Thursday 12 December 2019

Ministers must raise our morale

WHEN it comes to a Government that faces more challenges than any administration in the history of the Republic, it might seem somewhat unfair to add another item to the list. But, as ministers enter a shortened holiday season, one of the most critical issues they must resolve is how to lift a national morale that has reached the sort of low last seen during what was called 'the hungry Fifties'.

In a public space now dominated by self-proclaimed pragmatic and celebrity economists, emotive concepts such as 'confidence' and 'morale' can be easily dismissed as being the sort of 'soft issue' best left to moral philosophers. Naturally, such economists believe that we must focus exclusively on making cuts and securing growth. But the irony is that such growth cannot occur unless the morale and, following on from that, the confidence of the people are rebuilt.

One of the great irritants for the Government is that the high street is in a state of ongoing decline because citizens are saving so much of their income. The reason for the rise in thriftiness and the fall in VAT receipts, however, is that the citizens of this State simply do not know if they will be in jobs next year or whether they will be able to pay their mortgages. Nor do they know if the State or the banks -- in which, ironically, they are putting their savings -- will default.

During the ill-fated Cowen era, the then Taoiseach engaged in the odd fitful speech of the "C'mon, lads, give everything on the pitch" variety. However, mere words -- certainly not those of Mr Cowen -- were never going to regenerate the State. Instead, just as it took a decade of agonising renegotiations to cleanse the North after the theatre and drama of Good Friday, the current Government will have to engage in the political equivalent of the sort of trench warfare in which gains are measured in yards, rather than miles.

There is no 'big-bang' style solution, such as default, that can solve our woes. Instead, the only way to restore the confidence of the people is to engage in the hard and unglamorous work of state-building. This is already happening in Europe, where the cut in the interest rates on our bailout was the first diplomatic success we have achieved for half-a-decade.

A series of other small successes should also start to improve the nation's morale. The ongoing growth in exports may be having scant impact on the high street, but imagine what the scenario would be like if exports were declining. Investors now want to buy into our banks. Mortgage debt forgiveness -- which could provide a far greater fillip to the economy than any raid on the pension funds of citizens -- is being discussed. A reform of the JLCs appears to have been secured with the support of the unions and that blight called Fas has finally been excised from public life.

It may not be glamorous governance but for now the 'steady-as-she-goes' and getting-on-with-the-job approach of Captain Kenny and Brendan Howlin, the coxswain in charge of public sector reform, appears to be working. It will take a lot more work at the bilge pumps before the shattered hulk of the Irish economy rises. But should this current crew continue as it has begun, confidence and the ship of State may rise far more swiftly than anyone expects.

Sunday Independent

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