Monday, April 15, 2024

Editorial: Anyone fancy something free before the elections?

There was a time when, approaching back-to-school time, parents and children took their place in queues outside schoolbook shops with their list of requirements in one hand and their slim wallets clenched tightly in the other.

Times change though and schools have become much more involved in sourcing textbooks for pupils, renting books has become more popular and buying second-hand books no longer has a stigma of poverty around the idea.

But this is a truly great little country all the same and we’ve gone even further, with the Government finding €50m to provide free schoolbooks for all primary school students – around 550,000 of them this year, as it happens. For many families, such a saving will go a long way; for others, it’s just an opportunity to source a better Prosecco with the unspent cash. Even a political begrudger would have to agree that it’s a good decision by the Government because of the financial woes of so many families; every little helps.

More than 11,000 children (and their families) will benefit in Westmeath alone because of this move.

To those of us of an older generation, free schoolbooks may seem a little too generous since there are so many areas of need for Government cash, and it’s not just the poor families who will be given free books, it’s the very wealthy too. But in many other countries, schoolbooks have long-since been provided to children at no cost to their families, they were always state-given.

But the €50m cost has to come from somewhere, and it’s just one more tranche of millions of euros that the Government has found and decided to give away. Why, only last winter, the Government was giving €600 to every household to ease the burden of rising energy costs and some ministers won’t rule out doing something similar this coming winter. And it’s not just the poorer families who received this – we all got it, even the super-wealthy and the millionaires. As the TV ad says, ‘truly ambassador, you are spoiling us!’

Now the Government is considering whether it’s time to abolish the TV licence fee of €160 per year per household, and instead fund our state broadcaster RTÉ, from central funds. The ongoing Tubridy saga has fuelled this likelihood since more and more people say they won’t pay their licence anymore, as a result of the shenanigans in Montrose these past few years.

While we can ask where all this money is coming from, it’s worth remembering that Ireland’s national debt is around €226bn – that’s about €23bn higher than levels at the end of 2019. This apparently reflects the significant fiscal supports needed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic (no means testing at that time, of course).

At more than €44,000 for every person in the country, Ireland has one the highest per capita debt burdens in the world. Still the Government points to the extra billions of euro in income that it’s expecting over the next few years and is wondering what to do with it. Paying down some of our debt does not seem to be on the agenda and nor does spending on infrastructural improvements which may actually yield a dividend in coming decades.

The Government cannot say its €50m free schoolbook scheme is an investment in the state’s children nor in their future; books would be provided somehow, by somebody.
Call us cynical, but we cannot overlook the fact that the Local Elections are due next year and the next General Election is due before March 2025.

The parties in Government want to stay there and will want to dominate local politics too. A gift here or there to the unwashed public is one good way of gaining favour.

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