Saturday 22 October 2016

Things fall apart, the centre remains smug

The budget provoked embarrassing claims from FG/FF that the "centre ground" isn't a failure

Published 16/10/2016 | 02:30

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday

Well, they're certainly not over-modest, you can say that about our current leaders. Last week, two of them, Paschal Donohoe and Michael McGrath, were so overcome with their own sense of mission that they felt the need to portray themselves as saviours of the nation.

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Paschal is the new Brendan Howlin, Minister for Wagging His Finger at the Rest of Us. He told the Dail that because of the magnificence of the FG/FF 2017 Budget, "things will not just fall apart and the centre can and will hold".

He was quoting Yeats's poem, The Second Coming. This sees Europe in danger from some "rough beast" awakening from slumber to unleash a "blood-dimmed tide", as things fall apart and the centre cannot hold.

Shortly afterwards, FF's Michael McGrath, who helped put the Budget together, seconded Paschal's emotion. "The bigger picture," he told the Dail, "is that the centre ground of politics is under attack, not just here in Ireland but throughout Europe."

And Michael wanted us to know how "vital it is that the centre holds".

This is the newly smug image that FG/FF seek to create of themselves: occupying the holy ground of the centre, holding back the wild men and women of the extremes.

Everyone likes "the centre", no one likes "extremes". The centre is solid, safe and sensible, it embraces most of us.

The extremes are risky, wild and uncertain. The people there sometimes don't wear suits.

It would be safe to say that this is how the bulk of the media, too, portray the FG/FF coalition - the sensible centre. The same media instinctively portrays anything outside this "centre ground" as alien, immoral or odd.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, while often excoriated for "gaffes" and "u-turns", are depicted as part of what we are; the blood of our history courses through their veins.

Anything that threatens the long-running political soap opera is seen as disruptive and suspect. Accordingly, it's undermined by exposure, innuendo and snide comment - but mostly by being sidelined from the "centre ground" conversation.

Let's look at this all-important centre ground, and its recent history.

It was the centre ground that ran the offshore scams such as Ansbacher, for the executives and shareholders. It was the centre ground that ran the non-resident tax scams, for the publicans and hoteliers.

Sometimes the sensible centre merely facilitated the frauds, with tax loopholes and tax amnesties; sometimes leading members of FG/FF took part in the frauds.

Hundreds of millions were skimmed off the economy.

As a result, thousands of hospital beds were closed, the honest citizens paid a bigger share of taxes and there was a massive transfer of wealth from the mainstream to the well-off. Families were broken as the young were driven abroad.

The public health service has yet to recover from the devastation inflicted on it by the FG/FF sensible people in the late 80s and early 90s.

We worked hard to come back from that, then FG/FF handed the reins to their building, investing and banking cronies. Lawyers and accountants made good money nodding happily at everything that went on, as they'd nodded happily at the tax dodges. The media cheered every appearance of a more expensive handbag and rhapsodised about the soaring prices of mundane houses.

FG/FF competed in offering ever wilder measures to ramp up the boom. They enabled the surge of greed that led to the crash of 2008.

The parties of the sensible centre then gave the bankers tens of billions, and thereby turned private debt into public debt. The European Central Bank ensured that we paid almost as much as the Germans to save the European banks. Michael Noonan announced that we "took one for the team".

At which point the sensible centre of FG/FF pivoted to austerity.

They divided us into cutesy demographics: "millennials", "the squeezed middle", "the grey vote". They played rural against urban, young against old, nurses against cops, bus drivers against civil servants - and everyone against the Travellers. (Who took proportionately the biggest wallop from the austerity budgets? Yes, the Travellers.)

And many among us prospered. At the top, there were some decreases in bonuses and the like, but the richest 300 in Ireland had a €3.3bn increase in wealth in 2015/16, according to the Sunday Independent Rich List.

Below them, the layers of executives and managers maintained their immense salaries and pensions. The politicians have unashamedly continued to pay themselves top rates.

Coming into the General Election, FG spent two weeks chortling about Michael Noonan's €12bn "fiscal space". Then, Pearse Doherty corrected his figures - Noonan was out by billions.

Last week, Noonan refused to debate the 2017 Budget with Doherty on Prime Time. I don't blame him. Having his figures corrected by the Shinner must have been mortifying.

Instead, Noonan wanted to "debate" the Budget with Michael McGrath, with whom he and Paschal had concocted the Budget.

RTE didn't dare engage in such an obvious farce, so it arranged a multi-party debate. Perhaps Michael felt safer among a larger group, so he agreed to do it.

Most important, the status quo was maintained - there is FG/FF in the centre ground, all else is no more than peripheral.

Noonan is the best the sensible centre has to offer, and he's not impressive. McGrath? Well, when Noonan got his figures wrong neither McGrath nor any of the other FF geniuses noticed.

No one has any confidence that the FG/FF coalition will at any stage in this century end the A&E scandal - people lying for hours or days on trolleys in hospital corridors.

Due to the policies of successive sensible ministers, there aren't and won't be enough houses to keep our people warm in the depths of winter. Not this year, not next or any year into the foreseeable future.

On some Dublin city centre streets, the homeless are already running out of doorways in which to sleep.

A religious commitment to the market culture prevents FG/FF taking the direct action required to ensure there are enough affordable homes. In this Budget, as in all others, the emphasis has been on tweaking the profit margins of builders, in the hope that this will encourage them to provide shelter.

The same effort to protect the private health sector damns reforms to failure.

This continues, and will continue, despite the evidence that reverence for the market isn't the solution, it's the problem.

Evidence of serious difficulties within the police force is ignored as long as possible. Untreated problems fester and there's now - and it's there in the open - evidence of a gigantic scandal at the heart of the force that the "sensible centre" seems determined to continue to ignore.

The steaming heap of suspicion that is Nama was the creation of the centre ground. As was the failure to oversee it effectively.

All of this is happening right out in front of us, as politicians congratulate themselves. There's lot of chatter about "enterprise" and "entrepreneurship", but we all know we're a tax haven - not for us, but for some of the richest people in the world.We all know the default position of our leaders is deference, whether to the ECB, to Apple or to Donald Trump when he visits Shannon. And for the rest of us, the wagging finger, the empty boast, the few pennies in the Budget.

Sunday Independent

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