Thursday 27 October 2016

Paul Melia: We need long-term vision from politicians

Published 27/02/2016 | 02:30

Bride-to-be Mary Catherine Conroy from Bóthar Buí, Tír an Fhia, Connemara, took a detour to the polling station at Carraroe to cast her vote in the general election. Photo: Seán Ó Mainnín
Bride-to-be Mary Catherine Conroy from Bóthar Buí, Tír an Fhia, Connemara, took a detour to the polling station at Carraroe to cast her vote in the general election. Photo: Seán Ó Mainnín

By any yardstick, this has been a dull General Election. There has been no standout moment, no point over recent weeks where a politician or party produced an idea which captured the public's imagination.

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There's a simple reason why - our politicians are jaded, too taken with arguing and scoring cheap political points than setting out an ambitious agenda to renew our Republic.

The conversation needs to move on if we are to realise the grand ambition of the heroes of 1916. We, the citizens, should be demanding more.

This must be the last General Election where parties are allowed to insult us with short-term thinking. It's long-term vision we need, manifestos outlining what a party hopes to achieve over at least two terms in office, not short-term populism designed to secure votes.

The focus of this campaign has been the economy and tax cuts, with little debate about the bigger questions facing Irish society.

It's a given that there will always be a need for housing and investment in health, education, the Gardaí and other public services. No election will pass without the economy being a major issue, but the discourse must go beyond these immediate priorities.

The nonsensical slogans employed to garner votes perhaps illustrate the lack of ambition and clarity.

What does 'keep the recovery going' mean? Does it suggest some parties want a return to recession? 'Rewarding work, rebuilding trust' sounds like a slogan for a dog training school. Others promise a 'fair' recovery. Does this suggest an 'okay' recovery is acceptable?

The Proclamation promised equal rights and opportunities to all citizens, and resolved to cherish all children of the nation equally.

Yet children go to school hungry at a time of an obesity crisis. Access to public services is dependent on where you live, and large parts of rural Ireland feel ignored.

Some people cannot afford to go to the doctor, and non-religious parents feel obliged to baptise their child to secure a place in a 'good' school.

We continue to fund charities to provide basic help to those most in need, when it should be the job of government.

Undoubtedly, those with the least suffer the most. A report from the Free Legal Advice Centre (FLAC) finds, unsurprisingly, that a lack of money is a barrier to justice.

It is difficult to access legal aid in cases of mortgage arrears, for those facing eviction from their rented homes or for employment disputes, it says. As a result, the most vulnerable are being denied the legal expertise required to secure a fair hearing. How is this okay?

There is little talk about saving for a rainy day or paying down the national debt - instead, it's more money and tax breaks for everyone, and pledges to invest in services from a pot of money which will magically appear at some point on the horizon.

There's nothing interesting in the manifestos about long-term housing policy, such as requiring all new homes to have convertible attics so people don't have to move for want of an extra room.

There's nothing about requiring pupils to learn basic cooking skills to help address the obesity crisis and reduce consumption of high-fat, high-salt convenience foods.

On perhaps the biggest issue of all, climate change, there is little discussion. By and large, the parties are afraid to outline the kind of tough decisions they will take to avoid catastrophe for future generations.

The problem is of our own making. We don't, as a rule, engage in public consultation processes. We don't help shape policy. Instead, we blame the Government.

Although civics is taught in schools, those aged 18 to 24 don't vote.

Apathy is a huge issue. Almost one million citizens didn't bother voting in 2011, almost 30pc of those registered. Why isn't this being addressed? Should voting be compulsory? Should politicians not be forced to keep their promises or risk the wrath of the entire electorate?

At constituency level, the parties are focused on resolving local issues, with little reference to the bigger questions. They believe this is our sole concern, and they're largely right. That means candidates seen to deliver local services secure the seat, instead of those most capable of entering the national parliament to deliver what the nation needs.

The political parties are smart, and play a longer game.

Few will commit to taking difficult decisions before voting day because of the impact they might have on their prospects in not just the present campaign, but at the following local and European elections too.

There is a crisis of trust in politics, but not all politicians are hopeless - there are people with real ideas.

The Constitutional Convention perhaps pointed the way towards beginning this national conversation about the issues which matter most, and a recent call by academics for a similar exercise on climate change should be heeded.

But it cannot be a talking shop - a mechanism must be found to implement suggestions.

We need to talk about the future. We must discuss the kind of skills the next generation will need to flourish in a rapidly changing world, and talk about addressing inequality, about the gender pay gap and barriers for women from entering or returning to the workplace.

Citizens want jobs and public services, but they want vision and leadership too.

The public is tired, tired of broken promises made over the years from all parties. They don't believe what they're being told.

While the State centenary programme to remember Easter 1916 calls on us to "reflect on the Republic 100 years on, and to re-imagine our future", it's clear that few parties have taken this on board.

It's back to business as usual. It reflects badly on us, the citizens, that we are prepared to swallow this guff.

Irish Independent

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