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Marc Coleman: Old values are our hope for the future

SOME TIME during the next week or so, my wife and I will become parents for the first time. Our personal joy comes at a time when public debate is -- pardon the pun -- pregnant with all kinds of issues regarding children and the next generation.



For example, our negotiators in Brussels are, we are told, making "progress" on our promissory note debt. Under that note's onerous terms, €30.8bn must be paid off by 2023. The amount is excessive, unsustainable even. But the timeframe is fair and any deal on that debt should retain the latter and cut the former. To the extent that they should be paid off -- as little as possible -- boomtime debts should be paid by the generation alive, working and voting during that boom and not by those born after it. The idea speculated upon last week of issuing a 40-year bond does the reverse. It doesn't reduce the size of the burden. And it forces children born today and during the recession to pay the lion's share of a boom they never enjoyed.

This adds more injustice to a different and equally huge injustice faced by that generation: population ageing. As chief rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, warned in 2009, individualism, materialism and a reluctance to have children mean that "Europe is dying".

His warning is borne out by a report of the European Parliament's Working Group on ageing which, five years before the crisis even started, warned how age-related health and pensions costs would add 7 per cent of GDP to State spending by 2050. So even before the huge burden of interest payments, one-quarter of tax revenues will have to be diverted from public services to age-related spending. By 2050, half or more of tax revenues generated by our children will be spent on repaying the debts of our generation and paying for our healthcare and pensions.

Thanks to the choices made by their parents, the generation being born now will be the first since the Famine to face a lower standard of living than their parents. Of course, politicians know that this unborn generation don't have any votes.

Ironic, then, that discussion of "children's rights" is all the rage. A State which -- more recently than the failures of the Church -- allowed 200 children to die in its care is now on the verge of being given the ultimate say over the fate of our children. Has that State held to account those who failed the children who died? Hopefully the referendum campaign will answer that question.

It was Edmund Burke who said that civilisation was "a contract between those who are living, those

who are dead and those who are yet to be born". It looks as if that contract has been torn up. A century or so later, Yeats and Joyce both agreed that that contract had long been torn up, but couldn't agree how. "That is no country for old men," wrote Yeats. "Ireland is an old sow that eats her farrow," thought Joyce. Looking at the failures of Church and State, and the looming burden of a 40-year bond on the next generation, Joyce is winning the argument so far.

But Yeats also had a point. Interviewed by Pat Kenny last week, Michael D Higgins blamed the crisis on "old Irish values". It seems to chime with Ray D'Arcy, who recently blamed the Catholic Church for everything from bondholder bailouts to bad weather. It's an easy line to peddle. But a grossly dishonest and unfair one.

The comments of Bill Clinton last May and business consultant Martin Wall in May of last year are more accurate. Both said that if Ireland continues to have large families, our growing population will allow us to recover more quickly from this crisis and become one of the most successful countries in this new century.

Unlike our superficially trendy commentariat, Clinton and Wall know that Burke was right: old values and new generations are not enemies, but friends. The "old values" I learned at my grandparents' knee -- honesty, hard work, thrift and sacrificing oneself for future generations -- are the only values for the future. The values some want to replace them with -- the "progressive" individualism, short-sightedness and moral relativism of the modern era -- were the ones that caused the crash. They, not the old values, are what need to be jettisoned.

As well as old values, old people are also coming under attack. Like Burke's cold-hearted "calculators, economists and sophistors", some academic economists see the homes of the elderly as fair plunder for the taxes they need to fund the Croke Park deal. But an elderly person's home is a treasure of personal, not financial, wealth. A store of memories and emotions paid for by a life of sweat and 18 per cent mortgage rates (and despite 65 per cent marginal tax rates).

Michael D Higgins also talked about intergenerational justice with Pat Kenny. With the young about to pay for bondholders and the elderly to pay for the Croke Park deal, his timing was superb.

But if well intentioned, his worship of Keynes is misguided. Keynes's most famous line -- "In the long run we are all dead" -- is often used by vested interests who want us to keep borrowing in order to fund the highest pay and pensions bill in the eurozone. But Keynes himself had no children, and children are the "long run". So he either didn't grasp or didn't care about the next generation. If we are looking for old wisdom in new times, then we couldn't do better than Burke's call to maintain the contract between old and young.

Marc Coleman presents 'Coleman at Large' each Tuesday and Wednesday from 10pm on Newstalk 106-108fm; @marcpcoleman

Sunday Independent