Wednesday 13 December 2017

Austerity: time to stick or twist

One of the more rarely practised arts of governance in Ireland is the courage to do that which is right rather than that which is pleasurable or popular. Enda Kenny, whose tenure in politics spans all of the American presidents from Gerald Ford to Barack Obama, should be acutely aware of the consequences that inevitably follow the failure of politicians to take the less travelled road of hard decisions. And despite the squalid soap operas of the final week of the Oireachtas term, Mr Kenny and his administration must not allow themselves to be diverted from the key strategic reality that the success or failure of the Coalition will be decided by the economy "stupid". In that regard, it should be noted that, despite its escalating unpopularity, the Coalition has secured some modest successes. The policy of cautious normalisation means Ireland is at the point of exiting the bailout, a trickle of jobs are being created and the beginnings of stimulus programmes are being considered. That the electorate is enlivened enough to be querulous represents a form of progress for a citizenry whose mood, by the end of the cataclysmic Cowen administration, was one of demoralised stasis crossed with terror that, like their Argentinean counterparts, they would soon be dining from dustbins.

The Coalition should not, however, confuse the outward appearance of normality with success, for few are better at creating a false sense of outward tranquillity that disguises grotesque realities than the Irish. Whatever about the past, the current calm should not be allowed disguise the truth of our return to recession. This still is no country for young men or women, governed as it is by old men, who are far too saturnine about the sight of our youngest, our brightest and our best teeming at the departure gates of our airports. And it assuredly is no country for the 16 per cent of Irish mortgage holders who are in arrears or those who have become indentured into a life of unemployment.

Such problems mean the key issue, last week, was not the grotesque denouement to our abortion debate or Mr Kenny's parading of his masculine side. Instead, the warning by the IMF that we should stick to €3.1bn in cuts poses the Government – increasing numbers of who believe "dumb austerity" resembles that medieval theory of bleeding the patient, which generally killed the unfortunate recipient – with critical challenges. While it is positive that we are finally debating whether the rough beast of austerity has had its day, the Government and Mr Kenny are caught in a bit of a cleft stick.

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