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Day 100 (June 2011 Editorial)

On Enda Kenny rests that most daunting of responsibilities in this battered society: the fulfilment of Hope

In our last edition just before the general election we expressed, without confidence, the hope that having been the victims of some of the most notoriously bad governance on the planet, we would have learnt that our political classes need to be replaced. In fact, at election time we saw no new ideas and no significant new parties. The non-ideological, non-visionary parties of the incompetent pragmatic centre touted their old ideas, bolstered only by professions of aspirations to higher standards of ethics and transparency.
Village has consistently made the case that Fine Gael is the closest thing to Fianna Fáil, being driven by small-time vested interests (see for example the Cherrywood article at p60) and a blasé laissez-faire. We see no reason to alter this judgement in terms of the fundamentals of policy: wealth creation and distribution (see Niall Crowley at p46), and the environment (see for example the cute handling of the despoliation of Ireland’s raised bogs at p16). The handling of the debt crisis is indistinguishable from Fianna Fail’s, despite a manifest, though comprehensively obviated, public desire for radical change. Fine Gael’s manifesto declared, “Borrowing up to €25bn in additional funds from the EU/IMF at 5.8 per cent to cover additional bank losses from firesales of loans and other bank assets at rock-bottom prices, as this government has agreed, will push Irish government debt towards unsustainable levels and hinder economic recovery, threatening the stability of the entire Euro area”. Yet this is what the coalition is doing, even as the coalition concedes major interest-rate changes are unlikely. Elsewhere also the coalition are pushing the previous government’s programme.
Fine Gael implied it would hesitate to recapitalise the banks if bank losses were higher than anticipated. In fact it recapitalised them anyway. It said it would burn unsecured senior bondholders “as part of a European-wide framework for senior debt focusing on insolvent institutions like Anglo Irish and Irish Nationwide that have no systemic importance” but will not. Fine Gael said it would introduce water and property taxes only after preliminary measures and safeguards were in place but is now moving ahead anyway. And so on. There have, however, been some substantial policy improvements. Restoring the minimum wage level is a welcome gesture to social solidarity as is the IMF-mandated intention to shake up the legal and medical professions in openness in government. There have also been important improvements in openness including promised referenda on compellability of witnesses for Dáil committees and overdue whistleblowers’ protection, (see Noel Wardick’s article at p25), extension of the bodies covered by Freedom of Information and expansion of the role of the Ombudsman. There have too been marked improvements in tone. These include the reduction in ministerial cars, a promised referendum on judges’ pay and less-partisan Seanad appointments. Nevertheless, the change is fragile: nepotism continues in the hiring of political assistants and drivers and, depressingly if predictably Phil Hogan has downgraded John Gormley’s review of local authority planning malpractice.
In our last edition we predicted that Mr Kenny would collapse under scrutiny, particularly on the international stage, and we churlishly queried his credibility. This was too harsh. In fact, despite a strange cattlemanish delivery and a tendency to term his co-nationals ‘Paddy”, lachrymosity in the presence of Riverdance and some probably-unfairly-derided oratorical plagiarism, he has performed adequately, and sometimes well, as his confidence has risen with high office. In this he mirrors the ascent of other assumed light-weights such as John Bruton; and even Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. The Taoiseach has certainly been helped by recent State ceremonies and the associated pomp. The Queen’s visit was a triumph and, like most reconciliations, worth the effort. President Obama too, though not at his charismatic best, leavened the pervading national misery; and the death of Garret FitzGerald provided an opportunity to reflect on the possibilities of a lifetime dedicated to public service.
Enda Kenny should use his political capital to take a braver, more economically-literate and indeed, since it is unfair to make a country including its most vulnerable pay the debts of its banks, more ethical stance on the elementary truth that Ireland is insolvent (see Constantin Gurdgiev at p6).
It will anyway be exposed as such next year when it must seek investors in government bonds who, given current rates of 11%, are not likely to provide affordable funding.
While the government ignores this, pursuing chimerical economics, it is difficult to divine much clarity of purpose anywhere, a difficulty that can only get worse if the political capital dissipates.
On the narrow shoulders of Enda Kenny rests that most daunting of responsibilities in this battered society: the fulfilment of Hope. On the economy, on the environment and on equality he should be braver.