Monday 18 December 2017

James Downey: Lenihan must share blame as a knight at the Cabinet round table

A protester dressed as the Apostle Luke protesting outside The Department of Finance yesterday on Budget Day
A protester dressed as the Apostle Luke protesting outside The Department of Finance yesterday on Budget Day
James Downey

James Downey

YOU can't beat Michael Noonan when it comes to the telling quip, accompanied by the hypnotic glare.

Yesterday, when he rose in the Dail to reply to Brian Lenihan's Budget, he directed the glare at the Government front bench, but the quip had a wider application.

One should never dream, he said, of restoring a lost Camelot, complete with the Galway tent, first-class trips to Florida and Friday-night "flipping" of property in the fashionable pubs of Dublin.

But who dreams of such things any longer? Who has so hopelessly lost touch with real life, now and in the future?

Perhaps a few Fianna Fail backbenchers who have stopped listening to their constituents and who try to tell themselves that some time soon they will wake up from a nightmare that has lasted for more than two years? It might have applied better to some of the Finance Minister's purple passages, when he spoke of hope, recovery, growth.

Unhappily, these were contradicted by the fundamental message he delivered. There will be no return to Camelot.

Who is to blame?

Obviously, Bertie Ahern, the King Arthur of the boom. And the banks. Anyone else? Yes. Lenihan did not name him, but he was sitting beside him.

A bit late, one might think, for Lenihan to distance himself, not only from the man who once promoted him so grudgingly but also the man who made him Finance Minister -- at a time when nobody in the Government knew what everyone should have known, what a poisoned cup that was.

There are, though, other things to think of besides Budgets, like the General Election and the Fianna Fail succession.

Lenihan has lost his place as front-runner for the top job, but he is brave and smart and if he decides to make a fight of it, he will be a formidable candidate.

He is right to distance himself from Cowen as well as Ahern. He doesn't want two millstones round his neck.

Unhappily for him, there is a third millstone, as heavy as either of the others.

It is he who has pursued, for two and a half years, what Noonan yesterday called "a fatal banking policy". He has to accept some of the blame.

He just might turn that to his advantage, but if -- as seems likely -- the election precedes the leadership contest he will have to fight under a heavier handicap than any of the millstones.

If anyone shares the delusions of the dreamier backbenchers and party activists, it is Brian Cowen.

When he stirs himself into action, or at least into speech, he thunders as loudly, and to as little logical effect, as any back-of-lorry orator in an earlier generation. He promises Fianna Fail sunbursts, gold at the end of rainbows. Camelot.

The only way for Lenihan to secure the Fianna Fail leadership and any chance of a successful premiership is to tell the truth and show himself as different in the most fundamental ways from his two predecessors. That may not please his party.

To judge from the "Fianna Fail love-in" on the 'Frontline' programme on Monday night, many of its members are irretrievably attached to Camelot and divorced from reality. They have found it hard to accept the certainty of losing the election. They think they will win the one after that, whereupon everything will go back to normal. But "normality" has changed. Does the Finance Minister himself fully grasp that?

Yesterday, in his Budget speech he said that after 2014 we will have an annual growth rate, adjusted for inflation, of 2pc of gross domestic product.

On a figure like that, we would find it hard to maintain the existing employment numbers, much less increase them. At one time we had double-digit growth (thank you, Ruairi Quinn).

The Budget itself is part of the ill-named "national recovery plan". It is one leg of a tripod of which the EU/ECB/IMF bailout is another. The fact that these things became necessary tells us all we need to know about Camelot.

It never existed.

Irish Independent

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