AT times it seems we are destined in this country to remain trapped indefinitely in our own hideous version of Groundhog Day. Similar to the Phil Connors character played by Bill Murray in the film of that name, each supposed new day seems to simply involve a reliving or rehashing of the events of 29 September 2008 – the date the bank guarantee scheme was introduced – and the weeks and months leading up to that now infamous date.
The twin evils of unemployment and emigration have returned with a vengeance; our health service is creaking badly; the VHI has cranked up its fees; the problems in the eurozone have not gone away. The banking system is far from back to normal; consumer confidence is on the floor. Yet despite all this (and it would be easy to come up with another dozen seemingly intractable problems), political debate has remained convulsed by events of two-and-a-half years ago.
So much so that the revelation of a game of golf and subsequent meal held at that time, which in all probability was entirely innocent, looks as if it might bring down Brian Cowen.
Regardless of how the latest Fianna Fáil leadership heave pans out, surely by this stage everybody has made up their minds on what happened back in 2008?
For what it's worth, my own view is that by the beginning of 2007, never mind 2008, Ireland was already a towering inferno, even if few had even noticed the smell of smoke.
The damage was done before then (and for that the government of the day – including Cowen as finance minister – the regulatory authorities and the banks have to take the blame). The banks were hideously overexposed to a bubble property market and no action taken at that point possibly could have salvaged the situation.
We have debated until we have all become blue in the face the merits or otherwise of the bank guarantee scheme. There are legitimate arguments on both sides, but the idea that by September 2008 there was some alternative plan or panacea that could have made a huge difference to the outcome is simply ludicrous.
Sure, as some have advocated, Anglo could have been let go to the wall – although Patrick Honohan has said it would not have been the correct choice and it's impossible to believe the European Central Bank would have allowed that to happen. If it had happened, who can say with even the remotest hint of confidence that the outcome wouldn't have been a whole lot worse?
It's almost as if by that point there were no right decisions that could be made. Due to a mixture of incompetence and negligence by the governing, banking and regulatory authorities, our towering inferno was always going to collapse. From 2008 on, it was really only about which floor of the building should the firefighting be focused on to try and limit the inevitably huge fall-out.
You can agree or – probably more likely – disagree with this viewpoint. But what is undeniable is that we can't change the decisions made in 2008. And we haven't a hope of getting out of the mess we are in until we start to focus on the here and now.
At around the same time the bank guarantee scheme was introduced here, the US authorities made the fateful decision to let Lehman Brothers go to the wall. It was almost certainly the wrong call (although again the damage was done long before then and by the autumn of 2008, it was effectively about choosing the lesser of two considerable evils). But the political debate in the US is not still dominated by that decision. It isn't headline news on the networks. It's over. It's done and dusted.
Of course, some of that is probably because the administration in charge at the time has gone and been replaced. And for all his charisma and talent, Barack Obama has found out the hard way that there are no simple solutions to this crisis.
Inevitably, when the current government is replaced by a new Fine Gael and Labour coalition in the coming weeks, something of a line in the sand will be drawn on the events of September 2008. But we have to hope that the general election campaign isn't also dominated by the issue because the focus of that campaign must be about offering prescriptive solutions to help improve the state of the country.
We need debate on the really big policy issues. Fine Gael and Labour are both proposing the introduction of universal healthcare, albeit in different forms. It's a hugely important area that offers the potential – and I stress the word potential – to eradicate the invidious two-tier health system. Yet the only place debate is happening on this is in the letters pages of the Irish Times.
We're brilliant in this country at the narrative. There's no shortage of public outcry about, and coverage of, waiting lists in hospitals, the budget deficit, job losses, emigration etc etc. But what is patently lacking is meaningful debate – within the political system or the media – about how to solve these problems. Why for example do some hospitals have no problem with waiting lists while others do? There is some talk in the abstract about the desirability of building a smart economy, yet try and have a serious debate about the return of third-level fees and all we get is hysteria and short-term thinking. When was the last time we heard a public discussion over why Ireland, unlike other small countries such as Finland, has failed to indigenously develop its own global brands?
There's no magic wand for any of these deeply ingrained problems. But without debate we're not even going to get out of the starting blocks. And we simply cannot have those debates if the political agenda continues to be dominated by what happened or didn't happen three years ago. It's now 2011 and it's time we started living in the current year rather than 2008. It's time we moved beyond our own Groundhog Day.