Sunday 19 January 2020

Work is moral issue of our age

The Government's strategy, where it has chosen to deal with the hydra of problems inherited from its appalling predecessors in single file rather than in one go, may not be glamorous. It is, though, probably wise – for had the Coalition attempted to tackle every crisis it faced in one go, it would probably have been drowned by the scale of the issues it faced. If this has meant that the Government's progress has been frustratingly slow, the successes are real. Ireland's diplomatic reputation has been restored, whilst the infamous 'prom notes', Anglo Irish Bank, Croke Park and the Troika (by December) have been incrementally excised from public discourse.

This pattern of behaviour means that the Taoiseach's forceful intervention on welfare will hopefully be of some significance. The consequences of Ireland's grotesquely long dole queues are too often defined in simple economic terms. However, the ramifications of mass unemployment go far beyond an accountant's ledger. The psychology or moral fibre of a country cannot remain healthy when 400,000 of its citizens exist in a state of suspended animation. Employment, like ethics in the Eighties, is the great moral issue of our age because work – for better or worse – is how citizens define their self worth. Piecing together Ireland's shattered employment landscape will, of course, have critical economic consequences too. Ireland's future is being strangled by a national troika of unemployment, mortgage arrears and the collapse of self-confidence. However, should even one of these hydras be neutered, the garrote that the remaining duo has wrapped around the country will loosen. And in the case of unemployment, the lifting of that current boot stamping on the future of the nation's citizens is the alchemist that will conjure up that elusive 'confidence fairy'.

The importance of employment in rebuilding the morale of the citizenry means it is critical the Government avoids falling foul of its endemic weakness of talking big and then shorting the market. Our comfortably apportioned political elite would also, before they indulge in too much of the 'on yer bike' rhetoric, do well to recall that when full employment was available the citizens of this State welcomed the world of work. Unemployment will be resolved by the creation of jobs rather than the casual tossing of vainglorious insults at a generation living in despair. Though some form of recovery is undoubtedly under way, the Coalition should recognise there is still much to be done – for even with 'green shoots' of 3,000 jobs a month, it will take a decade to make comprehensive inroads into the 250,000 jobs lost during the great collapse.

That said, when it comes to the sensitive politics of unemployment the Taoiseach and his Social Protection Minister are correct in believing real reform of welfare is as critical as the creation of jobs. One of the most destructive consequences of the politics of bread, circuses and 'social partnership' was the lazy governance which failed to respond to the extraordinary rise in jobless Irish households, even during the height of the boom. Few could argue with Mr Kenny's view that a new approach of 'activation' must replace the current welfare ethos of 'dependency' or that the false empathy of passive income support must be replaced by 'pathways to work'. Ultimately, Mr Kenny's top priority must be to recognise that the sense of internal exile which will descend upon a generation should the Government fail will represent an even greater failure than the external exile the failings of their Fifties predecessors imposed upon the unemployed of that all-too-similar era.

FAIR PLAY, DUNPHY

Eamon Dunphy has many gifts: one of the most valuable among them is his tendency to say something which everybody knows to be true but are too cowed to say aloud. Hence the visible shock on Ryan Tubridy's face last Friday when Dunphy casually remarked that Fianna Fail was an anti-establishment party. That may strike the pundits who continually harp on about Charlie Haughey's Charvet shirts or the spectators in the Galway tent as a bit much. But in obsessing about Haughey's lifestyle, they miss the point that the speculators were spending the banks' money because they had no real old money of their own.

This illustrates the fundamental difference between Fianna Fail and Fine Gael. Fine Gael is full of people with old money, their own money or money made from fat cattle farming or fat professional fees. By contrast, Fianna Fail money is usually some flash-in-the-pan cash cobbled together on a wing and a prayer to finance some scheme that will bring jobs, if it works, or ruin and disgrace if it fails. That process is called capitalism. Fine Gael true blues can sit on their dividends and do nothing and still make money while enjoying the esteem of commentators in the paper of record. But the Fianna Fail "rogues" (in Dunphy's phrase) had to do some creative thinking in order to make money.

During the week RTE showed us pictures of Richard Bruton riding on the back of private sector risk takers who are in the business of creating jobs. Bruton and the public sector benefit from this, but do not themselves take any risks. Fianna Fail has a visceral appeal to those outsiders who rise by merit and borrowed money instead of resting on old money within a circle of insiders. Eamon Dunphy did us a service by reminding us of the hard truth behind our political structures.

Sunday Independent

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