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Aaron McKenna: Political ideology is preventing Ireland's economic salvation

Politicians are too busy trying to point-score with the electorate on social issue to address the real danger to our way of life – our tanking economy. A new party, focused on economic policy, is vital for Ireland, writes Aaron McKenna

Aaron McKenna

WE’RE NOW LESS than a year off the local and European elections, the traditional practice lap before a general election when local candidates in particular jockey for their position on a ticket come the big day. You shouldn’t be surprised, then, to start seeing the Declan Ganleys and Michael McDowells of this world starting to tentatively and brazenly dip their toes in the water of national politics.

There has been talk of the need for ‘something new’ in Irish politics since before the general election in 2011. The outcome of that “game changing” election was a Fine Gael and Labour coalition that has broken even more promises than it has raised taxes; and the results have been positively depressing.

History repeating

The country is experiencing a crisis of confidence that evokes darker days gone by. Enda Kenny’s government is struggling to get the national debt under control under the auspices of an International Monetary Fund. With Fine Gael and Labour at loggerheads over public spending cuts, their only solution is an ever-increasing tax burden on workers. This has led to an unemployment rate of nearly 15 per cent and a return to large-scale emigration. Even more depressingly the alternative is Fianna Fáil, the party that had created the debt in the first place and whose leader blithely denies economic reality as the party returns to cheap opposition point scoring.

I didn’t write the paragraph above. It is an extremely minor alteration to the opening of “Breaking the Mould”; Stephen Collins’ history of the Progressive Democrats. Collins was setting out the context of the time in which the PDs came into being in 1986. It’s morosely depressing to consider that we’re right back where they started.

Differences are tearing the country apart

Labour and Fine Gael have been unable to square their differences, and the result is gradually increasing taxation and an unemployment situation that is being helped more by emigration than net job creation. Fianna Fáil in opposition is suddenly mortally opposed to measures like the property tax, which they signed us up to with the troika; much in parallel to Charlie writing to every special interest and union group he could find and promising them no pain should he get back into power (whereupon he immediately made his famous “We are living beyond our means” address.)

Even the abortion debate is running in parallel to the divorce debates of the day, when a man carrying on one of the most well-known affairs among political circles suddenly took to the ramparts to defend the institution of marriage like he gave a hoot.

Of course, the PDs went their own way in the end; turning into more of a gang of personalities hanging on to a government that was exploding spending and overcooking the economy through their final terms in office from 1997 through 2007. But when they kicked off the idea of lowering taxes and controlling government spending was a novel one in Irish political parlance. And before you go telling me that anything is different today, government spending tells a very stark story: in 2007, the Irish government spent €56.4 billion. This year, it will spend €54.6 billion. Some austerity.

A united economic front

Speaking of the PDs and personalities brings me neatly back to the idea of a new political party for Ireland, which will speak to the broad church of undecided and independent voters; many of whom are hard at work and sick of paying through the nose for the pleasure, or they’re out of work and able to figure that the more tax the government sucks up the less money there is to create employment for them.

Consider even these four names: Declan Ganley. Michael McDowell. Shane Ross. Stephen Donnelly. There are many more besides them, but you have in these chaps (and yes, we need more women) four fellas who would scoff at the idea of sitting in a room together. “Sure, he’s a Euro sceptic/federalist. And he’s pro-choice/life. I’m a social liberal/conservative,” would go the discussion; and many of you sitting at home might have similar notions.

Yet, you probably couldn’t get a cigarette paper between them on the broad thrust of economic management of the country. When taxes are too high, you strangle the economy. When politicians pay off special interests and won’t touch spending, you have to raise taxes. Ergo, you need a new party focused on sound economic management to reach out past the social and European squabbles and focus on the core issue that dominates Ireland today: our economy is banjaxed. Our government isn’t helping. There are no credible alternatives in current existence.

Philosophising over social ideologies while the economy tanks

Whenever I go on a tour of the various parishes of the economic liberal side of the country I meet these same People’s Front of Judea arguments that bedevil the hard core socialist side of the aisle. Intelligent and capable folks sit around grumbling about the libertarians who want to legalise cannabis while the free love types are looking warily at the ones who think an awful lot about sex for people stringently opposed to it. Don’t even get them started on that European Union.

Meanwhile, the marginal rate of income tax soars past 50 per cent at €32,800. The government takes more than €1,600 of the €3,200 between that figure and the average industrial wage. No amount of hard praying or trips on the banana boat are going to change that.

The cult of personality

Declan Ganley is a smart fellow. He’s got a socially conservative outlook and a socially conservative following, but he has been saying that any new party can’t be about him and seems to be reaching across the aisles; not only to the big names but to the potential grassroots. Some of them are reaching back towards him, while others remain sceptical.

The trouble with our modern media world is that you need personalities for them to pay you any attention. A difficulty with our proportional representation system in reasonably small constituencies is that to break through and have any success you can’t have seven permutations of an economically liberal ideology fighting it out over who gets the miniature American flags and who gets an abortion, in or out of the EU.

Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour are going to screw the country up for an extended period of time. Again. They will fight for as much of the electorate as possible and make as many compromises as they have to in order to get into and retain power. They will not help you if you think that taxes are too high and government too inefficient. They have too many special interests to service to really follow through on any lip service to help you there.

A conscience clause

The folks who truly believe that there is a better economic way to manage the country need to set aside or find ways to live with their contradictory social and European views. They’re not as important, to be frank, as the economic issues on which everyone is in broad agreement.

Create a freer Dáil and introduce a conscience clause to let folks go their own way on issues like abortion; they’re bigger and more worthy than becoming political footballs in any event.

What the country needs is an economic alternative to help get us out of the funk we’re stuck in this past half decade.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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