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Best in class but why do we toil?

The representatives of the "troika", which supervises our compliance with the terms of the EU-IMF-ECB bailout are in town again. But there is no need for alarm. They look like school inspectors much more than they resemble occupying forces -- and, indeed, they have a good deal in common with school inspectors.

To date, their reports on Ireland have pictured us as the good boys and good girls of a class which has a long way to go to reach honours level. Their last summary, in October, praised our "strong implementation" of the austerity programme aimed at restoring our public finances to health.

Inevitably, they contrast us with countries, like Greece, which do not make similar efforts to put their affairs in order.

They take a certain pride in Ireland as an example of how their recommendations can work. A model pupil, in fact.

This method of proceeding works well in so far as it refers to the details of unavoidable tax increases and public spending cuts. Unfortunately, however, it does not answer the question of whether the programme imposed by the "troika" is compatible with the Government's key economic objectives.

Put simply, these are an end to the bailout and a return to normal borrowing on the financial markets; and economic growth at a level which permits us to pay our debts and still leaves room for increased consumption and investment.

The Government's declared aim is to return to the markets next year.

This has lately become the subject of public musings by cabinet ministers.

Transport Minister Leo Varadkar has said that we may need a second bailout. Yesterday Education Minister Ruairi Quinn took the opposite line.

These contributions have not gone down well in Brussels. Amadeu Altafaj, spokesman for the EU, says the time is not ripe for talk about a second bailout, and he is right.

All comments on these subjects are purely speculative.

We have no way of knowing whether conditions at any time next year will permit us to seek independent funding.

One certainty is that we cannot afford current interest rates on our sovereign borrowings, which stand (theoretically) at 8pc.

We must wait and see, and in the meantime we can derive some satisfaction from Taoiseach Enda Kenny's assertion, in advance of his meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron tomorrow, that it is "fundamental" that Britain should remain an active member of the EU.

Mr Cameron is short of friends, and values our good will.

Weak as we are at present, we must, and surely will, do all in our power to restore harmony between the United Kingdom and continental Europe.

Irish Independent