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Are we ready to offer blood, toil, tears and sweat in the national interest?

'AND I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: 'Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.' And he replied, 'Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God'."

The quotation comes from the Christmas broadcast of King George VI in 1939 as the British people stood at the gate of 1940, the most perilous year in their history. Seventy years later, those words may seem quaint and irrelevant in a secularised Ireland where the church of the majority has fallen into such disrepute, but they do capture an essential characteristic of the national mood. For an apprehensive and bewildered people, standing at the gate of 2011, want nothing so much as some sense of safety as they peer hesitantly into the unknown.

What they crave, in particular, is the national leadership that has been so signally and shamefully lacking in the present Government. And here it is worth reminding ourselves of another analogy from 1940: Winston Churchill's famous phrase when he then became prime minister and told the British people that he had "nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat". The impending general election makes it likely that, instead of toil, tears and sweat, we will instead be offered the traditional mish-mash of soft words and promises.

One thing is certain about 2011: there is no quick fix, no easy way out of the shambles of 2010. Our priority must be medium term: to find a way to escape from condemning our young people to what now looks ominously like the possibility of a decade of unemployment and emigration. We can do that only if we can ameliorate the harsh terms of the settlement with the European Central Bank and the IMF. Remember what Ajai Chopra, the head of the IMF's task force, reportedly said when he met the Fine Gael delegation. "We don't want to interfere in national politics at all but if you come with a stronger programme for growth and investing in jobs and cutting out waste we would be prepared to discuss those things with you."

The settlement is re-negotiable, in other words, but only from a position of greater economic strength. The Celtic whine, promising again to shake the begging-bowl and to ask for more like so many workhouse Oliver Twists, may work on the doorsteps and outside the polling booths but it won't work in Brussels or in Washington. What will work is austerity, discipline and -- the key phrase in Ajai Chopra's assurance -- cutting out waste.

Cutting out waste should mean much more than the abolition of the Senate and the reduction of the size of the Dail as proposed by Fine Gael. It should also mean -- and I have deliberately taken these few examples at random from the heart of ministerial government -- dramatically halving the number of ministers and of government departments from the present constitutional maximum of 15 to the constitutional minimum of seven. It should mean cutting not only the number of government departments but also drastically reducing the number of officials in the departments that are retained: the obscenely swollen numbers in the Taoiseach's Department, an historical relic of the megalomaniacal vanity of Charles Haughey, are a classic case in point. It should obviously mean the introduction of a ministerial car-pool system and an end to the luxurious pampering of giving a state car to every minister.

Cutting waste from the top would not only send an unmistakeable message of seriousness of intent to our international paymasters but might even persuade the Irish people that the members of a new government were willing to make hitherto unthinkable sacrifices in the national interest. Further cuts in public service expenditure are imperative in the interests of economic growth but they will be politically impossible unless they start at the top. But the exacerbation of party political differences that are part and parcel of general elections may well inhibit and perhaps entirely prevent the emergence of the all-party consensus demanded by a successful programme for national recovery.

The coming election poses two other dangers. The first arises from the likelihood of its postponement, notwithstanding the Greens' pledge to force an early election -- a pledge given explicit expression in a November letter from their leader, John Gormley, to the voters of Dublin South-East "to fix a date for a general election in the second half of January". Now there is talk of an election at the end of March and it has even been suggested that we may have to endure the farcical and nationally humiliating spectacle of Mr Cowen's enjoying a final freebie in the form of a Last Hurrah in the White House on St Patrick's Day. What that means is that the first quarter of 2011 will be nothing more than an epilogue to the miseries of 2010 and that we will have wasted another three months because the gate to the new year that begins notionally today will effectively remain jammed shut until we get rid of this wretched Government.

The second danger is that the longer a bitter and hard-fought election campaign goes on, the greater will be the victors' sense of entitlement to their unfettered enjoyment of the spoils of office. In a sense, one can only sympathise with those Fine Gael and Labour Deputies who have for so long languished in the wilderness of the Opposition front benches. In normal times, one could scarcely begrudge their resistance to suggestions that, in the national interest, they must forego the perks of power. Why, they will ask, should they not enjoy the same rights as their ministerial predecessors? Why should there be fewer seats around their Cabinet table?

The answer, of course, is that these are not normal times. Not since the infancy of the State has the swinging of the party political pendulum been so irrelevant. Then the Pact election of June 1922 destroyed the efforts of Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera to establish a national consensus in the aftermath of the Treaty split. Now the 2011 election may likewise destroy the prospects of consensus behind a programme for national recovery.

As we stand at the gate of 2011 the choice is stark. A year after Churchill offered his bleak recipe to his beleaguered people, he also acknowledged that "the British people are unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst." Today, the realists among the Irish people -- above all, the young emigrants leaving our shores in their thousands -- already know the worst. Not so the more pampered among those of us who remain at home, bloated by greed and softened by years of self-indulgence. So, while I hope we may be ready for a national programme of recovery based on self-discipline, I fear we are not: that Churchill may have been right and that, even in our present extremity, we will recoil from the prescription of toil, tears and sweat and will disgrace ourselves again.

Ronan Fanning is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at University College Dublin

Sunday Independent