I've had a great run in politics -- now I want to do something else
Small business a draw for the former finance minister
Published 21/01/2010 | 05:00
THIS time, it is goodbye. When the tortuous process of ratifying a new EU Commission is completed, commissioner Charlie McCreevy will turn his back on politics; even public statements.
That political career began in the campaign to approve Ireland's entry into the then Common Market in 1973. "I had no idea what the commission was, and remember reading up on it," he recalls. "Who would have thought I would end up a member of it?"
Now, the long, mostly successful and always controversial political career is over. "I hope to find something to do which will be interesting and a bit of fun.
"I had a great old run in politics, and enjoyed most of, in spite of plenty of heartache. Now I want to do something different. Nothing is definite, but my time in accountancy has given me a feel for small business."
It seems hard to believe. Even more oddly, Mr McCreevy still looms over Irish politics to a remarkable degree.
He was regularly cited as one of the creators of the bubble, even though, when his time as Finance Minister ended in 2004, the banks were models of prudent balance sheets.
The charge seems to be that his tax-cutting opened the hole which turned into the gulf now threatening to swallow the public finances. The figures, though, do not quite bear this out, as Mr McCreevy vigorously points out.
"Pure nonsense," he says. "In the seven-and-a-half years I was there, I had budget surpluses or very small deficits; I set up the National Pension Reserve Fund -- aren't we glad we have that now? -- and reduced the net national debt from 60pc of GDP to less than 20pc."
"They say now I should have collected more tax, and presumably had even bigger surpluses. My objective was to make the financial difference between working and not working as big as possible. I did that in every budget -- sometimes sneakily."
This does not mean, apparently, that he thinks his successor, Brian Cowen, blew his attractive inheritance. Although Mr McCreevy will not discuss politics after 2004, his general comments on the situation show a certain sympathy for those in charge of policy during those years.
"There were no particular alarm bells ringing in Brussels at the time. I don't want to get involved with what was happening in Dublin, but they can point to those glowing reports about Ireland from the likes of the IMF and OECD -- as late as 2007 in some cases."
Then he does get involved -- which is the reason it is hard to believe he really will depart the stage. "I did make a speech where I said that, in such a long buoyant credit cycle, it was inevitable that the banks would take undue risks.
"They were setting aside just 0.02pc of their loan books in provisions for bad loans. Clearly, that was not enough. But I never thought it would come to this. Hardly anybody did."
His argument was that the bubble was an international phenomenon and that the Irish government, banks and regulators were, to a large extent, powerless to prevent one at home. What was Irish was the form it took here.
"The Irish have this propensity to want to own property, but if that wasn't there, what would the banks have done with all that cheap money?
"Go to Germany, where they don't go in for property booms, and their banks were buying sub-prime mortgages in the US. They went for sub-prime, and the Irish went for property, but the one thing they had in common was a search for higher and higher returns."
With so much credit washing through the system, something of the kind was inevitable. "When I was young, you might go into see the bank manager once or twice a year, and it would be by appointment. I've lived to see them chasing people down the street to offer then loans."
Mr McCreevy has a personal interest in this, of course. There was quite a fuss when RTE's 'Prime Time' claimed that his loan application to the Irish Nationwide Building Society to buy a €1.6m property at the K Club was fast-tracked and the 100pc-plus mortgage was contrary to society policy.
He says that all of that is a matter for the lender, not him. "I'm entitled to privacy on that, but all I will say is that it is nothing to do with me. I was the borrower and that's all I'm going to say about it."
He is prepared to confirm that the loan is being serviced, but we must make our own assessments on the likely value of the property now.
Would he have any sympathy, then, with the draft privacy law in Justice Minister Dermot Ahern's bottom drawer, which might restrict such reporting of personal matters? "Look, I'm not getting involved in any of that," he says.
Equally, he won't comment on the idea of a banking inquiry, but it is more than clear from his general comments that he has little time for the hunt for someone to blame for the disaster.
"We seem to go in for an extraordinary amount of navel-gazing," he says.
"There is this hue and cry to find scapegoats. If you want to go down that road, fine, but don't make the system so hostile that nobody is prepared to do anything."
Typically, he even mounts a trenchant defence of those new pariahs, the property developers.
"You're going to have to have developers, and you're going to have to have loans for developers. Otherwise, who will buy or develop these properties?
"It seems to be the case that we are in favour of risk-takers in the economy, provided they are foreign, but we don't want native ones. It would be a brave person who would be a risk person in the present atmosphere. It is very corrosive.
"Obviously, big mistakes were made but it is unbelievable the desire to heap the greatest amount of vitriol on anybody who tried to do anything -- and most of all on those who are Irish."
He is not convinced that the plain people of Ireland share this attitude. "One has seen surveys showing that only a small minority belong to this 'hang them, shoot them' brigade.
"Certainly, lessons have to be learned, but we have to get over it and get the economy moving again."
The budget measures were a necessary start, but are just the first in a long series of steps. For him, as for many in Fianna Fail, there must still be encouragement of the basic economic activities like construction, retailing and farming.
"Not everyone can be in hi-tech. We have to have the ordinary economy as well."
It is easy to forget in all this talk about Ireland that his job as Internal Markets Commissioner involved the attempt to create a single EU financial market. Does this not seem a dangerous concept now?
"It's a fair point. It is illogical to try to have a single market without having a single supervisory framework. But there will have to be national supervision as part of that, because the national taxpayer stands behind the system.
"I don't believe we'll ever have just one supervisory body. Not unless there is a world government. We don't even have a European government. Some people think we do -- especially in the commission -- but we don't."