A hard future without a strong centre – Op ed for Sunday Independent

12th March, 2017


The debate about the leadership of Fine Gael should see everyone, not just the candidates, talk about the future of our party. What will be more important however is our party debating the future of our country.


Fine Gael needs to get back to the future business.


When the Taoiseach, at a time of his choosing, confirms his future intentions I will not put my name forward for leader. I have said this before but I do have strong views on the future of our party and country.


The image of Fine Gael as the party of the wealthy farmer and the big shopkeeper is alien to me. It is not the ethos that helped me, against all the odds, retain a seat in a constituency that has not always offered widespread support for my party. It is not the compass that guides my thinking as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.


I believe that Fine Gael is the party of those who work to look after themselves and their families and who deserve support to cope in a changing Ireland and volatile world.


Crucially, we are also the party which believes that the benefits of work must then be used to support those in need through better public services. So, it is not just about coping, it is also about compassion. 


Our party is at our best when we speak to the value of aspiration. The same is true of our communities and families when we look to a future full of demands and opportunities.  Such as in our national efforts to exit a bail-out programme or in treating all love equally through the marriage equality referendum.


We should be and must be the party of all social backgrounds, because these traits permeate our country.


That’s why Fine Gael was the party that produced the Just Society report, was the first party in the State to recognise the rights of Unionists in the North and has campaigned passionately on issues like Europe. Fine Gael, therefore, is a broad church that acts in the interests of everyone, not the few.


But I know that at last year’s election we gave the impression that we cared only about economic indicators and not about the huge social harm still being felt in the wake of the Great Recession.


This impression was wrong. Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan and I only ever cared about falling bond yields so that we could generate the resources to get families out of hotel bedrooms and into homes.

We have a recovering economy. But this is not the same as a healed society.


So, how do we build on the progress we have made?


First, we only spend today what is affordable tomorrow. This means steady reduction in the need to borrow and in our national debt. It also means working towards a collective agreement on public pay, to ensure the sustainability of the public sector wage bill.


Second, marginal tax rates matter- in the world of Brexit and other economic challenges, it is not sustainable to keep jobs we have or to attract new talent if you keep less than half of what you earn above a relatively low income level.


Third, that we need a big build- by investing in our roads, homes and public transport but also to respond to new challenges such as the profoundly disruptive technologies of Artificial Intelligence and familiar, but ever difficult, challenges, such as decarbonising our economy.


Fourth, we use the resources generated by economic growth for our public services, but only when it is accompanied by relentless reform. From supporting an independent Garda oversight body, to changing work practices in our public services, more money is part of the answer to many of our challenges. But it is not all that is needed.


Finally, this must be embedded in firm support for a globalised world and for a trading, open Ireland as a committed member of the EU. The wind is blowing against such beliefs. They might yet be tested like never before.


Paul Collier, professor of economics and politics in Oxford, sums up this approach as ‘the hard centre’; a politics that is ‘a force for binding together, replacing the emphasis on the fragmented identities of grievances’.


I would describe it as the ‘strong centre’;a pragmatic approach that eschews identity politics, such as the ‘pantomime Marxism’ of the left, but which is as tough as is necessary to solve the problems that need solving.


This is in stark contrast to politics of the Dail’s left flank, the absentee legislators who rejected the chance to govern in favour of perpetual protest. It is also very different from the recent debate that suggested that the Government introduces a law to take citizens to court for a service that we will not charge them for.


Dail Eireann is moving further and further to the far left. When every opposition party competes in an auction of outrage over every single matter, the loser will be those who can’t shout.


If Fine Gael is the party of the strong centre, and can convince the people to stay the course, I believe the future for our country is bright and secure. This is where our debate should be.