News John Drennan

Wednesday 3 September 2014

John Drennan: Unrealistic promises but minimal change

This Government runs the risk of being seen as an administration of Quislings, writes John Drennan

Published 16/10/2011 | 05:00

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One can only hope that Bill Clinton is not sensitive. Last week as the establishment cooed at his presence, the last American President to be associated with prosperity told the economic forum that "the last big decision" Ireland had to take was on the mortgage debt crisis.

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As the former US president prophesied, "the quicker you flush that out, the quicker you're going to generate small business and domestic demand and growth"; in a scenario where 10 per cent of Irish mortgages are in effective default, the logic was unassailable.

Indeed, when it comes to this Government, the economic, and more important still, the social consequences of long-term mortgage distress have been recognised by fiscally literate ministers such as Michael Noonan and Joan Burton.

This meant the excitement displayed by Enda Kenny over the mouse of a Keane report that was delivered last week was all the more surprising.

In politics, the ability to make the complex sound simple, which was such a feature of Clinton's presidency, is normally a signifier of genuine political ability.

Sadly, when it came to the Keane report, the first criteria it met was that if you are in a position where you are finding it hard to explain the benefits of an initiative, well, then, there really aren't any.

Of course, ministers tried, but the scheme increasingly resembled the reverse of one of Mrs Thatcher's better achievements in turning council house tenants into homeowners.

As Joe Higgins noted that the 'plan' to give the banks a role in dealing with distressed mortgages was "like sending a bunch of marauding foxes that have visited a hen-house back to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation", it was hard to be impressed by the proposal to create a new 'secret' class of bankrupt tenants who will be the cottiers of our cosseted banks.

The even worse news for us is that the response to the mortgage crisis is all too symptomatic of the Rainbow's recent performance.

All governments, as we found to our cost under Mr Cowen, acquire their defining traits within the early months and then generally stick to them.

Last week, as we gazed with distaste at this political consumptive and tried desperately to ignore the rattle in the throat and the stentorian breathing, there was something terribly familiar about what had occurred.

Once again, having aimed high, in spite of all the trumpets and the great clash of cymbals, the Government had finished low.

We can, one supposes, be consoled that it did not call the report "a modest proposal" but that had been already used for the grandiose "jobs budget" that shrank into an "initiative" before finally morphing into a raid on the private sector's pension fund.

NewEra, meanwhile, which was supposed to create 100,000 jobs, has turned into a riddle wrapped in an enigma whose very existence now depends on the charity of those inscrutable strangers in the Troika.

Ultimately, nothing epitomises the growth of this bad habit of ambitious promises and minimalist changes more vividly than the fate of those whispered promises during its first days in Government Buildings about how there would be a 'Cromwell-style' clear-out of the mandarins who delivered us to the land of we are where we are.

Much of the mandarin class from the time are indeed now gone, but their departure has been accompanied by Bacchanalian settlements involving feasts in Government Buildings or the sort of happy coincidences where a hugely paid job in Europe suddenly lands in the lap of our non- lamented departing Secretary General in Finance.

Of course, it should be stressed some mandarins left voluntarily -- just as Napoleon, having grown tired of governing Europe, decided that Elba would be a delightful spot to write his memoirs and go fishing for cockles.

As we wonder at the spectacle whereby the most defining feature of the great clear-out of the top level mandarins,

is that there are now more of them than ever before, another classic example of the Rainbow phenomenon, in which the wine of reform is diluted down into a watery sort of gruel, consists of the evolution of our friends in Fas into something called Solas.

The latest legal debacle involving Fas appears to be another example of how reform, Rainbow-style, with some honourable exceptions, appears to consist of changing the brass plate on the front of the department whilst the same old systems are retained.

In fairness, there are reasons why the Rainbow is playing such an excruciatingly cautious game. The psychological shocks which this State has experienced means we are in no mood for radicalism.

As the Coalition tries to pick its way through the competing crises of sovereign debt, private debt, bank debt, mortgage arrears, Nama and EU debt, it would be a genuine achievement were our political mice to creep quietly away from the sick men of Greece and Portugal and attach Ireland to the slightly more upmarket Italy and Spain.

The Government is already acquiring the reputation, particularly in Europe where it is the clever pet of the Troika, of being more able administrators than the chaotic cabal of idiots which it replaced. But, while this is playing a key role in ensuring that the Great Powers of France and Germany are not actively hostile to our interests, domestically, the Rainbow of Grumpy Old Men now runs the risk of being seen as an administration of Quislings who prioritise the interests of our occupiers above those of the people.

Had Orwell survived to write a sequel to Animal Farm, he would have most likely realised that once the Jacobin instincts of our farmyard beasts had been aroused, the aftermath of the scene where they looked in the windows and could not differentiate between the pigs and the humans, would not have been pretty.

The other danger with the current conservative approach is that whilst caution is often the best option, it can, particularly under the guidance of the worst mandarin class in the history of the State, slide towards the territories of timorous mediocrity which were such a defining characteristic of the age of Social Partnership.

And, already, when it comes to the Grumpy Old Rainbow revolutionaries, the vested interests are sneaking back into town. Appointments to boards continue to operate under blatantly party political principles whilst our senior counsel and mandarins are spreading back into the centre of power like one of those virulent imported plants that colonise the native lakes.

Even the bearded brethren of the social partners are slowly creeping back towards the servants' entrance in Government Buildings. And the current scenario whereby, when it comes to legal reform, Labour appears to have become the surrendered bride of the bar library, would be curious indeed were it not for the inescapable fact that we are talking about the Irish Labour Party.

The Government has, in fairness, secured successes in areas such as the interest rate on our bailout but these events increasingly remind us of Michael Noonan's famous claim that Bertie Ahern resembled the sort of cock who thinks the sun rises because he is crowing.

In our case the Taoiseach formerly known as 'Bertie Lite' would be wise to not be deluded by the fool's gold of foreign policy triumphs and understand that success starts at home.

Whatever Mr Barroso says, the honeymoon here is finally over. It's time to stop posing and start governing -- unless you want to experience the same fate as your mentor.

Sunday Independent

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