AP front 1 - 2022

22 May 2003 Edition

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Harney's principles of power


"I generally feel strongly about the things I have views on." This was just one of the words of wisdom this week from Mary Harney, progressive politician of principle! The Progressive Democrat leader strode centre stage this week to lay down a marker that the PDs were opposed to the ending of free fees for third level.

Don't worry, Harney has not suddenly metamorphosed into a champion of equality and social justice. The PDs' support for free fees seems to have much more to do with ensuring what their well off voters see as a perk of power remains, rather than any foray into demanding equality in education.

For the rest of the week, the Enterprise Trade and Employment minister was on message as champion of business, and big business at that.

Yesterday, Harney was accepting an award from the Taxpayers' Association of Europe. It is a right-wing pressure group that campaigns for lower taxes and legislation to "prevent unjust harassment by tax collectors".

The actual award Harney received is a bronze sculpture and "symbolises the never-ending struggle for survival, strength and self-assertion". During her speech, Harney claimed that the EU is "still defined primarily around the national state" and that "the politics of taxation will remain essentially national". If we lost control of taxation to the EU, Harney proclaimed, "you might as well say that democracy is over, and we have handed over government to some technical machine".

That Harney doesn't recognise the already huge erosion of sovereignty and control over economic policy at national wielded by the EU Commission is bizarre. But if you probe deeper it is not that strange, for the political philosophy of Mary Harney is filled with contradictions. Take, for example, her other hobby horse this week - inflation.

Harney and other cabinet members have been talking loudly in recent weeks about their plans to tackle inflation. Mary has decided that the problem lies in the retail sector and her master plan is to drop the ban on below cost selling, which was introduced in 1987 to stop larger firms deliberately driving smaller ones out of business.

Big is beautiful in Mary Harney's economic vision, as the other part of her plan is to change Irish planning law to allow larger shopping malls and huge multinationals such as Walmart enter the Irish retail market. Retail space in the 26 Counties is currently capped to 3,000sq metres in Dublin, 3,500sq metres outside Dublin and retail warehouses are limited to 6,000sq metres in size.

However, data on inflation shows that retail inflation is very low in the 26 Counties. Food inflation is running at 2.2%. Stealth taxes introduced in last December's budget are among the largest contributors to inflation. Education costs have risen by 10.4% over the last 12 months. Hospital services are 14.8% more expensive, while general health costs have risen 8.4%. Alcohol and Tobacco prices have risen by 10%, mostly because of government taxes.

However, our new international award winner is not moved to tackle health or education costs. She has picked the lowest contributing factor to focus on.

The question is why? It doesn't make sense. Why is the minister for Enterprise in Ireland being such a friend to international business rather than to domestic enterprises? Fianna Fáil TDs voted this week to oppose the removal of the capping of retail shopping centres, which is welcome but still strange considering the relationship between some of their former TDs, councillors and their benevolent developer friends. Not so strange, though, as the principles of power exercised by their PD ministerial colleague.

(For an overview on Wal-Mart you can visit the company's site at walmart.com or a more interesting provocative view can be found at walmartwatch.com. The Taxpayers' Association of Europe is at www.taxpayers-europe.org)

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