The centre will hold – Op-ed for Sunday Business Post

14th October, 2016

In my speech on Budget Day last Tuesday, I alluded to The Second Coming by WB Yeats when I said that it was the job of those in the middle ground of Irish politics to ‘show that things won’t just fall apart and the centre can hold – and stay firm.


The Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson, Deputy Michael McGrath, also referenced the poem, leading to some suggesting a co-ordination approach. No such co-ordination occurred, but it is interesting to note that we both independently reached a similar conclusion.


I spoke of Yeats’s thoughts on the political centre because I am acutely aware of the wave of populism rising in many democracies, including our own, and the danger that this populism poses.


In America, there is talk of building walls and deporting Muslims. In Britain, there is the possibility of companies drawing up lists of foreign workers. In Ireland, populists talk of nationalising multinational corporations and spending money that we do not have.


Budget 2017 is about cutting through this rhetoric and doing what is right: protecting our economy and making life better for people. I believe it achieved those aims.


I know that while our economy is recovering, our society is far from recovered.  Despite economic growth, too many are still without work. Despite economic growth, many public services still need improvement. But because of economic growth, we have the resources to make a difference.


We announced on Tuesday a total spending package of over €58billion. That includes €4.5billion on capital projects like LUAS cross city, the new National Children’s Hospital and the upkeep of our national road and rail network.


It also includes almost €20billion to fund the social welfare system, €14billion to fund our health services and almost €9billion in funding for our schools and colleges.


This investment will make a real difference to people. These huge sums of taxpayers’ money mean we can hire around 4,500 new frontline staff, including 800 new Gardaí, as well as additional nurses and teachers.


It means we can give pensioners and carers a little more money each week.


It means we can equip our enterprise agencies to continue to compete for foreign investment, and the jobs that investment brings.


We are doing this while also getting the fundamentals of our economy right – the deficit is almost wiped out, our national debt is falling and unemployment continues to drop.


We are better placed to face risks like Brexit, the geopolitical situation in the Middle East and other economic global threats over which we have little or no control.


Nevertheless, we were not able to do all we wished in just one Budget.


We had to make hard decisions about what we could and could not do. But hard decisions are part of governing, especially when governing from the political centre.


Those on the extremes of politics do not see it that way. Having refused to even contemplate forming a Government after February’s unprecedented election result, they have spent their time since then articulating a worldview that paints the act of governing as creating a society where some gain and some lose.


They see politics as a zero sum game.


I don’t see it that way. I see politics as about making choices- about resources, about policy, about life- that will deliver benefits and make our country better for us all.


I believe we can- and must- govern for the collective good.


I was struck, in particular, by the commentary around young jobseekers following the Budget. The last government reformed our welfare system so that there is now monthly engagement with unemployed young people by the Department of Social Protection case officers to assist them to prepare personal progression plans and get them into work.


Additional further education or training supports are offered to young people who need help getting a job. Overall, more than 19,000 opportunities were taken up on the relevant programmes last year. Budget 2017 also sees the largest ever allocation going to the Department of Education, with an increase in the Back to Education Allowance, for example, designed to offer further support.


Surely it makes more sense to target resources at the helping young people get jobs rather than only giving them a dole payment and allowing them fend from themselves.


Those on the far left don’t see it like that and spent much of this week attacking the Budget for what they- wrongly- saw as the unfair treatment of younger people.


It was anything but. And when I see thousands of young people leaving the dole queues, I know we are doing the right thing.


I also know that we can take nothing for granted. Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist, spoke of the concept of ‘political decay’, where the legitimacy of long-established institutions is threatened when they are not perceived to be responding quickly enough to the needs of citizens.


We need to be aware of this risk but also aware that that the clear majority of voters favour reforming our system, rather than ruining it. Despite the hyperbole of many populist TDs, the majority favour our membership of the EU, favour sensible economic policies and favour an openness to trade and the free movement of people.


Budget Day was a signpost that moderate politics, rooted in the progressive centre, can work.


By continuing the prudent management of the economy that reversed our basket-case economic status we have prepared our country, as best we can, for the challenges we face.


By using what resources we have to boost the income of the most vulnerable in society, we have ensured that those on the lowest incomes in our economy did best.


By giving workers a break, through modest USC cuts and a new childcare package, we helped reward hard work and enterprise.


And by targeting extra resources at health, housing and education, we have continued the process of re-investing in our public services after the terrible experience of the economic crash.


It was proof that consensus can work, and the centre ground of politics can deliver.


Almost a hundred years ago, Yeats worried that ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity’. We cannot allow that to happen again. We must use the economic recovery to find our passion for practical politics, that delivers results, drives investment and makes our country a better place to live, work and raise a family.


It is the duty of moderate politicians like me, and the many others like me, to show, as we did in Budget 2017, that hard choices deliver real rewards.


If we do this, we can thwart the advances of those on the extreme who sow seeds of disharmony and disillusion and seek only to oppose for opposition’s stake.


The centre can hold. To be moderate is not to be brave. This is a cause I believe is worth fighting for.