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Remember the '48-hour' duty free ban? This all seems to ring a bell

John Downing


Controversy: Former finance minister Ray MacSharry. Photo: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

Controversy: Former finance minister Ray MacSharry. Photo: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

Controversy: Former finance minister Ray MacSharry. Photo: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland

There is an old maxim which goes: "The big ones we cope with - it's the little ones that get us."

It is certainly true of politics when you look around the calamitous happenings in recent weeks. For some strange reason it has begun to remind me of the "48-hour rule" which seems to belong to another lifetime - even if it was only back in 1987.

As part of a tough budget in 1987, then-finance minister Ray MacSharry attempted to halt cross-Border shopping by insisting on imposing VAT on day-trippers' purchases.

This '48-hour rule' abolished allowances for those travelling outside the State for less than 48 hours.

Estimates at the time put cross-Border shopping as worth IR£340m per year to the Northern Irish economy. "Mac the Knife" caused this to evaporate overnight. On Holy Saturday 1986, 4,700 day-trippers went North - on the same day in 1987 just 400 shoppers crossed the Border and Newry had become a ghost town.

But on this side of the Border there was uproar. The rule became the focus of people's frustration about all kinds of other much bigger mean and squalid cutbacks as the dole office or the ferry to England were among the only options.

Similarly, in these strangest of times, politicians' pay and perks become a focus amid a greater national malaise. This malaise is caused by coronavirus and there are few real remedies barring we get a vaccine or the most likely outcome of it disappearing as mysteriously as it materialised in our lives.

Meanwhile, something else fills the vacuum whose only other anchor tenant is boredom. The filler-upper is annoyance at the very mixed messaging on Covid-19 travel rules; a strange spin-off whereby people signing the Covid dole are at risk of being the only ones punished for ignoring what is "Government advice" on overseas travel and a suspicion that politicians are tempted to start coining it again with various special allowances.

Most people accept politicians are entitled to be well-paid. What really gets to people are the "extras" because they smack of the old adage of seeking "jam and jam with that". 

And when things get tight and many people face the effects of some pretty harsh cuts, people's attitudes can change. We have seen sad examples of this in the most recent past.

In the early 2000s, as then-finance minister Charlie McCreevy fulfilled his promise to seriously hike all Oireachtas members' pay, people were at best mildly annoyed. It was for a period of years a time of largesse - if not excess.

But from 2008 onwards when the economy fell asunder politicians felt the brunt of people's raw anger on these issues. It was, and may again be, a time when some political top-ups compare badly with welfare.

So, the Government has done a semi hands-up and announced a 10pc pay cut for ministers, senior and junior. 

They are damping down the taking of previous pay rises which had been put on ice.

The reality is that the Taoiseach is in line to take €1,500 per year more than his predecessor, and ministers some €600 per year more. It is easy to say those "pay cuts" worked out rather well. But let's not be too mean here because it is a gesture. And three super-juniors will now share two pay top-ups, giving them an extra €10,000 per year each, instead of commanding an extra €16,000. 

Much political capital could have been spared had they thought of that one last week.

Still, it is always hard to win on political pay and perks. And the entire nation needs a focus on the bread and butter issues.

A week ago tomorrow the post-coronavirus stimulus package was launched amid some good portents. On Monday we got a less than fully reassuring story on schools reopening. When the TDs limp out the Dáil gate tomorrow, they need to use a much-needed break to reflect on these and other issues, and on how to make them work.

On the plus side, there was a happy ending to the "48-hour rule". In 1990 the EU cadged a whacking bit of punter street cred when its Court of Justice outlawed it under free trade rules and got the punters back on the bus to Newry. 

We may be waiting a deal longer for a remedy for our current political woes.

Irish Independent