Saturday 16 November 2019

Varadkar learns danger of words

THERE is a world of difference between being in opposition and being in government. Transport Minister Leo Varadkar's contribution to the debate on the economy shows that he has not yet learned it. He had better learn quickly.

In a way, his article in a Sunday newspaper yesterday consisted of nothing more than commonplaces. There is a serious risk that the EU-IMF bailout last November will not suffice to bring the national finances into a condition approaching solvency. Specifically, we may not be able to return to the markets for our borrowing requirements. As he says, we may need an extension, or a second bailout, next year.

But current government policy, as expressed forcefully by Taoiseach Enda Kenny, rules out, for the moment at least, any such approach. We will pay our debts; we are paying our debts. The Taoiseach could not be clearer.

Anything Mr Kenny says -- anything the Government says -- will not prevent speculation about continued dependence on the EU and the IMF. But Mr Varadkar does not have the freedom of speech enjoyed by the economists and the media.

Government ministers are bound by collective responsibility. They also have a duty to think of the possible consequences of their words and actions. Yesterday the Transport Minister's words flew around the world, carrying to nervous markets the exaggerated but potentially fateful message that the Irish Cabinet is divided.

To make matters very much worse, the incident comes on the heels of apparent divisions within the Coalition and within its component parties over a system of deciding wage rates for low-paid workers. So, far from settling the matter briskly, Mr Kenny has thrown the issue back into the lap of Enterprise Minister Richard Bruton.

Meanwhile, no domestic or foreign observer can fail to note the reluctance with which the Government has approached the question of public spending cuts. Among the many dangers we face is the temptation to cut gently and tax heavily. That would be disastrous for the economy.

And the discontents within the coalition could revive a nightmare that we thought we had killed off. The general election of February 25, followed by the formation of the Fine Gael-Labour Government on March 9, should have given us a guarantee of political stability -- something the markets value almost as much as they value fiscal health.

The young Mr Varadkar must learn discretion. But the older and presumably wiser Mr Kenny must learn, and learn rapidly, how to present a united front.

Irish Independent

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