Saturday 27 December 2014

John Drennan: Enough already with the austerity

We need some creative politics to save the State from becoming a German colony, writes John Drennan

Published 04/12/2011 | 05:00

THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME: Enda Kenny, carol singing with the Oireachtas Choir as the Leinster House Christmas lights
were switched on, is accused of 'continuing the reactionary programme of the old order'
THE SONG REMAINS THE SAME: Enda Kenny, carol singing with the Oireachtas Choir as the Leinster House Christmas lights were switched on, is accused of 'continuing the reactionary programme of the old order'

ALL governments quickly acquire one or two defining catchphrases. In the case of Mr Cowen, the sentence that most acutely summarised that wretched administration was, 'We are where we are.'

The brutish realism of a phrase that offered no sense of the creativity needed to resolve the State's existential crisis symbolised the defeatist torpor of the Cowen administration. More, even, than an absence of deeds, the 'we are where we are' line was symptomatic of a party that had reached the end of its usefulness. It revealed that Fianna Fail had totally lost 'the divine spark' -- or what Keynes called 'animal spirits' -- which drives all socio-economic acts of progress.

It is a measure of how this Government is failing to thrive that, suddenly, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot the difference between Biffo's stance and Mr Kenny's 'implementing a rotten deal we inherited from the last government' rote-style response to every crisis he must deal with. The development is all the more disturbing because, in actions such as his response to Cloyne, the Taoiseach did enough to suggest that he possessed some degree of animal spirits.

At the beginning, Mr Kenny even provided us with a Vaclav Havel-style characterisation of election 2011 as representing 'a democratic revolution'.

Even on Kenny's first day, however, Joe Higgins said that Kenny's claim represented a "grotesque betrayal'' of the concept of revolution, for Enda was actually proposing "almost to the letter to continue the reactionary programme of the old order''.

We may have chuckled merrily when Joe claimed that the new administration would merely follow the precedent set by the old Irish Parliamentary Party that "responded to an Irish and Europe-wide crisis by sacrificing its people'', but, like the bad old days of 'we are where we are', no one is laughing now.

Instead, Enda's growing affection for the politics of not-so-elegant pessimism means the poor voters are finding it increasingly difficult to remember why they voted for the current Rainbow in such record numbers.

In fact, the reason is quite simple: there was a time when

the Rainbow appeared to be making a great deal of sense.

It is interesting, as we face a week that may set the political course of the Rainbow in stone, to recall that less than a year ago, as the final budget of the doomed FF/Green Party was unveiled, the Opposition benches were filled with the divine spark of political creativity.

Michael Noonan was particularly eloquent as he slammed this "Budget of a puppet government, which is doing what it has been told to do by the IMF, the EU Commission and the European Central Bank''. Noonan warned that "FF, like the Bourbons, has learned nothing and forgotten nothing'.' In particular, its fatal flaw was that it "never learned that one cannot cut and tax one's way out of a recession. One can only grow out of recession''.

This, however, was a Budget which, along with continuing "a fatal banking policy'' and the "extraordinary imprudence of Nama'', had "nothing in it to get the economy growing again'' and had failed to do "anything for people in negative equity, which is a serious gap''.

By the close, the joy was almost spilling over to the FF benches as Noonan cited the call by Michael Collins for a different occupying power to "give us the future. We have had enough of the past. Give us back our country to live in, to grow in, to love".

Joan Burton was equally cutting as she noted this sixth adjustment statement since July 2008, meant that since "Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan were elected to their current offices'' by 2011 "an eye-watering €21bn, or 16 per cent of GNP'' would have been taken out of the economy.

In a clear signal that policies would be different under Labour, she said that even the IMF "clearly understood there is no modern example of a developed economy deflating to this extraordinary degree'' and returning to growth.

The anger of Cowen was almost amusing as Burton clearly explained how austerity was leading us into a "dreaded deflation spiral'' and "the terror of the Hoover years of the Great Depression'.' Austerity, she said, had "increased unemployment from 4 per cent to 14 per cent, slashed growth, killed consumer confidence and turned us into a nation who are busy paying down debt or saving'.'

When it came to the banks, Burton correctly noted that the debt burden which Ireland now carries "smacks more of reparations than of repayments'' and cited Keynes's The Economic Consequences of the Peace, where the economist predicted that "reparations to be paid by the German people after the First World War and the Treaty of Versailles would produce an economic and political catastrophe''.

Burton had been even more eloquent in 2009 when she told the parents of the country that "the ghost'' at that spectral fiscal feast was that "child benefit is being cut to pay for the bailout of the banks and developers'.'

Ironically, given the plans Mr Noonan has, Joan was at least pleased that Lenihan had gone back with his "tail between his legs and reversed the 0.5 per cent increase in VAT, the single most disastrous action he took in the early Budget for 2009''.

As we wonder if this week's Budget will evolve into the fiscal equivalent of the ghost of Christmas future for our new Rainbow Scrooges, we should recall the warning of a different political ghost, Richard Bruton, about the consequences of Brian Lenihan's 2009 Budget.

In an intellectually brilliant critique of the economics of austerity, Bruton claimed the policies of the government would suck us into "a cycle of more job losses and higher debt". The only way, Bruton said, you could break out of this was via "a convincing jobs strategy and that strategy is simply missing''.

Instead, he warned, all the people of the country would feel was "the force of this Budget pushing them down".

Ultimately, Bruton's most serious critique was that the minister is "ducking the challenges we face by offering an accountant's Budget. This Budget is a recipe for staying in this hole for the next year, looking to the same people for the same sacrifices.''

It will be interesting this week to see how much of the creative iconoclasm the Rainbow indulged in survives.

To date, the smart money suggests we are poised for an "accountants' Budget'' that merely confirms our status as a "puppet state'.' Before they make any final decisions, however, the Rainbow would be wise to realise that a new mood is starting to simmer within the electorate. After half a decade of the dumb economics of austerity, rather like the bond markets, the voters believe it is the duty of our political system to come up with real acts of creativity to save the State from becoming an isolated colony of Berlin.

To date the electorate have been supportive, though in an increasingly equivocal way, of this administration. It is a stance that has been informed, not so much by faith, as despair over the possibility that Mr Kenny's 'democratic revolution' will only provide us with a slightly more competent version of FF plus a pleasant Labour tail for wagging.

During their time in opposition Fine Gael and Labour provided us with no shortage of fine words and angry sentiments. But Ireland's long-suffering voters are all too aware of the dangers posed by "false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves''.

Of course, we can still be easily deceived, but the Bible tells us that such creatures will in the long run always be unmasked "by their fruits".

Should this week's budgetary 'fruits' be bitter and unimaginative, the Rainbow of all the self-proclaimed talents may yet learn the cruel truth of the similarity between our electorate and that famous "moving finger'' that "writes; and having writ moves on".

When the moving finger of the Irish voter decides to give you the thumbs-down then, as FF discovered, not all "thy piety nor wit... nor all thy tears'' will change their verdict. Fail with this Budget, fellows, and Tommy Broughan will be the least of your troubles.

Sunday Independent

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