THE idea that State assets, built up over generations to protect and enrich the lives of every citizen, might be sold off to repay international creditors has slipped onto the public agenda without debate or mandate.
Privatisation was one of the cornerstones of the Progressive Democrats and Margaret Thatcher’s equally strident Conservative crusaders. It was one of the policies that made the PDs irrelevant and the Tories unelectable for over a decade. This is something its advocates should well consider.
Privatisation is the dismissive philosophy that the market can provide social services better than the State. This can only be true if the State, through its politicians and public sector, cannot or will not manage its affairs properly.
Finance Minister Brian Lenihan has appointed economist Colm McCarthy, who identified €5 billion in public service cuts last year, to chair a review of State assets. Mr McCarthy’s remit is comprehensive. He will evaluate the ESB, Bord Gáis, RTÉ, Iarnród Éireann, Dublin, Cork and Shannon airports, (all owned by Dublin Airport Authority) 10 port companies and Bord na Móna. He may also consider some of the utilities, like water and refuse collection, now provided through local authorities.
If all of these assets realised, on their very best day, a wildly optimistic €20 billion, then Ireland Inc would still owe over €60bn but we would have surrendered pivotal economic and social infrastructure to the very system that landed us in this mess in the first place.
It would be the fire sale of the century and an utterly dispiriting celebration of a principle beloved of tooth-and-claw capitalists — privatise profits but nationalise losses. We’ll take the ESB but you can sort out Anglo Irish as it were.
Of course there are things that can be done to improve the performance of semi-State enterprises, just as there are in every business. Because of this semi-State executives, middle management and workers — just like their public sector colleagues — have a particular responsibility. They must be as efficient as it is possible to be; that is the very best response to those who would offer our family silver to the highest bidder.
In a different context Colm McCarthy pointed out that anger was not a policy. He was right. However, it is a valid response and if those who contributed so much to our current difficulties propose to try to resolve them by selling off that which is not theirs to sell then they should anticipate anger of an all together different kind.
In any event all of this may be academic as Labour have already opposed the notion and they will be a powerful influence in the next government. It is within their gift to nip this idea in the bud by saying they will block these moves.
In the time-frames involved that should be enough to secure these great assets for the purposes for which they were established — the betterment of a society not the enrichment of a market.
We can sensibly rely too on the prospect that the Government will take as much notice of Mr McCarthy’s next report as they did of his last. Had they taken any serious notice of his An Bord Snip Nua suggestions it might not have been necessary to even commission this further study.
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