The people who lost the referendum are the same people who have to steer Ireland through the economic downturn. Will they make a mess of that too?

The Lisbon Treaty campaign was characterised by a deep political void between the establishment and the people.

The establishment behaved as if there were no change to the economic background noise. When they couldn’t ignore falling house prices, rising unemployment and collapsing retail sales, they duplicitously tried to blame the No side.

Worse still, they spoke of a great European future without the slightest inclination to listen to the people or as certain why the people – who know the wheels are coming off – might be worried.

Lisbon defeat highlights need for fresh thinking
15 June 2008 By David McWilliams
The people who lost the referendum are the same people who have to steer Ireland through the economic downturn. Will they make a mess of that too?

The Lisbon Treaty campaign was characterised by a deep political void between the establishment and the people.

The establishment behaved as if there were no change to the economic background noise. When they couldn’t ignore falling house prices, rising unemployment and collapsing retail sales, they duplicitously tried to blame the No side.

Worse still, they spoke of a great European future without the slightest inclination to listen to the people or as certain why the people – who know the wheels are coming off – might be worried.

This spectacle was a Marie Antoinette moment and can be seen as a tipping point when the Irish electorate appreciates that all is not well, wants to express this, all the while understanding that merely voting on an issue cannot solve everything.

In addition, we sense that the world is becoming a highly competitive place and that Ireland has to respond, not just to European political demands, but also to global economic realities.

Taken together, it’s difficult to imagine a more out-of-touch political class and this observation goes from the cabinet right down to the social partners.

If they are not in a position to figure out what the people are afraid of, do you think they have the smarts to galvanise the country to face the economic challenge of the next few years?

Last week, the economic data was unambiguously weak as the labour market turns and retail sales fall for the third successive month, at a time when inflation is rising. The entire edifice — which was built on buying and selling property to each other financed by other people’s money -h as come crashing down. More significantly, as the property boom enveloped most small towns and villages, the downturn is being felt everywhere.

We have to ask ourselves whether the people who orchestrated the shambolic Lisbon campaign are the people we should trust to get this economy going again. Have these characters the vision to draw the strands together, focus on the solution and execute what is required?

What do you think is more likely in the next 18 months: a final smash-and-grab to loot the last of the family silver by the various grubby vested interests, or a clear, unselfish economic plan which puts the people first?

Ireland needs to look at another way of doing business. We are facing a huge challenge on a number of economic fronts including the property market, our brittle banking system and endemic public sector inefficiency, as well as the rising dilemma of mass immigration in a contracting economy.

An interesting way of looking at the threats we face is to regard the global economy as a theatre of war. If we are prepared and our defences are strong, we should have little to worry about.

However, we now know that Ireland has been bingeing, while the rest of the competitive world has been working. They are fitter, hungrier and more focused than us. The best measure of this is our burgeoning current account deficit, which evidences our delinquency.

Ireland is engaged in a war for resources, talent and profit. All over the globe there are new fronts opening, new battles and skirmishes – all underscored by a high stakes intelligence game to see what others are doing, where they are deploying their power and in what guise they are likely to attack next. From a military perspective, the solution to Ireland’s issues is quite straightforward.

The great military campaigns of our time have one thing in common: when the sovereign was threatened, the people pulled together to repel the threat. A war cabinet was instigated and orders were given clearly. Failure was not an option. Everyone realised what had to be done and where money needed to be spent.

The best brains in the country were used, the best planners were given rein and old, petty animosities were set aside for the greater good. This was benign patriotism, sparked by a foreign threat to security.

Today, Ireland faces a threat to our prosperity and we need a similar war cabinet, staffed by our smartest people.

This means opening up the national executive to non-political experts. Irish business needs to get involved in a national plan that re-invents the country. Business leaders should step forward as citizens to play their part in re-imagining the economy.

Many countries have done something similar. Malaysia put a 20-year plan together in the 1990s, seconding the best brains from the private sector to run much of it – as did Finland, Singapore and Israel at various stages in the past 30 years.

The key to active patriotism is to resuscitate the idea of the good citizen driven by a sense of patriotic volunteerism.

If the cabinet could see that the future of the country is too important to be left to politicians and civil servants, we could open up governance, using ‘best practice’ rather than local politics and turf wars as the yardstick.

In addition, some of our best and brightest business minds who have opted to be tax exiles rather than pay tax here might be persuaded of the virtue of good citizenship, rather just the bulging bank balance. Both sides could benefit from ‘patriotic volunteerism’.

The state could give responsibility to those who have proved they can manage and those who have managed would have the opportunity to shoulder national, rather than private, responsibility.

Some might argue that, in a global economy, there is little small countries can do, but this is not just nonsense, it is a cop-out. More to the point, connectivity is the key. If there is something good going on in one country, the news will spread like wildfire, sucking in the curious with their talents, capital and networks.

According to last week’s New York Times, the world has 1.4 billion plugged-in internet users and that number is growing by 250million a year. There are three billion mobile phones in the world with another billion coming in the next three years.

Ten hours of video are being uploaded on YouTube every minute of every day. This connectivity revolution, where the best salespeople for ideas will be individuals playing a giant game of ‘pass it on’, is ideally suited to dramatic initiatives. The country with the best idea will be the most talked about.

So rather than diminish a national rejuvenation project, the internet and globalisation will reinforce its strength. And most significantly, after last week’s EU carry-on, ‘active patriotism’ is precisely the opposite of what the Lisbon Treaty was trying to do: rather than give away more powers to some remote body, the solution is in our hands.

We know best what we have to do and we can, as a nation, sort it out.

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