ANYBODY who follows election campaigns will be forgiven for feeling a sense of deja vu as the political parties indulge in a spot of name calling and bicker about the effects of their various tax policies.
This is politics as usual, here and in most democracies across the world. The snag is that we cannot afford the luxury of politics as usual while the debate about tax is obscuring just how crucial this campaign is to our future.
A quick glance across Europe serves as a chilling reminder of how limited our choices already are. In Athens, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union are busy telling the Greek government to sell everything from railways and airports in a stark reminder that failure to implement deep cuts will provoke our creditors to take real action. In London, where the economy is stumbling as Prime Minister David Cameron's deep cuts take effect, we can see an equally vivid reminder that there is no such thing as large and painless reductions in State spending. Taking billions out of an economy winds a country in the short-term.
It is natural that Labour and Fine Gael should indulge in a little Punch and Judy politics from time to time and it is natural that voters should wonder how much poorer they will be under the various parties, but the arguments cannot distract us from the reality that only significant cuts and significant tax hikes will help restore the country's finances.
Whoever you are and wherever you are, higher taxes and substandard services are going to be an unpleasant fact of life over the next few years. Higher taxes to pay for worse services is a particularly bitter pill but we must swallow it. We do not live in normal times and the normal expectations do not apply in a State which must borrow every third euro to pay for hospitals, schools and the dole.
The scale of the gap between our income and outgoings is truly formidable although it is no more so than many of the economic and political challenges many ordinary men and women have faced in recent years. Already this year, we have seen seemingly ordinary people sweep away tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia through fearless solidarity. In our past we have seen this country rise from the ashes several times.
We need some of the same magic; we need to feel solidarity with our communities and to display the same courage. Our leaders continue to exchange blows over taxes but strangely they have yet to ask for the sort of sacrifices that we are capable of making.
Not everybody can afford to pay more taxes but many have more time on their hands than they would like. They are needed in our hospitals where staff shortages are already damaging services and in our schools where a quarter of our 15-year-olds struggle to read and write.
If there were a war, no politician would hesitate to ask the public to dig deep and give what they can. Without such a war, the present election campaign has been dominated by the traditional arguments about tax and spend.
The problem is that we are at war. A war against stupidity and greed perhaps but a war nonetheless.
We are fighting a war to keep this country independent. We are fighting a war to keep our hospitals open. We are fighting a war to ensure that enough jobs are created to keep our youngsters at home. We are fighting a war to restore our reputation in the world so that we can once again be proud to say that we are Irish. We are fighting a war to stop eviction becoming an everyday event once again. We are fighting a war against total national bankruptcy.
It is a Titanic struggle that will require courage and sacrifice from the public and our leaders in the years ahead.
In the meantime, we should spend less time arguing about whether families will be asked to pay an extra €12 a week or an extra €20 a week and begin to discuss the real issue which is how we can mend the State's finances and mend our ways to ensure that this never happens again.