FERGUS FINLAY: Look, we have to pull together despite our grudging Government

IT was 1960s music that was playing at the end of the protest march the other day. Protest songs, Bob Dylan, that sort of thing. I’m comfortable with that sort of music myself – it makes me feel nostalgic, in fact. But I couldn’t help wondering whether it said more about the organisers of the march than it did about the protesters. Somehow, it all seemed a little out of date.

In fact, it occurred to me that a more appropriate song from that era might have been the rousing Woodstock anthem by Country Joe and the Fish, one of the all-time great satirical anti-war songs.

If you’re my generation, you’ll remember the chorus: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for – Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. Next stop is Vietnam; And it’s five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates. Well there ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.”

There is that kind of feeling about these days. It doesn’t matter what we do, we’re all going to suffer anyway. There ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee! They’re going to cut four billion anyway.

And they’re going to cut it essentially from services and from the public servants that provide them.

And yet there seemed to be a lack of purpose to the protest marches. What were we fighting for?

In earlier marches I’ve never had a difficulty figuring that out, but I was neither sure what the march last week was for, nor what it was against. There was a huge amount of anger there, and frustration. But it didn’t resolve much.

There’s a simple reason for that. Everyone hates the idea that we’re all going to have to pay for the mess created by other people, but nobody has yet articulated a real alternative.

We’re told every day that we’re borrowing hundreds of millions a week and we can’t sustain it. We have all come to believe that if we don’t curtail our spending, right now, by four billion, the heavens will fall down on our head.

And nobody is telling us different. Oddly enough, the body whose job it is to borrow all that money seems more relaxed than anyone else in the establishment about the difficulty we’re in.

In their most recent annual report, which was only handed over to the Minister for Finance at the end of June this year, the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA), in its overview, seems almost to be wondering what all the fuss is about.

On their website, they highlight the national debt, and it’s a constantly changing figure. Last Sunday night, for instance, the figure they had up was €73 billion for the end of October. That’s a frightening figure, to be sure – especially as the NTMA reports that the national debt was €37.6bn at the end of 2007, and it had risen to €50.4bn at the end of 2008.

So it’s going up pretty fast – actually, at such a rate that you’d have to wonder how knocking four billion off it would make any real difference.

But it’s not actually the size of the national debt, important as it is, that’s crucial. The crucial figure, that really determines what you can afford, is the debt/GDP ratio – that is to say, the debt expressed as a proportion of our wealth.

And in looking at the debt/GDP ratio, the NTMA is very revealing. Their report says quite clearly that our total debt, as a proportion of our wealth, stood at 43.2% at the end of 2008. And that’s a rising figure. At the same time, however, the EU average was 69.3%. Germany, Holland, Britain, France – in fact 13 members of the EU – had higher debt/GDP ratios than we had.

The NTMA says that our debt/GDP ratio is expected to rise further, peaking at 79% in 2012. But it was 90% in 1990, and even higher than that in the 1980s.

According to EU Commission forecasts published in April this year, and again repeated by the NTMA, our borrowing over the next three years or so will keep us below the European average.

None of that is a reason for going mad. But it might be a reason for getting mad. We’re being told, day after day, that we’re borrowing far too much, that we’re driving the country into bankruptcy, that if we don’t slash and burn we’ll all be destroyed. And it’s certainly true that we’d be better off in the long term if we borrowed less now.

But none of these policymakers who keep urging us to tighten our belts until it really hurts is telling us that our borrowing is actually lower than the European average, and that our debt, as a proportion of our wealth, will be by no means impossible to manage.

And the other thing they’re not telling us is that they’re in this with us. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard government spokespeople saying that top people’s salaries will be cut if this report or that report says they should be.

Why in the name of God does the Government need a report to tell it what is both the right thing to do and the strategic thing to do? If this Government had been ruthless about top pay – especially its own, and especially the bonuses that some senior managers have been offered – and if they had been ruthless right from the beginning, people throughout the country would have been far more willing to follow them.

Instead they’ve been grudging and slow, looking like a government that wants to follow trends rather than lead them. And now they find themselves looking for pay cuts from nurses and ward orderlies in the HSE at the same time that they’re paying out a massive bonus to its CEO.

LOOK, we have to pull together. I actually believe we need to reduce pay not just in the public sector but right across the economy, even in profitable private enterprises. I also believe that every penny saved through pay cuts should be devoted to saving essential services and jobs.

We should be able to calculate to the last penny what a 3% or 5% pay cut right across the economy would be worth – and we should be shown exactly how that is going to be invested in the future.

At the moment, some are being asked to make sacrifices, and the purpose isn’t clear to them. Others, who can afford it more easily, are being told they’re safe from pain. That is no way to build a national spirit, and it’s no way to get us out of the mess. All it’s doing is generating bitterness and resentment, for perfectly understandable reasons.

It’s not too late to build a sense of shared national purpose that would really help us to deal with the crisis.

It needs honesty and vision and a commitment to let everyone be part of the solution.

Right now, public servants in particular are being treated as if they caused the problem. That needs to stop, if we’re ever to be allowed to pull together and build a national recovery.


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