We are still a year away from the next general election and yet we are now seeing serious evidence of auction policies, exactly of the sort that has got us into trouble so many times before, in the late 1970s, the 1980s and then most notoriously in the later years of the Celtic Tiger.

Our Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan has supported an increase in the dole for under 26s, only two years after this reduction was put through. If this isn’t naked electioneering, it’d be hard to know what is. And it comes only a week after the appearance of Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen in front of the banking inquiry, with Fine Gael politicians getting all high and mighty denouncing the auction politics and giveaways of Fianna Fail when they were in office during the boom years.

But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. We also have talk of an €5 increase in Child Benefit on the cards, while there will also be a restoration of the respite grant and the living alone allowance. It’s also expected that Social Protection Minister Joan Burton will further top-up the Christmas Bonus, which was partially restored to a 25pc level only last year. It is just one goodie after another, as the Government’s fiscal discipline slackens in sight of an election.

Have we learned nothing? Having taken the opprobrium for making these cuts and necessary reforms, the Government seems content to immediately throw away the hard-won gains to curry favour with the electorate, which is an illusion anyway as most of the concessions will be long forgotten by the time the polls come along.

But in the meantime, how alarming that the FG and Labour government would put the interests of their party ahead of those of the country, at a time when we are still borrowing heavily and are running a large budget deficit. Bear in mind, that Charlie Flanagan’s dole hike proposal is a concession for which there was no public pressure, or even advance notice. Unemployment is falling, and there is no real inflation.

But this suggestion by Flanagan was just thrown out there recklessly as a loose promise, for which taxpayers must pay. Meanwhile, from elsewhere, we hear calls for a rise in the minimum wage, despite the fact that we have one of the highest such rates in Europe and one which has, according to employers, deterring employers from actually taking on people.


Flanagan’s proposal goes against the whole project of the Government, led bravely by Tanaiste Joan Burton, to actually reform our welfare culture, so as to help and encourage people to go back to work. This flies in the face of that difficult but so far successful plan. Only this week, Eurostat, the European Commission’s statistics agency project, described how Ireland has the highest expenditure rate on unemployment in the EU. We spend twice the European average on unemployment costs.

The Department of Social Protection spun furiously and said the figures ‘reflected the complexity of unemployment-related expenditure and not just jobseekers’ allowance payments’. This is true: the range of welfare benefits exploded during the boom and according to Eurostat, Irish Government spending on unemployment in 2014 was 7.6% of total expenditure, more than double the EU average of 3.25%. Does Flanagan even know this?

But his proposal to spend even more money is only one of number of issues on which this Government has ignored the advice of the IMF, the Fiscal Advisory Council and many others and proceeded to get into auction politics, as soon as the national tax take improved. The EU/IMF Troika (pictured above) had barely left town and there was immediately talk of restoring pay cuts for the public sector, which many in the private sector would have considered already relatively modest, given that they, in the commercial world, had to face much bigger pay cuts and job losses.

Already the Spring Statement was a dangerous sign of a Government willing to take its foot off the gas and let the country slide into the overspending and auction politics that got us into the mess we are in.

In fairness, the Government deserves credit. It inherited public finances that were out of control and, through focus and sacrifice (ours), it has steadied the shape and brought us back to relative solvency and job creation. Granted it inherited an imposed programme from the EU Troika and a lot of the early heavy lifting was done by Fianna Fail but this Government persisted with the policies that were necessary to see the recovery through. This makes it all the more puzzling that it is now in danger of immediately blowing the improved public finances and risking our historic and still precarious recovery for short term political gain. This is a Government, after all, which last year went from a proposed fiscal correction of a €2 billion cut, to a neutral budget, to talk of a spending kitty of €600m – in double quick time!

The National Competitiveness Council said that we are already losing our edge and slipping down the Euro scale on those factors that support job creation, including wage restraint. Brendan Howlin even risked public anger by confirming that politicians would also benefit from a reversal in public sector pay cuts. This is absurd: spending the gains of our hard-won recovery, not to hospitals and schools where they are really needed, but to the pay packets of public sector workers, including our already over-paid politicians. As well as raising the dole!

Meanwhile, it was revealed this week that absenteeism in the public sector cost €320m last year, admittedly a fall from the previous year but by just 0.3%. The average number of days missed was about 9 – twice what it is in the private sector – but in some areas, such as in the Department of Social Protection itself, it is almost 13 days. This is the equivalent of two weeks extra holiday a year! And still the Government thinks it has carried out major reform.


Maybe we should look across the water at how our former colonial masters do things. In the UK, we see a Government which specifically ran on a policy of cuts and reforms and which duly got elected on that basis. The Tories didn’t tell people it could be easy and offer people silly promises. They told it as it is and got rewarded for it, by the electorate, with a whopping majority. Is the British public more sophisticated than that in Ireland? Perhaps, but in Ireland too there is a sensible, prudent attitude which politicians could be rewarded for respecting rather than assuming that the electorate is a fickle child that just wants populism and lollipops. The Irish public looks at Greece, for example, and thanks god we took the tough but responsible route.

And nor has the British Government stopped such thinking with its re-election. For example, it has proposed to make patients pay for not showing up for NHS appointments. In the UK, just as in Ireland, such missed appointments cost the health service millions. But can you imagine an Irish Government charging for such no-shows. Not unlikely. That would be to court unpopularity too close to an election.

But surely the Government knows that it is better to be respected than to be liked. That the electorate votes for a Government it can trust- and trust to be tough. That’s why Fine Gael has done relatively well in the polls. Why throw it all away now, in a mad try for fickle popularity – and endanger our finances in the process. It also makes the accusations against Fianna Fail’s spending during the boom years look a bit hollow. Indeed, can we honestly say that this Government would have taken the tough road they did, without the Troika at their shoulder and without Fianna Fail first putting through those two big corrective budgets?

After recent events and revelations, that is the question that an increasingly informed electorate is beginning to ask. For, the reality is that the Troika forced the pace and without them it has slackened and the same old electoral cycle has come into play.