So much for the new kind of politics - Programme for government

AS a statement of intent, it looks ambitious. 

It looks as if it could be moderately transformative. It has something for nearly everyone in the audience. It makes all the right noises about pressing problems. Nevertheless the programme for government published yesterday looks like another in a long line of letter-to-Santa fantasies promising nearly everything except an occasional Lotto win for every family.

It promises a lot that is as commendable as it is justified. It promises a lot that should have been delivered by earlier administrations but was not. Crucially, the document does not give any great detail about how this Nirvana might be funded. As ever the devil is in the detail. As ever the greater challenge is in the delivery, not the happy, easy declaration of intent.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s Government cannot be surprised by this scepticism. Every one of its predecessors, including his previous administration, promised similar if not more beguiling programmes but delivered only a fraction of the contract. An assessment of the programme using no more than rudimentary bookkeeping raises obvious questions but ones that Mr Kenny and his colleagues will not, because they cannot, answer. How will this rejuvenation be paid for?

When three of the many positive proposals are juxtaposed all sorts of doubts present themselves. The Government has promised to phase out the Universal Social Charge, increase the minimum wage, and hike spending on public services by “at least” €6.75bn over the next five years. Part of that increased public spending must be earmarked for rebuilding clapped out water systems. This bill — about €700m a year for many decades, says Irish Water — will have to be paid despite the pathetic capitulation on water charges. The USC is to be scrapped despite inevitable demographic changes which mean that ever more people will depend on the State for a retirement income. The USC is to be scrapped despite a tremendous need, from practical and social justice standpoints, to improve supports, especially in health and education.

There is to be a commission on public sector pay and, as sure as there are stripes on bull’s eyes, that will lead to an increase in the Government’s wages bill — an inevitability that would be tolerable if the exploitation of younger teachers, gardaí, and other recently recruited public servants ended. It might also be more palatable if performance — output — was benchmarked as well as pay.

European tourists of a certain age and disposition once flocked to Ireland to enjoy the wistfulness exemplified by our traditional music. They recognised an otherworldliness, a form of free and barely structured expression alien to more ordered societies. Yesterday’s promises suggest that this bodhrán-and-banjo philosophy has informed the programme for government. We have, like it or not, a reputation for being one of the worst-run small countries in Western Europe. We cannot organise a health service to meet the needs of a population significantly smaller than Yorkshire; general educational standards — and ambition — slide towards ignominy; we have a homelessness crisis; and balanced regional development is as remote as the revival of the Irish language.

Of course a newly formed Government must set out its stall but it is tragic that at the very first opportunity to show that politics had really changed in a way that might deliver real, enduring, and positive change, the old bread-and-circuses instincts and the old hucksterism prevailed. That this gombeenism is a consequence of having a weak, dependent, minority Government means all Dáil parties are to blame.


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