It’s not true to say that nothing every changes in Irish politics. Those of us who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s are living in essentially a better country with more personal freedom and a greater standard of living.
But there are, nevertheless, some things that seem to go on forever.
Attitudes to taxes and public spending have not changed much. Every single party in the Dail has, as a core value, a hardwired belief among its candidates to go to voters in their parishes and tell them that they will get them better public services or facilities but that someone in another parish will pay for them. There is simply no major link between the taxes we pay and the services we get as a value to be communicated. Indeed, the two functions are so separated that pumping more money into public services (especially the HSE) has become almost a sort of religious mantra, not dissimilar to throwing a virgin into a volcano to assuage the volcano god.
In fairness, Ireland is not unique in this. Politicians promise. That’s what they do. “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax the man behind the tree” was a famous political slogan from the 1930s in America, so it is not new. But what is more specific to Ireland is how Irish pols know that it isn’t sustainable. Taxes and borrowing are continuing to rise, and on top of that a new political concept seems to be sweeping the land where more and more voters seem to believe that not only should they get more services at no cost from the state, but they should not be part of the tax base either.
It’s hardly surprising that politicians are afraid to oppose that view. Certainly not opposition ones. But it is remarkable how government ministers and TDs are willing to take responsibility for squaring the impossible circle and with that the unpopularity for not delivering the impossible.
This govt, and govts before it, operates one of the most progressive tax systems in the world. We tax the rich, and to be sure, the not-so-rich and even the I’d-like-to-be-rich-one-day. We pay one of the most generous pensions in the world, including to people who did not contribute much. We pay one of the most generous dole payments in the world. We pay our doctors and nurses better salaries than most countries, all delivered by governments run by FF/FG/Labour/Greens/Democratic Left and the Progressive Democrats.
This government will spend, on health and social welfare alone, more in its five year term than the combined total wealth of Bernard Arnault, the richest man in Europe.
Yet you wouldn’t know much of this because our collective media and society focusses on stories of individual failure, of which there are many. We hear about the people on trollies on a daily basis (Pre-Covid) but very rarely hear how many people the HSE treats daily?
I blame successive governments for this, for not regarding the education of the voters in a democracy as a vital necessity, as opposed to something we just hope happens.
We’re setting up an Electoral Commission soon. It should be given a mandate and a budget to communicate fact.
I’m not talking propaganda, telling us all what a great job the govt is doing. I’m talking a rolling campaign of fact: who pays tax, and who doesn’t, rich and poor. How many homeless we have, and how homelessness is actually defined. How much we collect in tax, and what we spend it on. How it is spent. How much is spent on wages and pensions.
All fact. Of course, all this assumes that ministers and govt TDs have a) the imagination to do this, and b) can see it is in their interest to do so. A well-informed electorate who sees the connection between tax and spending is a good thing.