Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

We must stop bickering and accept painful cuts

The assessment that we should now be making about last week's government announcements is a complex one. The range of change and reform is extensive.

Huge courage is needed to stick with the programme in the face of inevitable argument and criticism. And skill in presenting it to the public is a vital part of the approach.

I remain both optimistic and confident about the men and women in government who are working as a team under sound leadership and should be supported in the days ahead.

Much of their strategy and planning was fruitlessly debated during those long years out of power. The same people were scorned by Bertie Ahern. Yet his prodigality turned the whole country into a greed factory. And when Brian Cowen took over, with promises that he would be a reformer, this turned into a sour and expensive joke.

This has left the country and the Government with huge tasks, all of them carrying a pain factor. There has to be the clearest focus on public sector change, the reduction of public sector employment, the reduction of pay, the reform or abolition of pay agreements and a much stricter control over union powers.

Within the higher levels of the public service there has to be radical change to the appointments system and the ending of the automatic 'Buggins's turn' approach to promotions.

Privatisation through the sale of state assets has to be carefully but firmly pushed forward.

The dismantling of decentralisation has to be done calmly and ruthlessly. The same has to apply to the dismantling of the absurd spread within the economy of quangos and semi-state structures.

A commendable start on these has been made. That it is limited and uneven is understandable also.

From the outset we have to bear in mind that the whole Government is involved and that with each move forward new enemies and harsher critics will automatically be created, as we have seen over the leaked information about the VAT increase and the overstating of the effectiveness of the Croke Park agreement, which needs either scrapping altogether or fundamental renegotiation.

No friends are made in any of these areas. Now add in the property tax, the water charges, and other tax and social welfare changes not yet announced.

The property tax could have been more sophisticated and more effective. There are clear grounds for a scaling of the tax against self-assessed value based on size, income and location. The universal €100 charge is flabby and weak.

It is also minimal. The charges should be scaled up through €500 to €1,000, depending on self-assessment in terms of the conditions surrounding the property.

Worse than doing it badly is putting it off for the present, as has been decided in respect of water charges. A parallel approach was not difficult to devise. Nine months in power gave to the Coalition, with its huge majority, greater opportunity for clear, precise, intelligent action on issues it debated endlessly when it was calling on Fianna Fail to initiate these reforms. If a new government is going to be unpopular -- and this one faces that possibility to a greater degree than any predecessor -- the time to face into that, turning the vicissitudes to advantage all at one go and being comprehensive about it, is now near the outset.

Taken on balance, the instincts seem good, the courage is there. But the collective impact is uncertain and a good deal of the detail is vague. Little of the legislative framework for reform has been laid before the Dail.

The enemies and critics who surround the new Government will inevitably swell in number and aggression. We had a recent example on last Saturday night's 'Nine O'Clock News', with RTE presenting a grossly biased view of the impact of the VAT increase on Dundalk traders. One exceptional trader said Dundalk would cope with the tax challenge. Instead of being asked how, he was immediately sidelined.

To a surprising yet predictable degree, the media has become largely hostile already, searching for corruption in almost every government appointment and finding fault with a programme that was well-advertised before this Government came to power.

Then and during the election there was widespread support for what had every mark of a new deal (including some promises that could not be kept) largely approved by a media. This has now turned comprehensively against the incumbent administration. How quickly this situation has changed. We should think through again what it was the Coalition's convincing victory was based on.

What is not part of the taxation and reform package is a set of undertakings about Ireland's bailout debt, our capacity to persuade Europe that we merited a better deal and our determination in earning a position where we would get that deal.

All the above package of measures now being offered to the people is of little value if the end result is a bankrupt country with high unemployment and no growth, continuing to be a second-rank euro member with no hope of delivering any true recovery.

As Colm McCarthy pointed out yesterday, the misplaced national confidence about Ireland's return to the bond market late next year, taking us off the euro casualty list, invites the EU to read this as a message of satisfaction about the current bailout terms.

They are by no means satisfactory. Last week, a relatively unknown Fine Gael backbencher, Eoghan Murphy, one of the deputies for Dublin South East, stated the unthinkable when he said we had to face in the near future the critical choice of whether or not to stay in the euro.

In present circumstances -- which were vividly underlined by a photograph beside the article on Mr Murphy of Enda Kenny warmly embracing Angela Merkel -- Mr Murphy said staying in the euro could mean the end of Ireland's fiscal autonomy, while leaving it could signal "the beginning of our economic recovery".

The Berlin embrace, incidentally, did not persuade our main ruler in Europe to help ease the bailout terms.

After all, had we not said that all was well?

Mr Murphy's view is spreading through the population. There are many adherents who would choose the brave course of departure in preference to continued and increasingly more painful enslavement.

In this context, the point should be made that within our bailout struggle, we have yet to form any meaningful diplomatic bond with the other troubled countries to align policy and action.

We still seem to think we are special, protected by the luck of the Irish when it is not actually manifesting itself to our advantage.

Proposed reforms may help to do that but need a shot in the arm. What they do not need is the present collective thumbs-down by opposition politicians and the media condemning everything, including this modest structure of reform.

We were brave enough to elect them. We must continue to support them.