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Column: Ireland is a country that doesn’t know what it wants to be

First we blame our leaders for going one way, then the opposite. We need a grown-up discussion about where Ireland is headed, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

Aaron McKenna wrote for TheJournal.ie about the ‘Lost Decade’ Ireland is facing into, and why we need a new vision for the nation to bring us through it. In this final part of his series on ways forward he discusses Ireland’s confusion about government – and the need to decide what we want from our leaders.

WE HAVE MADE the fundamental error in Ireland of mistaking what government can do with what it should do. It is often asked why government isn’t doing X, Y or Z but rarely is the question posed: What is the role of government? What is it for, and therefore how big should it be? And what should it avoid doing?

Is Ireland a country that rebels at the thoughts of paying a tax burden that is higher than the mid-30 per cent range? Or is it a country that wants Nordic (or even Germanic) levels of services and the accompanying 50 to 60 per cent tax rates that go with it?

The answer at this moment is: Neither. Ireland is a country that, even if it were freed from the shackles of bailouts and austerity, doesn’t know what it wants to be. We’re led by politicians who, when they had the money to throw around, would have had us believe we could live in a socialist paradise on laissez-faire tax rates.

We lack a very basic vision of what we want Ireland to be, and without that we cannot shape our future with any clarity.

Whether or not you agree or disagree with my thesis on what government ought to limit itself to, we cannot progress unless we have a real discussion in Ireland about what the role of government is. Today almost every spending cut and tax hike is criticised in equal measure.

In the past the troika parties of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour most of all engaged in auctioneering politics; where today parties of the hard left engage in pseudo-economic theory to explain their odd math that leads to prosperity, spending increases and tax cuts for all but shadowy forces of greed.

Say what you like about the Socialist Party and their allies but at least they’ll tell you straight when you ask that they’re Marxist-Trotskyites who believe fervently in their somewhat historically disproven vision. The other parties believe in winning votes and, umm, something about the civil war.

‘You can have the nanny state, but you’ll pay for it’

What Ireland needs is real vision and leadership, that outlines and explains a truly unique idea of what this country will be in a decade, two or three after that. An honest political discourse that says you can have the nanny state, but you’ll pay for it; or you can have a less involved one, in which you can’t constantly turn to government to solve your ills.

This series on ways forward for Ireland has highlighted some areas where government inefficiency indeed means that we could get more for our money than we do today. It has also touched on areas where government has nothing less than a moral duty to provide for the safety and wellbeing of citizens.

There is no doubt that we could today and during the boom have got a lot better for our money. But ‘efficiency’ alone does not make up the gap between what Ireland spends and what Ireland taxes. Nor does it cover the more intricate gap between the supposed priorities we have and the actions our government takes when it preserves its sweetheart deals with special interests at the expense of frontline services.

I believe that the government we allowed to take root during the boom became too expansive, too unfocused and not at all effective at delivering on the core services we really need. The reason Ireland became the land of a thousand quangos is because there was political pressure from many corners to solve perceived problems, which really should lay outside of the direct remit of government control.

The ‘Role of Government’ seems to be defined by whatever you’re having yourself rather than any unified vision for what the nation should be, what it should strive towards and the role government has to play in that.

Politicians play to this gallery by promising whatever they feel will win them votes. They take your money and give it back to you, diluted, to solve whatever problem they perceive will win them favour.

This will always be a problem of democracy, more welcome than the alternative problems of more absolute systems. But it need not be a systemic, endemic and crippling problem.

The litany of problems presented for government to solve has become so ridiculous that the state is being asked to solve the rather interminable problem of the Atlantic ocean itself, which is eating away at the beach at Strandhill in Sligo. The locals, naturally concerned at the effect on Strandhill’s place as a tourist spot, would like the government to come along and beat back the sea.

‘One small step on the road to ending up with a bloated, ineffective and expensive state’

Not to pick unduly on coastal erosion at Strandhill – it’s but one example – but this instant request for government to do something about the problems of the world is but one small step on the road to ending up with a bloated, ineffective and expensive state.

If the local businesses fear the erosion of their beach then they should make a business case for investment in coastal protection and chip in their lot and demand from government an amount that makes sense for protecting tourism and the economy; rather than a blanket call for government to put mother nature in her place.

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The sweetheart deals received by independent TDs to prop up the Fianna Fáil government following the 2007 elections also smack of both an unchecked role for government and careless political expediency interrupting good policymaking. When one steps back to considers the idea that our money should be diverted and spent without care for the political ego of small minded individuals, it is revolting.

We need to take a step back from this haphazard approach to government and bring more control to the way we deploy the resources from all of our pockets. We must demand true vision from those who wish to lead us. An honest vision that outlines what way they would shape the state and how much it would cost and where they would limit it.

I believe that government ought to get its nose – and our money – out of a lot of areas that it started poking into during the boom or that it has interests in for historical rather than rational reasons for the modern era. Government has a good track record in making a hames of a lot things it touches, from industries it monopolises to the regulation of sectors outside its control, like the taxi industry.

Meanwhile the Government under-regulated areas like finance that needed a heavier touch, and its lack of focus and drive has left our health and education systems in a backwards marching mess. It has refused to modernise and adapt.

We need a smaller, leaner and more efficient government. We also need to reconcile ourselves to the idea that when something goes wrong, it’s not always governments role to fix it.

Perhaps you disagree with me. But at least if you put forward an alternative we have something better to advance by way of competing visions for the future than the whatever you’re having yourself (that’ll win your vote) mantra of the parties that bankrupted this country.

Aaron McKenna is Managing Director of the e-commerce company Komplett.ie. He is also writing a book on the future of Ireland to be published later this year.

You can read his previous pieces on the way forward for Ireland on TheJournal.ie here.

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