THE POLITICS OF PARTNERSHIP

3 July 2020 No Comments by The Northern Standard

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The task ahead of the new Government formed at Saturday’s historic assembly of Dáil Éireann at the National Convention Centre is extremely daunting, but it is initially at least a rather straightforward one. Before many of the worthy objectives in the Programme for Government agreed between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party and endorsed by its memberships can even begin to be addressed, the profound economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic must be assessed and managed.

The full extent of the cost of Covid-19 is becoming more evident on a daily basis, more sharply perhaps in the week that’s in it as more businesses, services and retail outlets reopened their doors under the latest phase of the Recovery Roadmap. While the restoration of some degree of conventional economic activity created an initial impression of things getting back to normal with shops open and a busy flow of customers in our main thoroughfares, the attentive observer would have quickly realised that the road to recovery is going to be a long one, and not everyone will have the capacity to reach journey’s end.

Many businesses that had gone to a great deal of additional expense in order to meet the reopening parameters found themselves experiencing levels of trade which, while better than the forced inactivity of recent months, in no way resembled that of the pre-Covid days. And many other business that could have opened on Monday last did not – still engaged in the necessary preparations perhaps, or, more ominously, pondering whether it was viable to resume trading at all.

Everywhere one looks, lobby groups for different sectors of trade are petitioning the new Government for further recovery aid. Each request speaks of billions, not millions. While the cumulative value of these demands is astronomical, the rationale behind a great many of them is sound. Now is certainly not the time for austerity – that will come later, when the tab for the cost of Covid- 19 falls due for redemption. The Government won’t be able to find all the billions being asked of it, but it will have to find a great many – conditions have been rendered temporarily conducive for national borrowing by the relaxation of EU budgetary regulations and this is a route which will have to be taken in the short term to ensure some initial life support for the economy.

But the considerable initial spending that the Government will have to make to cover the Covid- 19 costs must always be done with a view not to sustaining the economy on a life-support system indefinitely but getting it off it and back on its feet as expediently as possible. And inevitably the patient that walks out of the recovery room will be a great deal leaner than the one that went in.

It is a hard fact of Covid-era life that many businesses across all sectors will not make it out of the pandemic alive. And the supports the Government commits to in its promised July stimulus package must be ones that sustain viability rather than mask inefficiency or insolvency. The leaner economy of the future must be one that is fighting fit, with all spare weight ruthlessly shed. This is one Government that could not reasonably have expected a honeymoon period. But it could get one just the same, as the progress of the Recovery Roadmap creates at least the impression of the worst effects of the pandemic being over and the transfusion of the borrowed billions begins to bring some degree of colour and vibrancy back to manufacturing and commerce.

But the true test of our new Coalition’s partnership ethos will come when the accounts have to be settled. Although it will be cloaked in all sorts of different verbal raiment to mask its dread aspect, the spectre of austerity will inevitably have to walk the land once more for a time if the public finances are to be rightified and made fit for future purpose. Perhaps FF leader Micheál Martin is gambling that the spectre won’t reappear until his current time as rotating Taoiseach is over and the mantle is passed back to Leo Varadkar. But that would hardly be the spirit in which to embark upon the bold venture to cast aside old enmities and embrace a distinctly progressive and challenging environmental agenda that the creators of this new government experiment have committed to.

They should be under no illusions, however – hard economic decisions will have to be taken in the lifetime of this Government which will test this alliance to its core. That is when the politics of partnership waxed upon so lyrically by Messrs Martin, Varadkar and Ryan in the National Conference Centre will be put in the crucible. And the heat will be turned up mercilessly by Sinn Féin once the austerity spectre darkens the Irish political stage once more. If this Government is to deliver upon its 7% solution to the problem of carbon emissions, humanely and efficiently reform the way we treat people seeking refuge and asylum on our shores, heal the health service and house the homeless, and deliver all its other Programme for Government promises, it is going to have to hold firm when the going gets tough and the furnace heat of criticism is blasting. The politics of partnership is set for a rigorous examination.

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