SO, where’s Micheál Martin’s speech? I watched it on the telly on Saturday night, and was sufficiently impressed by Mr Martin’s delivery to want to read the speech again. 

Sadly, they must all have been celebrating until late, and then spent Sunday recovering.

By Monday morning there was neither sight nor light of the speech on the Fianna Fáil website. Instead the main news item on the site was a speech from someone called Lisa Chambers. I’ve never heard of her but her speech, which “slammed” Fine Gael’s proposal to bring in US style tax rates to Ireland, had an oddly familiar ring. All their candidates, as far as one can tell from the website, are spending every waking hour slamming one thing or another to do with Fine Gael.

It strikes me as a slightly odd approach. I was never averse to a bit of slamming myself, back in the day, but the critical thing about electoral strategy is surely to try and put your own outfit at the centre of the political stage. Instead, Fianna Fáil appear to be determined to make this an election about someone else. Nether Micheál Martin nor any of his colleagues appear able to put a sentence together without including the words Fine Gael. The starker they succeed in painting that choice, I reckon, the less likely it is to do them any good.

In fairness, though, there was a great air of defiance about the Fianna Fáil Ard Fheis. If you closed your eyes for a minute you could almost forget that this was a party that last left office hanging its head in shame. Over the weekend they all but claimed total responsibility for the economic recovery we’ve seen, and spent a fierce amount of time warning us that Fine Gael couldn’t be trusted with it. A class act, as a distinguished Fianna Fáiler used to say.

PJ Mara would have been proud of the chutzpah that enabled Micheál Martin to assert as boldly as he did that the present government had followed Fianna Fáil’s plan for recovery. He’ll be much missed, will PJ. I always thought of him as the Flurry Knox of Irish politics, a loveable rogue and one of those people who delight in being underestimated.

PJ Mara
PJ Mara

Like the party he represented, there were two sides to PJ. As charming and gracious as he was, he fought as hard as possible to put into power, and to keep in power, a man who didn’t have a shred of personal integrity, and who did more damage to Irish politics than any other individual. The legacy of PJ Mara is indistinguishable from the legacy of Charles J Haughey for that reason.

In fairness, Micheál Martin is trying to build a new legacy, and he should be respected for that. He won’t succeed, in my view, without a great deal more humility than was on display at the weekend. If his party is ever to be trusted again, it won’t be on the back of another slew of promises.

That, in many ways, was the most dispiriting feature of the weekend. It simply isn’t possible to claim to be the most responsible party on the face of the earth, willing to submit your policies to independent scrutiny, and then trot out a long list of tax cuts and spending increases. Fianna Fáil won’t be alone in that. By the time we get to polling day in this election, we’re likely to be drowning in election promises from all the parties.

Assuming even modest growth over the next few years, there will be room to do things. The big question is, what should we do? I don’t know where Fine Gael, for example, came up with the idea of putting “US style” taxes front and centre in this campaign. If we vote for that, we’re voting to try to secure the most unequal outcome we possibly can. Is that really what we want? Sure, we’d all love a tax break — but US style taxes are built exclusively around the notion that the rich have an absolute entitlement to get richer.

So, for that matter, is the idea of flat taxes. The more you earn, the less you pay. How can anyone flaunt an idea like that and still claim, like Renua does, to be determined that “the old, the sick, and the vulnerable should be able to live in security and dignity”.

We can fight an election about tax, or we can fight an election about the inequalities that still exist in Ireland and what we can do about them. We can’t do both.

Although I haven’t seen it yet, I understand that the Labour manifesto when it is published will include a commitment to devote three-quarters of the likely available resources to investment in essential services, and only one quarter to tax cuts. That’s the sort of approach I honestly believe we should be demanding from all the parties — a clear and unambiguous statement of what’s likely to be available — “the fiscal envelope” to use the fashionable term — and a clear breakdown of how, and on what, it will be spent.

Parties must make choices, and they must make them now. If we have another election where everyone is pretending to be all things to all people, we’re going to have an election based on delusion.

Left to myself, I’d go further. I honestly believe that politics needs to recognise that there are some things that urgently need to be fixed in Ireland — and until they’re fixed, tax cuts will not be the priority at all. As squeezed as everyone is, tax cuts aren’t going to transform anyone’s lives.

Sooner or later we need to debate this question. How do we attack inequality? We all like to pretend that we’re building a better country by giving everyone an uplift in income while critical services rot away, or never get off the ground. But it’s a fallacy. Those countries that have truly invested in decent quality public services, even while maintaining a strong tax base, are demonstrably better off. They can prove beyond doubt that their citizens have a higher quality of life.

So let’s have an election, and a debate, about quality of life. Let’s stop pitting my tax cut against your tax cut, because at the end of the day tax cuts only make us feel better — and then only in the most transient way, for a little while. Let’s stop believing all those fallacies about how tax cuts are essential for economic growth and jobs growth — because if they were true, how come we’re growing the economy, and jobs, right now, with a tax system we all complain about?

But real investment in childcare, primary education, access to health, homelessness, and services for elderly people and people with disabilities can have a hugely transformative effect — not just on the lives of the people involved, but on the country as a whole. Put simply, they could even make Ireland a better place to live — maybe even “the best little country” to live in. Isn’t that what we all want to achieve with our vote?

Election should be fought on inequalities and not on tax cuts

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