For all of the media coverage and hype around the anniversary of the death of Michael Collins in the last seven days, you will forgive me if I point out this week that the achievements of the man in the area of finance were perhaps the single most important part of his CV that has not got the credit and recognition that it deserves.
History has certainly provided us with an outstanding legacy for the career of the man who died so young at Béal na Bláth in 1922, but while his ambition and ability shaped that strong reputation, it was his achievements in the role as the most unlikely finance minister in the history of the State that really showed Collins to be an administrator par excellence.
At 29 years of age, Collins was the youngest member in an Irish Cabinet where the average age was 44 – yet he discharged his duties with considerable ease, great courage, incomparable efficiency and inspired purpose during the Anglo-Irish and civil wars and the almighty challenges that came his way. Such achievements by a man so young should never be underestimated.
National Loan Scheme
Historians tell us today that his greatest achievement in finance was the successful organisation of the first national loan scheme. The state records tell us that two million promotional leaflets and 500,000 copies of a shiny new prospectus to help set up the secretariat for the new government were printed and distributed. More than 50,000 letters were sent to high-net-worth individuals seeking loans. Full-page newspaper advertisements were costed, and €30,000 in today’s money was apparently spent on a new promotional film – even in those days this was exceptionally far-thinking stuff.
The scheme was a success. By June 1919, the secretariat of the Dáil had seven new employees, and each of the new government departments were recruiting their own staff. Funding had to be sourced for new overseas diplomats, the planned judicial system, and for other government programmes. It was while reading about this innovative action recently that I began to think of the irony of it all as, one hundred years on from Collins’ death, this country faces financial challenges over and about loans of a different sort in considerable scale heading into the autumn and winter of 2022.
In the last four weeks we have read in new surveys and polls that nearly eight out of 10 Irish people are struggling to pay monthly household bills like gas and electricity. Some are apparently already getting loans from credit unions to help out. I was simply astonished to read that in a poll of just over 2000 people recently, 70% of those polled thought they would be using hot water bottles to stay warm at night this winter because they won’t be able to afford to turn on their heating in the coming months. Even though one might feel the sample for this survey was quite small, I think at this stage there is considerable evidence around the whole country to support the finding that more than half of respondents in the same nationwide survey are under pressure over monthly mortgage payments.
A couple of weeks ago I, like the rest of the country, listened with some feelings of deep unease when Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned people to brace themselves for further increases in their energy bills. Mr Martin says that the upcoming Budget will help working families to try and cope with the price hikes. There has been considerable media leaking of some of the measures set to be proposed, but for all of the promises of assistance, I think many people are already feeling extreme pressure and trepidation as they try to work out where they are going to get the extra cash for the ESB bill, the supermarket trolley-load, or deal with the steep costs associated with sending a child back to school this September – whether at primary, post-primary or third level. For those with multiple children still attending school and trying to pay for accommodation in cities where the prices have already been hiked, it’s an even more treacherous time – and more loans are most definitely on the cards as people prepare to try and deal with such rising costs.
The impact the rising cost of living is having on families right across Ireland is now actually scary. I see evidence each day that prices are still going up at an alarming rate in key areas. The reason for it all is now very much open to several different interpretations. There can be no doubt that the unprecedented war in Ukraine has made heating our homes, buying some foods, and filling up our cars with fuel more and more expensive. Even though there has been some reduction in fuel prices in recent weeks, there is no guarantee that this will not change again.
Even after the first round of efforts to help people who are experiencing these financial difficulties, I am not sure if anyone really feels a significant difference.
It is true to say there has been price-cutting of the cost of public transport, reduction of excise duties and VAT on fuel, but there are lots of examples of areas where prices seem to have been raised again just as quickly. In recent times there has been significant evidence of price gouging in key areas as some unscrupulous traders abroad and closer to home moved in and made a killing on the back of poor people by sticking the price up again and taking back for themselves the extra margin that was supposed to be saved.
One can only speculate on what the great Michael Collins would have had to say about such occurrences or the mess we are in at the moment, but I think most would expect him to have been outraged too. The next Budget is now confronted by severe challenges in its design as it will not only need to be a cost of living Budget, which will focus on areas where people most need help, but also prove that it can adapt and give ongoing supports to people who are in extreme difficulty in trying to pay their bills.
Unless this Budget deals firmly with reducing costs in the area of childcare – by helping out working parents – or deals emphatically with cost increases in areas such as public transport and healthcare, there will really be a crisis coming down the line in the autumn. Nobody should doubt that.
Hopefully, those in authority might learn more from the greatness of Michael Collins in that finance portfolio. Some of our finest historians say Collins’ personal organisation skills were exceptional, allowing him to hold four major positions simultaneously, prompting him to impose order and clarity on a world of deep disorder and confusion.
It’s at times like this that we really need these skills back again!