Previously published in The Irish Independent.
In a way, the blandness of the proposed Fianna Fail/Fine Gael agreement is a credit to us as a nation. Whereas across the world political systems are riven by vicious disagreement (The US, UK) or or dissent is simply not tolerated (China, Russia) we still have a broadly centrist system based around the idea of not getting up anyone’s nose too much.
It could be an awful lot worse, indeed if anything that should probably be our national motto, because it’s true.You’d be hard pressed to find a better country to live in than this one, whereas there is no shortage of countries where the quality of life is worse or maintained by things we regard with outrage, like paying for water usage or requiring people pay for compulsory health insurance or indeed, in some instances, tax. Or even to work.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have problems we need to solve. Before the big C transformed our world into a landscape of yellow and black warnings and measuring everything in two metre units we had big problems with healthcare and housing, and those problems will return along with the biggest economic challenge since FDR took office.
But as the coronavirus has shown us, as a people we have a capacity for adaptation and innovation. Both our public and private sectors have been incredibly impressive in solving problems quickly and effectively.
Which raises the question: we obviously have the brains and the skills, so why is it so hard to innovate in this country to solve problems without a global pandemic to drive it on?
The answer is Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Now, let me be clear. Both of these parties have done more good than harm in this country. I know, you say this and a section of the country gets hysterical. I can feel people reading this and spitting all over their screens.
Both parties infuriate, but I’ll take them over the US Republicans or British Tories or Orban’s Fidesz or the headbangers in Venezuela anyday. It’s been years since either of them shot their political opponents.
But that is also the problem and the biggest obstacle to us making the next jump forward from a good nation to a great one. Their longevity, I mean. Not shooting people.
The problem is that FF and FG now have inertia hardwired into their collective DNA. If they could have no programme for government, and were just in government to be in government I suspect they’d be quite happy with that.
They’re not parties of the extreme, but not innovation either, because innovation is held in suspicion in Ireland. As a country, we don’t like change and both parties built their reputations and indeed their values on the concept of the minimum level of change necessary.
As an ideology, it’s perfectly valid, but you can’t help feeling that they’re missing the opportunity of using the crisis to try to address some running sores in our society.
The single biggest one, for a start, could be telling the truth about economics.
There’s a blatant refusal of Irish politicians to confront the Irish people with the reality that everybody must pay higher taxes to provide the level of services Irish people say they want. Indeed, knowledge of public spending and taxation tends to be in the realms of fantasy in Ireland, with obsessions about tiny amounts of money like TDs expenses, or that the highly paid or business don’t pay their “fair share” of tax. Even our definition of “fair share” isn’t defined. SMEs in particular, in paying commercial rates, pay substantial shares of county council funding yet get no public thanks for it. I sometimes wonder should county councils, with the consent of businesses, actually publish a list of what every business pays just to demonstrate the huge contribution made.
If we are going to have a debate about resetting the economy, could we not start by informing everyone of the facts? Would it really be that terrible if the govt followed the advice of Eoghan Murphy and gave every citizen an annual breakdown of how much they pay in taxes and how much they receive directly and indirectly from the state? Or tasking the Department of Finance with running an ongoing economics education ad campaign? How much it costs to pay a nurse. How much the state pension costs. Who pays tax, and by how much. How much of the national budget is spent on the Oireachtas. What would be the objection?
That it is political to inform people of these things?
The other thing the new government should try is pilot schemes.
Put 1000 people on a Universal Basic Income scheme and see what happens.
Give the Garda a few dozen high visibility drones for patrolling both urban and rural areas.
Open a few rural post offices and Garda stations in the same buildings and see if it works.
Give a few counties an elected mayor with full control of property and other taxes.
In short, experiment and innovate.
Try a load of things and yes, some will fail but admit that up front.
One of the biggest excuses we use in Ireland to block change is that there isn’t consensus on an issue. That we don’t have a perfect solution to a problem, therefore should do nothing.
It’s time to take a few small leaps of faith.