On his annual release from the FG wardrobe, the Taoiseach showed off his verbal brilliance, writes Gene Kerrigan
It happened barely 50 seconds into a six-minute interview. A fleeting peek at the whirring machinery inside the head of Enda Kenny. A glimpse of how Official Ireland's cover story is put together – and sometimes comes apart.
It was Budget Day and the Taoiseach had to come out of hiding. It has been Mr Kenny's practice to avoid hard interviews, to run away – particularly at election time – from any sustained explanation of his politics. However, much of the country is hurting, speaking out in anger or pain. It would look odd if the Taoiseach failed to at least appear to defend his Government's ruthless strategy.
On the RTE TV Nine O'Clock News, Mr Kenny spoke live from Government Buildings to Eileen Dunne in the studio. Live but distant, surrounded by the trappings of power. The courtesies of remote broadcasting ensured the interviewer couldn't cut into the rambling replies, or interrupt even a blatantly irrelevant diversion.
As is his habit, Mr Kenny came equipped with his internal soundbite machine. How this works – in the 2011 election, for example – is that Mr Kenny's little helpers programme the soundbite machine with rehearsed lines ("five-point plan", "best small country in which to do business"). He then strings these lines together randomly, filling up time with feel-good phrases.
On Wednesday, Eileen Dunne began by asking how he could claim to be reviving the economy when he was taking another €3.5bn out of it?
As usual, he ignored the essence of the question – the fact that austerity deflates an economy, ensuring prolonged misery. Instead, Mr Kenny stood in front of a Tricolour and threw out well-chewed lines about interest rates and "signs of confidence". He said it was a "challenging" Budget and that it was "not easy". The kind of soundbites that ignore the substance of the question, but sound like a reply.
Fifty-two seconds into the interview, as he rambled on, this happened.
"What we're at here is continuing the process of moving the country forward towards, em – economic development." The soundbite machine was giving trouble. Mr Kenny was on his own.
Not bad, at first.
"Where we continue to be competitive. Where we continue to be attractive for investment from abroad."
And for the next six seconds, it was like a car faltering at the top of a hill, threatening to slide backwards into chaos. The words made little sense, even to Mr Kenny.
"Where we make no – em."
Try again: "Make no – em".
And try again: "Make no – em".
Then he made a brief revving sound, very much like a car desperately searching for traction.
And he was moving: "No – em – complaint."
He'd found a word that connected to the words that began the sentence. It didn't make much sense ("Where we make no complaint"), but it ended the terrible hollow moments. Now, he needed to find words to fill out the rest of the sentence.
"– about putting real progress –", he said.
Still made little sense. "Where we make no complaint about putting real progress . . ."
Putting real progress – what did that? – never mind, plough on: " . . . in the small and medium enterprise sector". Which is, which is, what?
"Which is the lifeblood of our economy."
Good. Now, say something about families.
"And which will deal effectively with all of the hundreds of thousands of hard-pressed families and their children, which will, which will –"
God, how do I end this?
"– be in the interest of guaranteeing their economic security for the future."
Panic over, reconnected to his internal soundbite machine, Mr Kenny fluently gave Eileen Dunne his prepared lines about "moving the country forward to where we can grow the economy to create jobs . . . small and medium enterprises . . . middle-income families . . . competitive . . . attractive for foreign investment . . . thousands of jobs".
You could see all the stuff he'd cannibalised for his desperate utterances when his mind momentarily detached from the soundbite machine.
This was more than a lapse of attention from a politician with 37 years of public-speaking experience.
The reality of his Budget is that he and his Fianna Fail and Labour collaborators have between them taken something like €25bn out of the economy over four years.
This has crushed the domestic economy and undermined "the small and medium enterprise sector".
Simultaneously, they have looted State funds to shovels billions of public money towards the bankers and bondholders, loading us with unsustainable debt – with no legal, contractual, moral, business, political or economic justification.
They dare not even seek to justify it. So, savaging helpless people, paring away hard-won benefits, betraying the "middle-income families" and the "small and medium enterprises" they extoll, they must conjure up a world where all this makes sense. It's a world in which tough decisions are producing terrific results, where the insane undermining of the economy is creating the mythical "expansionary fiscal contraction".
It's a world in which austerity is working.
Sometimes, even Mr Kenny's mind rebels, trying to find pretty words to conceal the carnage. And it coughs out stuff like, "we make no complaint about putting real progress".
The following day, he was in fine form. He spent time alone with Hillary Clinton. She came out and cheerfully announced: "After years of economic turmoil, we are delighted to see Ireland on the rebound. The Taoiseach has taken a number of very tough, important steps that have placed Ireland on the right track . . . resilience, hard work . . . can-do spirit . . ."
It was like that time, last February, when Mr Kenny spent an hour alone with Italy's Mario Monti, who came out gushing about "the turnaround in the Irish economy".
There's the desperate reality – where the State shovels billions to bankers and bondholders, while stripping money from impoverished carers, the disabled, the low-paid, the medium-paid, the schoolkids, the sick, the small businesses that will fail because Government policy impoverishes their customers.
And all the while, our leaders must speak both publicly and privately of a land of triumph and impending prosperity.
In this alternative world of tough but admirable politicians and insane austerity policies that have turned Ireland into a can-do economic paradise, it made sense last week for Denis O'Brien to plead for privacy for Brian Cowen, saying: "He's out of public life. He's a private citizen. Leave him alone."
Not true. In the real world, Mr Cowen left politics aged 51, on a pension of €150,000, plus about €300,000 in goodbye money. All being paid for by citizens who watch their children pack their bags and their elders picket the Oireachtas, pleading for an end to assaults on their dignity.
In fantasy Ireland, Mr Cowen's bonanza, and Mr Ahern's, and Ms Harney's – and the bonanzas of all our political greats, and the obese rewards of their business chums, and of the bankers and their professional advisors and consultants – are worthy rewards for their sheer classiness.
As the country bleeds, we must strive to preserve the absurd priorities and hierarchies that failed us and crashed the economy. Because, because, because – well, like Mr Kenny's soundbite machine – words sometimes fail me.