When Josephine says "jump", Michael asks "How high?"
When John says "jump", Michael genuflects.
No joke. Last Thursday was the day of the John and Josephine duet.
Two days earlier, Michael Noonan had been dancing to the two mandarins' tune. A message was despatched to the Dail's party whips explaining why the Property Tax Bill would be guillotined that night. There was to be no discussion on amendments.
The message read: "The reason for seeking rapid passage of this Bill is that the Revenue Commissioners plan to do a bulk mail out of a Local Property Tax Guide and return form to all liable persons on March 9, in order to prepare homeowners for the new tax."
Marie Antoinette had spoken. Tax chief Josephine Feehily had told Michael she needed to begin posting the dreaded letters demanding property tax from us tomorrow. The Dail bowed to her wishes. The Government submitted, ensuring that the property tax tyranny would be rammed through in a few hours. And it was.
An unchanged Bill was passed against the wishes of weary opponents on the dot of 10.30pm, rushed through the Senate and sent for the President's signature. God bless the guillotine.
Courtesy of the guillotine, as early as this week you may receive a demand for property tax. For several weeks Josephine Feehily has been preparing meticulously for her tax offensive, subtly softening up the citizens. The Dail fell into line with her agenda.
On Thursday she held a press conference to cajole and threaten the taxpayers. An hour later she appeared on RTE's Today with Pat Kenny, explaining to the compliant listeners of Ireland the imperative of coughing up. The timetable of democracy Irish-style had bowed to an unelected mandarin's wishes.
Was it pure coincidence that at exactly the same time as gentle Josephine was appearing on Pat Kenny's show, John Moran, her equally powerful counterpart in the Department of Finance, surfaced in front of us at the Dail's Public Accounts Committee (PAC). The two most powerful mandarins in the nation had seized centre stage in Leinster House and RTE.
John was giving a dissertation on the wonderful work he and his mini-mandarins had done for the economy. His spin on our superb performance would have made poor Angela Merkel repent. The Department of Finance was charging out of the closet, claiming credit for all the so-called positive achievements of the last year.
The subliminal message from both mandarins was alarming. John gave the distinct impression that when it comes to economic decisions, the minister doesn't matter much. Ditto Josephine. They had the man from Limerick in the palm of their hands. The Dail, as all mandarins know, is a minor irritant. Many top public servants are paid more than their masters. They act accordingly.
The Government has surrendered menacing powers to this duo. Josephine was mighty on the soft sell but she made no bones of the underlying threat. Play ball with her and she will be reasonable – but cross her and you are dead. Her band of happy taxmen will chase you to the ends of the Earth. If you ignore the arrival of her missives this week, you could ultimately receive an attachment order.
If you go abroad she will catch you when you return on holiday. Stay at home and she will remove property tax from your wages, your pension, your social welfare, even your bank account – because Michael has given her unparalleled powers. Defaulters from the household tax will be cornered by July. She will pursue you and your assets. She darkly asserts that she expects very, very few to escape.
Appropriately dressed in black throughout the day, the chairman of the Revenue Commissioners provided practical information; but it was all of the punitive kind.
There was no carrot. It was all stick. Michael Noonan had abdicated.
His abdication was confirmed by the upbeat performance of John Moran in front of mostly safe coalition supporters in the PAC. John's opening address could just as easily have been Michael Noonan's party manifesto. The Secretary-General proudly rabbited on about his first year in office.
Irish Nationwide, Anglo Irish, the promissory notes and the bank guarantee were history. Irish Life was sold. Central Bank support had been reduced. Exports were flying. We had returned to growth along with our heroes, the Germans. The deficit was down. The IDA had enjoyed a record year.
While modestly insisting that the department had been "playing our part" in these successes, it was apparent that he was stealing Noonan's clothes when he boasted about how he was "very proud of our achievements". It was a PR coup d'etat for the mandarins. He graciously shared the glory with the "unsung heroes" – the footsoldier mandarins – who "somehow make it all possible".
No mention of the minister.
Where did that leave Michael Noonan? A passenger? A spectator? Or just a pawn in Sir Humphrey and Lady Josephine's long game?
It is rare to spot a mandarin being openly triumphant. Yet, funnily enough, John was not so verbose when it came to the thornier subject of the banks. On the topic of State-owned AIB, his delegation's presentation boasts of "significant progress in 2012". Ho-hum.
The submission included ominous codewords, like AIB's "cost restructuring". Then, less coyly, it shamefully bragged of the "50 branches closed" and "2,500 staff departing". It even praised the reduction in "benefits" for AIB staff. Human misery is beginning to look suspiciously like the preferred currency of the permanent government.
Simultaneously, Josephine Feehily was using the airwaves to tell the nation that she would impose austerity.
John had lost the run of himself. So the layoffs and other measures of misery are taking the banks out of the danger zone? What about mortgage arrears, long unrecognised as the silent taboo haunting the economy? And did his department, I asked him, anticipate further home repossessions this year? Were the banks about to be released from bondage to evict borrowers from their homes?
Moran mumbled. He waffled about international comparisons and a basket of different solutions; about how Ireland's bankers were the least aggressive practitioners of home evictions in Europe. Translated out of mandarinspeak, the answer was a clear "Yes". He has obviously told Michael to introduce the necessary legislation to release the dogs of war on defaulters. Evictions are on the way.
Neither John nor his eloquent sidekick, Financial Services Division chief Ann Nolan, were shy about referring minefields to the minister. Asked about how they could possibly have appointed KPMG as special liquidator to Anglo after its deplorable record at Irish Nationwide and AIB – or about controversial bank appointments – they humbly deferred to the wisdom of their master, pleading that all they did was offer options to him. Michael made the decision.
Last week when I asked an official at the Department of Finance for a chart of who did what in the mandarins' citadel, he brushed me off . He would only give me the names and positions of those at the top layer. Beyond that, they will not go.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Imagine," came the reply, "if we published the names, phone numbers and jobs of staff. You would have the public ringing us day and night."
Junior public servants would welcome it, but the very idea of top "public" servants serving the public?
You must be joking.