independent

Thursday 17 April 2014

Getting us to take one for their team

The elite are delighted the ordinary people of Ireland are suffering on their behalf, writes Gene Kerrigan

WELL done, people of Ireland. You no doubt felt a rush of pride last week, as Europe's movers and shakers sang your praises. Bloomberg Television – the business channel with a global reach of 310 million homes – featured our Minister for Finance Michael Noonan. The programme on which Noonan appeared is called The Pulse – because that's where its presenters (Francine Lacqua and Guy Johnson) supposedly have their fingers.

Not your pulse, of course. The pulse of the people who matter. Bloomberg is business-friendly to an embarrassing degree. Self-described entrepreneurs who know slightly less than my cat knows about economic matters are encouraged to spout shamelessly about fiscal responsibility.

Michael Noonan wasn't terribly stretched by the Bloomberg interrogation. Did he worry, Francine wanted to know, that Europe's recent poor economic performance might hold back the thriving economic entity that is Ireland?

In the world as seen by Bloomberg and its target audience, successful Ireland is a great example of how to run a country. Ireland does what it's told – and when the people who matter make a balls of things, we take on their debts. Irish bankers, French gamblers, German bondholders – the people of Ireland will mortgage their children's future, rather than see you pay your own losses.

To Bloomberg and its target audience, Ireland is a successful experiment in subservience. A country that thrives by doing what its betters tell it to do.

"Ireland is certainly the A student in Europe," Michael told Francine and Guy. He put on the smile he uses when he wants to look relaxed and confident. It's as convincing as an Enda Kenny speech on one of his "jobs plans". Noonan spoke of the "180 separate items" of the troika programme that the Government has obediently implemented – the laws that were changed as directed, the taxes imposed, the working conditions weakened.

He spoke of how "our European partners" allow us to manage our country in accordance with a "menu" of options that they have drawn up.

Francine and Guy were impressed. Noonan, not entirely removed from reality, had to remind Francine and Guy that there are still a few people on the dole in this country.

And then it got downright weird.

Guy Johnson suggested that European leaders had gone lukewarm on the notion of reducing the debt our Government ran up to save the bankers. Not so, said Michael. He explained how the Irish Government took on massive private banking debts "at the direction of the European Central Bank, to prevent contagion spreading to the European banking system".

Then, the magic words: "Ireland took one for the team."

And that's when – all over Europe – bankers, bondholders and people of immense wealth raised their crystal glassware and silently thanked us for keeping them in the luxury to which they are accustomed. Well done, people of Ireland.

Not that Ireland is alone in "taking one for the team". Every Italian citizen, from the shoppers thronging the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan to the Mafiosi lying on the beach at Siderno – every man, woman and child in Italy has on average contributed €191 to the rescue of European bankers and their gambling clients.

It's the same right across the EU. Throughout Austerity Europe, over 500 million people on average coughed up €191 each to save the bankers and their pals. It may not seem a lot, but in total it takes tens of billions out of the pockets of those who can ill afford to play philanthropist.

Each and every Irish citizen, of course, has on average been saddled with debts of somewhat more than €191. When the greedy bankers and bondholders ran capitalism into the ground, a litany of Ireland's greats knew what to do.

Mr Cowen and Mr Gormley and Mr Lenihan, Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore and Mr Noonan – the names will shine from the history books.

Every Irish citizen has been saddled with €8,956 of debt. Forty-seven times what citizens of other countries pay. A whole 42 per cent of the cost of saving the European banking system. That's what taking one for the team means.

But not to worry. Michael Noonan explained to Francine and Guy that all is well. Frau Merkel and Monsieur Hollande have assured Enda Kenny that some of the debts our leaders dumped on us will be lifted. They said this to Enda "indirectly", Noonan claimed, "effectively, in shorthand".

Which means, of course, that they didn't actually say it at all. They murmured something on which Enda put his own interpretation. Noonan claimed that Merkel and Hollande told Enda in private: "You'll be looked after."

You can almost see them winking, like a builder telling his labourers not to worry about being paid off the books. "Jayzus – don't be worrying, boy," said Merkel. "Ye'll be looked after," said Hollande.

All this begs a couple of questions. Who in Ireland has "taken one" and who hasn't? And should the economic future of a country be decided "in shorthand", with undocumented nods and winks at unofficial discussions?

Let me pick a name. Not quite at random. Bertie Ahern. The chap on the €150,000 pension. How has he "taken one for the team?" Or any of the other elite pensioners (how many boards are McCreevy and Harney on these days, to top up their pensions)?

Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan have had pay cuts – but when you're on two hundred grand a year or thereabouts, you hardly feel a little pinch. The elite journalists on €220,000 and downwards, relentlessly urging nurses and cops, train drivers and record keepers to stop being so greedy and think of Ireland – have they "taken one"?

The bankers on €600k? The CEOs on €500k and €300k? The professionals on €200k? The managers on €100k – the folks our leaders have so stalwartly protected from tax increases on high incomes?

The people who have "taken one" are those on middle and low incomes; as it was in the beginning, is now and – if Bloomberg's target audience has its way – ever shall be.

Of course, we're told this is all old hat. It's not the bank debt that matters, it's the fiscal deficit. We spend €10bn or €12bn more than we earn. It's unsustainable, they roar. Well, not really.

There's nothing investors like more than a stable country with a fiscal deficit. They can lend it money and be certain of making a profit as its economy improves. It's when a country is destabilised – as this one was in 2010, when the true cost of saving the bankers was revealed – that interest rates go through the roof.

The deficit matters, but the nub of the crisis isn't the deficit. It's the bankers and bondholders and the gamblers who won't take their losses – and those who protect them. It always has been and it still is.

So that was Michael wowing the Bloomberg audience from London. Back in Dublin, Enda was putting the finishing touches to his latest "jobs plan". As he approached the microphone on Friday, jobs plan in hand, he was singing. I kid you not. Happy as a lark, he was. "Da-da deeeee", he sang, "Dee-da eed-um".

For. The. Birds.

Irish Independent

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