IN THE MID-1990s I was fortunate enough to participate in a two-week-long initiative associated with the peace process at Harvard University. One key concept that kept cropping up again and again was that one important part of leadership is to be able to ‘deliver loss’ – essentially, to seize the opportunity out of crisis by recognising the chance for radical reform it presents.
Back then leadership was undoubtedly shown in the context of the peace process at the highest political levels by successive Irish governments; unfortunately the opposite was occurring in so many other areas of political life and economic policy.
The era of the Celebrity Taoiseach arrived, and the Teflon was provided by outsourcing governance. Instead of strengthening and reforming the institutions of the State, already fragmented and incoherent political and public service institutions became even more fragmented and incoherent; regulation was relaxed and money was often just thrown at problems. Unravelling all of this is a task of monumental proportions.
In addition to institutional reform there are a number of key challenges facing us:
- Delivering a reduction on the debt burden, disgracefully imposed on Irish citizens, is essential. The government must be bold and ambitious about what can and should be delivered.
- It cannot be overstated how important it is to deal with the unemployment problem. Plus the lack of bank lending particularly to small and medium business simply cannot be allowed to continue as it is where most jobs will be created.
- Getting to grips with the burden of unsustainable mortgages and finding ways of using the 230,000 vacant properties (Census 2011) at a time when there are 100,000 individuals or families on housing waiting lists are other issues of major importance.
The Government’s “reform agenda” in respect of political institutions has to date been very superficial, while their civil/public service reform has lacked transparency and seems to be very one dimensional – a bookkeeping exercise with no overall blueprint, no vision of what will ultimately be created. The lack of transparency I believe is in no one’s interest. It sidelines the citizen from the kind of mature, balanced debate that needs to be had if the institutions are to be moulded in their interests.
Currently there are only two parties involved, with the citizen omitted entirely from the process. Many public service workers are themselves struggling to survive, yet many are going the extra mile in a system they know needs reform, a system that was not of their making. It pitches public and private sector workers against each other and creates a dangerous vacuum which is often exploited by a hostile media. It’s a zero-sum game.
Political reform must begin with our outdated local government system. I believe the reform must be radical, as proper local government has the potential to be a unit of governance that can deliver enormous returns. Unfortunately imposing new taxes and charges to fund a dysfunctional system at a time when so many are struggling to keep the roof over their heads just won’t wash.
Local government in other countries provides everything from childcare to leisure services, and people can see a return for what they pay in local taxes. If ‘leadership is all about delivering loss’, then telling people their home will be taxed because the Troika said so will be quickly seen through and will be resisted.
This Government was elected on a reform agenda. It promised that the vulnerable would be protected; they had five-point plans; a strategic investment bank; shovel-ready jobs; not another cent to the bondholders; recapitalised banks that would start lending again; and the Taoiseach’s friends in Europe would help us renegotiate the debt.
We need to begin seeing a coherent reform program that genuinely protects the most vulnerable. With projected new taxes and cuts to the tune of €3.6billion due in December’s Budget, the challenge for the Government is to demonstrate that they can ‘deliver loss’: to ensure we don’t merely end up with a poorer version of a dysfunctional State, but rather we come out the other end of this crisis with a functioning, trusted political system primed for recovery.
Catherine Murphy is an independent TD for Kildare North.