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James Downey: Time for stupid promises and nonsense is long gone

WHAT do we need and want from this election? The answer could hardly be simpler: stable government. How can we achieve it? Again, a simple answer. There are only two options, a Fine Gael majority government or a Fine Gael-Labour coalition.

Everything else is peripheral.

We can permit ourselves a mild interest in the takeover of Fianna Fail by Micheal Martin, the altar boy replacing the wide boys. We can amuse ourselves by listening to the same words coming out of the mouths of Gerry Adams and Richard Boyd Barrett.

Boyd Barrett looks well, speaks well, has a double-barrelled name and a distinguished ancestry. He also has a surprisingly good grasp of facts which some in the major parties might envy. But he and the Sinn Fein leader talk exactly the same nonsense.

Only Fine Gael, alone or in alliance with Labour, can give us stable government. And considering Fine Gael's flawed but decent record, one might have thought it would have spent the last six days recognising and emphasising its importance.

Instead, both parties have wasted their time and ours sniping at each other, arguing about issues that range from the impossible to the merely peripheral, and engaging in pure silliness like the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' posters and the row over the television debates.

They could be fighting the 2007 election or the 2002 election. But this is 2011, and the State is continuing on the course set for it by the outgoing government, straight at the iceberg.

And the two party leaders (in fairness, this does not apply to their respective finance spokespersons) seemingly have no clue as to the iceberg's presence.

A dispute about the interest rate on the EU/IMF bailout is pointless. So is an argument about whether the four-year austerity plan should be extended for one year.

It is reliably estimated that Ireland's borrowings amount to €330bn, more than double the gross national product. Even establishment figures have stopped calling the bill with which the banks have landed us "manageable". It isn't.

We have three options. One: we can carry on sailing the same course, with no hope of safety. Two: we can participate in a painful, but orderly, European Union restructuring of debt. Three: we can default unilaterally. This last is the option advocated by Adams, Boyd Barret and their allies.

Day by day it becomes clearer that restructuring gives us our only chance. But it will be far from easy at best. Our negotiating position is pitifully weak, though we have heard some powerful voices raised on our side, like those of Joseph Stiglitz and George Soros.

A disorderly default would mean economic and financial ruin. It would also raise the danger that we could lapse into the political instability and social unrest which, thankfully, we have so far avoided.

Politicians dislike talking about issues like these, for fear of frightening the children. Better to frighten children, though, than to risk the house burning down. The same politicians do not shy from painting apocalyptic scenarios for the next few years: for example, that a new government could fall within a matter of months and that we could experience three general elections in 18 months, as happened in the early 1980s.

It must astonish foreigners when they learn that these events, and the economic woes of the years 1982 to 1987, brought no trouble on the streets.

One reason is of course emigration, the notorious "safety valve", now back up to record figures. But what a price to pay! We are not only exporting the rebellious young, we are ridding ourselves of model citizens with families -- and some of the most enterprising and innovative people in the country.

A thoughtful visitor might conclude that the rulers of this country have made a deliberate choice between misery and revolution and come down in favour of misery.

In the real Ireland, we know too much about misery and very little about revolution. Yet some of our leaders have behaved as it the latter were a constant threat. Who can forget social partnership, benchmarking and the rest of the paraphernalia which brought public service pay to unaffordable levels while services deteriorated?

The new government has to tackle this question. And it has to be honest about it.

Possible figures for cuts in numbers have been bandied about. The highest is 30,000. In all probability the actual figure needs to be higher, and accompanied by cuts in salaries. None of this can be achieved without real suffering. We might love to get rid of several thousand under-employed managers, but cuts always make their greatest impact, unfairly, on frontline services.

On these questions, we badly need some straight talking from Labour in particular. But, in fact, we need straight talking from all the mainstream parties, and especially Fine Gael. And we need some serious indication of what they both intend to do in office. Not a wish list composed of all the good things they wish to shower, or pretend to shower, on the electorate.

Stupid promises -- and their fulfilment -- are among the causes of our calamity.

What we need is quite a brief joint statement. It can be simple: the problem is simple. But it must also be serious in the highest degree, because the situation is critical. A Fine Gael government, or a Fine Gael/Labour government, cannot give us a rapid and substantial recovery. But it can give us an assurance that it will govern honestly, impartially and in accord with reality; that it will tell us the truth, and that it will not engage in fantasy or self-delusion. That would do for a start.

Irish Independent