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Everything is going to plan, to hell with the human cost

WE were told daily during the economic boom that prosperity was coming at the expense of our souls. That wasn't quite true. It turned out that the loss of our souls would come later. The loss of our souls came only when the boom ended.

So now we find ourselves engaged in the grim process of dismantling, brick by brick, the society we had built over the last 50 years. Not a day goes by that we don't hear of a further dismantling of our hard-won systems of health, education and services for the vulnerable. The very thing that seemed to make Ireland a civilised place, that gave us a heart and soul that the evils of prosperity could never erode, is now being destroyed. We could be looking at no less than the end of society.

The funny thing about prosperity and the alleged greed of the boom years is that they actually enhanced society in Ireland. As well as all the other functions it performed, money became a glue that held us together a bit more. Despite what you might be led to believe by a largely left-wing media, when this country had money, we spent hugely on the less well-off and the vulnerable. And as cynical as we might all have been about the noblesse oblige of the new affluent, charities in Ireland boomed in the gala-ball climate. Just ask anyone running a charity now how they feel. They will tell you they would love to have those days back. In those days, as a country, and as individuals, we felt more of a duty to the less well-off, than we do now, in the desperation of poverty. Now it's every man for himself in this country and, what's more, if our neighbour seems to have a bit more than us, we resent him.

And the most upsetting thing about what is happening here is that we are dismantling our society, in no small part to pay off debts that were not incurred by our society, but by a relatively small group of people in the private sector. And not a week goes by now that we are not told by our friends in Europe that we are doing well, that we are an example to everyone, that our dismantling of society is proceeding apace and that as long as we keep demolishing our society everything will be all right.

As ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet tightened the screw on people in debt on Thursday to placate the pathological German dread of inflation, he had the gall to say that things were going in the right direction in Ireland. You see pain and dumping on the old, the young, the sick and the disabled, and what Trichet sees is that, "the adjustment is proceeding in line with what was foreseen".

He also had the gall to tell us that Ireland was "benefiting from the fact that we are credible in delivering price stability and we have a solid anchoring of inflation expectations". If you will pardon me being crude for a second, I believe this is what's known in financial parlance as pissing on our heads and telling us it's raining. A country whose biggest problem is debt, debt that it has no prospect of ever paying off, has only one hope, and that would be that inflation would erode the real value of that debt, that a rain would come and wash it all away.

And on the micro, individual, level, the heavily indebted families of this country need a bit of inflation more than they need this interest rate rise and the three more expected in the next 18 months.

The fact that the root cause of the current inflation in the Eurozone is not an excess money supply, but rising fuel prices, makes crippling interest rate rises even more pointless. Tightening the money supply, which is supposed to be the point of interest rate rises, had no effect on fuel prices, which are a totally extraneous variable to the internal EU money supply. So the ECB, on top of being an unelected quango with absolute economic power, and on top of being obsessed with just one aspect of the EU economy, as is its brief, is now also acting completely irrationally because of this one single article of faith it holds -- that inflation is bad, period.

While the IMF, which was here again last week, is often portrayed as the bad guy in Ireland, the IMF is in fact a far more benign, rounded and realistic institution than the other members of the so-called troika. The IMF delegation comes to Ireland very informed and quite nuanced and political in its outlook. It has been keeping an eye on how various cuts are playing with the public and was aware arriving here of issues like Roscommon hospital. The IMF is actually

a fairly neutral broker in all this. It is interested in seeing us getting back to growth, to a point where we can start rebuilding the country. It is aware of not pushing the people of Ireland too far, and of the need not to destroy the country too much. Certainly, it is interested in putting in place checks and balances like the Fiscal Advisory Council, the new watchdog on public finances, but only because it wants to make sure we don't get ourselves into this kind of a mess again. But largely, the IMF is looking out for our interests, because it doesn't have a huge axe of its own to grind, and would regard what is good for us as being good for it.

Contrast this with the Europeans, who really only have one interest in all this. They want us to pay back the money, every penny of it, so that their interests or the interests of the euro are not compromised. And they want to stop the ECB's short-term financing of our banks ASAP. And so they are cheering us on and patting us on the head as we slowly disband society here. Everything is going according to plan, and to hell with the human cost.

The really worrying thing is that the plan, the adjustment proceeding in line with expectations, is becoming an all-encompassing way of looking at life in this country. We are now being run by economic rules, which are based on cold ideas and graphs and not human beings. These economic rules have already destroyed the local economy in Ireland -- as we dealt with a demand-led recession by depressing demand further -- and now they are starting to cut into the softer fabric of life.

Many of the things that separate us from the animals are beginning to become unviable in this country. Education for children with intellectual disabilities is now regarded as dispensable in many cases. Perhaps because Ruairi Quinn feels "blessed" not to have a child in this position he is agreeable to not paying for these children to be integrated into mainstream society through education.

If you were the kind of person who believed in slippery slopes, you might think that this could become a first step to saying that with limited resources for healthcare, these children are less of a good investment for healthcare as well. After all, with only so much to go around, the first-class citizens, the ones who will go out and be good little drones to help us pay off Europe, are the ones who should get access to healthcare. The weaker ones cost more and the payback is much less in purely financial terms, so maybe we need to start making some hard decisions about them.

And when they grow up, the Government is now contemplating putting the mentally handicapped back out into the community to be looked after. While being out in the community could be viewed as being better for these people than being in an awful "institution", the real answer, the traditionally Irish answer to this, should be to fix the institutions. But instead we get a mean-spirited "you look after them" instead. Oh yes, and pay more taxes while you're doing it.

You wouldn't mind, but the daily news about cutbacks to the most vulnerable and in health and education are not even the big bangs. The big bang will come in a horrific Budget later this year. And while we are all reasonable people, and while we recognise that we need to deal with our deficit, we also know that there is no point to all of this while it is against a backdrop of this enormous debt around our necks, debt that is not our debt. The country is sinking anyway, so what is the point of all this pain? And why should society pay while financial institutions and systems get off scot-free?

And so they continue to run down the deserted village, where wealth accumulates and men decay.

Sunday Independent