18 October 2013 No Comments by The Northern Standard

Bruising Budgets are nothing new for the people of Ireland to have to bear, and Tuesday’s package of announcements by the Government continued the pattern of burden set by the six predecessors to have been similarly framed in the context of the country’s severely reduced economic fortunes.

Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin attempted to accentuate the positive to an extent reflective of their parties’ understandable anxiety about the judgment that might be passed upon them by the people in next year’s local government elections.

In fairness there are progressive elements to the programme they unveiled – first steps towards a radical change in the provision of GP health care and some measures reflective of a tentative confidence in the economy’s capacity to forge a modest growth in the coming years.

But we tend to judge Budgets not by the parameters the Government of the day or its spin doctors would like to set for us, but by how the measures they contain impact on our pockets and our prospects.

In this context there will be many people reflecting that this is not a good time to be young or old in Ireland.

The older members of our community, and others of already limited means who will experience privation as a result of the removal of telephone and funeral cost entitlements and changes in medical card qualification parameters, will bear their burden stoically.

But they will perhaps cope less comfortably with the message that they seem somehow to have grown redundant to this Government’s immediate vision for the future of the country –for that is the communication implicit in the targeting of vulnerable sectors of society for the cuts needed to subvent the various measures, a good deal of them aspirational, intended to add a sugar coating to what is, by and large, another galling portion of austerity.

And the young unemployed who have had their already meagre jobseekers’ payments reduced further will also be wondering if they are really wanted in this country any more.

Incentivising efforts to obtain employment by reducing unemployment recompense is fine and good if there are jobs there to be had – but introducing such measures when there are few meaningful opportunities to escape the dole queue amounts to a studied insult and a recruitment poster for emigration.

Budgets are difficult for governments because their ‘bad news’ elements such as tax hikes and spending cuts tend to take effect much more quickly than the ‘good news’ proposals founded on projected growth.

It takes considerably less time to get rid of a job than it does to create one – but the creation of substantive opportunities for gainful employment does not seem to figure highly on this Government’s agenda, as much of the attention the Budget devotes to this area looks geared to perpetuating the spurious netherworld between dole and work offered by training schemes, low-paid part-time activity and internship programmes.

Faced with alternatives that offer little of the dignity and precious little of the reward that a job as it has been traditionally understood is meant to impart, young people intent of leaving the country will find little in this Budget to dissuade them from that course – and those pondering uncertain futures after education have added motivation to join them.

It is not a great surprise that another Budget has passed without a shifting of the heavy weight of direct and indirect taxation off the shoulders of the average income earners and onto those of the affluent.

Although this seems anathema to the right-of-centre orientation of the parties that have traditionally held the reins of power in our country, it is unlikely that this Government has refrained from adopting meaningful wealth tax policies out of ideological principle.

Irish people of average to poor means so greatly outnumber those who enjoy affluent to wealthy status that it makes more sense from the vantage of cold economics to claw back the fiscal deficit by small but significant cuts to the income of the many rather than taking great swathes out of the riches of the lucky few.

Although vested interest and the power of wealth probably play their part, expediency is likely the predominant reason why the rich aren’t asked to pay more, and this situation pertains in all Western economies to a greater or lesser degree.

Although the argument removes them perhaps unfairly from the exceptionally difficult economic circumstances in which they were framed, Tuesday’s Budget and those preceding it for a number of years are eloquent of the studied removal from mainstream political thought of much of what was once referred to as the socialist ethic.

The rigidly stratified social order and the concentration of rights, privileges and power in the hands of an elitist few that gave birth to socialism as a political force have now vanished – and the phrase itself has become discredited and regarded as a political busted flush in the aftermath of the collapse of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

But the Communist corruption of the socialist ethic bore little or no relation to the ideals that inspired its foundation – the desire of people to escape from poverty; to have equal opportunities to work, educate and socially advance themselves; to have their individually respected and to enjoy the entitlement to justice and democracy. Workers’ rights, in other words, the rights of the people.

The circumstances under which these ideals could be realised were once scarce in society – the extent to which they have been absorbed into the working philosophies of our modern political structures and systems of organisation would suggest that this is certainly no longer the case, that the rights of the people have been guaranteed.

It has been argued that there is no longer any need for socialism as the best of its message has been appropriated and enshrined in the modern political system and the worst discarded with the rubble of the Berlin Wall.

Yet, if we measure manifestations of what has become the modus operandi of Irish politics, such as Tuesday’s Budget, on the ‘rights of the people’ scale – ask how it will help people escape from poverty, find work or learning or advancement, and realise their entitlement to social justice and democratic treatment – there are at least some aspects that seem troublingly deficient.

A little more socialism now and then would hardly do us any harm!

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