independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Eoghan Harris: We are not all in this together, Taoiseach

LAST Wednesday I met RTE's Northern Editor, Tommie Gorman, to talk about a film he is making on the visit of Queen Elizabeth. He had full access to those who made it happen. More I can't say, but don't miss it when it comes out at Christmas.

Tommie and myself go back a bit. Like me, he takes things seriously if not solemnly. So I shamelessly picked his brain on his two areas of expertise: Northern Ireland and the EU crisis.

Like me, he respects Peter Robinson. He believes the rehabilitation of Iris Robinson was one of the many achievements of the Queen's visit. This rings true.

Peace at home surely contributed to the confidence of Peter Robinson's recent radical speech to the DUP. He reached out to Catholics, if not to nationalists. Next time he should reach further, but it's a start.

Turning to the EU, Tommie reminded me that the roots of the current crisis go back to German re-unification. Bringing East Germany up to West German levels called for cheap money and low interest rates. Ireland took advantage of both and borrowed itself into a big mess.

I joked that Ireland is paying for German re-unification. Jim Cogan's cartoon with this column catches the comic ironies. But it was not Germany's fault we got greedy and borrowed like mad.

Because not only our bankers behaved badly. Many Irish people borrowed themselves into big burdens of personal debt. Meantime, most Germans lived within their means.

We can make a small moral case that the EU should ease our debt burden. But we should also admit that we are not adult about money. In short, we are not Germans. On the other hand, I won't mention the war.

Tommie returned me from this sombre reverie to the real world. Like me, he still believes passionately in the European project. But he believes the current problems are as much political as economic. He mourns the absence of visionary giants like Kohl, Mitterand and Delors.

That is why we must hope that "Merkozy" is better than either of its separate elements. Like Tommie, I believe we must bravely finish what we started. Neither Europe nor Ireland can turn back what Brecht called "the iron hand of history".

We have two choices. We give up gombeen politics and go forward to a more integrated Europe. Or we shack up in a kind of Sinn Fein shelter, watch the world go by, and pose for photographs taken by Chinese tourists. Well?

* * * * *

If everyone in RTE News was as trustworthy as Tommie Gorman, I might have responded to the Fr Reynolds affair with less anger. Two weeks ago I said heads should roll in RTE. In retrospect, I realise I was speaking metaphorically.

I also approve of the death penalty, metaphorically speaking. But in practice I could not personally pull the lever that would launch even a bad element into eternity. The same principle applies to punishing those who treated Fr Reynolds so roughly.

In some cultures, Fr Reynolds would have the last word on what should happen to those standing on the scaffold. Luckily for him, since he looks like a kind man, he does not have to make that dreary decision. That is why we have the rule of law rather than lynch mobs.

But while I loathe the arrogant approach of some prima donnas in RTE News, I doubt I could personally pull the lever that would dispatch anybody into outer darkness. So what should happen to those who acted so arrogantly?

The first thing that comes to mind is Niall Toibin's traditional recipe of retribution: a good funt up the arse. Beyond that, however, I hesitate to prescribe. But there are some precedents, mostly provided by myself.

On the numerous occasions I got into hot water in RTE, I was suspended without pay for a period, and sent to serve a period in some Siberian salt mine of the programmes division. Bosco is not a puppet for whom I retain great affection.

Mind you, my mistakes were more minor than the one made in respect of Fr Reynolds. And when I committed what in retrospect does not seem like a major crime -- working for Mary Robinson -- RTE was relentless in rushing me out the door of Montrose, against my will, and with no alternative employment prospects.

Using my case as precedent, the guilty ones would be given the boot without more ado. But treating me badly -- and I am still being marginalised by some RTE News programmes -- is no excuse for executing others. Personally I am less interested in punishment than in a severe scrutiny of the closed culture of RTE News and Current Affairs.

For 50 years, RTE News has been recruiting people who think the same -- or who end up thinking the same. Montrose groupthink, with its pets (the public sector, Palestine, pseudo-socialists) and its pariahs (too long a list), is the real problem. What we need is a cold eye from the outside, cast by someone like Maurice Hayes.

* * * * *

Enda Kenny talks to the nation tonight. Although -- indeed because -- he governs with a massive majority, he has failed to tackle the serious fat cats like the banks and the public sector. Here are three home truths you will not hear.

First, Fianna Fail did not cause the recession -- they just happened to be in office. Few believe Fine Gael or Labour would have pricked the property bubble if in power. We know they would not have done it differently because they are not doing it differently now.

John Lanchester, in a review of Michael Lewis's brilliant book Boomerang, reminds us that what he calls the Great Recession was global. Every society behaved badly in its own way.

"Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford. Icelanders wanted to go fishing and become investment bankers. Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish." By which he means, many Irish people borrowed like lunatics and forgot the frugal habits of their forebears.

Second, Fianna Fail's real crime was its response to the recession. It padded the public sector and gave guarantees to bad banks. Lanchester is at a loss to explain why Brian Lenihan -- and indeed David McWilliams -- thought the guarantee was a good idea. "Nobody knows quite why they covered the loss of the bondholders . . . but they did."

Third, all the societies in trouble have one thing in common. Public sector pay and pensions ballooned and became a crippling burden. But it was not the same story here. It was worse.

Fianna Fail rewarded the gormless advice given by senior public servants with massive pay and pensions. The gap between public and private pay is now a scandalous 50 per cent. To add insult to injury, poorly paid private sector workers also pay for public sector pensions, although mostly without proper pensions of their own.

As long as Enda Kenny is afraid of the public sector elephant, there will be no equality and no equity in Irish politics. Just think about that 50 per cent gap. We are not all in this together.

Sunday Independent

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