Monday 26 September 2016

Political jousting is entertaining, but not always informative

Published 24/07/2015 | 02:30

'Joan Burton is ‘Ms Volubility’ dispensing words by the dozen'
'Joan Burton is ‘Ms Volubility’ dispensing words by the dozen'

We were back with the old puzzler about the difference between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil - if indeed there is any difference. Leinster House folklore has it that Seán Lemass used to say: "The difference is we're in - and they're out."

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And, bar reversing the "in" and "out" order, it may still be as good a delineation of difference as any other in contemporary politics. These thoughts occurred as Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Jobs Minister Richard Bruton arrived to help the Oireachtas bank committee with their inquiries yesterday.

The Fine Gael pair were there in their capacity as leader and finance spokesman of the main opposition party spanning the years 2002 to 2008 in the lead-in to financial and banking calamity. In similar roles we had appearances by former Labour leader Pat Rabbitte and former finance spokesperson Joan Burton.

There was an abundance of lively political jousting which was at times very engaging for the fans of political engagement. But in reality, bar the odd detail, we learned little that was new.

The Fianna Fáil principals of that era - McCreevy, Cowen and Ahern - have repeatedly insisted that the main opposition parties had never advised the Government or the public, during the heady boom years, that it was time to rein things in.

Neither Enda Kenny's Fine Gael nor Pat Rabbitte's Labour ever urged prudence and caution on the nation. Instead, their criticisms of various Fianna Fáil-led governments were that there was not enough largesse, not enough public spending hikes and not enough tax cuts.

So, is Fianna Fáil's thesis right? Well, after six hours-plus of knockabout testimony yesterday, and at risk of infuriating some Fine Gael and Labour stalwarts, the short but emphatic answer is: Yes.

In fairness to Fine Gael and Labour, they did offer some qualifying grace notes and matters of detail which they would see as being extremely important. But if you stay big picture, we can confirm what we already know: all parties were telling the same flawed and ultimately calamity-destined story in the boom years 2002 to 2007.

Fine Gael and Labour did of course make some good points. There were large flashes of considerable incompetence and waste from Fianna Fáil: the squandering of €130m on the infamous PPARS public health payroll system which could not add up the wages; the electronic voting debacle; large spending over-runs on big capital projects like the Port Tunnel; Charlie McCreevy's quick-fix dispersal of public servants around the country masquerading as decentralisation.

But can we be sure any or all of these would not have happened had Fine Gael and/or Labour been on the government bridge in those years? That contra-factual exercise must await another day. Similarly, let's not forget that Fianna Fáil were in charge when things all went horribly wrong from 2008 onwards.

Enda Kenny recalled the long-forgotten "Rip-Off Ireland Campaign" as far back as 2003 which pointed up a loss of competitiveness. Pat Rabbitte remembered being accused of "talking down the economy" in January 2007 when he spoke of lost competitiveness and increasing dependence on property.

There were also almost endearing character traits on display: Joan Burton is "Ms Volubility", dispensing words by the dozen; and Senator Marc MacSharry could be on his way to being "Mr Belligerence", re-fighting a battle about the committee structure his party won a year ago; while Pat Rabbitte is still king of the one-line put-down. All good knockabout jousting, but what does it add up to? Well, not very much.

These latest banking inquiry sessions were at times very diverting. But they were not very informative. Happily, the end is now in sight for this process.

Irish Independent

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