Op-Ed: Crunch Time


The upcoming months will be crucial if we are to alleviate our economic crisis, says Senator Dan Boyle

I’m often reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s definition of government of the people by the people for the people.

We should ask ourselves: is this a government of the people? Given much of the public comment at the moment there is obviously a disconnect not only with the government, but also with politics itself. There is a very real question mark about that.

Is it a government by the people? Most certainly it is – we get the politics we deserve. This is a government and in particular, the majority party in it, that got a very strong mandate in 2007 during an election campaign where all other political parties were playing Dutch auction politics. If there’s any historical lesson over the last ten years of what we now realise was the myth of the Celtic Tiger, it is that we had an economy which was founded on access to easy credit, that inflated property prices and inflated how the government spent its money in terms of public sector wages and even on social welfare and at the same time, promoted the myth that we could run a country that could spend more and take in less in taxes. All political parties were complicit in that myth. So this is certainly a government by the people.

Whether it’s a government for the people, again, that is a matter for the genuine debate. When the government has a maximum term of five years, it is a bit unfair to say the government has failed three-and-a-half years into that, when there is still the capacity to enact much of its programme for government. I would argue from a Green Party point of view that there are points of legislation, such as corporate donations, exposing the corrosive and corruptive role that money has played in Irish politics, is something we intend to deliver on in terms of the body politic in general and how it’s perceived.

I think we’ve also bought into the myth as to how bad this country is. Even despite the economic collapse of the last couple of years – our economy has slipped by about one-fifth – we remain the second wealthiest country in Europe. Our GDP is the second highest behind Luxembourg. We are a country that has a positive balance of payments. We receive more money into this country than we spend.

When I went to college in the 1980s, every single economic indicator was worse. And that was a time of a government that consisted of Fine Gael and Labour. There was higher percentage unemployment, there was higher inflation, there was a higher national debt and there were higher interest rates. This all existed twenty-five years ago and it took us ten years to get out of that situation, because we were too slow to make decisions that were needed then.

Now, we have a smaller window in which to do this and that window is about four months long. If we don’t get the four-year budgetary framework right, if we don’t get the budget right in December, if we don’t go back to the international bond markets in January, there is reason to fear our immediate economic future. And you’re among those positive indicators – our young population, our well-educated population and I would ask you not to be defeatist, not to buy into the myths that are there.

We have, in our political system, the idea that we live in a time of hopelessness. But then, we have a main opposition party that’s not even sure who its leadership are and what kind of confidence it has in it and they’re presenting that as an alternative Taoiseach, while we have a growing political force in the Labour Party, a political party that has offered no positive vision other than not being the government. Now some people might think that things couldn’t get any worse, I would argue that it could get a whole lot worse.

The last thing we should be doing as a country is undermining ourselves by engaging in an election with three weeks of electioneering that will engage in the same exercise of name-calling and point-scoring at a time when we need to be showing as a country, that we have a shared collective vision of how we can move forward and inspire international confidence in this country that I believe is well-justified.

The idea of political leadership and getting involved in government, and I’m only speaking in relation to the government that my party has been involved in since 2007. To change the country and its political culture, we need to challenge the culture itself. I’ll just itemise three or four ideas that I feel where the Greens have been instrumental in confronting in one of the biggest economic crises this country has ever had.

We’ve changed the circumstances where the secretary general of finance became a governor of the Central Bank. Patrick Honohan was a great appointment. We’ve changed the situation where again, a highly-placed department of finance official would get a sinecure from the financial regulator’s office. Now we have a non-national and someone very effective in the job there. We’ve changed the situation whereby the banks themselves, their chairs and the directors have been replaced.

For those that say that we could have some better hope if we just let that situation just fall into abeyance and didn’t guarantee deposit holders, remember that many of those deposit holders are people involved in your community as much as anything else, credit unions, voluntary organisations and the like, the effect on the economy would have been far worse. If we didn’t guarantee, if we didn’t produce NAMA, the effect would be that we’d have to borrow more, we’d have to question whether we would be able to borrow and the cost of that borrowing would be far, far higher.

So again, it isn’t a case of whether things are bad, and whether others could do no worse, the alternatives are far, far worse. The only way we as a country can get out of this is by facing reality, working together and using a real leadership that’s involved in acknowledging that reality and believing in ourselves.

This is an edited version of a speech that Senator Dan Boyle gave at a recent Law Society debate.

Senator Dan Boyle is a Green Party politician and party chairperson.