The challenges ahead - Economy is the pressing problem

The Dáil has barely risen for its summer recess and already the battleground issues for the second half of the Government’s term have been identified.

Inevitably our flat-lining economy and all that means for hundreds of thousands of Irish people and businesses will dominate the agenda.

The arguments will, after five or more years of turmoil, be familiar but no less opaque for all that. The debate around the wisdom of imposing even more “austerity” on a society already living in a far more modest environment than the one we enjoyed a few years ago will continue. The cut-or-spend debate has become as much a matter of faith as economics and the appeal of less demanding budgetary policies is more seductive than the hard-line alternative. Whether a more liberal, promise-laden path is the right option or not remains almost a mystery to the great majority. That, however, will not make the debate any less passionate.

Another issue that will generate great division and passion is the prospect of legalising gay marriage. Already bruised, angered but not yet reconciled to the pluralist implications of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Bill the more conservative wing of Irish society will, with the support to the Catholic Church, oppose the proposal. However, today’s Newstalk poll points to unexpected support amongst an group more often than not considered viscerally conservative.

The poll showed that the majority of Fine Gael backbench deputies — 79% — support the idea of holding a referendum on the issue. That, of course is not the same as supporting gay marriage but a comfortable majority — 56% — supported full parental and guardianship rights being extended to same-sex couples. Should this possibility reach the statute books then it will mark another welcome milestone along the tortuous road to a more inclusive and tolerant Ireland.

The debate around abolishing the Seanad will reach a conclusion in October when we will vote on a proposal to close the upper house. Events of recent days, and the boorishness shown by some members of the Seanad will not have helped their cause. However it might be more difficult than Taoiseach Enda Kenny imagines to achieve this objective, especially as promised Dáil reforms still seem so remote.

The possibility of another referendum on Oireachtas inquiries and the prospect of a mid-term cabinet reshuffle may add some colour to everyday political life but the economy will remain the most important issue.

Weekend reports of disagreement and abandoned meetings between finance Minister Michael Noonan, his colleague Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin and the troika do not augur well. It is not hard to imagine where the disagreement lies as the cut-or-spend decision may be easier for an economist than it is for a politician. Yesterday’s contribution from Professor Ashoka Mody, one of the architects of Ireland’s IMF bailout can hardly be ignored either. He suggested we need to, at the very least, balance austerity with measures that might stimulate domestic growth.

The precariousness of our situation, our dependence on others, means that even if our Government decided to take his advice they may not be in a position to implement it. Once again a consideration of our position shows the great difficulty facing politicians and the need for a leadership able to make hard decisions and communicate the rationale behind them effectively.


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