Sunday 20 October 2019

Brian Hayes: A rising tide will lift all our boats

We must replace 'we are where we are' with realistic optimism as soon as we can, says Minister of State Brian Hayes

Brian Hayes

In 1959, on taking power at a bleak time in Irish history, Fianna Fail Taoiseach Sean Lemass noted that he believed "national progress of any kind depends largely on an upsurge of patriotism. . . diverted towards constructive purposes''.

We live, in terms of national morale at least, in a similarly dark age.

But similar challenges can sometimes require slightly different responses. In our case whilst the giddy optimism of the final years of the Celtic Tiger may have turned out to be a mirage, the antidote to that exaggerated optimism will not be provided by the current overdose of pessimism.

This Government faces many challenges but one of the most critical ones of all is to generate an upsurge of spontaneous optimism, or what John Maynard Keynes famously called 'animal spirits', which was the most positive feature of the Tiger.

Such an upsurge will not, however, simply be achieved by the 'come on lads, put on the Green jersey' approach of the previous regime.

But now that we have had our period of mourning and denial, it is time to begin the process of national resurgence by embracing a new policy of what I would call realistic optimism.

For realistic optimism to work, the first thing this Government must do is to actually fulfil the promises made to the electorate.

Honesty requires us to admit that in areas such as banking reform and the debt crisis we continue to depend on what happens in Europe. But the mandate for widespread political and public sector reform is entirely within our control.

After eight months in government we have already come up with more than 200 concrete proposals in our public sector reform plan with specific timelines. And from procurement to reducing the size of the public service by 12 per cent over five years, much of what the Government wants to do goes well beyond the Croke Park agreement.

It has to if we are going to get out of this mess.

There are other reasons why we should embrace a new ethos of realistic optimism. The poet Robert Burns once famously wished 'Oh that God the gift would give us, to see ourselves as others see'. Well, others now see us quite differently to the pessimistic images we embrace so repetitively.

The 2011 United Nations Human Development Index shows that Ireland is at number seven in the world, ahead of Germany at nine, France at 20 and the UK at 28. A recent IBM survey showed Ireland is still the top location in the world for Foreign Direct Investment in terms of value whilst when it comes to the critical Information Technology sector, expansion in this area is so rapid that many companies are finding it difficult to fill their vacancies.

Earlier this year the World Bank ranked Ireland as the No 1 location in the eurozone for ease of doing business while the Heritage Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom also ranked Ireland as No 1 in Europe for economic freedom.

These are some of the positives. Many challenges still remain. We need a functioning property market with access to funding and a reasonable level of transactions but the Budget has moved decisively to support the commercial and residential property sectors.

After three years on the ropes the natural resilience and 'animal spirits' of this tough island race have been undermined.

However, the last thing we must do is turn our face into the wall like one of those dying John McGahern-style bachelors.

Just as Lemass defined and implemented the needs of his time, the historic task of this Government is to lead a great revival of the nation's spirit. Such a resurrection cannot be secured easily or immediately but the fight to return this country to a safer, stronger place is well under way.

Hard work, persistence and determination will see us through, but as a first step it is time we replaced the lifeless despair of 'we are where we are' with a better, lucid spirit of realistic optimism.

Brian Hayes, the Fine Gael TD for Dublin South West, is Minister of State at the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Sector Reform

Sunday Independent

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