By the time you read this Ireland will have a new government. Given the anger and volatility in the electorate, the only two things one can confidently predict are that it will be a new Taoiseach who will present the shamrock to President Obama on St. Patrick’s Day and that the huge financial challenge Ireland faces will still be there.
In the end it was the little things (Albert Reynolds’s rueful words) which determined when Brian Cowen fell. However blame may eventually be apportioned for Ireland’s current woes, arguably, when the chips were seen to be down, Cowen did not shirk difficult decisions. Unless you walk the walk, can you talk the talk? Brian Cowen successfully put through two savage budgets essential to the country’s economic survival. He also carried the Lisbon Referendum, facing down the neanderthals of the left and right. He might have carried on for a while as Taoiseach had he been luckier in his golf partners. Should the plug have been pulled (or tweaked) on the bank guarantee when it became clear that the information on which it was based was culpably inaccurate? Brian Cowen did not and the rest is history.
Early reports from the election campaign show a widespread public sense of alienation and hostility to politicians generally, springing from the belief that politicians have been living in a cocoon, well paid and with lavish expenses and pension entitlements, and, in short, living in a world parallel to the real world. The attempts by politicians to self-regulate in reining in on expenses and cutting pay and entitlements are generally regarded as derisory. This is an issue that it behoves politicians to heed and address if our very democratic institutions are not to fall into disrepute.
There are other obvious parallel worlds in Ireland today. There are those with jobs and those without; those with mortgage issues and those with none (a moveable feast!), those high profile figures constantly here but “not resident for tax purposes” and those who pay tax here. There are others. Some recent, some around for some time, reflecting the ad hoc approach to problem solving when Ireland was a less complicated and more homogenous society than now. Bringing these parallel entities closer together would seem desirable from the viewpoint of fostering social harmony at a difficult time.
In the health area there are clearly the parallel worlds of those with and without private health insurance. The situation is not as critical as in the USA though it is far inferior to other advanced EU countries which have single tier health systems. In Ireland all are entitled to public health care in hospitals which, once in the system, is extremely good. The rub is getting in – with long delays for public patients to see specialist consultants contrasted with fast tracking for those with private insurance. A roughly 50-50 split up to recently enabled the underfunded public system to stagger on. The rising population, the economic crisis and the rapidly rising premiums for private health insurance have pushed significant extra numbers onto the public system with no extra resources provided.
There is more. Possession of a medical card confers entitlement to free medical treatment, including prescription drugs and doctors’ visits. Currently roughly one third of the population have such cards. In the main they are issued to those on lowest incomes, though there is discretion regarding some medical and other circumstances; until two years ago everyone over 70 qualified for one; now all are means tested. It is not clear that the most deserving are necessarily catered for by the current arrangements. What is clear is that, for a family of modest means, the card can become a vital element in the household budget. This has created poverty traps on both sides, with an obvious disincentive to the unemployed to seek or get work if the price is loss of the card. The recent budget has made matters worse by reducing considerably the new “universal social charge” levy charged to medical card holders.
The health area is not alone. Elsewhere, through state intervention, two tier systems have evolved. Some seemed to have merit. Thus the abolition of third level tuition fees, progressive on the face of it, and touted as opening academia to all, including the poor. In practice the result has been a significant subsidy to the middle classes, with little prospect for the children of those on lower incomes to get to third level unless they are fortunate enough to live close to (and gain a place in) a college or university. Similarly, access to the law and the legal system, one of the crowning achievements of our civilisation and its core values, is in practice out of reach of the average citizen because of the punitive costs involved in having recourse to law and the limitations of free legal aid.
There is also a new subset within Irish society, that of the violent criminal class. There was always crime of course but nothing on the scale of what Ireland has experienced in recent years. The country is a liberal, tolerant and progressive democracy where a beginning (at least) has been made to addressing inherited societal injustices. Yet side by side with this has grown up a gangland culture, based on drugs and characterised by relatively high levels of gun murders ( Dublin has one of the highest rates in European cities). It is mostly inter – gang feuding, though in Limerick whole communities are intimidated by gun wielding gangs. Gang members, moreover, are often free on bail (and in receipt of free legal aid provided by the taxpayer) when committing new offences, thanks to a legal system struggling to cope and which can best be described as plodding.
Quangos. At times it appears that some of the recently established state regulatory agencies exist in a parallel world where their writ runs with impunity and beyond both common sense and the power of the Minister. Some are undoubtedly necessary but many boast burgeoning bureaucracies and running costs to do what was done formerly by a handful of civil servants. Furthermore there appears to be no happy medium of communication to head off economically damaging actions such as last year’s carbon tax and the upholding of archaic rules on Sunday wages in the catering sector. Ministers wring their hands at these and other activities, pleading their impotence and the independence of the agencies. Really? Who established them? Who governs the country? Who is tasked with safeguarding the national interest? Will the new government become more pro-active?
One other parallel world which should not be overlooked is that between Irish citizens and the rest. Currently only Irish citizens and British subjects resident here can vote in Irish general elections. Before the Celtic Tiger this did not present a problem, as the numbers disenfranchised were negligible. The arrival of several hundred thousand here to work and live since 2004 has created a new situation. Two years ago immigrants made up ten per cent of the workforce. Many have left with the recession, but many remain. The issue of taxation without representation arises and may yet have to be addressed.