Saturday 1 October 2016

Our politicians are still living on a different planet

Us mere mortals have little to cheer about, despite all the 'happy' economic news

Published 04/10/2015 | 02:30

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform pictured during the presentation of the latest Exchequer Returns at the Dept of Finance
Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Brendan Howlin, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform pictured during the presentation of the latest Exchequer Returns at the Dept of Finance

Mercury is in retrograde: it's the reason why everything's out of sync, apparently.

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Mercury is said to rule communication, clear thinking, truth and travel.

So when the volatile, tiny planet 'goes retrograde' (it's an optical illusion, actually, as it only looks like it's going backwards in the sky), all that important stuff goes catabolic, too.

Suddenly thinking obsessively about that ex you have unresolved issues with, your computer is crashing, wires are being crossed or you feel like you're generally losing the plot?

Blame Mercury.

According to the voluminous retrograde survival guides - I've read them all so you don't have to - now is not the time to make important decisions, go on a first date, undergo cosmetic surgery, or launch any new endeavours, especially a publicity campaign.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny is unlikely to blame the planets for last week's underwhelming reception for the Coalition's €27bn Capital Spending Plan, with a promise of no less than 45,000 new jobs.

The spending plan, widely dismissed as 'auction politics' by critics including Fianna Fail (who pioneered the art), received a cautious welcome - trespassing on indifference - by the public.

Something is not right.

All the economic indicators are going in the right direction, yet the public mood is not aligned with the good news narrative.

Our unemployment rate reached a fresh seven-year low last month due to a slight drop in the number of unemployed. But at 9.4pc it remains stubbornly high, with huge problems mounting because of the number of people in long-term unemployment.

The economy is set to grow by an impressive 6.2pc this year.

And Exchequer figures for the first three quarters of the year show the public finances are some €4bn better off than a year ago.

Finance Minister Michael Noonan and Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin couldn't contain themselves last Friday as they announced that the total tax take so far this year was €31.6bn - 5.8pc stronger than projections.

The bosom buddies almost fell over each other with glee, the South's very own 'Chuckle Brothers' to rival Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness and the late Reverend Ian Paisley in the North.

There is no doubt that the economic needle is moving.

Almost every tax category is ahead of expectations and we've seen a major surge in corporation tax - a massive 44.2pc, or €1.21bn, ahead of target.

But we're still not feeling the love.

And despite being repeatedly told that everything is surging forward, for many it feels like we're going backwards, or at best running to stand still.

So why is the Coalition experiencing a retrograde run at this critical stage of the electoral cycle?

Stony heart syndrome could in part explain the lack of alignment between the political and public spheres.

William Butler Yeats' poem, Easter 1916 - a poem that captures his torn emotions about the Easter Rising of 1916 - is best known for its refrain, 'a terrible beauty is born'.

Yeats, a mystic who had an abiding interest in the occult, also speaks in that poem to the curse of permanence when he wrote, "too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart".

For people in Ireland, those that were not forced to seek economic refuge elsewhere, the sacrifices made have taken a huge toll and have turned our hearts into stones of disbelief and indifference.

We're worn out after six (for many, eight) years of hard slog, with little, if anything, to show in our bank accounts at the end of the month for what has, for many, been simply too long a sacrifice.

The Capital Investment Programme, should it get off the ground as planned, is hugely welcome.

But it ignores the fact that we simply stopped investing in anything - hospitals, schools, transport, water and, critically, housing - since the Fine Gael/Labour coalition swept into power.

By 2013, Ireland's level of public investment was at its lowest in 50 years.

This has given rise to the crazy paradox that a country that went spectacularly bust over a plain vanilla housing boom (aided and abetted by a global financial crisis) has a major homelessness crisis.

CEOs of major companies and heads of universities are asking staff to take in lodgers and would-be tenants have resorted to speed-dating to try and share the burden of looking for a hugely expensive roof over their heads.

The moratorium on jobs in the public sector and a chronic lack of investment in already-stretched services is the reason why women who have suffered miscarriages are being treated in the same wards as women who have given birth to healthy babies.

And the failure to maintain appropriate levels of investment in policing is the reason why rural crime gangs have been able to survive and thrive, acting with impunity.

The Coalition prides itself on steadying the ship with competence and leadership and deserves much credit in this regard.

Although I often wonder could that be said of any administration that stuck rigidly, as Fine Gael and Labour have, to the fateful troika deal signed by the late Finance Minister Brian Lenihan?

Finances aside, public trust and accountability has taken a hammering in other areas, especially policing.

The Interim Report of the Fennelly Commission into the 'retirement' of former Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan has damaged Mr Kenny's reputation for fairness, no matter how much he has tried to spin the report into a vindication of his actions.

The good news is that all cycles, even retrograde ones, come to an end. But the Government has much to do to bridge the gap between its mantra of optimism and the struggle endured by many citizens who don't have the emotional or financial resources to put in the final, hard yards.

Sunday Independent

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