The Government has created a great deal of unnecessary confusion on the sale of state assets, a requirement imposed on Ireland under the terms of the EU-IMF-ECB but with the details left remarkably vague and uncertain.
All too typically, we have had no real clarification of such important questions as what public property should be sold, how much money should be raised in this way, or how the proceeds should be spent. The Cabinet is now expected to turn its attention to these issues, perhaps as early as tomorrow. It may shed some much-needed light on the subject -- if ministers can get their own thoughts in order.
When the question first arose, it was understood that the proposed sales were designed for one purpose only, paying off our debts. That seemed curious, since figures as low as €2bn were suggested for the likely proceeds, a tiny proportion of our crushing public debt.
Many people felt that they could be better devoted to productive investment with a view to job creation. Very few took up a fundamental issue. Which state assets are "strategic" and "non-strategic"? Which do we consider so vital that they must remain the property of the State?
The ESB tops every proposed list of sales and will presumably feature on any list discussed by the Government. Other likely candidates include Bord Gais, Coillte, Dublin Port, and the State's remaining share of Aer Lingus.
The value of this last, however, is reckoned at a mere €100m.
Last week the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin entered the debate -- at a tangent. He claimed that the EU- IMF-ECB "troika" had been persuaded to permit part of the proceeds from the sales to be used for job creation.
The troika's representatives, visiting Dublin, were reluctant to confirm the claim. But this is far from the main point, or points.
In the correct order, the questions are: Which assets does the Government wish to sell? Are state companies to be sold piecemeal or as single entities?
What proportion of the proceeds will go to paying debt, and what proportion to investment? And how much investment would make a palpable contribution to economic recovery?
A sum of €2bn, along with the €5bn remnant of the national pension reserve fund, would not cure our ills. But it would encourage us to believe that the Government has engaged in some serious thought.