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23 July 2024  

Garret FitzGerald Memorial Lecture 2016


In Defence of the State: Fractious Politics in Hard Times by Professor Brigid Laffan, Director - Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence


In the fifth lecture given on Wednesday evening (21 Sept) in the College Hall, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, Professor Brigid Laffan's theme was In Defence of the State: Fractious Politics in Hard Times .

The focus of Professor Laffan’s lecture, Irish government and politics, on the Irish state and its uneven capacities, one hundred years after the 1916 Rising. The essence of her argument rests on two pil lars. First, she argues that the Irish state was not found wanting in hard times and that ‘a relatively small cadre of politicians and public servants embedded in Ireland’s institutions found the political and institutional capacity to address the countries’ myriad problems, to bring Ireland back from the brink’. Second, she asks if we have learnt lessons from the ‘bad times’ and whether our political system has developed sufficient capacity to guard against the pathologies of the past.

Noting that the economic crash was experienced in two phases – from 2008 to 2011 under the Cowen government and under the Fine Gael-Labour Coalition from 2011 to 2013 when Ireland exited the bailout - Professor Laffan examines the performance of each government.

She gives credit to the Department of Finance under the late Minister Brian Lenihan for fiscal consolidation and regaining control over the budgetary crisis. She acknowledges the importance of the Croke Park Agreement 2010-14 and emphasises the extensive efforts made to re-build Ireland’s reputation ‘The greening of iconic buildings on 17th of March throughout the world contributed to refreshing Ireland’s image.’ She references the key appointments of Governor of the Central Bank and Financial Regulator. She commends the team that negotiated the bailout on behalf of Ireland concludes that ‘the structural reform package was much lighter than in the case of Greece or Portugal.’ However she expresses the view that ‘the public presentation of the lead-up to the bailout was a shambles’ commenting that ‘No Government could survive the ignominy of the bailout or the communications shambles that accompanied it’.
Analysing the external and internal challenges faced by the Fine-Gael-Labour coalition elected in 2011, she says that ‘This was truly governing in hard and harsh times.’ She notes the changes introduced by the government, such as the establishment of the Economic Management Council; which she considers was necessary, the splitting of the Department of Finance in two with the creation of the Department of Public Sector Expenditure and Reform; and the appointment of the Fiscal Advisory Council -   ‘but they are not being sufficiently listened to or incorporated into the budgetary process’. She compares Michael Noonan’s negotiating style very favourably with that of Yannis Varoufakis ‘ He was a disaster as Greek Minister for Finance’. Overall she rates the Government’s efforts as a success, concluding that ‘Ireland emerged from the Bailout with the public finances on a much sounder trajectory. On reform, which was the government’s electoral plank, she says that ‘the record…..is mixed’.
Professor Laffan comments that ‘the 2016 election resulted in the most fragmented Dáil in Irish electoral history. She draws attention to the many issues facing the current government: climate change, BREXIT, housing and homelessness, industrial relations in the public sector, Ireland’s growth model/corporate tax and the water issue. How can a minority-led government address these challenges? Asking ‘what if anything have we learned from the crisis, Professor Laffan argues that ‘the policy outcome on Irish Water will be the acid test of the so-called new politics given the Dáil arithmetic’. Indeed, she will suggest that ‘It is the canary in the mine that casts light on the state of Irish politics and our capacity for good governance’.
Response from Professor John FitzGerald, TCD, son of Dr Garret FitzGerald.
Dr Garret FitzGerald was Chancellor of the National University of Ireland from 1997 – 2009. This is the fifth lecture in the series which is oganised by NUI





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