THERE have been a few times in this still relatively young state's history when we have stared into the abyss, economically speaking. In the late 1950s, TK Whitaker – the young, brilliant secretary of the Department of Finance – spelled out to the incoming Fianna Fáil government that unless the traditional policy of protectionism was replaced, the nation's future was impossibly bleak.

Seán Lemass took the advice on board, acted decisively and within a few years the country was transformed.

In 1987, the situation was looking almost as dire as 30 years earlier. Unemployment and emigration were endemic. The public finances were in such a disastrous state that there was speculation that the "sick man of Europe" would have to be bailed out by the IMF. Charlie Haughey (finally) and Ray MacSharry – supported by the leader of the opposition Alan Dukes – did what had to be done in terms of tackling the huge budget deficit and, in the process, sowed the seeds of the Celtic Tiger.

Now, two decades later, the situation bears comparison with 1987 and 1957.

If we take the right decisions, then the current horrrendous recession, while incredibly painful for many, will pass and economic growth will return.

If we don't; if we listen to the queue of vested interests that dominated Thursday night's news bulletins then the recession will not only be incredibly painful, but it will extremely long drawn-out – just as it was in the 1980s when for the best (worst?) part of a decade, successive governments fiddled while the country burned.

Of course the report of An Bord Snip Nua makes for tough reading. Everybody wishes that the huge spending increases of the past decade could have gone on forever, even if it was obvious for years that they were unsustainable.

But the alternative to An Bord Snip Nua is even tougher. Not everything in the report has to be adopted, but the majority of it will have to be. The alternative may be superficially more politically palatable, but it will end inevitably in somebody else – the IMF or the EU – making the tough decisions for us.

What was depressing on Thursday, following the publication of the report from Colm McCarthy's team, wasn't the opposition but the extent of it and the type of emotive language.

It is understandable, for example, that the proposal to cut social welfare by 5% was criticised. It is a major move that, whatever the arguments for and against, warrants serious debate.

But are we seriously saying that at a time when we are borrowing €60m a day just to keep our heads above water that we should keep spending tens of millions subsidising regional air services from the likes of Knock or Sligo to Dublin? Are we seriously saying that the Limerick Junction to Rosslare rail service – which has tiny passenger numbers – should be maintained? Are we seriously saying that town councils should be left untouched? That we need an average of 27 garda stations per county? That the extraordinary situation whereby the pensions of retired public servants are linked to pay increases in the public sector rather than inflation can continue? That child benefit should still to be doled out to every family in the country regardless of whether a family uses it to put food on the table or to go on a skiing holiday every January?

The language used by the public sector unions to decribe the Bord Snip Nua report was risible, particularly the claim that its proposals were "morally incomprehensible". The teaching unions' claim that the (admittedly severe) cutbacks would "destroy education here" deserves similar scorn.

But such language will become the norm in the weeks ahead. The question is whether we as a nation are going to deal with the economic crisis in a calm, measured, strategic manner or are we going to give in to the kind of hysteria that surrounded the decision to end the automatic right to medical cards for pensioners last year when the facts went out the window and the blatant inequality of the existing system was ignored?

The vested interests – farmers, public-sector unions, regional groups, quangos etc – will seek to ensure it's the latter.

But, as well as representing the biggest challenge this country has faced in a generation, the upcoming budgetary and estimates process also represents an opportunity. It is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to undertake a root-and-branch reform of how taxpayers' money is spent (or mis-spent); to make decisions that, however logical, would not have been politically possible a year or two ago.

It is also an opportunity, for once, to do what is best for Ireland and its people as a whole, not the special-interest group that is best able to turn the screw on the government.

An Bord Snip Nua's report clearly signposts the way forward. It is important that those who are critical of it are heard. But it is equally important that we also require them to do more than say 'no'. They must also provide concrete alternatives.

Sinn Féin issued a press release on Thursday headlined "Irish society cannot afford An Bord Snip Nua report". How wrong they are. Irish society cannot afford not to implement the An Bord Snip Nua report.