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Croke Park deal is main obstacle to economic recovery

Last Thursday myself and Jim Glennon were in Drogheda together addressing a meeting of the National Forum, of which I am a member (Jim is a non-member and was a guest speaker at the event). In the audience were the backbone of the country: more than 50 of the 200,000 self-employed business people in Ireland. The kind of people who want to pull us out of recession, but can't. Can't, because the Government has forced them to lie down and is standing with one foot on their throat.

A week ago, the self-employed were the target of a vicious attack -- a hike in the hated Universal Social Charge (USC). On Thursday, they were furious. They told us how every arm of government -- national local and State agencies -- is crushing them with high taxes, criminal business rates and penal levels of regulation.

Where Fintan O'Toole is chairman of the Council of Tasc, the National Forum is headed by myself. And, like Democracy Now, the National Forum believes in political reform, but the two differ in relation to the economy. Fintan wants to reform politics, but doesn't want to reform our dead statist economy. As Democracy Now luvvies agonised over whether to put their public image on the line in a battle for votes, the National Forum is taking the battle of ideas to every corner of the country.

On our website we published a cohesive, clear and costed plan to solve our fiscal problems, long before any other body.

And, where Fintan and Tasc want the State to have a large say in our lives, we want ordinary folk to be put back in charge of their lives. And that means fighting higher taxes, the expanding number of quangos and State bodies and the Croke Park deal.

Welfare-dependents, front-line public sector workers and the self-employed are all victims of that deal. Last month they saw their pay packets slashed. Soon they will see public services cut. And why? So that the lavish salaries, perks and privileges of the statist elites can be protected.

The National Forum does not endorse any party in the next election. And being centre-right doesn't stop the Forum from believing that Ruairi Quinn was the best finance minister we've had in living memory.

The Forum also salutes the courage of the United Left Alliance and Sinn Fein for being the only parties to stand up to the Croke Park deal.

The Forum does what it has the resources to do: put the facts about our economy before the Irish public and let them make their mind up.

Those facts clearly vindicate where we are coming from. In one of the few good measures of the Budget, the rate of stamp duty was cut from seven per cent to one per cent on a standard home. The sterile social partnership consensus -- represented by the ESRI, NESF, and Tasc -- is that cutting tax rates is "regressive" and lowers tax revenues. Rubbish. In the first Exchequer returns since stamp duty was slashed, revenues from this source were up 38 per cent. National Forum 1, Statist Consensus 0.

Returns for corporation tax and income tax were also a slam-dunk rebuttal of self-interested arguments for tax hikes. Ireland's rate of corporation tax, 12.5 per cent, is four times lower than the marginal rate of income tax -- which ranges from 48 and 57 per cent when you include the hated USC. The corporation tax take was up 77.8 per cent in January. The income tax take was down by 6.1 per cent. Go figure.

The Forum also wants to protect front-line public sector workers like nurses, teachers and gardai from further pay cuts or tax hikes. Instead, the Forum wants to take all public pay levels above the average industrial wage and benchmark them. At middle and higher levels, public pay is up to 47 per cent above private sector levels. That's according to CSO (ie, public sector) figures. And public pay in Ireland is between 30 per cent and 70 per cent above comparable EU public sector levels, according to a plethora of different measures. The Croke Park deal protects these outlandish differentials. To pay for that deal, your taxes have been hiked and welfare and public services have been cut.

Every election candidate should be asked this question, "Will you scrap the Croke Park deal and benchmark public pay before implementing any further tax rises?"

The Croke Park consensus for higher taxes and high public pay is hugely damaging to job creation and growth. Before the last tax-raising Budget, the Central Bank was forecasting a recovery this year. Now it forecasts us to slide back into recession, due to higher taxes. As the National Forum proved on its website last November, that recession could have been avoided by an alternative strategy of revenue raising via a staged programme of privatisation, drastic cuts in the number of local authorities, a reasonable means-testing of welfare and -- instead of cutting public jobs -- a spreading of public pay bill cuts via bench-marking public pay downward.

Unlike the Democracy Now movement, the Forum didn't have the financial resources or pledges to put this agenda to the public in an election. If it had it would have done so, regardless of the time pressure. Incidentally, we in the Forum offered to assist Democracy Now by lending our 350-strong base of experienced and dedicated members, but got no response.

This is a tragedy: the German and US economies are recovering, but our domestic economy is sliding backwards thanks to the Croke Park deal -- a deal backed by Fianna Fail, Fine Gael, Labour and the Greens. The fight back for Ireland's future must begin after the election.

Marc Coleman presents 'Coleman at Large' on Newstalk 106-108fm each Tuesday & Wednesday from 10pm and heads the National Forum; www.nationalforum.ie

Sunday Independent