An opportunity rather than a conclusion

There is an oft-quoted anecdote about a meeting in the early summer of 1829 between the Liberator Daniel O’Connell and a Kerry road worker shortly after the Roman Catholic Relief Act — Catholic Emancipation — had been passed by the House of Commons.

O’Connell was on his way to his home at Derrynane when the stone-breaker asked him how the act and the new freedoms it conferred might change his life: “’Tis all the same to you Scully, you’ll still be breaking stones,” replied O’Connell. As we exit the bailout we may not be exactly at that point but, metaphorically at least, we still have a lot of stones to break.

Even to reach this point is a considerable achievement, one that required, and still requires, a level of discipline in the management of public finances that is not always attractive or even natural. This unfortunately means that some privileges and services we imagined permanent are just memories. We cannot forget — ever — though that some of those privileges were financed by unsustainable borrowings and that the generation that enjoyed them has passed, at least partially, the bill to a subsequent generation.

Even as what should be a significant milestone is passed and as Christmas looms, the enormity of our national debt cannot be ignored. Servicing it will be a very limiting process but one that we cannot, it seems, avoid or make more palatable.

Nevertheless, the fact that we have reached this moment at all is an uplifting reaction to the pessimism, and let’s not pretend otherwise, the terrible fear that gripped this society when the consequences of appalling mismanagement became apparent. We were powerless, and to recall that chilling phrase, utterly dependent on the kindness of strangers.

The exit brings an end to the most humiliating episode in this Republic’s short history and for that our political leaders and the social consensus that supported them deserve considerable credit, especially as so many of the plans they had before they took office became impossible when the depth of our difficulties was fully realised.

That is, by and large, the rearview mirror assessment. More importantly, as we look ahead, we must ask if we have learnt the lessons of the crisis and have we put in place legislation robust enough to try to prevent a recurrence? Have we tried to modify the culture of greed, the contempt for accountability, the sense of entitlement used to justify so many excesses, the blind and destructive devotion to property ownership at the root of our catastrophe? Have we tried to inculcate the idea of social solidarity and equity or have we just recovered our breath so we can jump on that preposterous treadmill one more time?

It is hard to imagine that we have not, but the Government will have to show that we have in very practical terms before the next election, or it will be very disappointing.

As the Kerry road worker Scully and his contemporaries discovered when the Penal Laws were repealed almost two centuries ago, the achievement represented an opportunity but not a conclusion. We are at that point today and as this weekend’s recovery of a degree of economic sovereignty shows, we can look forward with determination and justified optimism. We have shown ourselves capable of the discipline needed to rebuild, or indeed, build a decent society. Let’s not squander another opportunity.

Misuse of donations

The assertion that donations to various charities have fallen by almost half since the top-ups scandal was exposed is understandable if unfortunate.

The claim, from Fundraising Ireland, shows how the misuse of donations not only broke a public trust, but has had an entirely negative impact on those who depend on the services offered by institutions where sweeteners were paid from charity funds.

Unfortunately, this punishes the innocent and the vulnerable in an entirely unintended way. It also, as we said before, underlines the need for the charities’ commissioner to oversee how the €2bn a year the State gives to charities and public donations are used.

It might be a better response to the scandal to be more selective, but it would be disproportionate to stop supporting charities. It is appropriate though that only charities that publish transparent accounts be supported.

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