Electorate should reward good sense and moderation

Electorate should reward good sense and moderation
“It is obvious that the electorate is looking for financial relief, after the income falls of the crash years”, writes Dr Martin Mansergh

Voting is a civic duty. Under the Constitution, “all powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive, under God, from the people”. They have the right to choose their rulers, in elections, but also “in final appeal to decide all questions of national policy, according to the common good’, a reference to referendums, now almost an annual occurrence. Moreover, our electoral system gives voters more choice and control than they would have in most countries, either under the British first-past-the-post system, or under continental list systems, where the party, not the voter, lists its candidates in order of preference.

The forthcoming general election will, broadly speaking, have two possible outcomes. The first is that the Government will be returned, perhaps needing a small amount of additional support. The alternative is that the electorate will come up with choices that put it up to the parties and force them out of their comfort zones. The second option is territory that the parties are, despite media goading, trying to shy away from this side of an election, because it is internally divisive and therefore an impediment to maximising votes.

In any case, a precise result is required. In two recent instances, in 1992 and 2007, the composition of the government depended on the destination, post recount(s), of just one or two seats.


Incumbent governments often call for political stability, meant as code for no change. In essence, however, stability simply means formation of a new government, ideally with a firm majority, not relying on too many elements, that has the cohesion to last a full term. It is never good, when a government has at a late stage to make up ad hoc arrangements with independents determined to extract short-term advantage before facing their electorate. This happened twice in the past 30 years, in 1986 in the last months of the second Garret FitzGerald administration, and in late 2010 as the Brian Cowen administration began to break up.

While the country eventually made a good recovery that speeded up in 2015, debt exposure remains high and needs to be reduced. Governments promise to end boom and bust, but, while they can smooth the economic cycle, they cannot abolish it, and all countries are vulnerable to forces beyond their control.

It is obvious that the electorate is looking for financial relief, after the income falls of the crash years. This is notwithstanding the fact that vital services, such as health and social housing, are in acute need of further resources.

While revenue buoyancy is strong at present, and might be further enhanced by tax cuts, the lesson of the recent crash is the need to maintain a broader tax base. The main innovations have been water charges, property tax, both now frozen, and the Universal Social Charge.

There are promises from various political quarters to abolish all three.

Paradoxically, while overt public pressure comes mainly from lower income groups, the higher ones are the natural beneficiaries of the reversal of tax broadening.

Superficially, and it causes concern among economic watchdogs,  parties are taking a leaf out of the Bertie Ahern manual on how to win elections, which is to make lots of promises to cut taxes and increase expenditure. Parties in government ramp up expenditure coming up to the election, sprinkle grants around the constituencies, and produce official three-, five- or ten-year strategies to deal with issues that cannot immediately be resolved.

One might almost think that all parties had now joined the Anti-Austerity Alliance. Meantime, private opinion research will have been commissioned to identify the playback messages the public want to hear, and consultants drawn in who have been involved in recent successful British and American elections, and hence indiscreet references to US-style low tax rates and to Tory tactics, which included cannibalizing their junior Liberal partners.

Post-election, normal service resumes. A number of election promises will not be included in any programme for government. There will be many explanations as to why progress on the rest can, at best, only be gradual, with one or two token upfront deliveries. Despite the impressive recovery, Ireland remains on probation since exit from the bail-out. Any serious deviation from fiscal consolidation would provoke a negative reaction from financial markets and international bodies whose goodwill we continue to need.


We would benefit from more clarity about the economic and social model we are supposed to be following. Are we to be classified, as a French newspaper maintained, as an ‘Anglo-Saxon (meaning neo-liberal) economy’, or, perhaps less pejoratively, as a formally sovereign Anglo-American subsidiary? Alternatively, do we aspire to be a European social democracy? European Christian Democracy is a conservative variation on this, but usually less conservative than either British Tories or American politics as a whole. Given our situation, Ireland’s best advantage is surely to be found in further developing a blend of both models. The common good and a belief in the value of public service need to temper competitive efficiency in a social market economy.

Elections are often described as no-holds barred. It would be refreshing if politicians would occasionally acknowledge the good points of their political opponents, and if gross exaggeration could be avoided. For instance, an activist and former town councillor came up to me a few days ago, and claimed that if ‘the present crowd’ get back “we are all doomed”. That is no more absurd than Government claims that opposition parties are past and future wreckers.

The Government’s own success was in bringing near to a positive conclusion, with some improvements and modifications, the drastic consolidation programme carried some distance by the late Brian Lenihan.

We were previously warned to be very afraid of Sinn Féin in government. Now we are warned that we might have to be very afraid of their leading the opposition. Yet we still very much want them in devolved government with the DUP in Northern Ireland.

It would be great to see good sense and moderation, wherever it emanates from, rewarded in this election.