Wednesday 29 January 2020

Clearly, we Mammy's boys go unrewarded

But we mustn't kick up, because that would ruin our reputation as Europeans of the Year, says Brendan O'Connor

Clarity, by definition, should be the simplest thing in the world. And we saw last week, when you put aside all the agendas and all the half truths and the opportunistic behaviour, how much people who are desperate crave clarity. And we have a right to crave clarity, but it seems the Government, and successive governments, have great difficulty offering us clarity on anything.

Moments of clarity come at the oddest of times. I experienced one last week presenting a television programme. TV might seem like the last place you might experience clarity. But in fact, live TV often demands, and offers, moments of great clarity.

First I found Olivia O'Leary, a sober, steady woman, a woman who has seen a lot in her day, and who is not given to emotional outbursts, sitting next to me, ostensibly as the moderate one in a panel that also included three angry men. And suddenly, unprompted, she delivered a devastating assessment of Enda Kenny as a complete vacuum. Coming from someone as wise and measured as Olivia O'Leary, it was a surprise.

And then I looked beyond her and there's a panel consisting of Shane Ross, Nick Webb and Fintan O'Toole. Shane and Fintan, in many senses, are as far apart on the economic spectrum as you can get. Indeed, one would have expected, and maybe hoped, that they would have had a row sitting there on the panel.

But in fact they agreed on pretty much everything. Primarily they agreed that this Government has not delivered the reform it promised: the new deal we thought we were voting for less than two years ago, when a new government for a new era was voted in by a slightly elated electorate who thought that finally they were voting for an Ireland without the cronyism and sleeveenism that characterised the past. These two men, who come from very different places ideologically, were both agreed that this Government is as much a sham as previous governments.

They also both agreed, as do most economists from every end of the spectrum in this country, as do, in fact, most politicians here too, that Ireland should not have to pay off the next €3bn on the Anglo promissory notes next year. They were of the opinion that we should simply refuse to do it, that we should tell Europe that the citizens of this country are not willing to pay off debt that is not ours.

But you walk away from these moments of clarity and go back to our Government for answers, and everything becomes muddled and messy again.

The truth should be simple. The plan, if this Government has one, should be simple too. But it is not. There is no clarity. And you tend to think that if something is not clear, then there is something fishy there.

For example, look at the issue of bankers' pay that has been rumbling on for weeks now without the Government doing anything about it.

On Thursday, more figures emerged. In Bank of Ireland, as of the end of March, there were 24 people earning over €400,000 a year. These are extraordinary salaries for people to be earning in an enterprise that was run into the ground and that, along with its fellow institutions, survived only by putting the whole country in hock. In AIB, which is completely owned by the State, the wages weren't quite as outrageous but they weren't much better.

And again, when these figures come out and everyone gets outraged, Michael Noonan says that he's outraged too, just as he is outraged about the promissory note money and doesn't want to pay it. He says he's just as angry as everyone else about it. And he actually blames the last government for it. Because these pay arrangements were all made under Fianna Fail. And the Minister for Finance says yet again that he is powerless to do anything about bankers' salaries, despite the fact that, as Minister for Finance, he is the major shareholder and practically the sole owner, on our behalf, of AIB. But there he is, acting like some kind of irate pensioner in the pub who is powerless to do anything about it.

And we are all supposed to believe that the people who run the bankrupt institutions that bankrupted the country should be paid big fat salaries, while we are crucified with taxes and cutbacks to the most vulnerable in order to pay off the reckless debts these institutions racked up before going belly up. And the guy in charge is furious about it but is powerless to do anything about it. And we are supposed to believe that this somehow makes sense. But in fact there is no clarity to it whatsoever. Yet on they fumble through it, seemingly thinking that we are thick, that we are unable to grasp that none of this is remotely logical.

That's the most insulting bit really. The fact that they try to bamboozle us so blatantly, and that they think we'll fall for it.

Spain was told last week that it will need no further austerity targets until the end of next year, despite the fact that it will substantially miss its budget targets.

Our old friend Olli Rehn has suddenly come over all philosophical and wishy washy about the whole deficit thing.

"We are not so much focused on the nominal targets, even though they often make better headlines because they are exact percentages," Olli said.

In other words, "Let's not get hung up on those crazy numbers, man. They are such a buzz-kill. The Spanish dudes are doing their best. But let's not do their heads in with all these specifics."

What this is about is "allowing" Spain to "accept" a bailout from the EU/ECB. Prime Minister Rajoy in Spain is basically refusing to let his country be rescued by Europe if he has to accept austerity measures, specifically if pensions in Spain have to be cut. So instead, the Spanish are now effectively being promised that they can have the bailout on their own terms, without having to go along with an austerity programme.

For us looking on from Ireland there is a distinct lack of clarity here. Here we are being forced into another €3.5bn of austerity measures that are terrifying everyone and that look like they could completely murder the local economy, in order to stick with the "nominal targets".

And here we are seeing the economy stagnate around us because of these austerity measures. And indeed, here is the whole of Europe starting to contract because of austerity, yet we are told that we must keep it up at all costs, while simultaneously being told we are Mammy's best little boys, while simultaneously getting nothing in return by way of a deal. We are an example to everyone, we are told. Europeans of the year. But we must not kick up at all, because that would ruin our wonderful reputation. And meantime everyone is bending over backwards to accommodate a second Greek default, they are cutting taxes in Italy and now austerity is no longer required in Spain. But none of these rules apply to us. We are good boys.

Nothing clear about all that. If you were to bring clarity to it, you would be inclined to say that, clearly, we should not continue our good behaviour because we are getting nothing out of it. But apparently it would be a bad thing if we were getting any concessions, because that would damage our reputation. Even though, on the other hand, we are looking for a deal on bank debt from Europe, despite the fact that we keep trying to prove to them that we are managing fine and that we can cope with our current debt burden.

None of it has any clarity. In fact, it almost suggests that our leaders are just making it all up as they go along and hoping that things will turn good and we will be carried along with that. But there seems to be increasingly less chance of that happening.

But still we muddle on, the Government sticking its finger into whatever is the latest dyke to start letting in water. It lurches on from crisis to crisis, saying whatever will get it out of any particular question in any particular moment of time, waiting for things to blow up, then applying the fire extinguisher to them. And none of it joins up. There is no big plan. Because if there was, and it made sense, it would all be somewhat clear. But as we saw last week, while we the people crave some clarity, our leaders are allergic to it, and addicted to muddle.

Sunday Independent

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