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Radical reform is badly needed

The new year may have just begun but it is already damningly clear the objective conditions for economic recovery do not exist in this country.

Instead, far from returning to the markets in mid-2013, the failure of a Government, which is no longer very new, to seriously tackle our economic crisis means it is far more likely Ireland faces a mini-Budget and a second humiliating bailout. In fairness, it should be noted that Ireland's recovery is undoubtedly being stymied by the boneheaded adherence of the ECB/German Pact of Steel to a set of economic policies that are as much in error as the protectionism of the 1930s.

As a continent drowns under the economics of dumb austerity, which has neither a purpose nor a destination beyond protecting the balance sheets of the EU banks, balance sheets are not our only problem, for it has gone past time to warn our elites that they are also creating the objective conditions for the revival of some modern variant of the fascist movements of the 1930s. We should not be surprised if an increasingly desperate citizenry responds to the social degradation of mass unemployment by rejecting a democratic system that is tainted by ineptitude and corruption.

Before we become too complacent, and contain this phenomenon in our own heads to Eastern Europe, our establishment should realise our own State has, in the past, shown a taste for somewhat less toxic variants of the fascist 'strong man' syndrome. Our establishment should also recognise Europe's woes do not absolve us from our own responsibilities. So far, though, in spite of much noise and agitation, our new Government has not even begun to tackle the level of reform that is needed. The scale of the task is best, though accidentally, summarised by Brian Lenihan's budget speech of 2009 where the minister proudly noted Fianna Fail had, over the previous 12 years, "increased pension rates by 120 per cent, unemployment benefits by almost 130 per cent and child benefit payments by 330 per cent". Mr Lenihan did not speak about public-sector pay, benchmarking or tax breaks for the wealthy, but we can be sure that siren song would have been remarkably similar.

The problem this Government must now confront is that none of this, including the current 'basic rates' of welfare, is sustainable. If Ireland is to recover from its lost decade of fiscal profligacy, we need radical solutions such as ending the permanency of tenure of public-sector workers and an appropriate pay regime for top bankers, who should really earn little more than postmistresses. Sadly, nothing epitomises the inability of our irresponsible politicians to deal with these issues more than the new property tax. They may speak the language of idealism, but TDs who refuse to pay this tax are nothing more than common tax dodgers. And whatever about Sinn Fein, it was even more discouraging to see FF flirting with the astonishing notion that when it comes to our cosseted pensioners, age disqualifies individuals from their civic responsibility to pay their taxes.

We had hoped the advanced age of the Cabinet might infuse in its members a 'nothing to lose' style radicalism where the guilty old men of the political establishment would repair past sins with a new politics of honourable courage. Instead, like the lost World War One poet Rupert Brooke, all these conservative revolutionaries appear to desire is a return to the old orthodoxy where the consequences of our natural Mediterranean ineptitude is occasionally tempered by bouts of Germanic rigour. The problem with this politics of "and stands the church clock at 10 to three? And is there honey still for tea" is that a return to such a place of sacred safety is a luxury we do not have. The world will not let us and all that can save us is a new politics of radical reform. Enter perhaps Michael McDowell?

Sunday Independent