News Analysis

Thursday 21 August 2014

Fianna Fail must be brave and radical

Published 09/12/2012 | 05:00

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The party has to come up with a valid plan to cut the public pay bill or it risks further electoral erosion, writes John-Paul McCarthy

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THE only hope for Fianna Fail after the implosion of the national finances was a series of deliberate and highly public policy reversals.

It needed in a sense to wear the medals of its defeat.

Anytime someone went after it for benchmarking, it needed to have a retort ready.

And considering the scale of the national deficit, nothing short of a policy marked 'we-want-the-complete-opposite-of-benchmarking' would deflect its opponents.

This meant that Fianna Fail needed to take a leaf out of the playbook of the Australian Labor Party in the Nineties when it moved away from centralised wage agreements to what then prime minister Paul Keating called "enterprise bargaining".

This move towards economic liberalisation constituted an obvious ideological reversal of sorts, but it consistently brought home the electoral bacon for them.

Fianna Fail, of course, has its own history of humane, even radical, liberalisation.

Its underwhelming response to the Noonan-Howlin Budget last week suggests that the party needs to reconnect to this history fairly quickly or risk further erosion at the next election.

Howlin admitted that fully 36 per cent of national spending comes from the public sector pay and pensions bill.

This behemoth is the product of the boom years, and until Fianna Fail advances some meaningful plan to shrink this bill, the party will remain forever mired in the polemics of the Ahern-Cowen era.

The irony of its predicament though comes from the fact that no other party in the Republic has been as successful as Fianna Fail at disciplining the public sector.

Viewed in macro-economic terms, the Lemass premiership is best seen as a time when Fianna Fail switched horses, so to speak, and abandoned the domestic public sector for international finance capital.

The first Fianna Fail cabinets built up the public sector behind high tariff walls in the hope that they could bring about full employment through aggressive State intervention in every sector of the economy.

This experiment in self-sufficiency collapsed after the Second World War, but limped along until Lemass finally put it out of its misery in the late Fifties.

He slammed everything into reverse for all practical purposes during his short reign as Taoiseach, and bet his all on a reworked version of the thrifty Victorian shopkeeper's programme of free trade,

low taxes on profits and international capital flows.

He knew what today's Fianna Fail has forgotten, namely the fact that the scale of one's mistakes must be matched and even exceeded by the scale of one's mea culpa in policy terms.

Lemass's revulsion at the sloth, greed and mediocrity that had been allowed to fester behind his high tariff walls also had a more emotional, less easily quantifiable element in it as well.

This was the element of solidarity and self-sacrifice that his generation had learned during the 1916-23 period.

We'd call it a social conscience today, the inner daemon that tells us it is better to cut a few percentage points off a 36 per cent national pay bill that the State simply cannot afford than plundering the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance rates, child benefit payments, the annual respite care grant to carers, maternity benefits, prescription charges, the drug payment scheme, and the cost of solid fuel.

Though you'd struggle to find it last week, Fianna Fail still carries somewhere within it the sentiments of Sean O Faolain's short story, The Fur Coat.

Winter is bearing down hard in the years before the Emergency and the wife of a TD starts fantasising about a fur coat. When her husband becomes a minister, she goes down to Grafton Street for the coat, secure in the knowledge that her husband's ministerial salary can take the hit.

But en route, she starts thinking of all those who died to create the new state, as well as the indignities that continue to bite all around her. She comes home without the fur, happy to shiver for Ireland, so to speak, until the spring comes.

In modern times, these admirable sentiments took two forms within Fianna Fail's thinking, one economic and the other national.

The admirable element in the economic ethos meant caring for the mass of working people by promoting an industrial rather than a financial services domestic sector based on medium and small enterprises.

The admirable national ethos then involved self-emancipation from the hatreds of the past, a Fianna Fail tradition that runs from Sean Lemass's tribute to Irish Great War veterans through Jack Lynch's Northern Ireland policy and on towards the sentiments of Bertie Ahern's climactic Westminster speech in 2007.

At its best, Fianna Fail has been a party willing to pull up the rotting floorboards of the country and to replace them with something better.

The party's radical instincts gave it the courage to expose a sclerotic public sector to the bracing winds of free trade in the Sixties.

Can it find this courage again?

Sunday Independent

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