OPINION: Parties need to set out their 'guiding vision' for Ireland

Ireland needs a guiding vision to move the country towards a desirable and sustainable future argues Dr Seán Healy of Social Justice Ireland

Ireland has no guiding vision. The lack of such a vision has led to incoherence at the core of public policy, i.e. a failure to integrate policy developments across many areas of government policy ranging from education to health from infrastructure to social services from economic development to fiscal policy.

There are many who dismiss the need for such a guiding vision arguing that at best it is irrelevant and at worst it is a total distraction from what should be the major focus of governments and public policy makers, i.e. the development of relevant policies to address current issues of concern. There are others, however, who argue that without a guiding vision policy development will at best be haphazard and at worst be working at cross purposes with itself. I agree with the latter.

Of particular concern in the policy development arena are questions concerning how major long-term challenges are to be addressed effectively and efficiently. Too often the political process has tended to ignore such challenges because these cannot be resolved within the life-span of a Government's term of office. Instead, Government had tended to resort to short-term quick fix solutions that in many cases have moved policy away from addressing these challenges.

Major issues to do with infrastructure such as telecommunications or social housing require long-term strategies if the challenges they present are to be resolved. However Ireland's experience over the past two decades shows how difficult it is to have such issues addressed in good times or in bad as governments' principal focus tends to be on securing re-election.

It is important for a country to have a guiding vision. It is also important that this vision be supported by a substantial majority of its citizens which can best be achieved by engaging citizens in shaping that vision. Today Ireland needs a combination of vision and pragmatic policies that can truly move the country towards a desirable and sustainable future.

Social Justice Ireland advocates a new guiding vision to shape the future direction of Irish society. We believe that Ireland should be guided by a vision of becoming a just society in which human rights are respected, human dignity is protected, human development is facilitated and the environment is respected and protected. The core values of such a society would be human dignity, equality, human rights, solidarity, sustainability and the pursuit of the common good.

If a vision along these lines is to be achieved a number of key questions need to be addressed.

These include:

- What infrastructure is required?

- What services are required?

- How are such infrastructure and service requirements to be delivered?

- How are they to be financed?

- How are decisions on these issues to be made?

- How and on what basis is progress on these issues to be measured?

A policy-development framework is required within which these issues can be addressed in a manner that ensures decisions, implementation and evaluation are integrated and clearly focused on moving Ireland towards becoming a society and an economy focused on delivering the guiding vision set out above.

Such a framework should have five pillars or key areas which should be addressed simultaneously and in an integrated manner:

a) The first is macroeconomic stability, which requires a stabilisation of Ireland's debt levels, fiscal and financial stability and sustainable economic growth, and an immediate boost to investment, which collapsed during the crisis. We have spelt out how that investment might be sourced.

b) The second is the need for a just taxation system, which would require an increase in the overall tax-take to the European average; such an increase should be implemented equitably and in a way that reduces income inequality.

c) The third area is social services, the strengthening of social services and social infrastructure, the prioritisation of employment, and a commitment to quantitative targets to reduce poverty.

d) The fourth area is that of the governance of our country, which requires the promotion of deliberative democracy, new processes in policy evaluation, the development of a rights-based approach and a deliberative process of social dialogue in a society that promotes the common good.

e) Fifth, policies must be adopted that create a sustainable future, through the introduction of measures to protect the environment, promote balanced regional development, and develop new economic and social indicators to measure performance, alongside traditional national accounting measures such as GNP, GDP and GNI.

It is very important to involve people in decision-making processes that impact on them. Many feel their views or comments have been ignored in recent years while the views of those who see the market as solving most of society's problems are treated with the greatest respect. Ignoring people's views in this manner has led to very dysfunctional decisions being made. Modern means of communication and information make it relatively easy to involve people in dialogue and decision-making.

The big question is whether the groups with power will share it with others?

This article is a shortened version of a paper Seán Healy will present today at Social Justice Ireland's annual Policy Conference in Croke Park.


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