A National Government of Unity

A National Government of Unity

Edward Walsh

Many in Britain, who came through the harrowing years of war,
the London blitz, the struggle to defend against invasion and the eventual
defeat of Germany, recall the period as one of great personal fulfilment and
satisfaction.   British political parties set aside their
differences and formed a national government of unity for the duration of the
war.   The prime minister’s inspired leadership
rallied people to the cause; the parliamentary routine of peacetime was abandoned.  A united people responded to the challenge and,
under conditions of great hardship, contributed to the war effort and
ultimately took satisfaction in the successful outcome.

Ireland is facing the greatest challenge to its well-being
and autonomy since the foundation of the state and one would expect that its
parliament would respond by placing itself on the equivalent of a war
footing.  What has been so remarkably depressing
during the past two years has been the failure of Ireland’s political
leadership to respond to the gravity of the situation and change their ways.
Members of all parties have failed to rise above the pettiness of routine
politics or to distinguish between issues of little consequence and those of
profound importance.

More significant, and more serious than a lack of confidence
in the government, is the lack of confidence in our parliament.  One would expect, given the mismanagement of
national affairs over a 14-year period by the majority party in government that
the electorate would yearn to replace Fianna Fail, convinced that the
opposition parties could rescue the situation. Yet this is not so : opinion
polls show that there is little confidence that the opposition in government
would be any more effective in tackling  Ireland’s

Almost as disappointing as the performance of Fianna Fail
leadership is the failure of the Fine Gael and Labour counterparts in rising to
the occasion; to act in the statesman-like fashion one would expect in times of
national crisis.  A mean strategy of
snapping at the heels of government and disrupting efforts to deal with the
crisis reflect badly on the opposition parties.
Yes of course there is reason for Fine Gael to remember the shabby way
Fianna Fail failed to acknowledge its role when Alan Dukes, a courageous
statesman, launched the Tallaght Strategy that turned out to be the key
initiative that saved the country from the dire problems of the 1980’s. But
that bad experience does not mean the successful approach should not be pursued
again with suitable safeguards, or that something similar should not be attempted
in these even more desperate times.

If political leadership can rise above the mundane and form a
cross-party government of national unity, with an agreed 4-year plan and a
mandate from a snap election, it would immediately convey to the world at large
that Ireland knows where it is going and has the political means for recovery. In
one fell swoop this message to the bond-markets would result in reduced interest
rates, the reduction of multi-billion sums from the potential national debt and
the consequent easing of budget pressures.
A content bond market would not only ease fiscal pressures in Ireland
but greatly reduce the prospects of being ‘rescued’ by Brussels and as part of
the deal losing our vital 12.5% corporate tax rate.

When Sweden rescued itself from the trauma of its 1990
banking crisis the serious dangers were recognised in its parliament and by its
media. Cross-party cooperation emerged as an important ingredient in finding
the right solutions.  Sweden today has
one of Europe’s strongest economies.

Likewise Ireland can rebuild its economy.  The key ingredients for success, that
attracted investment, jobs and wealth in the 90s, are still retained.  This is evidenced by the fact that the only
component of the Irish economy that remains healthy is exports:  most of these are produced by the remarkable
assembly of blue-chip multinationals that still remain in Ireland.

Ireland’s current trauma is caused by two different events
that by ill-fated coincidence have come to a head: the banking crisis and
fiscal mismanagement.  The banking crisis
is equivalent to a burglary where one’s savings are taken.  The budget crisis is equivalent to the result
of bad management.  A burglary is a
traumatic once-off affair that need not mortally damage a good business.  Budget mismanagement is more serious and if
it is not corrected eventually destroys the organisation.

Prime focus must now be directed to the more important
issues of balancing the budget and restoring competitiveness. Ireland needs a
strong stable national government of unity bent on doing this with a four-year
plan and a clear mandate from the electorate.
Stripping back public service expenditure and supports to the
equivalents that were acceptable when, in 2000, Ireland was the world’s fourth
most completive economy should be the goal.

If the focus of government policy is directed  towards competitiveness then investment and
jobs will follow.  The converse, a blind focus
on jobs, endangers competitiveness and results in plant closures and longer dole
queues.  A national government of unity
focussed on the three key issues for recovery:
competitiveness, development of talent and fiscal rectitude could put
Ireland back on track during a five-year term, restore confidence and get
investment and job creation moving again.

Democracies during times of grave distress have resorted successfully
to governments of national unity.  It is
time for Ireland to do so now.  A return
to business as usual after the next election,
with Fianna Fail in opposition playing the conventional silly games and  making life difficult for a weak and
ideologically divided Fine Gael-Labour coalition, offers poor prospects for
avoiding  a  Brussels ‘rescue’ and the fate of Greece.

Business as usual in our parliament is what must most be
feared.  Ireland needs a new beginning.
Ireland needs the agreement between its main parties to form a strong stable emergency
national government of unity, to agree a four-year plan during October,
followed by a snap general election in advance of the December budget.  A vital first act of the Taoiseach of such a
government should be the exercise of the constitutional provision and co-option
to cabinet of two people who have the international standing and experience
necessary to guide a rescue.   I would
suggest two remarkable Irishmen as members of this national government of unity:
Peter Sutherland  and Jim O’Hara of Intel.

Irish Times

8 October 2010

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