Sunday 18 March 2018

Martina Devlin: It's not just about the money -- we want to reclaim our republic too

A protester from the 'Occupy Dame Street' movement protests outside Dail Eireann yesterday
A protester from the 'Occupy Dame Street' movement protests outside Dail Eireann yesterday

'Public anger is acute," said Brendan Howlin. How right he is. But his Government is fast becoming the focus for this fury -- and not because of the castor oil which ministers must, of necessity, dish out.

Public anger is gathering steam because people voted for change in February. Change brought about by a slashing hook. Change to hack away the fat.

We realise our pockets will be lighter. We understand at least four tough years lie ahead. We knew that before Mr Howlin stood up to give us part one of the bad news yesterday. People have absorbed the need for austerity.

But in return, we are entitled to transformation in the way business is conducted in Ireland. This is the quid pro quo. The gain for which we will accept pain is not just about reclaiming our economic sovereignty -- we want to reclaim our republic too. We expect equality and transparency; not a continuation of the debased society of insiders and outsiders into which the Republic degenerated.

So, as the Budget details emerge officially, as opposed to the drip-feed of recent weeks, is that reformed republic taking shape?

Dream on.

There has been, I concede, some tweaking. Change, however, is coming about neither hard enough nor fast enough -- and no wonder, because the wrong tools are being used. Instead of wielding cleavers, ministers are mincing about with nail scissors and tweezers. And they are not always using them on the right targets.

Would you ever just start chopping, Enda. Tell your team to stop handling the axe like a boy band member signed by Louis who's afraid of getting blood splatters on his new clothes -- instead, ministers should wield it as if they're wearing a leather apron that will need hosing down afterwards.

Start with the numbers of special advisers employed. Chop. That means fewer young people queuing up to emigrate, or unable to afford to go to college. Chop again at super-pensions. That's money freed up to help get the jobless back to work. Chop once more and this time shred that Fianna Fail rulebook you've been dipping into, where party supporters get preferred for jobs. That last one might not save money, but it would certainly save face for the Government.

And when all that's been done, then this coalition will have earned the right to impose some hardship on the nation.

No wonder public anger is mounting. Week after week, the revelations of venality mount.

Take the case of Ciaran Conlon, a former Fine Gael communications manager now working for Richard Bruton as a special adviser. Apparently Mr Conlon is such an asset to the minister that he deserves a 36pc pay rise -- even though it breaches the salary cap.

Enda intervened to ensure he was awarded that €35,000 increase, bringing his annual wages up to €127,000. Our leader's address to the nation on Sunday night told us there would be harsh times ahead. Not harsh for everyone, though. Some have friends in high places.

I don't know how our Taoiseach didn't hang his head in shame as he sat beside his Public Expenditure and Reform Minister, busy detailing cuts to fuel allowances for old people, cuts to single parents' incomes, cuts to rent supplements and cuts to young people's disability allowances.

Busting pay budgets for one special adviser won't reverse those reductions, but it is not an isolated incident. In fact, it's been something of a trend with this coalition: 14 exceptional cases have been made.

Special advisers work long hours and are at a minister's beck and call. But let's not forget it is a desirable job.

Mr Howlin should have had the common sense to amend his speech before trumpeting the Government's work in reducing costs regarding special advisers -- it led to howls of derision in the chamber, and in homes across the country, I have no doubt.

Presumably we will be told that focusing on €35,000 is fretting about minnows when a whale of a problem needs to be dealt with. But it is a telling detail. And such specks matter because they reveal a mindset. In this case, it undermines Enda's attempt to persuade us Spartan conditions must be implemented across the board.

But the current Government -- like the Fianna Fail opposition -- is positioning itself as an irony-free zone. We saw it with Mr Howlin's reference to special advisers, and it popped up again during Enda's state of the nation address, when he solemnly told us about his determination to avoid any recurrence of previous mistakes. Isn't this business with the special adviser exactly the sort of error made by previous administrations? An attitude that says: rules apply to you -- not us.

Mr Howlin spoke about the burden caused by the measures announced yesterday. But burdens are not financial alone. People can be weighed down by a loss of hope for change. My hopes for a revised Republic -- truer to the ideals of its founders -- wither away a little more each time cases come to light such as the special adviser's, just as they do when judicial appointments go to supporters of the two Government parties.

"This nation will prosper again," were Mr Howlin's final words as he sat down after a feisty enough speech which he spent hopping from one foot to the other. I daresay it was subconscious recognition that he was treading on eggshells.

Taken at face value, as a payoff line you could call it optimistic. And assuredly we will blossom again. But it is wrong to preach belt-tightening in the foreground, while unacceptable habits continue in the background. One law for the plebs and another law for the political elite delivers hypocrisy -- not hope.

How could Mr Howlin mention "real value for money" for taxpayers with a straight face? Where is the fairness in belonging to a Government which breaks its own pay caps? That cannot maintain social solidarity, a goal he rightly identified as important? Regardless of his intentions, cohesion is eroded by anything that smacks of cronyism.

Mission not accomplished, Mr Howlin. You were torpedoed by your own side. Today, as someone who has been hoping for change, I feel gullible. How gullible, readers, do you feel?

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