Editorial: Our leaders must make sense of price spiral citizens face

Junior minister Neale Richmond. Photo: Liam McBurney© Liam McBurney


IF Government is to mean anything in people’s day-to-day lives then it must stamp its authority on a fair grocery trade. Failures of intervention last week, as our lawmakers tried unsuccessfully to put some order on spiralling prices, are not acceptable.

Food and household necessities are the stuff of citizens’ lives. Market prices are central to the provision of these daily requirements – but it is the role of our government to ensure that the market is fair via various forms of regulation.

It is widely accepted that inflation generally is somewhat behind the rate of increase in grocery prices. The ministers responsible for this tricky sector have said they expect prices to fall – but such aspirations require a bit more than honeyed words.

Last week we saw something dubbed the “supermarket summit”, when mass retailer kingpins met senior government people and their officials. It was not an easy encounter, as the retailers presented their tales of rising labour and other costs.

We have heard the welcome news that milk, butter, and bread costs have fallen in recent weeks. But we have no assurances or signs of price reductions on other essential products for families.

A central issue here is the profit margins of the big supermarkets, and how we cannot know just what these margins are. Dunnes Stores is a private company, of which we can know little of their finances, and others refuse to unbundle their accounts from their broader operations in Britain and Ireland. That seems open to question.

It is also a complicated story, as primary producers and food processors have often had – and it continues to this day – a difficult and exploitative relationship with the large supermarket groups. In some of these cases, fairness does not often feature so strongly. So, there are many factors to be taken on board for Irish people’s relationship with these retail titans which are central to the lives of so many of us.

Meetings over the past week between the junior minister responsible, the talented and committed Neale Richmond, yielded poor results. We need to remember that governments can often make the world difficult in so many other different ways for businesses which do not want to play ball with the system.

The Cabinet needs to get back to the drawing board and think laterally. The price of basics matters to everyone. People need a result here – otherwise we should be voting next time for our most favoured supermarket: Aldi, Tesco, Surpervalu, Lidl, Spar, Mace, and/or the rest.

This one is not easy for an Irish government which has worked with a traditional open market model. It opens up the old question: why is there only one competition regulator.

We must acknowledge that the challenges ahead of the Government on this issue are far from easy. But that also cuts to the question about what our senior politicians are hired to do.

And, that said, if our democratically elected leaders cannot deliver a result on this one, then they are relegated to the role of night watchman, something that would be deeply discouraging to every citizen.