Saturday 29 November 2014

Gene Kerrigan: When John Bruton and his peers speak, we really ought to pay attention to their ideas

Published 17/08/2014 | 00:00

Illustration: Tom Coogan
Illustration: Tom Coogan

It's not what you want to find yourself doing at this stage of a person's life - defending John Bruton. But someone's got to do it. Guess who got the short straw?

Last week, this newspaper published a story about an informal speech Mr Bruton made in 2013 in New York. It got a bit of reaction. Not entirely favourable to Mr Bruton's point of view.

There were comments made about his pension and his hard neck, but that's missing the point. The point is that we should be aware that people connected with politics and banking and law and big business gather in plush rooms - as they are entitled to do - and discuss how they see the future.

They discuss what they expect to happen in the short, middle and long term. And they discuss how different forces might react. And from such discussions come suggestions.

And - since these are people to whom politicians listen - from such suggestions come policies. And such policies affect how we live.

Mr Bruton told his American audience that in Europe people are blaming bankers for austerity. He compared this to the hounding of witches in the 17th Century.

His audience, from the financial business, chortled at this example of how daft the public can be.

More startlingly, Mr Bruton predicted that governments in Europe will default on the pensions and health benefits for which we've paid.

Reactions to the story included the claim that the Sunday Independent must be Up To Something. Internet detectives were thrilled to discover that the meeting occurred in March 2013. (The fact that this was mentioned in the article may have escaped their attention.)

This suggested to some that the paper "sat on the story" in order to release it at an opportune time. This, I can confirm, is in fact true.

We sat on the story for a whole three days. This was mostly because the Sunday Independent doesn't often publish on Thursday, Friday or Saturday.

The story was based on a stunning piece of investigative journalism by yours truly. In dogged Woodward and Bernstein style, I typed "John Bruton" into YouTube and the video popped up (I was looking for something else, quite humdrum). The video had been there for 17 months and no one noticed.

One puzzling reaction was the demand that Mr Bruton shut the hell up. It's unseemly, some say, for an ex-Taoiseach to speak on matters of current concern.

Some pointed to Liam Cosgrave, who has said little or nothing in public since he lost an election and left office 37 years ago.

Now, in what holy book of parliamentary etiquette is that written? None - and a good thing, too. For two reasons.

One - there's a right to speak or not to speak. Mr Cosgrave has a right to remain silent. And Mr Bruton is equally entitled to say what's on his mind.

Two - why on earth would you want to gag Mr Bruton?

He's very knowledgeable about the EU/ECB nexus that runs this country, of which the Oireachtas is a branch office. Currently he's employed in the private sector, lobbying on behalf of the IFSC, but he's still held in high regard within the political and bureaucratic structures of the EU, and the law business.

When people as well-connected as Mr Bruton speak, particularly when they speak informally and without a script - as he did in New York - we sometimes get an insight into the issues and options that preoccupy our rulers.

And it's never been more important that we know what's rattling around the minds of these people.

It might amuse some to see Mr Bruton as a sad old man sitting alone in a room, talking to himself about solutions to capitalism's problems. There are other people in that room. There are many such rooms. And many John Brutons. And they're talking about us.

Mr Bruton is, I suspect, right in thinking that European governments ­­- including ours - may default on pensions. Or, at least try to.

If the order comes from the European Central Bank that Irish old age pensions are to be cut to the marrow, how will our government react?

They've damaged hospitals, looted mental health services, embedded long term unemployment, abolished entry level work opportunities, thereby cultivating youth unemployment, they've deepened poverty and corrupted education - all in the name of the ECB notion of fiscal rectitude.

They've stripped away social protections, degraded job security, cut wages, worsened work conditions - and loaded tens of billions of euro of private debt onto the public balance sheet.

Why would they not consider looting our pension funds?

Currently, out in the real world, there's some shock and quite a bit of awe at the state of the European economy. If you savagely deflate an economy, in order to reach some magical deficit level, the economy will stabilise and recover at a steady pace. This is an item of faith from rightwing scripture.

Since 2008 they've become very serious about this, and ripping up swathes of the social fabric is the price they're prepared for us to pay. And it hasn't worked. The European economy is flat-lining. When you consistently deflate an economy you get stultifying deflation (who would have thought?). Even Germany is in trouble.

In this country, such matters are not usually discussed. The media watches house prices obsessively, because someone once told someone at a dinner party that this is the crucial indicator. The ESRI continues to wet itself every time Michael Noonan grins and says "It's all good, folks!"

Ah, but didn't Fitch upgrade the Irish economy just last Friday? No, it didn't. It upgraded prospects for bondholder profits, which is not the same thing. The media and the politicians idolise growth rate predictions. Full stop. All the damage done in the name of cutting deficits and protecting bondholders isn't even counted in assessing the "recovery".

Seven years of failure have left the deflation credo in tatters. But it remains a rightwing mystical belief, so it will persist. It's like a stone age society tied to a religious belief that if they starve themselves it will make the rain stop.

It may be true that as the western economy declines old age pensions will become, as Mr Bruton
said, "unaffordable". But there's a bit left off that sentence. "Unaffordable if everything else remains the same."

The past 30 years has seen a rocketing of profit for the infamous "1 per cent". This has produced the extreme imbalance we see today - in which inequality is so gross as to threaten the stability of the system.

The share of wealth going to labour - through wages and pensions - has declined. The share going to capital - through rents
and dividends - has gone up.

The consumer society needs the mass of us to spend. How do we do this if our share of wealth is declining? For some time, consumer spending was
kept going through borrowing. Bankers, politicians and the media applauded - and we know how that ended.

When people from Mr Bruton's background gather in quiet rooms and consider problems they come up with solutions drawn from their scripture. That's natural. There's no conspiracy - we all have our core beliefs, and our solutions are based on our understanding of how things work. But the solutions coming from people who support the status quo, and the aims of the ECB, are not necessarily in our interests.

The Bruton video gave us a tiny glimpse of one of the conversations that are being held all around us, by people with the ears of the ECB and the EU.

Nothing wrong with that. It's how the world works. But we should be aware of it. And we should be discussing our responses. How will we defend our hard-earned social benefits, part of the social wage for which we've worked?

The day after the Bruton story was published, the video was taken down from YouTube. I can't imagine who'd deprive us of the gems of insight on view, but there you are.

Free speech for John Bruton!

Sunday Independent

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