Martina Devlin: High standards are a must in boom or bust
HERE follows a modern fable. Once upon a time there was a little country under the thumb of a big neighbour. All woes were blamed on this subjugation -- life would be sweet if only its own people governed it.
By and by, its prayers were more or less answered: three-quarters of the island broke free and independence was asserted.
Now it would show the world what a small nation could achieve. Its people were just as industrious and productive as the citizens of other lands, and had been held back by their colonisers.
Obstacles were overcome, and, finally, the little country started to take its place in the sun. European grants helped, but four other pivotal factors came into play.
- A gifted band of politicians was elected: policy-makers of the highest integrity, whose every waking thought was how best to serve.
- A conscientious team of civil servants was in place: zealous guardians of the public purse who always put the national interest first.
- An innovative phalanx of developers emerged: wealth creators who were daring, but would never take unacceptable risks.
- Finally, an astute group of bankers became highly influential: financiers prepared to ease anti-entrepreneurial restrictions, allowing developers to blossom and then spread their seed pods of prosperity.
And so the little country, dismissed by many as a backwater, was remodelled as a dynamo. So successful was its transformation that even the larger neighbour, formerly its master, cast envious eyes in its direction.
The little country began to feel pretty darned pleased with itself. Confidence soared, and business people and financiers became the new swashbucklers. Some of them made asset-buying incursions into the neighbour's territory, raising the little country's flag over a couple of landmark buildings. Yes sir, this felt good.
Heck, some rewards were long overdue. The politicians running the little country voted themselves record-breaking pay cheques. When taxed about it, their leader said he didn't have the White House or 10 Downing Street to work in -- the hurlers on the ditch, cribbing and moaning, should remember the dismal conditions under which he laboured.
Meanwhile, so much moolah was sloshing about that senior civil servants organised some tasty terms and conditions for themselves, too. Semi-state bosses did likewise. As for high-ranking bankers, they wound up with the most succulent deals of all, because everyone knew you had to pay top dollar to get top quality.
Developers were the most practical of all these bonanza beneficiaries. They knew they'd only squander their shillings at the Galway Races, so they removed temptation by transferring their assets into their wives' names. The little woman would take care of everything.
Now, as the boom was getting boomier, ordinary citizens began to have access to pots of money. Previously, they had imagined that catching a leprechaun was their only option. But now they discovered an easier method: credit.
Not everyone lost the head. But many did, buying cars, holiday homes and a towering mountain of consumer goods. It was time for treats. And why not, when the great assured the great unwashed that house prices only climbed, and money was always loaned out at minuscule rates? Sure, everyone was a millionaire provided they had a foot on the property ladder.
Everything in the garden was rosy. Right up until citizens discovered credit was another name for debt and it had to be repaid. Unless you were a developer, in which case your debts were taken over by NAMA and you relocated to the US where, curiously, you could still afford to live in the lap of luxury.
Still, when the sky came crashing down, at least citizens had a capable, dedicated Government to rely on. These men and women of probity would ensure wrongdoers were pursued vigorously, and would work like Trojans to steer a path out of the morass. Wait, the Trojans lost their city. They'd have to work like some other diligent people. Germans, maybe.
Above all, they would die before surrendering sovereignty to outsiders. What's that? You dislike the term sovereignty? Too emotive? Very well, let's substitute autonomy for sovereignty. Now, back to these leaders who'd never yield an inch of autonomy -- who'd talk themselves green, white, and gold, negotiating tirelessly to protect the common good.
And so the years passed with some harsh conditions prevailing, but the pain was always shared equally. No question of reducing the minimum wage and leaving extravagant conditions in place for politicians, semi-state chiefs and senior civil servants. No question of cutting social welfare and leaving bankers with bonuses. That wouldn't be how this little country would operate at all.
No question, either, of perverting their hard-won democracy by allowing independent members of its parliament to hold the Government to ransom. Leaders respected the electorate too highly for that.
And when those who had lent money to their banks demanded it back, the leadership stood firm. Under no circumstances would they heap further tax burdens on their citizens to pay for others' gambling losses. These unassailable principles of fairness helped the little country to endure its trials stoically, buoyed still further by Ajai Chopra of the IMF's endorsement that its people were "plucky".
It emerged, battered but philosophical, on the far side. A trial by fire had been endured, but adversity had revealed the true mettle of its masters, and citizens took heart from their commitment to leading by example.
Moral of the story: there's no substitute for high standards in public life, in good times and in bad.