Slí Eile: In the midst of the shrill debates on public sector workers, their pay, their pensions, their tenure and a host of other matters such as social welfare, health and education it is good to step back and ask ourselves what sort of society do we want.
Every society decides its own mix of public, private, community effort, responsibility and obligation. Underlying all this is a set of civic values and objectives. In terms of international comparisons Ireland tends towards the lower end of public provision with a mix and pick of universalism, means-testing, meritocracy and a very patchy provision of public health (think of the quality and extent of dental care for all children) low corporate taxes, low capital taxes, low local taxes and a narrow tax base.
Currently, proposals are emerging for a huge and sustained attack on our public services by means of an 'adjustment' of some 3-4 billion in 2010 and the same again next year (but for every €1bn adjustment only part of it will reduce borrowing due to higher unemployment, lower taxes etc). The stage is being set for across-the-board pay cuts, social welfare cuts and service deterioration. We will hear a lot about wasteful public spending, things we can no longer afford, FAS trips, rich people getting child benefit and medical cards as well as quangos, overpaid public servants. That there is scope and need to reduce spending in some areas and redirect these to more urgent priorities and defence of frontline services is not disputed. That the overall level of public spending must be cut and that there is no alternative to this is disputed.
Before any recession we had an inadequate public service. Our society was and continues to be an unjust one with unjust distribution of income, wealth and opportunities for social participation. The recession is greatly exacerbating these problems. The slash and burn and amputate policy will erode our services, damage the health of the nation and lead to higher levels of social inequality. In the coming weeks we will hear and more and more of the following:
better to cut public sector pay than social welfare
better to cut social welfare than vital health services
better to cut all public spending than be taken to the cleaners by IMF or ECB
Like a desperate patient in the trenches - we will be told 'we can amputate just this leg otherwise we can take your arms'. Sensible people with social consciences will be driven to despairing, boxed-in, tunnel-vision, Liveline type 'if you don't go for X then you are effectively bringing abougt Y.
The economic analysis and political values behind this rush to amputate our public services is wrong-headed, badly thought through and potentially ruinous for our future. It must be opposed and positive alternatives argued for.
Above all, we need Hope, we need Vision, we need an Economic Strategy to get Ireland back to work and not condemn us to a lost generation and a lost opportunity to address inequality.