Tuesday 20 August 2019

So far, so good for Government

LAST FEBRUARY, Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny promised the people of Ireland that his government would ' hit the ground running' to tackle the national economic crisis and would publish a 'progress report' after their first 100 days in office. The time of reckoning falls due this week and, despite some wobbles, the government will be justified in claiming to have covered considerable ground. But far more important than being reminded of what has been achieved is the question, where do we go from here? The government has made a series of brazen u-turns on some of the electoral promises of both coalition partners and some of its key pledges have, so far, come to nothing - thanks in no small part to the intransigence of the EU/IMF and the resistance to reform that is endemic in the public sector.

Despite this, the government has made substantial progress with the banks, political reform and re-shaping the health system. The government's most notable failure has been on the promise of renegotiating the crippling terms of the EU/IMF bailout.

The Taoiseach made this a central part of his party's election campaign and of the government's plan for its first 100 days in office. He set about the task with great vigour, attending an EU summit within days of his appointment with the aim of winning concessions from the EU, but came home chastened and empty handed. Further encounters with our EU partners only confirmed our powerlessness and the government was also quickly forced into a u-turn on its promise to ' burn the bondholders'.

It was clear that the game was up when, a mere three weeks into the life of the new government, Finance Minister Michael Noonan was at pains to confirm our commitment to the EU/IMF programme. At this stage it is clear that any reduction in the interest rate we are paying on bailout money will only come when and if the EU/IMF decides to do so and the posturing, demands or appeals of our government won't influence that in the slightest.

The reality of course is that there never was any reason to think we could force the hand of Europe's powerbrokers. Enda Kenny above all others should have been well aware of that and should have resisted making promises he could never fulfil. In the meantime, ominous signals are emanating from Leinster House - in a typical softening up strategy -of income tax increases in next December's budget and the reintroduction of third level fees.

Doubtless the tax revenue is needed and the abolition of third level fees was a bad idea in the first place because it effectively means taxpayers subsidise the rich who are well able to pay for their children's higher education. But broken promises always amount to a betrayal of trust - that the promise should never have been made doesn't change the fact. To its credit, the government has substantial achievements under its belt since taking office.

The jobs creation bill, which included lower VAT rates and cuts to employers' PRSI should help stimulate the economy and get people back to work. Ministerial pay and ministerial Mercs have been cut and a referendum on abolishing the Seanad is to be held next year. Reforms - though not enough - are taking place to re-shape the banking system and Health Minister James Reilly is clearly on a mission to make the health system deliver a better service.

In his first day as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny pledged: " The new government will tell the people the truth regardless of how unwelcome or difficult that might be. We will tell it constantly and unreservedly. It is the only way because the people always have a right to know."

He was right. This is exactly what we expect and deserve from those we elect to lead the country. We have already seen u-turns, and maybe some of these have been unavoidable, but the Taoiseach's commitment to honesty is the one promise where there will be no tolerance for u-turns.