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We must do more than just use vote as a gesture

'If we want to do something positive with our votes, we have to see past the politics of protest, anger and blame, and to vote for the agenda-setters'

WITHIN a number of weeks, we will collectively choose the members of a new Dail who, in turn, will give us a new government. I use the term "new government" because it is abundantly clear that whatever happens in the election, neither the outgoing Government nor any of its constituent parts -- Fianna Fail, the Greens or the Independents --will form part of an incoming government.

There is a mood for change. For some, "change" is an end in itself. Disgust and disillusionment give rise to an absolute insistence on change.

But it is hugely important that we use our votes to decide not merely for change but on the direction of that change. There will be a new Dail with a five-year term. What are our ambitions for Ireland during those five years?

How are we to use our votes to set the agenda? Exactly what change will we mandate on our ballot papers? The real choices of consequence for us -- and for our children -- have to do with our economic recovery. Can it happen? How can it happen? How will it happen?

Put another way, we simply have to distinguish between the political and economic "fundamentals" and the politics of gesture.

It really doesn't matter if we have 166 TDs or 140 TDs. The new Dail will be exactly the same size as the last one. Nor does our economic future depend on whether we have a second reviewing chamber called the Seanad. Again, we will have a new Seanad elected on the old system for the next five years. Constitutional parliamentary reform, even if agreed now, will only kick in in five years' time.

We are in big trouble now. The key decisions will be made by the electorate in a few weeks and will decide how Ireland spends the five years up to 2016 addressing and overcoming our economic challenges.

We are often told that we live in a society of two economies. But in truth we live in a society with three economies -- the multinational exporting sector, the indigenous private sector and the public sector.

Taking these three economies in turn, we must -- as a nation -- do all in our power to ensure that each of them delivers now for Ireland.

In relation to the multinational export sector, we simply must keep the momentum going. That means an absolute commitment to our tax sovereignty and the 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate. If we falter or fail on that front, the game is up. Secondly, we have got to tackle our cost base for foreign direct investment investors. We need a steely commitment to competition and efficiency in terms of energy, infrastructure and support services.

Turning to our indigenous private sector, we need politicians who are not ashamed or reluctant to use the vocabulary of "profit", "enterprise", "risk-taking", "investment" and "competition" -- even in times of recession.

We need to create the elbow room and the conditions for SMEs and native entrepreneurs to prosper and to invest. We need to work our way back to prosperity. And that process involves concentrating on wealth creation and ending our obsession with the politics of inflated wealth distribution. One party, Labour, thinks that we will bring back prosperity for all by imposing a marginal effective tax rate of 65 per cent on high earners. This policy will simply kill the chances of homegrown prosperity and will drive out the wealth-creating cohort to other places where they will not be left with one third of their marginal earnings.

The third major policy area is the size, cost and efficiency of the "public sector". The public sector will not, of itself, deliver prosperity; it can, at best, help create the opportunity for prosperity. Now that "benchmarking" is dead, the next issue is the Croke Park Agreement. It cannot be allowed to stay in place. And no party that intends to leave it in place can claim to be serious about our economic problems or, for that matter, be worthy of our vote.

We have only weeks in which to set our agenda for the next five years and in which to make our choice as to who will drive that agenda.

Nicolas Sarkozy, in attacking our corporate tax regime, has, yet again, underlined for us the folly of believing that cosying up to the big-boy federalists in Europe is a viable political strategy for Ireland in terms of the EU. Pardon the French, but we need a foreign minister with balls.

We need to realise fully that "slip-streaming" in Europe is simply not on any more. National self-interest must now be established as the new orthodoxy in Iveagh House.

We need politicians who will stand up to the public sector unions -- not a government in which Jack O'Connor, David Beggs and a rag-bag of former members of the Ireland-East Germany Solidarity Society are puppet masters in the area of industrial relations and public sector reform.

We have to "get real" on our capacity to be front runners on Third World aid and the environment. We are in a crisis. We can't give away money we haven't got.

We can't subject Ireland to environmental reforms that threaten our capacity to recover. It may be unfashionable to say so. We simply cannot be trailblazers in the area of emissions; we can, however, try to be trailblazers in research and development on green issues.

We are, in short, about to elect a Dail, Seanad and government whose first duty is to start an economic recovery so that by 2016, we have got back our sense of confidence and purpose.

We are not going to recover by gestural politics and constitutional reforms with a superficial veneer of radicalism. Every Dail constituency is a mini-general election. If we want to elect statesmen, we have to stop choosing messenger boys and gombeen men. If we want socialism, vote left; if we don't want socialism, don't vote left.

A very real question -- and one that is arguably not being debated in the Dail -- is whether we can afford the penal interest rates which we negotiated with the ECB and the IMF. Precisely who negotiated the "penal" and "dissuasive" 5.8 per cent rate? Was there a politician at the table? There are tell-tale signs that our negotiators -- whoever they were -- played their hand very weakly.

If we are of the view that the IMF deal is unsustainable and needs renegotiation, we better have a government of capacity and purpose to do the business.

If we want to do something positive and decisive with our votes, we have to see past the politics and politicians of protest, anger and blame, and to vote instead for the agenda-setters -- wherever they are.

Michael McDowell is a former Minister for Justice and led the Progressive Democrats. He is a practising senior counsel

Sunday Independent