Monday 24 October 2016

Now we know what happens when the minnows play hardball with the big boys

Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30


It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. The footage from Greece of long queues at ATMs and empty supermarket shelves are genuinely sad to watch. But from a cold, political strategy perspective, they're hardly unhelpful to the Government here.

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The talk of Enda Kenny, Michael Noonan & co taking a particularly hard line with Greece in recent days is raising eyebrows. But there's no question, the worse the crisis in Greece and the more it features in the media, the better it is for Fine Gael.

Don't pay too much attention to the angry invective on social media berating the Coalition's stance on Greece.

The Irish electorate are ultimately very risk-averse. Even the so-called democratic revolution in 2011 largely involved voters switching from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael. They're also far from stupid.

Since the global crash, there have been loud voices in politics and the media arguing that the Government should call the EU/ECB's bluff; stand up to them; play hardball. It has been a very seductive and appealing argument. Not so much any more.

Leave aside whether or not you think Greece has been hard done by. People now know "playing hardball" with the big boys means €60 a day limits on ATM withdrawals and panic-buying in the shops. That has to have an impact on politics here.

The current government, and the previous one, have had to contend with the accusation they rolled over in negotiations with the Troika.

But the Greek tragedy has shown us just how complex and nuanced these issues are. There are no easy solutions. No definitively right paths to choose - it's more about picking the 'least wrong' one. Right now, the Irish path is looking far 'less wrong'.

Is Fine Gael now playing that for all it's worth? Of course it is.

But it's hard to blame them. What would Sinn Féin or Shane Ross or Mick Wallace or Paul Murphy or Clare Daly be doing if Syriza's strategy had worked?

That said, the perception of Michael Noonan in the vanguard of the Eurogroup trampling over Greece is a little ridiculous. A reality check wouldn't go amiss. We're minnows. We just don't have that kind of clout in Brussels. Noonan, no fool, knows that.

As the second longest-serving Finance Minister at the Ecofin meetings, he is respected. But he rarely talks at them, taking the view - particularly when Ireland was in the bailout programme - that we should be seen to be concentrating on getting our own act together. When it comes to Greece, it's Germany, France, the Commission and the ECB calling the shots.

We know Mr Noonan did ask Mario Draghi about the ECB's position on Emergency Liquidity Assistance for Greek banks.

That might have reflected a little bit of irritation in Irish Government circles over the ECB's patience with Greece relative to how Ireland has been treated in the recent past, but it was a fair question.

Pointing to this leak, senior Fine Gael sources are convinced Syriza are briefing against Ireland. That might be a factor in the slightly harder tone, from both Enda Kenny and, more surprisingly, Joan Burton, in recent days towards Greece.

But there are also more pragmatic reasons. It's 18 v 1 among the eurozone countries at the moment on Greece. The Coalition isn't going to go out on a limb for a country/government that has succeeded in alienating even their friends in Europe. "Why associate with chaos?" was the blunt verdict of one Fine Gael figure this week, noting that Syriza had even sidelined its own negotiators in Brussels, who heard about the referendum only via Twitter.

Syriza's very open endorsement of Sinn Féin over the past six months also hasn't gone unnoticed in government circles.

There's also the not-insignificant issue of the €350m we've lent to Greece.

Any default on that would have budgetary implications here. Ireland needs to be "persuaded that the Greek government will keep the undertakings given to small countries such as Ireland who are themselves under fiscal pressure. And, so far, the case is less than persuasive," Burton said last week.

That the Tánaiste has been so pointed is surprising.

A tougher line with Greece will clearly play well with the Fine Gael support base, which is likely to take a dim view of Syriza's hard left brinkmanship, particularly now the impact has been so devastating for the Greek people.

Less so Labour's liberal left voters, who may see it as the Coalition joining in the bullying of poor Greece.

There's a very obvious political upside for Fine Gael in the Greek crisis, less so for Labour.

However, Burton obviously feels public opinion here has shifted in the past week.

And there's no doubt Syriza's very obvious shortcomings - and the impact it's had on the Greek people - raises big questions for Sinn Féin.

That party must be praying some form of 11th-hour deal is cobbled together in Greece.

For economic reasons, and stability in the eurozone, the Coalition will also want the same outcome.

But politically, electorally, do they want a deal to be done? Of course.

But, perhaps like St Augustine and his plea to God for the gift of chastity, just not yet.

Shane Coleman presents the Sunday Show on at 10am

Irish Independent

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