MICHAEL CLIFFORD: There is little about which to be optimistic ahead of the general election

Taoiseach Enda Kenny being shown the extent of flooding in Athlone, Co Westmeath. Picture: James Flynn/APX

THE omens are bad at worst; fair to middling at best. As the political parties limber up for the forthcoming election, there is little about which to be optimistic, writes Michael Clifford.

The campaign about to unfold will be governed not by any vision for the future, but by what the parties have been told that the voters want right now.

For the big parties, this information has been garnered from focus groups, assembled and interrogated to tell the parties what they should stand for. Fine Gael has been focus-grouped to within an inch of its life over the last year. Fianna Fáil needs much more than that to get its act together, despite being the party that introduced and promoted the use of focus groups over the last 15 years.

Smaller parties have used less scientific methods to formulate their policies, but they also are giving the people what they want.

What unites both left and right in this election is a lack of vision. On the left, the only realistic entity that will enter government is Sinn Féin. A number of its frontbench spokespeople have stated that the first thing they would do on entering power is abolish the property and water taxes.

Gerry Adams
Gerry Adams

Thereafter, their “vision” of a new society would be based, to a large extent, on taxing the rich. Good luck with that one. As a vision, it has all the appearances of box-ticking views expressed at an angry public meeting.

The other smaller entities on the left may have a vision, but the chances of any of them being in power after the next election are close to nil. In any event, most of them don’t really want to be in power, because that would inevitably involve compromising their vision. Best to have a vision on paper, rather than attempt to sully it by making it flesh.

There are some elements of vision in the soundings from the Green Party, and from the new kid on the block, the Social Democrats. But neither will be a major force in the next Dáil.

There is little about which to be optimistic ahead of the general election

Far more worrying is the lack of any vision from the parties most likely to hold office after the next election — if polling trends continue to election day.

Fianna Fáil is thrashing around looking for a message, not to mind a vision. Labour’s message is that it will act as a restraint on the excesses of Fine Gael. That’s the kind of message that really rules out a vision.

Then, we come to the entity that is hoping this election will see it finally assume the mantle of the natural party of power, in succession to Fianna Fáil.

All the indications are that Fine Gael will be the largest party after the election. But on what basis? The message it will run for the campaign is “keep the economy going”. That’s the extent of what they are offering. Do you want stability or do you want chaos? Are you with us or are you with a motley crew who would drive the ship of state onto the rocks once more?

For a party that sees itself entering a new era, the paucity of any real vision is depressing.

Where is the New Deal that emerged from the 1930s Depression in the US? Where is the UK’s welfare state, which was advocated by a majority of politicians after the trauma of the Second World War?

Both of those countries have, in recent decades, drifted far from the social moorings that harboured those respective visions, which were pursued following serious instability, and rooted in a desire to do things differently in future. In each case, an overriding concern was to pull the different elements of society closer together to better face potential catastrophe.

Here, in the lower depths of the recent recession, we got Enda Kenny pointing towards “the best small country in which to do business”. Notably, he has dropped that now, but what has replaced it? “Keep the economy lit, Delia, or the lights will go out”?

Enda Kenny
Enda Kenny

Look closer, though, and the shoots of a vision may be emerging from Fine Gael. Just before Christmas, the Taoiseach granted his annual pre-festive audience to reporters. He provided a brief insight into how he sees society, as moderated by the tax system, developing in this country.

Mr Kenny wants lower taxes for the better-off, but it’s all for a good cause.

“If we want to compete with other, lower-taxed countries, we have got to be able to make a similar offer ourselves and that is why it is absolutely critical that the forward momentum of the Irish economy be kept going,” he said. The low rates offered to the highest earners in the US and Britain were cited.

So, we’re not doing enough to keep attracting foreign direct investment. A spectacularly low corporate tax rate isn’t enough. Language, an educated workforce, quality of life, little goodies like tax breaks in fee-paying schools, al l of these are not enough to keep ’em coming?

Perhaps we should have Michael Noonan at the airport whenever a foreign executive lands here. The minister for finance could proffer a suitcase of cash for each executive, with the promise of more, if only they would deign to walk among us with their investment.

Michael Noonan
Michael Noonan

The repercussion in lowering the tax paid by high-earners is that the money foregone will have to come from somewhere else. That will mean either a cut in services, or, as is the case in the US, higher rates of tax for those on lower earnings. There is no way around that.

In reality, Mr Kenny’s vision of reshaping the tax system has far more to do with a domestic electorate than with attracting foreign direct investment. He is appealing directly to the better-off in this country, on whom the recession has impacted least, but which believes that it is still paying too much tax.

Instead of attempting to bind society closer together in the wake of a traumatic recession, Mr Kenny’s half-baked vision is to widen the division between the haves and the have-nots, largely on the basis that the have-nots are lost to Fine Gael as potential voters.

In doing so, he is opting to follow trends set by right-wing parties in the UK and the US, rather than reference the imperative that drove change in those countries in the wake of national traumas.

Apart from that, there doesn’t seem to be anything of substance in Fine Gael, or in any of the other main parties, when it comes to any sort of a vision for the future of the country.

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