A QUESTION. Have the citizens of this befuddled little nation become so used to bowing the knee that there's nothing they won't let these people get away with? So far, an impartial observer might answer, yeah, probably.
Right now, Michael Noonan's Department of Buggering Up the Economy seems determined to see just how much humiliation they can heap on to us. It might be that one evening, having drunk a few bottles of Chateau Arrogant with their lobster dinner, the minister's bright-spark advisers came up with an idea.
"Suppose," one Knight of Austerity murmurs, "suppose we brought back bonuses for bankers?"
A shiver runs through everyone in the room.
"I'm talking big, big bonuses," the Knight says.
"Too soon," says one deputy assistant under-secretary. "Far too soon."
Now, I'm just speculating here. For all I know, it was Chateau Shameless they'd been drinking. But I've no doubt a conversation of this sort took place. How else do we explain this Irish Independent headline from last week? 'Michael Noonan clears way for bank bosses to get bonuses'.
The headline was over the byline of Laura Noonan, who doesn't make things up. She quotes from, and therefore has access to, new guidelines okayed by the minister. These will "pave the way" for "incentive arrangements" at AIB, Permanent TSB and at The Dead Bank Formerly Known as Anglo.
No minister or official or banker offered the newspaper a reason for this extraordinary move.
Now, the AIB's top lad is on €625,000 salary plus pension contribution. The new Permanent TSB guy is coming in on half-a-million a year, while the big man at Dead Anglo pulls in around €866,000, give or take. But, of course, bankers claim to be bugger-all use to anyone unless they have vast riches thrust upon them, in the shape of bonuses.
Any bonus for these people -- since the banks are the walking dead -- has to be paid by the citizens. And we have to borrow that money.
And now, someone in the Department of Finance seems to be flying a kite. Slip the word out, see how the rabble respond. If there's too much of an outcry, we've said nothing on the record, so it's all deniable. If the riffraff remain timid, we can take it to the next stage.
If you thought such a story, on the front page of a major newspaper, would upset people -- well, few seem bothered. The Knights of Austerity will be pleased.
While reading that story, a document arrived from a group called Open, representing one-parent families. They point out that Nice Enda's Government decided to last stop the One Parent Family Payment when a child reaches 14 (rather than 18). This had been due to be done in stages beween now and 2016.
Just before Christmas, the Knights of Austerity brought that forward to 2015. Perhaps they were worried that such a cut would look bad for the centenary of the Easter Rising. And then just before Christmas-- as though someone had a
hangover after an evening chugging the Chateau Vicious -- they abruptly decided to stop the payment when the child reaches the age of seven.
One-parent families, like so many others, have already taken a big hit in income. Sixty per cent of single parents work, and 20 per cent more are in training or education. These are people who struggle to give their kid a decent start and who can do it, with the barest support. Every child who gets a decent start is an asset to this nation.
Right now, they're part of that old cliche, 'the most vulnerable'. And this is a Government that knows how to pick its targets.
There was another document released last week, by the Central Statistics Office. It's got a blizzard of numbers and would normally be best left to specialists. But there's a chart on Page 11 that even I can understand.
Mind you, the language is a bit fruity.
Analysing the latest figures, from 2010, the CSO notes: "An uneven distribution of the percentage change in equivalised disposable income across the deciles." In English, that means that we haven't all taken the same hit, since this austerity swindle began.
The CSO divides us into 10 income groups. On the far left of the chart, the lowest-earning. Then, eight other groups to the right of them; and then -- on the far right -- the highest paid. (The people putting their names down for those Hermes handbags in Brown Thomas, a bargain at 22 grand.)
And -- guess what? This will come as a complete surprise to you, as you know how our leaders try mightily to ensure that we all "share the pain" equally. The lowest-paid took a 26 per cent hit in their disposable income in 2010. In the middle of the chart, those earning average wages took a 12 per cent cut or so.
And over on the right, with the Hermes handbags, those in the highest earning group had an eight per cent increase in disposable income.
Why is this happening?
Before the bubble burst, a whole layer of people -- lawyers, consultants, bankers, politicians, academics, top civil servants, company executives, etc -- arranged to have themselves paid rock-star money. And below them, dependent on their largesse, more layers of cheerleaders and camp followers.
Besides the wages, there are pensions, share options, all sorts of loot.
The mindset behind that didn't vanish when the bubble burst. Here, and among the European bankers and the EU bureaucrats, the priority since the crisis began has been to preserve that structure of inequality. There are token concessions, to show that they share our pain, but the structure of inequality is non-negotiable.
And policies reflect that mindset. From the notorious bank guarantee to the protection of the bondholders, one policy after another failed. Because dumping the problem on to the medium and lower-paid isn't just unfair -- it won't solve this crisis.
And now comes that headline: 'Michael Noonan clears way for bank bosses to get bonuses'.
Even as they stand in the rubble of their destroyed banks, the bankers have let out periodic howls of anguish. They feel naked without their bonuses. What a bonus says is: "Look, I know I'm on half-a-million wages -- but I'm an important person. And you can't expect me to apply my full energy for a wage. It doesn't motivate me. I need the promise of a big bonus, at which point I might feel inspired to do my job."
And their fellow plutocrats feel their pain.
"Look," says the wimpy deputy assistant under-secretary, at that lobster dinner in Austerity House. "I think this banker bonus thing might push the mugs too far. Next thing you know, they'll be out there marching, social unrest . . ."
"You mean," says another bright spark -- and he pauses and lets a small smirk rest on his lips. "You mean, the Fighting Irish?"
At which point the assembled Knights of Austerity laugh so hard that two of them spill their Grand Marniers. Even the wimpy under-secretary allows himself a smile.