It may be a tad too bah humbug to react cautiously to Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s promise of 2014 tax cuts for middle-income families but our history of Santa Claus electioneering and its consequences are so chastening, so deeply carved into the national psych, that a degree of scepticism is appropriate.
That the suggestion was made within days of our exit from the troika bailout, within days of reasserting some degree of economic autonomy, must raise the possibility that we are off on the same old, destructive election merry-go-round again.
That the suggestion comes from a Government whose Energy and Communications Minister, Pat Rabbitte, not so very long ago cynically shrugged off a challenge about broken election promises with a disdainful “shure that’s what you do at election time...” must make the reaction a cautious one.
Nevertheless, the prospect of changes to the tax regime, albeit only if growth of well over 2% is achieved, that might increase family incomes by an estimated €1,000 a year are indeed very welcome. However, the probability of that increase being cancelled out by domestic taxes — water and property — remains our sobering reality.
If these cuts do come to pass, their value may be far beyond any improvement in the coping classes’ household budgets, because they would be the first real sign in six or seven years that the tide is turning and that something other than endless retrenchment is possible. This would have an invaluable influence on the national mood and encourage the kind of optimism needed to consolidate the hard-won economic stability that is beginning to seem as if it might bear fruit.
It would also be an indication, despite the vehement declarations to the contrary, that the kind of policies dedicated to ensuring that we live within our means are working. It is probably too early to say that the years-long siege on the living standards of middle Ireland has been lifted but it may not be too early to say that the relief columns are almost in sight — just as the next general election will be when a decision on these tax breaks will have to be made. It is though an indication of how very difficult recent years have been that even the prospect of a pretty modest tax change can carry such weight and cause such ripples in our public discourse.
This points to a new threat and a new obligation facing Mr Kenny’s Government. It is entirely natural that, after a number of difficult years, he and his colleagues will want to celebrate anything resembling good news. Therein lies the trap.
As a custodian of our democratic process, Mr Kenny finds himself presiding over a discredited, distrusted parliamentary system. Our political system no longer engages the public sufficiently or enjoys the kind of support it needs to be as effective as it must be for all our sakes. It falls to Mr Kenny and his colleagues to rebuild the confidence our democracy depends on but making promises that cannot be sustained will deepen the rift between citizen and parliament. As our economy recovers — hopefully — and as the next election moves ever closer, Mr Kenny and his colleagues will have to walk a very fine line between electioneering and restoring the integrity of our political system.
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