“Taoiseach wants to use your money in a cynical attempt to buy votes.”

One of the “most read” articles on The Irish Times website at the start of this week ran under the headline: “No way in hell would I move back to Ireland: Emigrant builders have their say.”

An excellent piece of reporting by Ciara Kenny, the article talked to sixteen expatriates working in construction in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK and Switzerland.

These skilled professionals are exactly the clear-eyed and highly mobile demographic whom the Economic and Social Research Institute says we need to lure home if we are to meet current house building targets and sustain present levels of growth.

The interviewees were asked if they would consider bringing their much-needed skills back to Ireland, and if not, why not.

Pretty much all of them said they have thought about coming home, while four were actively preparing to do so. Most, however, said that despite missing home they have no wish to come back here, “booming” or not. And almost all of them expressed grave reservations about the serious economic and social obstacles that would await them if they did come home.

Nine complained of housing shortages, high rents, difficulty obtaining mortgages. Five mentioned the high cost of living and its corollary, low pay. Four were worried about the sustainability of the present boom and insecure employment conditions they would find here.

Two complained of the high cost of childcare. Two were concerned about the lack of job opportunities outside Dublin. Two pointed to the prohibitive cost of car insurance for returning drivers. Two cited the dysfunctional health system.

Out of the sixteen, only one, Mark Mitchell, a civil engineer working in Toronto, mentioned high taxes.

“Low pay, high taxes, lack of affordable housing are the main factors preventing me from coming home,” he said. “Also, lack of opportunities outside of Dublin is an issue.”

This was not a survey of uninformed strangers. They may live abroad, but most of these people are as Irish as any of us, in touch with the old country, with a fine appreciation of the cost-benefit analysis of living at home or abroad. They have skills which at present are highly desired.

Just as much as the multinational corporations that our government lionises, these workers are a market for which Ireland must compete. Their concerns are, in practice, no different from those of us still living in Ireland.

So, when Leo Varadkar set out his stall for Ireland’s future at the recent Fine Gael Ard Fheis, what was his big idea?

Intervene decisively in the rigged and dysfunctional housing market, our gravest national emergency?

Pay living wages, tackle price fixing, improve employment conditions for insecure wage-earners?

Ease the pressure on families by ensuring decent parental leave and affordable childcare costs?

Fix our expensive, broken, two tier health system, so that people no longer live in fear for themselves and their loved ones?

End the scandal of child poverty? Make national broadband a government priority?

Square up to the serious challenges that climate change poses to our public finances?

No, ahead of all of these, incredibly, the Taoiseach prioritised tax cuts.

It’s clear there’s a serious disconnect between the daily difficulties the Taoiseach’s ‘hard working people’ face and his expensive tax promises, which come straight from Fianna Fáil’s discredited playbook.

While Mr Varadkar dressed up his promises as being about “an Ireland where no one feels left out,” the reality is that they are yet another “the-more-you-earn-the-more-you-gain” proposal from a political leader who is clearly channeling his inner Bertie Ahern.

So let’s look at what the Taoiseach’s tax cutting proposals would do.  Firstly, they would give no benefit at all to 79 per cent of the population.  That’s right, 79 per cent. This is the number of people who do not pay the top rate of tax.

Secondly, for all people, whether on high or low pay, the big complaint is about how people have to fork out for so many essential services.  If we’re serious about tackling the high cost of living for everyone, then the most sustainable and fairest way of doing that is to invest in high quality public services which are accessible to everyone.  Spending billions on tax cuts leaves precious little for improving our public services.

Thirdly, the Taoiseach’s proposal would undoubtedly widen the gap between rich and poor.
Our society is already divided and all the weaker because so many of our fellow citizens struggle to survive.  We should learn from those societies and economies which have been the most equal and therefore the most successful.  In the Nordic countries in particular, a clear social contract exists where people pay fair taxes according to their ability and in return, are assured of access to really good quality public services.

Fourthly, a proposal to erode our tax base, given the uncertainty which we face due to Brexit, as well as the serious structural problems in our economy, displays a level of economic irresponsibility not seen since the hey-days of Fianna Fáil.

The kind of individualism which the Taoiseach espouses is classic neo-liberalism and was rejected by the public as auction politics in the last election. Now, yet again, he is underestimating the intelligence of the electorate.

In this world view, any social investment that benefits everyone is clearly not as appealing – or as electorally tantalizing – as an individualised measure that marginally benefits one fifth of the population at the expense of the many.

The Fine Gael government wants to use your money in a cynical attempt to buy votes, instead of spending it where it would do most good.

ENDS

This opinion piece was published in The Irish Times on 5th December 2018.