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If anger is not a policy, then rage might just be

Anger is not a policy, the late Brian Lenihan used to say. But can real anger influence policy? In Greece, the signs indicate the answer is 'maybe'.

As in Ireland, power in Greece rests with the EU and ECB -- who are increasingly at odds -- with a somewhat more bemused IMF looking on: otherwise they are known as the troika.

In the face of a threat of real austerity, there was real anger -- rage -- on the streets of Athens last week.

In Dublin a pensioner threw an egg. Again. He threw an egg last year too and hit: last week he was reported to have missed his target, Pat Molloy, the chairman of the Bank of Ireland.

From a vantage point, I felt sure that he had hit Molloy on his lower left arm, only for the egg to then fall harmlessly to the ground and still not break. Perhaps it was hard boiled.

The egg-throwing incident garnered easy headlines, but it was not the most telling moment at the annual general meeting of a basket- case bank which is, unbelievably, still in love with itself.

That moment came when Shane Ross rose to question Molloy.

Ross knows that the views of ordinary shareholders amount to nothing against the will of the institutions which effectively control what is left of that bank.

In much the same way, the views of citizens here, so far, amount to nothing against the will of the troika, two of which, the EU and ECB, last November blocked the stated wish of Brian Lenihan to burn the bondholders.

Now Michael Noonan, his successor, has chosen to reopen this issue in limited form, circumstance having apparently changed, just in time for the policy shift to slip under the bar of the Government's first 100 days.

It is tempting to be cynical, but I suspect Noonan's initiative is a ploy in a wider game.

The telling moment at the AGM came when Ross sought to question the relevant expertise of five of the six directors standing for re-election to the board of Bank of Ireland.

The five were in situ before 2008, when the bank went belly-up, leaving thousands of mainly pensioners, such as the egg-thrower, substantially out of pocket.

He wanted the five to come before the AGM to explain why, in their view, they were entitled to salaries of, he said, up to around €400,000 each a year.

It was one of several issues raised which Molloy chose to ignore.

Without the benefit of a microphone, removed from him, Ross demanded an answer: what about the directors, he said, will they explain why they think they are worth €400,000 a year?

"No, they will not," said Molloy.

"Why not?" Ross asked. He seemed quite angry too.

"Because I will not permit it," Molloy said.

And that was that.

The directors were re-elected, of course, unquestioned as to their self-regard.

We may be annoyed at that -- even angry -- but we should not be surprised.

Nor should we be surprised that the Government seems to think it has done a good job in the first 100 days.

We should be annoyed, though, that in large part it is still pretending to be in power as opposed to office.

In terms of the little power it has, the Government has made many statements of intent, but is also too much in love with itself to take hard decisions.

The real power rests with the troika, each of which are pulling in a different direction, with the result that the centre, the eurozone, may be about to give.

If or when that happens there will be a scramble for the lifeboats, and Ireland will be the last to get on board, if it does at all.

The events in Europe really are that serious.

But here, outwardly, as a collective, the Government seems satisfied, still, to persist with a policy of spin.

Sooner or later, though, it will be found out; probably if the Noonan initiative to burn the bondholders of Anglo and Irish Nationwide falls to the ground and cracks open for all to see.

I hope I am wrong, and that Noonan, who is as wily as they come -- he takes a decision as a grandmaster moves a chess piece -- achieves a measure of the success he has set out to achieve, to protect our porporate tax rate and secure a reduction in the bailout interest rate.

It is also right that the Finance Minister should seek to burn the bondholders -- seek is the word -- as it was that Shane Ross should seek to question five of six directors at Bank of Ireland.

But what will happen if two of the troika, the EU and ECB, do as Molloy did and simply declare: "I will not permit it"?

The Government will be exposed, forced to abandon spin, and to get on with doing what it has been told to do -- to introduce austerity the like of which we can scarcely imagine.

In such a circumstance, the trumpeting of a €290m saving in a €17.6bn public pay and pensions budget will be shown for what it is . . . how to put this delicately? . . . insufficient.

It is within that context, then, that the promise last week not to increase tax on income or to cut social welfare rates should be borne in mind.

Noonan was not as definitive on these issues as was the Taoiseach, who is still caught up in the glare of his own publicity, the media complicit in the tediousness of it all.

In the first 100 days, the media, by and large, also seemed to be in love with itself; belatedly it is showing signs of awakening, like a new bride who has just realised her seducer was only the lure of her own desire.

The honeymoon is over, Enda.

As in Greece, in the face of real austerity, to meet the expectation of bondholders and the demand of moneylenders, the repercussions of a broken promise on income tax and social welfare may be ferocious.

To his credit, Noonan has succeeded in reminding Europe that Ireland has not gone away, which may, in fact, have been his only intention.

His intervention from the US will also focus EU-ECB attention

on the need to re-examine a ruinous interest rate on the troika bailout funds.

But we were here before too.

Last April, the Finance Minister declared that the interest rate on the EU portion of the bailout would be cut and that the reduction would be backdated.

The new rate, he said, would come into force at the end of June.

In fact, the Finance Minister said in Budapest, the rate reduction had been conceded at the Taoiseach's first EU summit in March.

We now know that there was no such agreement: it was just more spin. We should be angry about that too.

In Greece they are raging. The rage is helping to shape a rethink in old Europe.

The Germans are at odds with the ECB as to the way forward; the French are with the Germans, or vice versa; a new president of the ECB is imminent; and at the IMF a new managing director.

While the politicians and bankers manouvere, anger is mounting among the afflicted voters of Europe, such anger that may turn out to be a policy after all, or at least an influence over policy continuously redrawn.

We will know for sure by the outcome of events in Greece, at which point the time may be at hand to put aside our rotten eggs and take to the streets ourselves. Now, if only there existed somebody to lead the way.

Sunday Independent


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