Full credit for a minor triumph
Published 10/02/2013 | 04:00
PERHAPS it is time for us all to chill out. Calm down a bit. The euphoria in financial and political circles last week was overwhelming. The hype was mighty.
First there were the rumours. Then the vacuum. Then the announcement of a late sitting of the Dail for legislation. Still, as the hour for the sudden sitting approached, there was no sign of a Bill. Emergency briefings of TDs were called by top civil servants, just minutes before the Bill was due for debate. It was decreed that the new law should be passed within two hours. There would be a mere 15 minutes for committee stage. No amendments would be countenanced. President Michael D Higgins was jetted back from Italy to sign the Bill.
If Wednesday was a parliamentary shambles, Thursday morning started even worse.
The focus moved from Dublin to Frankfurt where last-minute hitches threatened to torpedo the deal. At lunchtime, ECB chief Mario Draghi added fuel to the speculation, with his typically tantalising Delphic words at a press conference.
Was it on or off? Suddenly, just before three o'clock, TDs were notified that Taoiseach Enda Kenny would be making a statement to the Dail within minutes. The deal was done.
Cabinet ministers swaggered into the chamber in a long line, all smiles, glowing with pride at their achievement. Eamon Gilmore surrendered his seat beside the Taoiseach to Michael Noonan, acknowledging the Finance Minister as the hero of the hour.
Noonan, one of the most modest men in the Dail, accepted the Tanaiste's customary place in the pecking order.
Colleagues rightly paid tribute to Noonan. They even paid tribute to the mandarins at the Department of Finance for their hard work, the late nights in bringing the Anglo deal over the line. Some of the less gracious ministers mocked the Opposition ( and the Independents!), taunting opponents to put their heads above the parapet. Fine Gael and Labour applauded each other.
Fianna Fail were caught on a hook as the poisonous Anglo notes – their creation – were being destroyed by Kenny and Noonan. We Independents sat sullenly in the background. Bad sports.
Noonan, Kenny, Gilmore and the rest of them are entitled to their day in the sun. No one can blame them for doing a little gloating. They have enjoyed few days like Thursday. They are decent, overworked and sincere people. They had put their political necks on the line for a deal on the Anglo notes. Eamon Gilmore had even threatened the future of the Government if a deal was not sealed. They had fixed their eyes (and the nation's) on the March 31 deadline. They were delivering seven weeks early. They had jumped the hurdle.
The hurdle was not very high.
The initial response has been one of almost universal approval. Irish bonds spiked on the markets. On Friday morning Michael Noonan probably, somewhat coyly, asked for the press clippings service when he arrived at work. He could be forgiven for a moment of self-indulgence as he surveyed the reaction globally and locally. The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian – along with all the Irish media – greeted the deal favourably. Ministers suddenly volunteered for media appearances. Pat Rabbitte had already headed straight from RTE's Prime Time to TV3's Tonight with Vincent Browne only to be told that VB did not want a guest who had already surfaced on another station. It was a momentary hiccup in the media lap of honour.
On Friday morning, Eamon Gilmore appeared on Morning Ireland. Noonan took a rare trip out to RTE's Montrose to taste the plaudits on Today with Pat Kenny, a visit he usually confines to an annual Budget ordeal. He normally leaves day-to-day flak to his Minister of State, Brian Hayes.
The Government's entire warehouse of political capital had been gambled on a promissory note deal. They had hit the jackpot. Morale in Fine Gael and Labour rocketed. By their own standards, they had scored a massive political victory.
And good luck to them. More sane heads were already asking whether the circus was hollow hype or tangible gain?
Unrepentant sceptics were suggesting that the deal would merely make a marginal difference to the citizens. Unfortunately, those vulnerable spectators may prove a secondary consideration.
Grandstanding at symbolic success is great fun. Transferring the consequences into citizens' pockets is another matter. The political prize was high, but the economic bar that the Coalition had set for itself was low. They have walked away with the political plaudits. But what about the economic benefits? How will the punters fare?
The Government's insistence that a write-off of the debt was off the table made them prisoners of the ECB from the very first day of negotiations. There was only the interest rate, the maturity dates of the bonds and a few technicalities to resolve.
Once they had surrendered the big demand – a substantial writedown in the capital sum owed – the potential gains were limited.
They deserve kudos for putting the stake through Anglo's heart. Ditto for killing the promissory notes. Indeed, they have reduced the annual payments dramatically by extending the maturity dates of the bonds. They have improved the budget arithmetic over the next decade. There will be benefits to public services or reductions in taxes – or even a fall in the debt – due to the €1bn reduction in annual repayments.
Yet, short-term relief means that Ireland will pay out a bigger amount in total. The explanation that inflation will take care of the difference assumes that it will remain at current levels of around 2 per cent. Tell that to the children of the Twenties, Thirties, Forties and Fifties. Tell the unborn not to worry, comfort them with the news that they would be paying more for the sins of Anglo and Irish Nationwide – figments of history – were it not for inflation.
Apologists for the deal have made great play with the postponement until 2038 of the first capital repayment, the last not until 2053. It is no coincidence that, when that day dawns, not a single member of the present Cabinet is likely to be politically active.
All will benefit from the immediate softening of the blow, but their descendants will be forced to take part of the pain for the actions of Sean FitzPatrick and Michael Fingleton.
Nevertheless, give Noonan a bit of credit. Last week was a plus for those who had set themselves such limited objectives. Yet the Government's critics are not alone in voicing their doubts. It must have been a little disturbing for the Labour element in the Coalition when one of its allies, David Begg of ICTU, told Morning Ireland that the Anglo deal was merely a minor advance.
It must have been even worse when Economic and Social Research Institute economist Alan Barrett told RTE that our "debt sustainability" was still far from certain and that our public finances were in a "relatively precarious position".
The ratings agencies, those unwelcome arbiters over the actions of national governments, still gave Ireland unchanged rock-bottom credit ratings.
Allow them the hype and the hoopla. Give them credit for a small improvement. But do not expect the end of austerity.