FOR the past few weeks political debate has focused on bank debt, bond rates and the future of the euro. These are all vitally important for our future, but they do not have the immediacy or impact of the ongoing job crisis.
I say ongoing, but the reality -- as figures from the Central Statistics Office show -- is that the job crisis is worsening.
The latest CSO figures show an annual decrease in employment of more than 18,000 in the 12 months to the end of March. The number of people in work in the State is now down to 1,786,100.
The scale of the problem and the inadequacy of the Government's response are further highlighted by the fact that the number of people in employment fell by 7,300 in the first three months of the year, despite an increase in employment of 11,100 in the last three months of 2011.
The crisis is getting worse and the Government looks like a rabbit caught in the headlights. Yes, it can point to its three attempts at stimulating job creation -- the Jobs Initiative, the Action Plan on Jobs and the Budget -- but what is the use of action without results? Isn't that the very definition of "spin"?
All of its efforts have failed abjectly. The Government came into office 16 months ago with a mandate to create jobs and kick-start the domestic economy -- but both are now in an even worse state. Some of the Government's actions have managed to make things worse, particularly the VAT increase and the fact that banks are not lending to small businesses.
There are now almost 310,000 people out of work. These are people who want to work and want to contribute to Ireland's future prosperity, but who instead find themselves beset by fear and worry about their own futures. Their hope, motivation and dignity is being sapped by a crisis that has no end in sight.
The 14.8 per cent unemployment figure is just the official total. Include those on training schemes, those who have opted to stay on in education and, of course, the 200-plus a day who emigrate, and you begin to see how an already bad situation has been made worse.
It is an indictment of the two parties who came into office promising to put people back to work. The situation is deteriorating under their watch. In the euro- zone, only Spain, Greece and Portugal now have higher rates of unemployment.
Dig down into these statistics of human misery and you discover an even more worrying trend. The number of people long-term unemployed is up from 7.8 per cent in 2011 to almost 9 per cent at the beginning of this year.
We know from our own experiences in the Eighties that the longer a person is out of the work, the harder it is for them to get back into employment. I have met many people at my clinics who have lost hope. They feel there is no point in applying for jobs as they cannot continue to take the rejection.
While the new job announcements in recent months have been welcome (and highly publicised), they have not kept pace with the daily losses across the country. The cameras and the ministers are naturally in place when a single plan for 100 new jobs is announced, but nowhere in sight when 40 or 50 small businesses individually let five or six workers go.
The latest announcement of job losses at Pfizer and Atlantic Homecare will take some mitigation, but so too will the countless number of unannounced job losses across every county.
The Government needs to severely up its game. Its three piecemeal attempts to address the crisis have been woefully underwhelming.
It needs to take heed of others who have ideas and policies to tackle the crisis. One of those is my recently published strategy to tackle youth unemployment.
Even more immediately, ministers need to stimulate the domestic economy and support small businesses. We can have no more foot dragging on getting credit flowing from the banks to small businesses, and reducing the costs on companies, on a local as well as national level
Sixteen months of inaction is long enough.
Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick city;