Thursday 25 December 2014

Gene Kerrigan: Our plea for sanity falling on deaf ears

Published 20/01/2013 | 05:00

His voice carried in its very timbre the burden of great responsibility. His words raised immeasurable hope within his listeners. Abraham Lincoln spoke of a whole continent alive with possibilities. "We must work hard and together," he said, "to renovate, to restore and to renew our Union . . . It is in that spirit of doing, that spirit of renewing, that Ireland . . ."



Oops, sorry. My desktop's a mess and I've mixed up my Abraham and my Enda speeches. Easy to do. Our Glorious Leader was in fine form last week, as he lauded "the spirit of doing". He stood in front of the European Parliament and emoted in all directions about how "our Atlantic island" has "long been at the heart of Europe". Mr Kenny spoke of how "in the sixth and seventh centuries our monks, Columbanus and Killian among their number, left in their small boats to bring the light of learning to the European mind".

No harm reminding those French savages that it was the Irish who raised them from the muck and taught them the difference between Merlot and Sauvignon. And we're not done yet with civilising them. "Today Ireland keeps that faith with our continent, with our Union of peoples . . ."

And so on, and on, and on. No one remembers who held the presidency of the EU last year or the year before – but when it's Ireland's turn to call meetings to order, and to serve the tea and biscuits, our politicians cream themselves with pride. Filling a routine administrative function, they emote as though they've won an Oscar, an Olympic Gold, or seven Tours de France in a row.

Enda Lincoln was even inspired by that uplifting Irish Times TV advert, in which an intrepid reporter walks through a wall, and crawls under floorboards in search of "why". We must, said Enda, "be ready to argue the very 'Why?' of Europe".

He spoke – I kid you not – of how the Irish economy is growing, exports are booming, the money markets are rushing to lend us cash. Apparently, things are going tremendously well in this great little nation. So well, in fact, that in his spare time Enda hopes to play a part in ending "global poverty and hunger". And in "bringing peace to troubled regions such as Syria, Iran, Mali and Somalia".

It's not that there aren't some problems here at home. "Our proud people continue to labour under the weight of bank-related debt." Ah, says I to myself. Here it comes. He's going to start kicking shins. Abraham Kenny is about to demand that his people be set free from the appalling bank debt slavery that has been forced upon them.

"Austerity has brought pain and suffering to many families, many homes," he said. And immediately, in case the EU politicians thought he was complaining, he added: "But the Irish people have borne that weight, that pain, with remarkable courage and patience and quiet dignity."

Not to mention dread and despair and fearful passivity.

While Enda was telling the EU parliament about the submissiveness of "our proud people", back home some economists were totting up a few figures. Trade union researcher Michael Taft was sifting through data from Eurostat, the EU's official repository of statistics. What's the effect of the banking collapse on general government budgets?

Taft produced, on his blog, Notes On The Front, a table to show that those generous Germans have contributed no less than €40bn to saving the banks. A whole 1.5 per cent of their GDP. God bless you, Frau Merkel.

And Ireland? Well, Germany is a whale of an economy – we're just a shrimp. Yet Taft's figures show we've been saddled with private bank debts of €41bn – a whopping 25 per cent of GDP. (This isn't counting other costs, such as the asset-stripping of the National Pension Reserve Fund).

Figures for other countries are tiny (the UK, for instance, is next in line, at €11bn. Ireland, Taft shows, is paying for 42 per cent of the European private bank bailout. But, of course, we're doing so with "remarkable courage and patience and quiet dignity".

Can't be right, says I to myself. This Taft lad is a whizz with figures and I'm not, but that sounds – well, outrageous. So, against my better nature, I pored through the Eurostat Supplementary Table for the Financial Crisis.

Page 8: "Overall, the most significant increase in deficit due to government interventions in financial institutions is noted for Ireland." The Supplementary Table uses percentage points (pp) to measure effect on GDP.

For "Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia and the United Kingdom, the deficit increased . . . from around 0.5 pp to 3 pp over the reference period" of 2007-11. "Spain and Lithuania also reported a negative impact, but for smaller amounts."

So, the maximum cost to EU countries was 3 percentage points of GDP, or less. And Ireland, with its "proud people" and their "remarkable courage and patience and quiet dignity"? The Supplementary Table shows that bailing out our bankers and bondholders has cost us 26 percentage points of GDP.

Meanwhile, economist Constantin Gurdgiev has been crunching some CSO numbers on per capita income, and posting the results on his blog, True Economics. In 2011, "Irish per capita national disposable income . . . was down 20.2 per cent on peak levels and was below 1998-1999 average". Disposable incomes at 1999 levels. And expected to remain so.

He adds: "Ireland's real economy has already lost not a decade but over 14 years worth of growth." Projections for income growth suggest the so-called lost decade will in Ireland's case run "between 16 and 20 years".

Now, for us, with our remarkable courage, patience and quiet dignity, austerity means many injuries and indignities. The old, the sick, the young – they've all had their pockets picked. Let's take one such scandal – cochlear implants.

Medical science is truly wonderful – kids who would previously have grown up deaf can now have cochlear implants that restore their hearing. A human achievement truly to be proud of.

Unfortunately, the HSE is short of money – much as they'd like, they can only give the toddlers one cochlear implant each. Now, with only one ear functioning, ambient noise prevents the kids hearing properly – they can't work out the direction sound is coming from. Little kids need to hear properly in order to learn how to speak.

This is truly rotten. And the parents and the doctors and the HSE all want the best for the kids – but, hey, if we're going to meet those troika targets and keep our position as the biggest bank-bailer-outers in Europe, y'know, something's got to give.

Those kids suffered a random natural injury that limits their lives – and medical science fought back, and gives them an equal chance with the rest of us – and, well, the State can't do everything. It can't bail out bankers and bondholders and kids with hearing problems. The buck's got to stop with someone – sorry, kids.

Anyway, in their silent world, those children will, I'm sure, make Enda proud – with their remarkable courage, patience and quiet dignity.

Sunday Independent

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