Prospects for Irish Economy: Statements (Resumed)

The sources of the awful damage inflicted on the Irish economy are to be found beyond economic regulation, economic institutions and the world economy. They are much broader and closer to home. The damage that was done to the economy related more to arrogance and greed, flawed values and the awful indifferent attitude of "sure won't everything be grand" that is sometimes prevalent in Ireland. These wrongs worked their way into every aspect of our society - our media, commerce, political institutions and economic architecture - in varying degrees. It is certain that the consequences of these difficulties have been appalling. Ordinary people are paying the price through unemployment, reduced incomes, negative equity and terrible uncertainty about circumstances and their family's future.

When I speak to my constituents in Galway West, members of my party, people in my family and my friends, I find they are uncertain and afraid of the economic situation we face. I am forced to reconcile my political heart and political instincts with actions being taken by this Government that might be naturally contrary to that thinking. I did not get into politics to cut deficits and reduce spending. I am motivated in politics to create a more inclusive society in which every citizen regardless of background, class or creed has an opportunity to participate fully, live to his or her potential and contribute to society. I am in politics to progress rights, but I face the contradiction of supporting an agenda that seeks in some cases to reduce those rights, as expressed through services or payments. At a time where our political and economic survival as a State is in jeopardy, the rationalisation I profess is that the greater good involves protecting even more basic rights, such as the right to a functioning health system, the right to a funded education system and the right to provision of social protection.

As we debate the economy today, we should not fall into the trap of speaking of the depeopled economy in which the individual rarely features. We can get lost in discussions on gross domestic product, market flexibility, competitiveness and cost ratios. These are very relevant and important, but not in isolation from this country's people and its communities. Our previous economic model did not ask what we expected those who participate in the economy to be able to secure from it. Jobs and unemployment are regularly discussed now. Do we want low-wage jobs, high-skill jobs, jobs that pay well or jobs that merely allow people to survive? Our discussion on the economy must capture what those who are willing to work can expect and be entitled to receive from that participation.

My predecessor in this House, Michael D. Higgins, often referred to the concept of the social floor, which refers to the rights and dignities to which everyone is entitled by virtue of his or her citizenship. This idea is more suited to this time than many people realise. We are in the midst of a homegrown economic crisis that is compounded by a European debt crisis and a sluggish global economy. The latter issues did not instruct our crisis, but they are severely hampering our ability to recover from it. I appreciate that the Government has focused on job creation and economic growth as priorities since it took office. Its record is commendable. I am happy to be a member of the Labour Party, which is such a vital part of that Government. The reality is that our difficult economic circumstances are likely to be with us for a considerable time. We will not see full employment for some years to come. Our economic adjustment or deficit reduction has some years remaining.

There should be two parts to our task. The Government is doing the first of these, which involves focusing on jobs and growth. The second thing we should do is use this crisis to reform and renew our expectations of the economy. We need to change its architecture so the concept of the social floor can be realised and progressed over time. The Government is making that kind of transition in the area of health as it strives to provide universal health insurance and free primary care services to everyone on the basis of need. Such expectation is a key element of the social floor, which is why our reforms should be extended to areas such as education and social welfare and other areas where such an approach would not normally be considered appropriate, such as the arts. The participation of as many people as possible in the arts adds to the community, adds to participation levels and adds to the creativity of our society. Equally, I suggest that if we provide for access to services in areas like criminal justice and transport, we will improve participation in society within the terms of the concept of the social floor.

We might not be able to raise the social floor as much as we might like at this strenuous time, but if we put a vision and framework in place to that end, we can assure people that the hardship being endured by them and by the State is not in vain and not without hope. If we want to change that model, tough choices will have to be made and preconceptions will have to be challenged. An element of our previous economic model that worked was the encouragement and development of foreign direct investment. The wealth that helped to create was invested lazily in many cases. Under the economic model that pertained, the only productive use most people considered reasonable for the wealth that came into this country was the purchase of property. The possibility of investing in businesses or new ideas, or being entrepreneurial or ingenious, was confined to a small minority of the population and did not spread throughout the economy. We have to make some difficult choices in relation to the property market. It is an issue that needs to be the subject of a clear debate.

The focus on property was a large part of the reason our economy got to where it was. Young couples and people starting off in life saw they were forced by the media, by their peer groups and by every section of society to get on the property ladder. It created such a force that property prices skyrocketed. We often forget that during the 2000s, when the economy was growing at unreasonable, unmanageable and unsustainable rates that were too high, this country's cost base skyrocketed - I refer to labour costs, housing costs and wage demands - in line with the fuelling of people's need and desire to get on the property ladder. I read many commentaries in newspapers and elsewhere in the media about the sluggish property market and the deflation in property prices. It has been suggested that it will take 20 years to get back to the peak and to restore property prices to where they were. We have to ask a fundamental question. Do we want to do that all over again? Is it desirable for property prices, which are now affordable for the first time in a very long time, to start to rise again if that would put pressure back on people? There are consequences to either strategy. If we allow property prices to inflate once more to a level where the cost of property is out of proportion to the ability of people to pay, we will put wage pressure, competitive pressure and price pressure back on young couples and the cycle will start again.

Instead, I believe we must contain property prices, control the price of building land and make sure that buying a house, something that is very basic to the Irish model and the Irish psyche, is not something that will burden a person with 35 years of large debt repayments and dominate the person's economic life for that period. The corollary of that is to accept we are not trying to reverse the situation for those people who bought properties at the peak of the boom and are now in negative equity.

The future economy we want to have ought to be based on inclusiveness, citizenship and a social floor that includes people. What people really want to hear is that, if we are working through these hard times and getting through what is the most difficult economic period in the history of the State, there is something to work towards which is different and will not allow a repeat of what happened. However, let us not lie to people by telling them there are easy options and that difficult choices are not required. The property price model is just one example of a systemic change in mindset that will have to happen if we are to be sustainable.

To conclude, this debate is welcome and it ought to be broader. The economy is not an isolated entity that works in a vacuum; it has an impact on everybody. It is shaped and moulded by the political infrastructure we have in the State, economic regulation, perceptions in the media and our culture. Any debate on the economy must be value-based, people-based and based on what people who want to go to work, participate in the economy and give what they can, can expect from an economy. It should not be measured solely in terms of growth figures because, if it is, we risk repeating the very mistakes that happened over the course of the boom and we are doomed to repeat that terrible failure.