Fionnan Sheahan: For our country's sake, the parties need to talk
Published 08/10/2010 | 05:00
TAOISEACH Brian Cowen hasn't even been told about it yet. Finance Minister Brian Lenihan hasn't fully embraced the idea. Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny and Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore aren't even invited to date. But the Green Party might just be on to something here with its idea that all the main political parties should just sit down and set out their views on the four-year budgetary plan.
What harm can come from it?
In this economic crisis, a bit of thinking outside the box is what is required.
Communications Minister Eamon Ryan is trying to get everybody to just sit down and talk.
"We need to set up a meeting with all political parties to discuss the process without any preconceived notions or expectations. The political process should get together. Find out what we agree and don't agree," he told the Irish Independent. Sharing information and setting out their stalls on the various unpalatable choices won't be easy.
The Greens' approach will be interpreted as a sign of nervousness and an attempt to share across the political spectrum the blame for the harsh measures to be included in the plan.
And there'll be an argument that holding the talks behind closed doors is simply undemocratic.
However, there is an onus on all the political parties to prove they are actually interested in putting the good of the country above their own political agendas. This approach hasn't been tried before on the economy.
Social partnership talks -- where key decisions on the development of economic policy over the past 20 years were made -- between Government, unions, employers and other groups, always excluded the opposition parties.
A better comparison arguably comes in the shape of the New Ireland Forum, set up in 1983 by then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald to talk about ways to bring about "lasting peace" and stability through the democratic process.
Ultimately, the forum's conclusions were a failure but the positive engagement was a stepping stone on the road towards the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Good Friday Agreement.
At this stage, the goal of every political party in this country should be to bring stability to the public finances and prevent direct external involvement.
It can't be just left up to the coalition parties of Fianna Fail and the Greens because they're not going to be in Government for the entire period.
The European Central Bank became the latest international body to state the importance of the Government meeting the deadlines and commitments of reducing the budget deficit to 3pc by 2014.
Following on from the European Commission and leading credit ratings agencies, ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet stressed the importance of the Government taking steps to fix the public finances.
"It is extremely important that the Irish Government takes all the appropriate decisions that would permit that highly credible path towards sustainability of the public finances," he said.
The eyes of the international markets are upon this country and the consequences of failing to present a credible and genuine plan to tackle the deficit.
Somebody has to publish a four-year plan to assuage the international concerns and reassure the public there's a way out of the current crisis.
With a working majority in the Dail, the Coalition could remain in office until mid-2012 -- in the unlikely event of them holding their nerve.
Significantly for whoever is in power over the coming year, a leading ratings agency warned it could lower Ireland's rating if broad political support for measures to tackle the public finances weakened.
Fitch Rating said the "timing and strength of the economic recovery was critical to firmly placing public finances on a sustainable path".
Indicating that it was concerned about a possible change of Government, the rating agency added: "Broad-based political support would help strengthen the credibility of the medium-term fiscal consolation effort."
This was interpreted as a warning that the Coalition needs to garner broad support from the opposition if the four-year spending plans due to be outlined in November are to convince the markets.
"The ratings could be downgraded further if the economy stagnates and broad-based political support for and implementation of a budgetary consolidation weakens," Fitch added.
Fine Gael and Labour are always arguing for greater input into the budgetary process, so here is their chance to have precisely that.
Put all the gruesome choices on the table: tax hikes, spending cuts, social welfare reductions, public sector redundancies, water charges, property taxes, the whole shebang. And just say how you feel to see if there is any consensus.
Without the approval of Cowen and Lenihan and with Kenny and Gilmore ruling out a Tallaght Strategy-style approach, the chances of this idea producing anything constructive are slim.
It's worth a try, nonetheless. Effectively, the politicians are being asked to rise above politics.
There's a window of opportunity to make a constructive contribution to the development of the four-year super budget plan.
Just get on with it.