AS THE German and French leaders of Europe's economic powerhouse dithered last week over how best to address the latest crisis to threaten the single currency and possibly even the future of the European Union, it was interesting to see our government taking practical, and more effective steps, to tackle our own financial crisis.
First up was a bothersome issue involving Horse Racing Ireland whose chief executive, Brian Kavanagh was paid bonuses in direct contravention of government directives on such handouts. On Saturday Mr Kavanagh sat down for what must have been a rather intense chat with 'very unhappy' Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney after which he agreed to pay back over €37,000 in bonuses relating to 2008 and 2009.
The €37,000 payback will be an entirely insignificant contribution to the welfare of a country that is currently spending some €18 billion more than it earns a year. But Minister Coveney's uncompromising 'I want my money back' stance is important in that it lays down a marker that says there is no longer any acceptance for pampering the well off with lavish and unjustifiable payments while ordinary workers are put to the pin of their blue and white collars to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the scale, Social Protection Minister Joan Burton is planning to set up some kind of a hit squad to target welfare fraud. The thinking behind this is that if we can avoid handing out money to scroungers, we'll be better able to continue supporting those in genuine need. The number of people receiving welfare payments had increased by some 670,000 people in the past five years. These extra welfare payments cost the State €7.3 billion and have contributed enormously to pushing the welfare budget up to €20 billion a year - double the amount spent in 2006 when the country was, on the face of it at least, a wealthy and prosperous place.
Clearly, the massive job losses in every industry in the country - bar the public service - have created this colossal welfare burden. It goes without saying that the vast majority of welfare recipients need and deserve the help they get from the State. Indeed, many were, until recently, taxpaying workers so they are doing no more than reclaiming a portion of what they contributed to the State before the reckless economic policies of bad governments robbed them of their livelihoods.
However, there can be no doubt that there are others who are happy to rip off the welfare system and it is these who will be the focus of Minister Burton's hit squads. The Minister reckons that if a fraud crackdown cut a mere one per cent off the welfare bill that would amount to a saving of €200 million a year to the State. We're talking about real money here - money that can be put to better uses, and God knows there are many.
But, like the few bob saved by taking back Brian Kavanagh's bonus payments, the amount is less important than the message conveyed by making it clear that there will be no tolerance for wasting money on those who don't deserve it. The message will be well received by the ever-dwindling cohort of taxpayers who are being bled dry in an effort to pay the bills of a profligate nation.
The simple reality is that there are too few taxpayers to pay for the gold star standards we still expect. The Irish middle class - those people who dutifully go to work, pay their taxes and queue for days in sleeping bags to book places for their children in good schools - are quickly becoming the new poor as they are squeezed on every side by new charges and levies.
Increasingly, they face the prospect of retiring into poverty as the pensions contributions they paid all their working lives lose value because of the world financial crisis. They will pay in a very real and palpable way for the failure of the French and Germans to convince the world markets that the Euro zone is sound. But at least they will be able to draw some hope from the efforts being made in this country to put our house in order.
And what they desperately need is hope because, without it, they just might decide that's no point in going to work tomorrow and then there will be fewer still to pay for the services that keep society functioning.