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James Downey: Leaders must address deepest flaws in society


LAST Christmastide, we had something to look forward to: Brian Cowen's premiership was on its last legs; soon we would have a general election and a new government.

Christmas came and went, and the election presented us with a choice: a Fine Gael majority government or a Fine Gael-Labour coalition. We chose the coalition.

It took office in more appalling circumstances than we ever knew or could have imagined.

The two parties had gone through the exercise of "looking at the books", but the books told them nothing like the full story of the unbearable public and personal debt, the certainty that it would worsen, that we would end 2011 wondering whether we could remain members of the eurozone and the common currency, or whether the currency itself could survive.

At the time, I said that the election might not bring us a good government, but it would bring us some kind of government. I was wrong. I had not come to terms with the reality of the EU-IMF-ECB "bailout".

The country is still governed from Merrion Street, but it is not governed by the coalition ministers. It is governed by a small group of people who scrutinise every item of revenue and expenditure and every policy proposal, and approve or reject in accordance with the terms of the memorandum of understanding which now rules their subjects, otherwise known as "citizens".

These are very clever and very well-meaning people, but their mission is impossible, for a simple reason. They like us. And they are pleased that we like them, that we took so well to our first glimpse of Ajai Chopra, clearly a decent man bent on doing good. They regard us as their "best pupils".

This is not the highest of compliments when you note they are comparing us with Greece, Portugal and Italy. It gives me shivers for another reason.

I remember similar compliments from members of the EU establishment at a time when pupils like Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen were cutting taxes while spending in a manner unknown to drunken sailors. Drunken sailors have never had the borrowing power of Fianna Fail ministers.

Our masters are emphatically right about one thing. We have to accept the austerity programme, because we have to get the public finances under control.

But we also need economic growth, and austerity and growth are incompatible. We also need growth in the major countries which are our main trading partners. And in those countries, they do not talk about growth. They talk about recession.

There is a Keynesian solution, or at least a Keynesian way forward. Print money (or persuade the ECB to print it for us) and burn bondholders. But, for the moment, we can do neither. The circle is complete.

Is there anything we can do for ourselves while we wait for Angela Merkel -- any day now! -- to agree to set up what Michael Noonan calls "a wall of money" high enough to protect the EU from disaster?

In point of fact, there is. The EU-IMF-ECB representatives have a second leg to their mission. They are empowered to inquire into every aspect of the way we run our country under their tutelage. When they look more deeply into our management of our affairs, they will find little to please them.

We all know what they will find: cronyism and corruption; localism; patronage; sense of entitlement; inability to learn from our own mistakes or those of others.

When it comes to this inability, Fine Gael and Labour are deeply guilty. Not as guilty as their predecessors, to be sure; and Fianna Fail, determined not to learn from the past, are already well on the way to convincing themselves that they never did anything wrong. But comparisons, like everything else, fade with time, and Fine Gael and Labour must answer for their own actions.

Their mistakes began before the election, with their silly promises which could not possibly be honoured. They have continued with such incidents as the tiny cuts in the pensions of former Taoisigh, the payoffs to other ministers and top civil servants, the glaring failure to wage war on the quangocracy and the appointments of "special advisers" (what on earth do these people do?) at salaries above the odds.

Our new masters will soon learn that these things are not peculiar to any political party, but symptoms of a deep malaise in Irish society which has been with us since independence, and indeed before independence.

However, the parties have their own special faults. Fine Gael specialise in complacency, as witnessed in the inadequacy of Enda Kenny's "address to the nation". As for Labour, although Eamon Gilmore entered office backed by a team of heavy hitters, the party's main function seems to be to protect the public service unions' interests through the Croke Park Agreement. Perhaps there is one exception. There had better be.

Brendan Howlin's "half budget" did not impress. He promised much more. If that means anything, it means sweeping reforms in the public service. And it means radical action in 2012.

This service is full of excellent people struggling to do their jobs in the face of dreadful difficulties -- not so much those arising from the economic crash as those imposed by perennial problems like the presence of incompetent people in key positions and structures, which might have been devised specifically to prevent efficiency.

For a start, Howlin has to make the computers in one government department talk to the computers in another department. In enterprises like these, he will surely have the support of the "troika". If he succeeds, he may go down as the most important member of this government -- even if Michael Noonan gets half our debt wiped out.

But he has to solve the problems, and rectify the policies, of the long term in a very short space of time. He will have to abolish, not just ameliorate, practices and attitudes embedded for decades, indeed for generations. His success or failure will affect more than the public sector. It will have to address deeply embedded flaws in our society.

For anyone who cared to see, some of these flaws were visible even in one of the bright spots of this dreadful year.

For me, two stood out: Queen Elizabeth's visit and the election of Michael D Higgins as President.

The queen's visit salved the wounds of centuries and set the stamp on a magnificent relationship with Britain. Michael D Higgins will be a splendid President. By electing him, we made -- as we did in the case of Mary Robinson -- a statement about ourselves that wasn't entirely true but ought to be true. But it may have occurred to you to wonder about the amazing vanity of some of the other candidates. What prompts people who have rendered, shall we say, minor public service to think they are fitted to ascend to such eminence?

For all the virtues of our present rulers, I would prefer to have us governing ourselves again. When the time for that comes -- and may it come soon -- let us hope that we will approach grave matters with gravity, and crises with intelligence and resolution, and put frivolity behind us.

Irish Independent