Friday 19 December 2014

John Drennan: And now for Noonan's next trick: a debt relief deal

Published 27/01/2013 | 05:00

But the Coalition's conjurers should note: Paddy will be a tough audience to please

We are in an intriguing place when the European Parliament president, Germany's Martin Schulz, tells the 'Dear Leader' Enda Kenny, to make an assertive case for Irish debt relief in Davos.

In fairness, the curious Mr Schulz, who apparently is important in a minor way within the European maze of bureaucrats and utterly unimportant in Germany (which presumably is why he is the president of the EU parliament) meant well when he said Ireland should stand up for itself and not decide its fate by thinking about what pleases Berlin.

But it was hard to avoid the sense that there was more than an element of 'dance for the money, Paddy' surrounding the well-meaning intervention.

Whatever about Michael Noonan, whose dancing days are probably over, Mr Schulz need have no fears over Mr Kenny – there will be no need for any cowboys firing six-shooters into the ground to persuade Enda to 'dance' as hard as he can for a promissory note deal.

A Taoiseach dreaming of a general election campaign centred on the image of Enda (oh, and Eamon too, but in the background obviously) waving goodbye to the troika, as Fianna Fail skulks on the sidelines, knows that the only thing that can reverse the dwindling support for this administration's increasingly odd 'democratic revolution' is the willingness of grim Angela and the troika to be kind to the Irish 'charity case'.

The 'Dear Leader' and his new VBF Michael are, after the fall of the Rainbow government in 1997, acutely aware that all governments have a defining moment which sets their reputation in stone.

In their case, the ghost of the Brigid McCole scandal, which a self-congratulatory government sleepwalked into, must have haunted many a sleepless night over the 14 years in the political desert.

Despite his cunning, something similar occurred in Bertie Ahern's first government where the Taoiseach's

devious manoeuvrings over the Sheedy affair established a reputation for untrustworthiness that would define, and hamper, Mr Ahern for the entirety of his premiership.

In the case of the Grumpy Old Men it is becoming increasingly clear the promissory note deal may play a similar role in charting the ongoing political fortunes of the Government.

Of course, even the former Rainbow Warriors in the Cabinet know that, on its own, a promissory note deal will not transform the struggling domestic economy.

It will at best 'stabilise' the Irish patient enough to reassure the world economy that Paddy will not turn feral and start defaulting, or robbing German taxpayers' money from the purses of little old ladies.

But, those who are rightly unenthusiastic about the economic consequences of the great 'drama' of the promissory notes fail to understand that politics, more often than not, is about theatre rather than economics.

In the case of the Grumpy Old Men the theatre of the promissory note deal is of the serious rather than the farcical variety for, now that the Budget's done, the Banquo's ghost of Enda's infamous 'seismic deal' on banking debt is scratching at the back door of Government Buildings.

It is doing a bit more than scratching, for the public are becoming increasingly doubtful about the capacity of this lot to fulfil their promises.

Our Grumpy Old Men may have come to office, driven by a fair breeze of fine words and sentiments about our special relationship with Angela and the vigour they would bring to the crusade for a fairer deal.

Sadly, after almost two years, this has been restructured in the form of a bleating plea for a gentler form of reparations and a state of colonial deference to the wagging finger of Angela, which is all the more egregious when one considers how, after our German 'partners' destroyed the continent – twice – Marshall Aid rather than reparations finally chilled the German imperial gene.

It is unlikely Mr Noonan made that point to Angela for he is far too busy kissing all the cheeks he can find in Davos.

But, his and Enda's determination to secure a deal will undoubtedly be stiffened by the scenario where a government, which in the polls at least has lost its popular mandate, is at a crossroads to such an extent even the credibility of a Finance Minister is in an equivocal space.

Up to now Mr Noonan, with Joan Burton, has been the strongest link in the Government.

But suddenly insidious little whispers are emerging about how, when it comes to our cherished banking deal, 'the Messiah' who even had the mobile number of Timothy Geithner has turned into Old Methuselah, 'still wandering around the desert'.

After a Pyrrhic budgetary success, a set of Grumpy Old Men who are in a weakened and fractious state requires a theatrical success to keep the show on the road.

Something must be paraded in front of an electorate that is becoming increasingly impatient for a reward for the mild-mannered way our elites accepted austerity after that threat of 'immediate and terrible' fiscal war from our gallant ECB 'allies'.

In fairness, all the indications are that the magic show of the promissory note deal, which would just about do the trick, will be secured.

Mr Noonan and the good civil servant Patrick Honohan may occasionally blow cold, but suspicion, particularly in the case of Mr Noonan, is growing that the occasional dolefulness of the Finance Minister is informed by the knowledge that if a deal is too easily won its worth will be weighed too lightly.

This means that we must therefore have theatrical public displays of wrangling, hard 'tangling' by Enda and long, dark nights of the soul before Enda and Michael bring the golden child before the adoring Fine Gael backbenchers.

And, of course, in time, Eamon will get to bring it before the Labour ones too.

When the great day comes, the 'Dear Leader' Enda, Michael 'the Magician' and the Invisible Tanaiste should be careful when it comes to one key element of any deal.

The three not-so-wise men would be wise to realise that when it comes to Mr Noonan's next theatrical show an increasingly 'Doubting Paddy' is not going to be impressed or convinced by any fiscal three-card tricks like the stroke that was pulled in 2012.

'Doubting Paddy' instead wants something signed by Angela and nailed down in public, in the manner of Luther's theses. And he wants it written in language that he can understand. For 'Doubting Paddy' believes that if he doesn't understand a deal, it is ropey.

In the long run, to paraphrase Keynes, the promissory notes may be a bit of a fiscal dead rubber.

But in the here and now, if 'Doubting Paddy' is to be convinced that the European nurse genuinely has the Irish patient's best interests at heart, a credible deal represents an important declaration of intent.

The post-Christmas ennui in Leinster House is for now masking escalating tensions among the Grumpy Old Men who, exhausted by the clashes prior to Christmas have returned in ceasefire mode.

But old wounds rarely heal and should the promissory note deal, which represents a crucial 'stepping stone' in Ireland's journey back to independence not convince, the gap between the coalition partners and the gap between the electorate and the Coalition can only escalate.

Sunday Independent

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