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Unemployment, High Taxes and Public Debt Spotlighted in Irish Vote Next Tuesday

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Times Staff Writer

Voters in the Irish Republic, increasingly uncertain about their future, will choose a new government Tuesday to tackle the country’s most serious economic crisis in a generation.

With 19% unemployment, a crushing tax burden and crippling public debt, the economy has dominated the campaign for the two principal candidates--Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald and opposition leader and former Prime Minister Charles Haughey.

And the resumption of emigration in significant numbers, for the first time since the 1950s, has injected a sense of urgency and national loss into the economic debate.

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“It is the cold confirmation of economic failure,” said Vincent Gaul of the Progressive Democratic Party, a candidate for Parliament in an area north of Dublin.

Haughey Big Favorite

Throughout the six-week campaign, opinion polls have consistently given Haughey a large lead. This, coupled with the Irish voters’ practice in the past five general elections of turning out the incumbent, has led most political observers to assess FitzGerald’s chances of victory as slim.

A poll published in Friday’s issue of the Irish Independent showed that among voters who have made up their minds, 46% favor Haughey’s Fianna Fail (Republican) Party. This is a slight drop but still far more than the 25% that favor FitzGerald’s Fine Gail (United Ireland) Party.

Only the 11% who remain undecided and the relatively strong showing of a minister in Haughey’s previous government, Desmond O’Malley, who broke from the Fianna Fail in December of 1985 to form the Progressive Democratic Party, make for any doubt about the outcome.

Many observers believe that under Ireland’s complex voting system, which filters and allocates the voters’ preferences, Haughey’s party will just manage to win an absolute majority of the 166 seats in Parliament if he maintains his present strength. But if his support is further eroded, he could be forced to search for a coalition partner or yield to a coalition of FitzGerald’s and O’Malley’s parties.

2.3 Million Voters

Despite the gravity of the issues facing the electorate, the campaign has been characterized by Irish informality, a reminder that this is a country of only 2.3 million voters. The faces of the main candidates are so familiar that even the serious newspapers refer to them more often than not as “Charlie,” or “Dessie,” or “Garret.”

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Traditionally, Irish politics have turned on more fundamental issues--national identity, Irish unity, the role of the Roman Catholic Church.

A controversial parliamentary vote legalizing the sale of contraceptives, contentious referendums that have rejected abortion and divorce, the landmark Anglo-Irish agreement that gives the republic a consultative voice in British-controlled Northern Ireland--all were part of FitzGerald’s four years as prime minister.

Although Haughey has voiced reservations that the Anglo-Irish agreement conflicts with provisions of the Irish constitution rejecting British sovereignty in the north, he has pledged to support the accord and has conspicuously attempted to avoid the subject when challenged by FitzGerald about his commitment to the agreement.

Different Styles

Neither FitzGerald nor Haughey has shown great skill in handling the economy, but the two men differ radically in style.

FitzGerald, 61, came to office in November of 1982 as an intellectual high achiever who had reshaped his demoralized party and led it to its most convincing election victory ever, with 70 seats in Parliament.

In his earlier years, FitzGerald had imbibed the sensitivity of the great Irish poets, had become fluent in French, had run the planning unit of the state-owned airline, Aer Lingus, and, by the early 1970s, had earned a reputation as the country’s premier economist.

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A devoted family man, he insists, even as prime minister, on personally pushing the wheelchair of his crippled wife at formal occasions.

But the failure of FitzGerald’s government to come to grips with a deteriorating economic crisis has made him seem indecisive. It has diluted his high-flying image as Ireland’s whiz kid to that of a well-meaning but ineffectual professor who understands the country’s problems but is somehow incapable of translating that understanding into action.

Angry Heckling

His campaign performance has accentuated this image. His complicated expositions on the country’s woes have drawn sympathy from his supporters but angry heckling from his opponents.

By contrast, Haughey, also 61, appeals to Irish populist sentiments. He is often criticized for unconcealed ambition but projects a roguish air that is more an asset than a liability in a political climate heavily seasoned with cynicism.

His career has been punctuated by scandal, including his arrest and trial in 1975 for running guns to Irish Republican Army guerrillas in Northern Ireland. This was after he was dismissed as finance minister.

He was acquitted of the arms charge and capped a remarkable comeback in 1979 by taking over as prime minister.

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But three years later he presided over one of the shortest-lived, most scandal-ridden governments in the republic’s 66-year history, falling from office after just nine months.

No Specific Remedy

Campaigning under the slogan “There Is a Better Way,” Haughey has fully recovered and is campaigning energetically. But so far he has offered no specific remedy for the country’s economic ills.

His vaguely worded Program for National Recovery is a generalized plan for reducing taxes, creating jobs and stimulating economic growth. He has proposed a high-tech business center where multinational banks, brokerage houses and investment firms might be enticed to locate regional data processing and financial services centers.

“It’s an exciting area where we can compete and produce 7,000 high-quality jobs over the next 5 1/2 years,” he said at a recent news conference. “It would also lift our image and status around the world.”

His program also calls for more spending to reinvigorate tourism and exploit Ireland’s rich agricultural and fishing resources by expanding food-processing industries and exporting higher-value goods.

Huge Public Debt

But Haughey’s critics question how his plans to cut taxes and stimulate growth can be achieved without higher public spending and adding further to a public debt already 1 1/2 times the gross national product.

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As an alternative, FitzGerald has promised voters an unpopular austerity program of continued high taxes and selective cuts in public spending. He argues that only a tough, politically courageous program can rescue the country.

The two candidates, whose mutual enmity is well known, traded verbal jabs Thursday in a 75-minute televised debate. FitzGerald accused Haughey of triggering the present crisis by tripling public spending while prime minister in a spree that he said “preempted 25 years of growth.”

Haughey countered: “He’s forgotten he doubled the national debt in four years. I think that’s a world record.”

The exchange, like the debate itself, marked a rare spark in a campaign dampened by dull winter weather, old faces, complex issues and few obvious solutions.

If there is any agreement among the candidates, it is that the crisis the country faces is formidable.

Staggering Taxes

Interest alone on the huge public debt consumes one-third of all tax revenues, and with personal income tax already running at 58% for a family earning more than the equivalent of $17,000, further increases are seen as politically impossible.

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Spending cuts are difficult in a nation where one adult in ten is on welfare and more citizens attend state-funded schools than are working.

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