine widening of the tax base after the last crash is now exposed. 

Opposing water charges and voting —  sometimes with Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil — to reduce property tax on local authorities is sabotage in a national emergency. And none of that is old hat. All of it remains to be faced up to. There must soon be dramatic reductions in expenditure and higher taxes — and probably a mix of both.

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