Wednesday 18 September 2019

Bruce Arnold: Enda must bare his teeth or EU will eat him alive

Forcing us to sell our national assets to pay off our debt is a polite form of robbery

It is reassuring to know that Enda Kenny, who is likely to be the next Taoiseach, will, in his own words, "hit the ground running". Much of what follows is designed to ensure that he will be running in the right direction.

He has a quite confused mandate. One part of it is his five-point plan with its related policy documents and statements, including the election manifesto. In as far as it goes and can be implemented, it is positive. There is a negative mandate as well. This is the fury of the electorate at what has been done to the country by Fianna Fail, expressed on the doorsteps during the campaign but also the subject of huge media coverage, virtually over the whole period of Brian Cowen's inept and discredited leadership of Ireland.

Enda Kenny has not delved too much into this. He rightly chose a positive shape to put on what he intended and, particularly over the bailout, he pleaded correctly that he would find a way to ease the burden Europe has placed on Ireland. But part of his strength during the campaign was to set to one side the fury of the electorate and concentrate on a rational alternative. He was believed because he was direct and truthful. He was also consistent throughout. Any corrections forced on him were minor, an indication of the huge amount of work that went into his campaign.

A third part of his mandate comes from outside Fine Gael. In the likely outcome of a partnership with Labour, he will have to reconcile differences and compromise. It is too early to say what other domestic adjustments will have to be considered, but the central issue to reassure him is the degree to which the Irish public -- if the opinion polls turn out to reflect the voting will of the people -- have placed their trust in him. The new administration will have to verge on the superhuman if it is to keep that trust, with the first hundred days being crucial.

At the heart of the problems facing him there is Ireland's relationship with Europe. Ireland has been unfairly punished by the EU. We got our desserts for being unregulated to the point of insanity and then for behaving in a ridiculous fashion in trying to rectify the collapse of the Celtic Tiger: the mishandling of the banks and the supine acceptance of a loan and repayment structure that is way beyond our capacity.

Enda Kenny has established, pretty firmly, both the need and the possibility of change. Right at the end of the campaign the Pat Cox factor emerged, confirming in a way that Kenny's own dutiful view of Europe will remain at the heart of whatever solution he goes for.

Like himself, Cox is a Europhile. However, coming from the democratic side of things, having served as a Progressive Democrat deputy here and then an MEP, before becoming president of the European Parliament, he is at one remove from the hive of bureaucrats surrounding the Commission and filling the corridors of the European Central Bank, all of them bent on punishing Ireland and exonerating Europe. Getting tough with this massive threat to the country's future is going to be a huge problem, forcing on them fundamental changes as regards what is to be done.

There has to be a European solution and it has to be radical. Nothing that has been said or done by the departments of Foreign Affairs and Finance, not to mention the outgoing ministers who got us into this mess by their craven approach to the EU, indicates any real understanding of how deeply we are in trouble.

The seriousness was recognised by David McWilliams, in his column in this paper on Wednesday, when he pointed out that the interest on our debt could reach €12bn by the end of next year. This would eat up roughly 85pc of income tax revenue. That is an impossible burden and clearly unsustainable. That is just a beginning.

We are required by the EU to take on the debts of the European banks and pay with the sale of national assets, like Greece selling beaches and Portugal selling its unique Port vineyards.

This is a polite form of robbery and runs in the teeth of everything Europe has stood for, in Irish eyes, since we joined the Common Market 40 years ago. Luckily, as McWilliams also says, "there are many more democrats in European politics than there are central bankers".

So let us appeal to them and do so by a national referendum, under Article 27 of the Constitution, where a matter of "such national importance that the will of the people thereon ought to be ascertained" is authorised.

It could be argued that the mandate in this general election obviates such a course. Yet the mandate, as I indicate above, is not that clear cut. Though the enormity of the botched bailout was at the heart of public anger during the campaign, the threat of this to the country's future was vaguely and imperfectly assessed.

The debates on it were on the fringe of the issues, and were largely concerned with the difference between Fianna Fail smugness about us not being able to do anything and opposition tinkering with minor details, like getting a better interest rate on borrowed tranches of money and introducing a share-out with bondholders. Its threat to us is far more serious than that.

The situation involves default and is getting progressively worse. It is still focused on the banks and the haemorrhage of money is growing.

What we have intact is the lending to our banks, which the ECB wants Irish taxpayers to repay. In order for this loan to be paid back, the pressure is on us to sell valuable and irreplaceable assets such as Coillte, An Post, the ESB, Bord Gais and so on. Despite the attraction of this course to Enda Kenny, we should repudiate it. Indeed, we should go a stage further, and recover our fisheries so lightly disposed of 30 years ago.

What will be at the heart of Kenny's difficulties are the immediate confrontations with the devouring, rapacious representatives of the EU and the other eurozone members, not to mention the wider axis of the other 26 member states, including the arguably lucky non-euro countries. He could be eaten alive.

There was a time when he would have a foreign minister beside him. Those times are gone. During the election he showed that being eaten alive was not in his style, though there are still too many people doubtful of his steely backbone. God protect him in what he faces!

I think if I were Enda Kenny I would seek the advice, in addition to Pat Cox, of Paul Somerville, Constantin Gurdgiev, Fine Gael's election candidate Peter Mathews and David McWilliams. They and his key finance people (Michael Noonan, Richard Bruton, Leo Varadkar and Brian Hayes) should get together with them and hold a few tutorial sessions.

Enda Kenny should keep the Department of Finance at arms length until changes have been made there. The department has been part of the problem over the past three years, its incompetence alarming, it surrender to outside wisdom pathetic.

He should realise that the Irish Central Bank on Dame Street is now part of the 'European System of Central Banks' and its governor Patrick Honohan played a key role on behalf of the ECB Board in foisting the EU/IMF deal on Ireland. Also not to be trusted.

As for the Department of Foreign Affairs, it also should be kept at arms length. It contains the senior civil servants who are most responsible for our present mess, and have been since their fanatical support led us into the worst mistake in our history -- of joining the eurozone in the first place and erecting barriers against our most important trading partners who were outside it.

Despite being committed to the EU/IMF deal, Enda Kenny and Fine Gael can do all the things outlined above and see what Europe has to say about it. Kenny has it in him to get up from the table and say, 'I don't agree and I need to consult before joining you in a package judged over pate de foie gras and duck. It's not my way!' He has shown he can do that.

The solutions being considered today for the eurozone in March cannot solve its problems, let alone ours.

Any immediate planning, after today's result is known, has to recognise that.

Irish Independent

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