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Thursday 2 October 2014

John Drennan: Looming budget iceberg prompts a sinking feeling

The Willie Penrose debacle was a classic example of stupid politics in the raw, writes John Drennan

Published 20/11/2011 | 05:00

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GOODBYE TO ALL THAT: The resignation of Willie Penrose, who quit as Minister of State for Housing over the Government's decision to close Columb barracks in Mullingar, could have been avoided with a little piece of political intelligence

After eight months in office, our Government of All the Egos has reached a tipping point and the direction in which it is swaying is not positive.

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The much feared first real budget, as distinct to fripperies like that 'jobs initiative' (remember that? No?), was always going to represent a defining moment.

However, even before our real masters could approve its contents in the Bundestag, the omens are not good.

The departure of Willie Penrose may have been drowned by the launch of Thursday's Public Sector Reform policy but the debacle provided us with the perfect case study in this administration's defining traits and characteristics.

The resignation of an honourable, hard-working minister could have been avoided with a little piece of political intelligence.

Instead, we got a great deal of pointless drama and petty, unfocused infighting over a series of barracks closures that will actually achieve nothing.

If the Penrose debacle provided us with a classic example of stupid politics in the raw, the much-hyped Public Sector Reform document provided us with an even more cheerless example of the ease with which our discredited senior mandarins have executed a flawless reverse take-over of the Government.

One could only wish that they were as good at running the country as they are at running the government, as Eamon Gilmore signalled the decision to pawn off the deeds of the country to the public sector via a graceless lecture about the vulgar nature of those who criticised it.

We are in trouble indeed when the Reverend Mother can claim advocates of reform are petty vulgarians, for it took gentlemen like Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern eight years to reach such a level of detached hauteur.

This lot, in contrast, have arrived there in less than one.

As with their Fianna Fail predecessors who launched many, unnervingly similar, documents in the pharaoh's tomb of Government Buildings, they had little to be haughty about.

When it came to the proposals on quangos, decentralisation and public sector reform it was definitely a case of something old, something borrowed and absolutely nothing new.

No amount of technocratic terminology could disguise the similarity between the Government's plans to cut public spending by €2.5bn without reducing the salaries of a single worker with the time that Slattery's Mounted Foot went to war with the British Empire.

Sadly, once the Rainbow, apologies, Mounted Foot were confronted, they ran straight back up the mountains without firing a single shot on the wise principle of "he who runs away will live to fight another day".

As the Rainbow's popularity begins to trickle gently away, the pity of it all was that we did not ask, expect or even want a great deal from the new government. We knew in our heart that it was an essentially cautious crew of political lifers who had never ripped up too many political trees.

All we did ask, though, is that they would at least be somewhat different to the lot that had gone before them.

Instead we find the burning tyre of cronyism is now hanging around their necks as snugly as it fitted their Fianna Fail/Mary Harney-led PD predecessors.

It is difficult to believe a government would squander so much of its political capital for the sake of a few judicial appointments and the rewarding of a few hacks on State boards.

However, whilst such political stupidity and moral incontinence is unfortunate, this Government appears to be intent on welcoming an entire range of fleas, ticks and the rest of the infestation of political parasites that nestled so comfortably within the fur of their predecessors.

Like the little hurdle that finished Albert, often it is the small things, rather than the major crises, that tell us more about the nature of administrations.

In the case of Fianna Fail, one of the central flaws which brought that lot down was a sense of entitlement that would have embarrassed the court of Louis XIV.

The semi-comic Downton Abbey episode of last week, where it was revealed the poor serfs who work for Fine Gael were sent a missive on the 'protocol' they should adopt in dealing with the most vainglorious set of new TDs we have had to endure suggested Fine Gael has simply adopted the flaws of the previous administration en masse.

In the missive, the humble vassals were told that whilst the casual use of the first names of TDs might be acceptable in the office, outside in the corridors of the Dail, when addressing their social betters, appropriate titles such as Deputy or Minister or Muppet (sorry, we made the last one up) would have to be used.

One supposes they, or the rest of us for that matter, are lucky we don't have to walk one step behind our benevolent masters, but it does appear we are not too far away from the rule in the UK Parliament where, if a commoner meets a member of the House of Lords, they must step out of the way until his Lordship swishes by.

It all makes for some contrast with the sense of patriotic drama in which our not- so-new-now Government wrapped itself on taking office. Back in March, we were constantly told this was a wartime administration which would deal ruthlessly with the causes of our national emergency.

In analysing how a government with a record majority has actually dealt with the 'emergency' of 2011, two instructive comparisons are provided by the 'minority' administrations of Garret FitzGerald in 1981 and Charlie Haughey in 1987.

Both acted courageously and decisively, within a matter of weeks, to deal with an equally desolate economic scenario. This lot, in contrast have run around appointing pals to big jobs and kissing the party badge like over-paid, second rate soccer players.

Their dominant economic act has consisted of a raid on private sector pension funds in a desperate attempt to give some credence to a lightweight jobs initiative that, like the poor Mayfly, died hours after this economic changeling took its first breath.

Oh, and Enda also walks to work.

Outside of the walking, the real measure of their 'achievements' is epitomised by the happy ripple of laughter which has (allegedly) been heard in the boardrooms of our banks over the defeat of the referendum on Dail Inquiries.

The result has been forgotten with the usual enthusiasm politicians display in the tip-toeing away from corpses.

But it should be remembered that in one fell swoop, the citizens of the State lost the possibility of the catharsis that would have been provided by an open investigation into how €250bn of our wealth was destroyed by a cartel of little more than 40 builders and bankers, courtesy of a toxic combination of political carelessness, gaucherie and arrogance.

Last week, the accelerating collapse of the Government's reform agenda was epitomised by more laughter after Fianna Fail's Billy Kelleher responded to Holy Reverend Mother Gilmore's observation about the new system of appointments to State boards with the quip of "it's called joining Labour or Fine Gael".

Amidst all this merriment, concern is growing that, if this Government of All the Egos is making such a drastic mess of relatively minor issues, how will it deal with the iceberg of Budget 2011.

If he's fit for the sort of 'senior hurling' which a Taoiseach has to play -- and the jury, though wavering, is

still out on the issue -- it is time Mr Kenny ended the current song about how our Rainbow of the uncontrolled egos is merely working a bad deal signed by their unlamented predecessors.

Implementing a treaty secured by force majeure is acceptable for a limited period, but, much more of it will leave the Government open to the claim that its members are, at best, latter day Quislings and, at worst, political Petains.

In fairness, it might be more accurate to suggest it is more like the well-intentioned Weimar republic that was sunk by the fiscal and psychological weight of reparations and by the serial incompetence of a governing class who were unable to reform themselves even when they realised only reform could save them.

It is, though, hardly the sort of epilogue which the tall thin man from the west who became Taoiseach almost by default desires.

Sunday Independent

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