Saturday 27 August 2016

Shane Coleman: Self-praise for the Coalition, but wouldn't FF have done as well?

Published 07/03/2013 | 17:00

The Coalition benefited from Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin’s party being toxic after the last election
The Coalition benefited from Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin’s party being toxic after the last election

'THE plan is working", the notice for yesterday's press conference to mark the Government's second year in office boldly proclaimed.

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Perhaps it is working – although the Coalition's poll ratings suggest that's not a majority opinion – but whose plan is it?

Is it the copyright of a Fine Gael and Labour government that came to power promising "a fresh start from the failed politics of the years past"?

Or, despite the rhetoric of the general election and the Programme for Government, is it largely a continuation of the policies adopted on the hoof by Cowen and Lenihan once the crisis hit?

The evidence suggests it's largely the latter.

Strip away the policies that, let's face it, are more about optics – the proposed abolition of the Seanad, getting rid of ministerial cars, special cabinet meetings on jobs and the Dail sitting more days, etc.

Focus instead on the core economic policies: bringing order to the public finances as a way of restoring confidence and exiting the bailout; returning the banking system to something approaching normality and negotiating more favourable terms on our debts while repaying bondholders.

Can anybody really say the Fine Gael/Labour approach is radically different? After all it was Brian Lenihan who oversaw the heavy lifting – including one Budget with savings of €6bn – when it came to reducing the massive deficit in the public finances. The current Government has maintained that budgetary approach. As it did with banking policy. There was no burning of bondholders.

The Coalition has certainly had success in renegotiating the State's debt terms, but the strategy has been far removed from "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way".

The Cowen government was so politically toxic that Fine Gael and Labour figures will recoil in horror at the notion they are continuing where Fianna Fail and the Greens left off.

However, it's not meant as a criticism. The reality is they had no choice but to do so. There was simply no leeway when it came to reducing the Budget deficit. Even apart from the troika straitjacket, spending €15bn a year more than you get in taxes isn't sustainable.

Nor was there a silver bullet for the problems of the banking system (some of the 'experts' supposed 'solutions' could have made matters an awful lot worse). And the Coalition quickly learned – when both Sarkozy and Jean Claude Trichet issued some home truths in early 2011 – that banging the table and 'laying down the law' wouldn't work in getting a deal on our debts.

In its Programme for Government, the Coalition promised Ireland would be "recognised as a modern, fair, socially inclusive and equal society" by the end of its term. Nice words but the reality has been much more prosaic.

That's not to say the Coalition has done badly in its two years – it hasn't. Just not being Fianna Fail and the Greens was a good start, such was that administration's lack of credibility in the end. Fine Gael and Labour have been solid and competent, if arguably lacking a genuine reforming zeal.

They erred badly in over-promising during the general election, raising expectations they could never hope to meet – both are now paying a political price for that.

But they can also point to real achievements. Even a year ago, nobody thought Ireland had a prayer of avoiding a second bailout. Now, that seems likely to happen.

Some of the successes achieved in securing better terms on our debt were down to luck and timing. But clever diplomacy also played a part, not least with Michael Noonan and the promissory note.

Enda Kenny has also proved his doubters wrong and shown he is up to the job of Taoiseach. His energy and positivity have been a welcome contrast to the demeanour of his unfortunate predecessor in the last days of that government. Unlike Cowen, Kenny has proven to be a lucky general.

Despite the Coalition's achievements in the past two years, the rebuilding 'plan' (regardless of who conceived it) will ultimately only 'work' if there is a recovery in the European and global economies. More important than any plan it seems, we need Enda Kenny to stay lucky.

Shane Coleman is Political Editor of Newstalk 106-108FM

Irish Independent

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