Monday 20 January 2020

Anne Harris: This Government's complacency may yet lead the coping class to vote 'No'

Rejecting the treaty would be economic suicide -- but a rightly angry public might do just that to spite Enda Kenny

ENDA Kenny has a problem. Right-thinking people are re-thinking. The referendum, I mean.

The landscape in which Mr Kenny launched the campaign for a 'Yes' vote yesterday has altered dramatically. Even in the last week. These re-thinkers are not the 'don't knows' of the polls, who commentators believed would decide the outcome. Nor are they the passionate ideologues of the Left Alliance and Sinn Fein. They are members of the coping class, committed to stability, on whom Fine Gael and Labour thought they could rely. And they have been profoundly shaken by recent events at home and abroad.

Abroad, there are double standards. There is nothing more galling to a rational person than to succumb to prescriptive unpleasant measures, only to witness the prescribers themselves refuse the medicine. Sarkozy lectured us on swallowing the hard stuff but now copies his French presidential rival Hollande in plans to soften the fiscal treaty.

The Netherlands wagged the austerity finger at us and then watched their own parliamentary dam all but burst when it came to passing it themselves.

And if, as we were told, austerity is merely budget deficit by any other name, why is all the troika talk now of "growth", rather than "austerity" budgeting?

At home there are the unions. Paul Sweeney, economist for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, said on Mary Wilson's Drivetime last Monday that the only compelling argument he could think of for voting 'Yes' was the gun-to-the-head argument.

Like Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen before him, Enda Kenny is now discovering that you get no thanks from the public sector unions for keeping your hands off the Croke Park Agreement.

As if on cue, Standard & Poor's emerged on Friday, Kalashnikov at the ready. "Vote No," they declared and we will immediately downgrade you.

Downgrading, as we have learned to our cost, is the precursor of acute economic misery.

If the gun to the head has no equal in concentrating the mind, it does little to persuade the heart. But head and heart carry equal weight in the privacy of the ballot booth. There is a real danger that a rightly angry public, in their desire to spite this Government, will ignore the risk of economic suicide.

John Bruton put it pithily during the week, comparing a 'No' vote to the person who refuses a loan from the credit union at 3 per cent interest and ultimately falls into the hands of a loan shark.

Enda Kenny's Government deserves to be castigated for the despondency and alarm which permeates the atmosphere. They have spent much of last year on some cloud of complacency, as though the act of getting elected was an end in itself. It is hard not to conclude that "vaulting ambition" was all they were about and that there were "no spurs to prick the sides of that intent".

If, as they said, reform was their intention, why did they not match each austerity measure (household charge, water charge, etc) with a reform? Why did they play politics and leave the tough work of public sector reform to their braver Labour colleagues, Brendan Howlin, Joan Burton and Ruairi Quinn? In all of this, they have given Sinn Fein a lifeline.

And above all, why did they not deal in a clear and unambiguous way with the Moriarty Tribunal's findings on Michael Lowry and Denis O'Brien?

In the strange way that one apparently unconnected event can light a fuse that ends in political conflagration -- look no further than the night in 1992 when Ben Dunne went amok on a Florida hotel balcony and the career of Charles Haughey ended in ignominy and shame -- in that strange way Fine Gael's double standard about the Moriarty Tribunal's findings could well be the shadow which will hang over this referendum campaign.

It is not too late to change this. We are not a nation of moralists. There are murky complexities between guilt and just desserts for all of us. What Moriarty did was to to hold a mirror up to the Ireland of a period when the entrepreneurial fantasies of the nouveaux riches ran amok.

Not to face up to our own venalities is, as the essayist Joseph Brodsky points out, to allow "a chasm gaping in the human heart which swallows up honesty, compassion and justice".

In a sober and insightful piece in the Irish Times yesterday, Geraldine Kennedy tracks Bertie Ahern's money trail and finds that contrary to what most of his critics would allow, the questionable lodgements invariably relate not to personal gain but directly to political imperatives.

This is a morality tale. His failure to explain them truthfully to the tribunal, she says, will allow him to be tarred with the same brush as those found to have received corrupt payments.

Sunday Independent

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