Saturday 20 December 2014

Austerity is going to kill our democracy

We desperately need an alternative to this Government. Fianna Fail? Don't be silly, writes Gene Kerrigan

Published 03/03/2013 | 05:00

IT'S like one of those hackneyed movies where, after an epic struggle, the bad guy has been killed. Relief all around, the hero relaxes. He turns towards the woman he loves, his smile a mixture of relief and triumph. And, as the good guys embrace, we cut to a shot of the bad guy's hand. And his fingers twitch. Close-up on his face and his eyes are opening. Now his hand is reaching for the blood-stained cleaver.

Yes, you're right. This is about Fianna Fail, coming back from the dead – poised for one last desperate lunge. The polls show life trickling back into the battered body of the party of Charlie Haughey, Bertie Ahern and 'Biffo' Cowen. It's as predictable as the closing scenes of a fifth-rate Hollywood thriller.

Some said there was no way back for the party of the Galway tent, the brown envelope, the scandalous bank guarantee, the party of light-touch regulation and whatever you're having yourself.

No hope for the party of the builders' buddy, the bankers' amigo. The bondholders' best friend. Kisser of Monsieur Trichet's superbly tailored backside, genuflector in the vicinity of Frau Merkel.

Fianna Fail, who still denied that Charlie or Bertie put a foot wrong, even as the evidence jumped up and bit them on their ever-lengthening noses.

Fooled, sickened, angry, the voters devastated the party in 2011. Patience, circumstance and the behaviour of their rivals are giving Fianna Fail a shot at a comeback.

The current Government, with its bowing and scraping to Frankfurt, its casual brutality towards its citizens – and, above all, its unearned air of piety – makes some people nostalgic for the good old days of backhanders and back-stabbing. And that shows what a deep, deep mess we're in – not just economically but politically. When we kick them out, who takes their place?

Shocked by what they did to the country, we threw out Tweedle Fianna Fail. And we installed Tweedle Fine Gael. Are we now destined to do the same over and over, turn and turn about, in perpetuity?

If our fate – at best – is to perpetually swap one bunch of chancers for the other, then there's no point to parliamentary politics.

If parties can oppose each other bitterly and after the election casually swap positions – and just as bitterly champion the policies they recently denounced – well, it's a game. The winner gets a State car and a big pension.

The major parties share the same view on most of the major issues of the day – reverence for bankers and bondholders, absolute obedience to the European Central Bankers. They believe that even in a recession a deficit must be cut, whatever the long-term effects on the economy.

Last week, a couple of economists – Paul de Grauwe, Yuemei Ji – crunched the numbers on five years of EU austerity.

"Countries that imposed the strongest austerity measures also experienced the strongest declines in their GDP," they found. But, maybe it's worth damaging the economy if it strengthens the public finances? Eh, no.

"The more intense the austerity, the larger is the subsequent increase in the debt-to-GDP ratios." The title of the paper: Panic-driven Austerity in the Eurozone and Its Implications.

Fianna Fail and Fine Gael are two wings of the same party, each taking turns in denouncing and then implementing the same policies.

We were shocked some years ago when Catholic theologists explained how a bishop might legitimately mislead on the issue of child abuse. As long as he secretly had a "mental reservation", it was not sinful. How medieval, we thought.

When Ruairi Quinn signed a pledge not to impose student fees, he must have had a mental reservation. When Eamon Gilmore pledged to oppose "Frankfurt's Way", perhaps he too had a mental reservation.

Michael Noonan must have had a mental reservation when he denounced the "disastrous and obscene" policy of forcing citizens to pay the private debts of rich gamblers. Because three months later he became Minister for Finance and has been cheerfully operating that policy ever since.

And when Enda Kenny met the teenage Joanne O'Riordan and made her a promise, well . . .

"Enda Kenny looked me in the eye before the general election," Joanne told the Irish Examiner, "and promised me one thing and then once again, did another." Kenny promised Joanne – who was born without limbs – that there would be no cuts in disability benefits.

Apparently, speaking to this young woman, looking her in the eyes with that sincere expression he uses, making a promise that meant so much to her, he had a mental reservation.

These are politics that are not only cruel and deceptive, they trash the very notion of democratic legitimacy.

What do we do, we who believe that austerity and bank worship have turned a crisis into a disaster?

We can't vote for Labour or the Greens. These me-too parties merely make up the numbers for FF or FG in exchange for some cabinet seats and a pension.

We could vote for Sinn Fein, if we could be sure that it wouldn't help Fianna Fail into office. We could support that new party that Michael McDowell keeps suggesting – PD Nua. If we could forget that the PDs were in office for 12 of the 14 years in which FF wrecked the place. And that for five of those years, McDowell was a minister. And that the PDs shared FF's view on all those disastrous policies, including light-touch regulation and the bank guarantee.

We could vote Left. But in the period in which the capitalist parties have destroyed the economy, loaded private debts onto our backs, driven thousands into exile, slashed social services and cut disposable income, the Left in the Dail hasn't had much to say that is either compelling or new.

We've heard the same rusty formulas so often, it's seldom that any of the Dail lefties begin a speech most of us couldn't finish. They rightly reject the orthodoxies that have brought catastrophe, but in terms of their strategy, tactics and language they isolate themselves.

If not now, when do they show their mettle? If they can't draw mass support in a period of wholesale robbery of citizens, when might they do so?

Democratic opposition matters. When a parliament is so dysfunctional, other forms of expressing opposition become more important than ever.

Trade unions, community groups, single-issue campaigns – all can influence events. Right now, the unions are in the firm grip of full-timers, many of whom are mere over-paid executives running a service company. Their power depends on their control of a quiescent rank and file.

In Italy, the technocrats imposed by the ECB have been rejected and the Right, the Left and the angry Centre – focused around a comedian – are currently jostling for influence. In Greece, an openly fascist outfit gets a significant share of support.

When we in Ireland hear from the forces denied a voice in the Oireachtas, it will not necessarily be in coherent, reasonable terms.

To put it mildly.

Meanwhile, as anger rises at the casual cruelties and mindless austerity of this Government, Fianna Fail – of all outfits – murmurs its sympathy and sheds tears for the plight of the disabled and the unemployed. And bides its time.

Irish Independent

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