Monday 18 March 2019

Time we idealistic 'Yes' voters started to feel the love

But it seems that only bullying self-interest groups, like farmers, will be heard by politicians, warns Marc Coleman

Marc Coleman

Sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder why I bother. I mean -- after all -- am I an eejit or what? Here's me after arguing for a 'Yes' vote in the Lisbon Treaty because, sweet fool that I am, I think it's the right thing to do. Of course I respect those on the 'No' side who, with equal conviction, are arguing for a 'No' vote out of honest motives. But many on the 'No' side are arguing from self-interest. Now I could, couldn't I, gang up with consumers, taxpayers and the like and say, "Start cutting taxes and prices and reforming the public sector, or me and me mates will vote down this treaty." But I don't. Good citizen and republican (or moron, depending on your viewpoint) that I try to be, I base my vote on the interests of the citizens rather than my own gripes.

So when the Government appears to cave in to the farmers, where does it leave me and others like me? With the second highest food prices in the EU (Eurostat survey of July 2007) and the highest rate of food price inflation in the EU (Eurostat bulletin last week), you'd think that lowering food prices would be top of the Government's agenda in these trying times for consumers?

And with a construction sector losing jobs hand over fist, homeowners suffering negative equity because of falling house prices and young families prevented from buying larger houses to accommodate buns in the oven, you'd think the Government would give those loyal and hard-working citizens -- citizens who never threaten or bully the Government by using the "gimme what I want or the treaty gets it in the neck" type tactics -- a bit of a break by lowering stamp duty rates. Instead we get a sermon on how high oil prices are here to stay and how we should "stop whingeing about them". Feel the love. Like bad weather in summer, rising oil prices are not the Government's fault. This much we know. But like bad weather, rising oil prices make us grumpy and -- for that reason -- a lot less tolerant of what the Government could be doing but isn't.

Take rising food prices for example. Here the Government can do something about this, as can we. The Government can start by better urban planning that clusters people in more densely populated areas. That way it can ensure people have access to several food retail outlets within convenient walking or commuting distance. Instead a huge number of our citizens are in Siberian commuter belt exile, reliant on the local monopolist shop. It could also lower VAT on food prices (on fuel, Brian Cowen may have a point that cuts would not benefit consumers).

Of course, we can do something as well. For a start we can try breeding out of ourselves the diseased tolerance of being ripped off, sold out, and we can do as National Consumer Agency Chairman Ann Fitzgerald has urged us; start acting up about shops, pubs and restaurants that rip us off.

The old Irish adage "whatever you say, say nothing" should be replaced by "what ever you say, say it loud and clear". Taking inspiration from the Land League over a 100 years ago, rip-off merchants should be named, shamed and boycotted until they bring their prices down. Starting with an overpriced and underdelivering public sector. Tolerance of dead weight in our economy should now be officially declared over. Competition is not just for private-sector workers.

Instead of this policy, the Government seems to want to continue preventing competition in the Irish economy for favoured constituents. The ones who threaten them, that is. As a result, Irish consumers look like being disregarded when it comes to food policy. Now no one admires rural Ireland more than I do. Nor is there a bigger fan of our rural way of life. I want to protect farming and ensure farmers have a fair deal. But isn't it enough that we pay the second highest food prices in Europe? Isn't it enough that farmers got €40 billion in subsidies- paid by you and me -- since we joined the EU. Isn't it enough that half of the EU budget goes on farming, even though less than 10 per cent of EU citizens are involved in the sector, whether directly or indirectly? And is it wise to risk opening a huge gulf between the rural anchor of both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael on the one hand, and the rising number of young consumers in urban areas?

Actually, you might think that as a patriotic way of saying thank you for their uniquely privileged position in the Irish economy and Irish society, farming organisations would not just endorse the Lisbon Treaty,

but actually get off their backsides and rally the troops. As of Friday's poll, they should do so for self-interest. Even if it is rejected -- and I believe the 'Yes' camp will hold sway in the end -- it is likely to be explained by the small but significant balance of farming voters voting 'No'. Fine if the IFA want to take responsibility for their shenanigans but if the Lisbon Treaty is narrowly defeated. -- and given the amount the rest of us have given to them by way of tolerating high prices and subsidies -- they will need to explain themselves.

Another threat to a 'Yes' vote is that Jean Claude Trichet on Thursday promised an increase in interest rates. Again the phrase "feel the love" comes to mind. Personally, I'm known to be hawkish on monetary policy. So when some -- including those in this paper -- argued for a rate cut some months ago I argued against it and still would. But please, Mr Trichet, tell me just exactly how will a quarter point rise in interest rates help the present bout of inflation that the EU is suffering from?

It may be a record high (3.6 per cent). But this inflation is not really inflation in a central banking sense, but a permanent relative adjustment in prices reflecting a permanent increase in demand (more mouths to feed, warm and drive to work) and finite resources (of food and fuel). Will an interest rate rise create more wheat fields? Or lead to the discovery of more oil fields? If, as was the case in Ireland and some other EU countries up to a year ago, inflation was the result of rampant borrowing then I would say, yes a rise might help. But it isn't, so it won't. Just like the honest punters who set out to vote 'Yes' to do the right thing by the Government -- only to see preference go to interest groups --I have been let down. Having defended the European Central Bank for so long, I've been abandoned. And -- mark my words -- the ECB's actions are not exactly helpful from a Lisbon Treaty point of view.

As is clear from last week's poll, the Government's approach of appeasement -- like Chamberlain's policy in 1939 -- has now backfired. Tired of having their support taken for granted, a fair chunk of middle Ireland has switched from the 'Yes' to the 'No' camp (of course only 5 per cent of 'No' voters cited "self interest" as a reason for voting 'No', but that's because few will admit to this). Between them, government neglect of the decent majority and the ECB's inexplicably and seemingly imminent rate hike now threaten the survival of the very European project that both claim to espouse. Will somebody please, for goodness sake, save these people from themselves?

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