Tuesday 30 November 2010

‘Events, dear boy, events!’

This article appeared in the 'View from the Pew' column in the December 2010 / January 2011 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe.

… as Harold Macmillan is reputed to have said when asked ‘What do you fear most in politics?’

What an extraordinary week it has been for our country!
The dogs in the street knew ten days ago that talks had begun at official level that would lead inevitably to Ireland seeking a loan from the European Financial Stability Fund and the IMF. It was well signalled internationally by blogging economists (see the excellent irisheconomy.ie blog). But government ministers just kept on denying it. Either they were lying, or officials had simply bypassed them - charitably assuming the latter, clearly power had already slipped from their fingers.

Only after EU finance ministers met did the government admit that ‘technical discussions’ were taking place, but they still persisted in spreading confusion about the likely outcome. It finally fell to Central Bank Chairman Patrick Holohan to explain clearly what was happening. Three days later, on a Sunday, the Government announced that it had applied for a multi-billion euro loan facility. We will have to wait a little longer to know what the terms will be.

As I write, on Monday 22nd November, the government is visibly crumbling. The Taoiseach announced he would call a general election in the New Year, once the budget and the four year plan have been passed, after the Greens said they would pull out in January. But it is far from clear the government can last so long – we may well have an Advent general election. The pace of events is accelerating

The people have been badly served by successive Fianna Fáil led Governments, I feel.
Whatever the merits of the bank guarantee and NAMA, it is clear that the root of our financial problems is the mountain of debt taken on in the Celtic Tiger years. And we were landed with the debt by the golden circle of grasping bankers, megalomaniac developers and venal politicians, symbolised by the Fianna Fáil tent at Galway races. Brian Cowen encouraged the worst excesses when he was Minister of Finance. He is now Taoiseach. Fianna Fáil remains in office. It is almost past belief.

Since the beginning of the year the government must have seen the writing on the wall, as their popularity fell and their Dáil majority shrank. It would have been honourable and in the national interest if they had called a general election in the summer or autumn. A new government with a fresh mandate for five years could then have taken the difficult budget decisions now required, and negotiated the package of assistance we need with our European partners. Instead we have political instability coinciding with a massive financial crisis, which threatens the future not just of Ireland but of the Euro and the EU. By clinging to power this government have made serious problems much worse.

Why were elections not called earlier? Is it possible they have something more to hide? I pray not – but I recall that the Greek financial crisis was triggered by an incoming government discovering that the outgoing government had cooked the books and lied about it.

As we wait for the democratic process to take its course, we depend on the kindness of strangers.
Let us pray for the Irish and international negotiators seeking to resolve the present financial difficulties, that their decisions may be for the good of all. Let us pray for our country, that our people may recover the confidence required for economic recovery, and begin the task of creating a just and sustainable society for the future. And let us pray for all those who are impoverished by this great recession, that their lives may be made easier by the support of those less badly afflicted.

O Lord, guide and defend our rulers – and grant our government wisdom.

Sunday 7 November 2010

Journeying through the wilderness

This article appeared in the 'View from the Pew' column in the November 2010 edition of Newslink, the diocesan magazine for Limerick & Killaloe.

We are entering a wilderness
We feel a bit like the Children of Israel, I think, as Moses led them from Egypt into the Sinai desert, to wander for forty years before reaching the Promised Land.

The economy has crashed; the public finances are in crisis. In successive budgets we have already suffered painful cuts to jobs, pay and services, as well as higher taxes. And now we are told we face four more years of increasing pain to bring the public finances back into balance. We long for the Celtic Tiger boom days, as the Israelites longed for the fleshpots of Egypt.

We won’t return anytime soon, I believe.
Even if we reduce the deficit to 3% by 2014, to which all the major political parties are committed; even if we make the budget adjustment of €15 billion economists say is necessary. The problems we face are deeper than the perennial instability of capital markets.

It is dawning on us – too slowly - that our modern consumer lifestyle is unsustainable. It cannot continue. To feed it humans are over-exploiting the Earth’s resources of fossil energy, minerals, water and fertile land. This damages God’s planet which nurtures us. Humans will suffer with the rest of creation, unless we change. This lifestyle is also unjust. Everyone cannot enjoy high consumption in a finite world. If the rich take the lions’ share, the poor are deprived of their aspirations.

We cannot go back, we can only go forward. Our journey through the wilderness will likely last decades.

How did we get here?
The root cause is surely old fashioned greed, a sin to which humans have always been liable – greed for money, for possessions, for a lifestyle richer than our neighbours. We know we must repent and change our ways, but we do not yet see clearly what and how, so we are anxious, frightened. It is as if God is humbling and testing us, as he did the Israelites, while we journey through our own wilderness.

But as Christians we should take heart from their experience, and go forward confidently. God will look after us on our journey. He will make ‘water flow from flint rock’ and feed us ‘with manna that our ancestors did not know’ (Deut 8:15-16). He will continue to bless us with enough to meet our needs, if not our unreasonable wants. And God will eventually lead us into our Promised Land. With his help we can and will build a society which is sustainable and just, more like the kingdom of heaven than the one we know today, even if like Moses we will not enter it ourselves.

Budget 2011 will be tough
We should not complain about a tough budget. Our public finances must be balanced as soon as is reasonable, because it would be unjust to pass an undue burden of debt onto our children. But Christians must judge Budget 2011 by God’s standards – its justice - not our own selfish interests.

The balance between cuts and taxes will be critical. The least well off must be protected. Those with good incomes and large assets must pay more tax. The rich should rejoice to be able to pay a lot, but that will not be enough. Even families with quite modest incomes must accept paying a little more with as much grace as they can muster.

For me, as in previous years, the acid test will be whether the overseas aid budget is maintained, because that supports the very poorest of the poor.

Thursday 4 November 2010

November Prayer - For Holy Rest

On the 1st of November we remembered all the faithful departed, including my mother, who died that day 10 years ago. Through the month the days grow short as we move into the darkness of winter. This prayer captures our longing for holy rest and God’s peace at the end. It is by Cardinal Newman, ordained a priest in the Church of England, a convert to Rome, who was recently beatified. In this parish we shall say it together each Sunday during November, and you might like to learn it by heart to use in your private prayers.

O Lord,
support us all the day long
until the shades lengthen,
and the evening comes,
and the busy world is hushed,
the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.
Then, Lord, in your mercy
grant us safe lodging,
a holy rest, and peace at the last;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

John Henry Newman, 1801-90
This adapted version is included in
The Book of Common Prayer, p494