Thursday 21 February 2019

Brian Brennan: We're still holding out for a real working class hero

Brian Brennan

THE roars of approval and the standing ovation that greeted Mary Byrne's performance on 'The X Factor' on Saturday night showed that she belongs to a rare and endangered species. She is a working class hero.

Week by week, the extraordinary singer, who lives in Ballyfermot in Dublin and tends a checkout in a Tesco supermarket, is demonstrating that excellence is not the pregrogative of the privileged, the highly educated or the 'middle-income Ireland' that the Labour Party is so determined to protect from pain in the years ahead.

True, just 5pc of school leavers from Ballyfermot and Finglas go on to third-level education, but it's not a lady from Foxrock (where the college figure is 100pc) who has won the hearts of millions with her hard work and talent.

Indeed, once upon a time, Labour politicians were working class heroes themselves. But perhaps that was back in the days when Labour leaders spoke in the unpretentious and no-nonsense tones of Frank Cluskey and party conferences were held in the basement of Liberty Hall, with bottles of stout and bread-and-dripping finger food for refreshment. Or perhaps it just seemed that way.

Today, things are different. In poll after poll, Eamon Gilmore is cited as the most popular party leader. He himself has predicted that his party is well-positioned to win at least one seat in each of the country's 43 constituencies and two in some.

In all, he says, Labour has the potential to win 50 seats or more.

It is an extraordinary evolution, fuelled by a certain lack of specifics about how Labour might tackle the €4.3bn spending cuts that must be achieved next year.

Property tax, water charges, social welfare cuts and anything that might adversely affect what Mr Gilmore has termed "middle-income Ireland" have been ruled out.

Instead, the savings would be made through eliminating tax reliefs, a supertax on earnings of more than €100,000 and reform of the public service, a promise we have been listening to for years, but for which the Labour Party does not have a great track record.

These measures need to be subject to independent costing and evaluation. The suspicion must be that they fall short of what is needed to repair the public finances.

It is unclear whether further taxation measures would be introduced by Labour in government and what are its intentions on capital spending.

This week, thanks to the Green Party leader's persistence and his conviction that such a development would be in the national interest at this time, the four big party leaders will hold talks in an attempt to achieve some sort of consensus.

Various motives have been ascribed to the calls for a show of unity of purpose by Irish politicians, including the suggestion that John Gormley's initiative was merely a political manoeuvre designed to distance the Greens from Fianna Fail as a blood-letting budget approaches, with its unpredictable impact on the political landscape.

The Gormley move was initially dismissed by the opposition as an attempt to keep Fianna Fail and, presumably, the Greens themselves in power.

But, with the benefit of mature reflection perhaps, Labour and Fine Gael are going along for the ride, for now, although displaying little enthusiasm and trailing caveats and disclaimers like coat-tails behind them.

The Taoiseach did not help matters by initially stating that he sees the role of opposition parties in any 'consensus' as being decidedly subsidiary. Perhaps he was suspicious of the Green leader's motives, as has been suggested. Perhaps the opposition parties also have good reason to be suspicious of every other party's political intent.

But can the country afford to indulge the suspicious minds of politicians in present circumstances? Can we afford to ignore the warnings of the European Commission and ratings agencies, not to mention those of Garret FitzGerald, Peter Sutherland and other respected figures?

A leading ratings agency has warned of the dangers of failure to achieve broad political support for measures to repair the public finances.

Hinting that it was concerned about the effect of a change of government, Fitch said: "Broad-based political support would help strengthen the credibility of the medium-term fiscal consolation effort."

Brian Cowen sounded rather more reasonable yesterday when he said he would approach forthcoming discussions with the opposition parties with unity of purpose in mind, and that he hoped they would approach the talks in the same spirit.

Certainly the European Commission, the international lenders and others will pay close attention to the interaction between the parties this week, watching closely for any signs of sham.

Among the participants, Eamon Gilmore is probably the most sceptical and reluctant, believing presumably that only a government that includes his party can save the country. Save it. . . somehow.

On Saturday last, Mary Byrne brought 'The X Factor' house down with a stunning rendition of 'You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Just Be Close at Hand'. Her performance was marked by clarity, honesty and dignity.

Eamon Gilmore might prefer that other old number, 'You don't have to give the details, just tell us we'll be grand'.

bbrennan@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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