Tuesday 30 August 2016

Don't blame me, I'm the minister


Published 23/07/2000 | 00:11

Charlie McCreevy's arrogance in refusing to admit that anything is wrong is breathtaking, says Emer O'Kelly.

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THE Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, said on Tuesday that he's ``not responsible for matters [of finance] outside the Government's control''. Really? Then why did he also claim not so long ago that he's ``paid a handsome salary'' to keep the country's finances on an even keel? Either he's in a position to do the job or he's not.

The Minister's arrogance becomes more breathtaking with every day that passes as we lurch further and faster towards a crisis that may well match the spectacular lows of the 1980s.

It was 1977 when Dr Martin O'Donoghue masterminded a giveaway budget proposal that won Fianna Fáil a landslide victory at the polls. It was aimed at doing precisely that, and the devil take the hindmost. The hindmost in that case, unfortunately, was the Irish population, gulled into believing in the concept of a free lunch. They discovered that there was no such thing as a free lunch not too long after that, of course, when Charles Haughey, with an arrogance even more breathtaking than that of Mr McCreevy, went on television to tell the people that they had to tighten their belts. It was the people's fault that we had slipped into a spectacular depression.

And what is politely called Fianna Fáil populism has hardly changed since then, at least if Mr McCreevy's behaviour is anything to go by. He seems constitutionally incapable of accepting that anyone in Ireland might know a little more about their own areas of expertise than he does. But he might at least have accepted that authorities in Europe knew what they were talking about.

Having handed over control of our finances to Europe, he might have admitted that we are powerless to control our own economy in isolation. There's nothing wrong with internationalism, but it means we have to do as the rest of Europe is doing.

However, the temptation to indulge in the feel-good factor was too strong: complacently, Mr McCreevy kept saying that our economy was the envy of Europe. He's still saying it. Does he really think that a rate of inflation near six per cent, and growing, is the envy of anybody?

He's still pointing to the growth rate in the economy; except that inexorably inflation is catching up with that growth, and we are getting uncomfortably close to what might be called negative equity in the economy. And we all know what negative equity means in the housing market, which is something else Mr McCreevy dismisses.

We certainly deserve a bit of prosperity given what we went through in the late Eighties and early Nineties. But we seem to have an unsettlingly vulgar attitude towards it: we see it solely in terms of unlimited spending power. Ireland Inc. seems to want to take only the short-term and superficial view of spending, in personal as well as national terms. We are displaying a dismaying propensity, as ever, for preferring form over substance, the garden gnome rather than the marble statue.

Where long-term security should be the aim, with an infrastructure of unmatched systems of education and healthcare, we have a government that sees prosperity in terms of instant gratification, as though we were all bawling children. But then, there has been a lot of bawling, and at times precious little leadership.

We've gone through enough in the past 20 years: we don't deserve a Minister for Finance who refuses to face reality or listen to people who know more about his area than he does himself. He's neither an economist, a financier, an industrialist, nor a trade unionist. He's a politician, so presumably his idea is short term popularity. But neither he nor his government is going to be popular as the reality becomes even more evident: what goes up must come down. In economic terms, it's called boom and bust: and the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust.

Mr McCreevy isn't all bad: his budget proposals for tax individualisation were visionary. The squawks that greeted them were largely knee-jerk, and came from the lobbies with the time to be vocal. The people working in paid employment, who welcomed the proposals, didn't have the time to ring up chat shows and complain about the erosion of family rights. They were too busy upholding family rights by earning enough money to support their families rather than expecting further state subvention.

The government is now showing a distinct desire to bolt the stable door. All the ministers, that is, except Mr McCreevy, who refuses even to admit that the horse is restive. All of this could have been prevented. European governments, who were keeping their own inflation rates under control, have been extremely vocal for the past year about what is happening in Ireland.

Mr McCreevy now blames external factors by saying that the government cannot control certain aspects of the economy. Under European monetary union, no government can. Yet we're the only country within the European Monetary System that is suffering from rocketing inflation. And the Minister wasn't so keen to point out the aspects outside our control until the cracks started to appear in the spending spree policy.

Equally, the other social partners weren't queueing up to urge caution. The trade union movement, instead of foreseeing the appalling prospect of a crash (which will affect their members as much as anyone else), merely whined about the fact that their members weren't getting more. The employers' organisations that could have counselled a stabilisation of corporation and other industrial taxes rather than a massive reduction, let out a long breath that sounded suspiciously like ``gimme'' while prating about employees' ``unrealistic'' expectations.

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