Howlin says a new election would have been preferable to weak minority government
WEXFORD'S outgoing Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin says that he doubts the incoming minority government led by Taoiseach Enda Kenny will be strong enough to survive the major challenges it will face in the near future.
'Two months have past and we have had endless negotiations on a variety of different demands and it will, by definition, be an inherently weak government,' said Minister Howlin, who now believes that a new general election would have been a better option.
'There are major challenges ahead, the Brexit, which could be a seismic event, the migration crisis - the situation in Europe where governments are building fences on borders.. we need strong, effective government that will do the people's business and I don't think the government that is being cobbled together will do that,' Minister Howlin told this newspaper.
He said that during the weeks of uncertaintly since the last election, he had cleared his desk several times 'but stuff keeps coming in to me'. For now his life in the fast lane is continuing, but not for long.
The 'stuff' coming into his office last week was, however, very different to the stuff that was crossing his desk five years ago, when Ireland was on its knees and had an economy more akin to a basket case like Zimbabwe than a modern democracy in the heart of Europe. 'When I came to office five years ago we created a new department, with Fine Gael and Labour, looking at the crisis the public service was in and the economy was in.. we needed a new Department of State controlling the money, to fix a broken economy and to invigorate a demoralised and, in many cases, a not functioning public service.
'Ministers had resigned and with the previous administration in complete chaos it was the public service that that kept the show on the road. There was an enormous job of work to be done, with the twin objective of the new Department to balance the books to fund the public service.
'We were shut out of international markets and the Troika's money came with big restrictions. We had to reform the public service to make it more efficient and were enomously successful on both fronts. We have transformed the economy from being a complete basket case, the equivalent of Zimbabwe.. the deficit of 30 per cent of the GDP was mind-numbing and very few people thought we could escape from it.
'We now have a balanced budget in structural terms and the deficit will be less than half of one per cent this year.. nobody would have believed that we could have achieved that, people expected us to require a second bailout programme and to tackle our over-arching debt.
'Even the national debt, which peaked at 120 per cent of GDP, is now below 84 per cent.. on the other side, the reform agenda -- we've had two annual reports now outlining the incredible changes that have been brought about.. we've established shared services with (for example) pay and pensions now centralised instead of in 60 centres and have established a single office of government procurement.
'Until the advent of my department, every agency and department bought goods themselves, this has meant saving half a billion euros.. very substantial changes have taken place, the most significant the overlapping negotiatons on two public sector pay deals, Haddginton Road and Landsdowne Road,' he said.
Minister Howlin praised the forebearance of the Irish people and the understanding and support of public service, which accepted very subsantial changes in work practices and their pay as a key platform in enabling the rebuilding of the economy.
He said whomsoever succeeds him as Minister would do well to keep the reforms going, the despite the winds of change that are blowing.
'I've said repeatedly that reform is an onging process and not an end game.
'Just like every private sector company evaluating how they deliver services, having a Department like mine is critical that it continues..
'I'm proud of the last five years and have been privileged to run big departments like health in the past.'
Paying tribute to his colleagues in government and in the Department, he said he had been working in collaboration with a skilled team. 'We have laid solid foundations for the future and that's something I am very proud of.'