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David Quinn: Voters must decide between new realism and snake-oil hawkers

Irish politics is played out and reported in the manner of a soap opera. It is personality-driven to a ludicrous extent and policy comes a distant second.

When Enda Kenny's leadership of Fine Gael was challenged last year, the contest was about personality, not policy.

This week when Brian Cowen's leadership was challenged, again the contest focussed on personality, not policy.

Micheal Martin promised his supporters that he would re-energise and restructure the party, but he had little or nothing to say about where he would lead the country economically or socially, and no one seemed that interested in finding out.

Mostly his followers wanted a leader who isn't Brian Cowen, who isn't lumbered with his legacy, and who is a polished media performer. (Whether Martin is also a media lackey is a question for another day).

But economically, what would Martin do that was so very different from what Cowen and Lenihan have done? We don't know.

Therefore, the leadership debate in Fianna Fail, just like the leadership debate in Fine Gael, was much more about style than substance.

The General Election will also be more about style than substance. Eamon Gilmore does well in the polls because he talks a good talk even though Labour's economic policy is incoherent.

But maybe this is a reflection on us, the voters, and maybe this is one of the reasons we are in our current mess. Politicians get elected based mainly on the promises they make. We view those promises cynically but we still elect the politicians who make the best promises, most convincingly. Clearly Fianna Fail has been the past master at that.

Right throughout the era of the Celtic Tiger, Fianna Fail promised endless, limitless economic growth and we were happy to believe them.

But Fine Gael and Labour were no different. The only real difference between the three parties economically was that each of them promised to spend the proceeds of the boom a little better than their rivals.

It now turns out that the Celtic Tiger was really a bobcat on steroids. I'd say it was a domestic cat except that in the early stages of the boom there was genuine growth.

Economies, like athletes, often cheat to improve performance. Athletes can resort to steroids when training on its own won't improve performance any further.

Our steroid was cheap credit funnelled into the property sector by our banks, and by foreign banks. We overdosed on cheap credit to such an extent that we suffered the economic equivalent of a heart attack -- a massive one -- that has had us in intensive care since 2008.

When we finally get to the other side of this, the one and only way to ensure we don't repeat the same mistake again, however many years down the line, is to recognise that there are natural limits to growth.

We also need to realise that there are limits to what the State can do and therefore there are limits to what politics itself can deliver.

This means we need to beware of politicians who promise, for example, an endlessly improving health or education system, or who promise generous pensions for all.

Never again can we believe that a property boom, or any other kind of boom, can last forever, or that it will end with a 'soft landing'.

We also need to beware of politicians -- mostly on the left -- who tell us we can redefine the family without limit and without paying a price. Anyone who tells you that having a married mother and father is of no special value to children or society -- and therefore marriage shouldn't have special status -- is selling a delusion, one that might suit adults, but fails children.

Above all, in fact, it is the next generation who are failed by false and delusional promises. The national debt will be paid for by our children. They will also have to pay for a pension and health system that is going to become ever more expensive as our population ages, imposing an impossible burden on them.

They are the ones who pay the price for the redefinition of the family.

What we need therefore is not a change in the style of our politics. What we need is a much more fundamental shift in the way we conduct our business.

We need politicians who are willing to tell voters what politics can't do, who are willing to tell them that there are limits to what they can deliver, who are willing to rein in the unrealistic expectations of voters.

We need a Taoiseach willing to do that, and we need a Leader of the Opposition willing to do that. Unfortunately, neither the Fine Gael nor the Fianna Fail party leadership contest showed the slightest sign we're going to get this sort of leadership.

The General Election will tell us a whole lot more about whether we're still happy to buy snake oil from politicians or whether a new realism is taking hold.

Irish Independent