Friday 15 November 2019

James Downey: The next few years won't be much fun -- for anyone

WHAT fun we're having, boys and girls! How we all cracked up when Gerry Adams talked in the Dail about "money laundering"! Not that we needed any reminder that Gerry Adams is an irony-free zone.

And how we exchanged laughter for wry smiles when Micheal Martin showed us his notion of "constructive opposition"! It looked uncannily like his party's attitudes during its rare periods in opposition down through the years.

I'll come back to that. To stick to the fun for the moment, we will have more of it in May when we welcome the Queen of England and the President of the United States. But we will just have to hope that these trips will bring a practical reward in terms of trade and tourism.

No doubt the queen and the president will say all sorts of nice things about us. Very likely -- in one case, certainly -- they will mention their Irish ancestors. The first is descended from Brian Boru. The second can trace his roots to Offaly.

As chance would have it, I was in the audience in the Irish embassy in Washington on St Patrick's Day, 1981, when one of Barack Obama's predecessors, Ronald Reagan, was presented with a parchment purporting to show his descent from Brian Boru. I noticed that his eyes misted over.

But thoughts of Ireland do not cause the eyes of serious and powerful people in another location, the European mainland, to mist over. They look at us and see that our economy has shrunk for the third year running. Irish government bonds -- like those of Portugal, where the government has collapsed -- are being sold off.

And they have read the Moriarty Report, or at least a summary. One of the things that must strike them forcefully about it is that a mobile phone licence worth on a reasonable estimate €1bn (it turned out to be worth a lot more) was sold for €15m.

What does that tell them, and us, about standards of government and administration here?

A few years ago the then German ambassador, Dr Christian Pauls, made a speech in which he described our Celtic Tiger society as "coarse". He later said that this was a mistranslation, but it seemed to me fair comment on our culture of conspicuous consumption.

In the same speech, he talked about inflated Irish salaries. He noted that he himself was paid less than his Irish counterparts. Fair comment again. And not just in relation to public servants: it applies to professional fees, for example, and the remuneration of directors of insolvent banks.

But it applies with greatest force to public service pay and pensions. We pay some of the highest salaries for some of the worst services. And we throw in some extra perks along the way, like the "privilege days" for senior civil servants.

Very likely most of us had never heard of privilege days until they became a subject of contention this week. Now we know, and we know how vigorously the recipients defend them.

This can't go on, and Europe will ensure that it doesn't go on.

As I write, the EU heads of government are meeting, essentially to endorse the "Pact for the Euro" outlined in detail by the eurozone heads of government on March 11. This centres on the creation of the European Stability Mechanism in 2013. Europe will have the power to instruct us -- not just ask us -- to increase taxes and cut social welfare.

Of course, we know that whatever the new Government may say, we are going to have to do these unpalatable things anyway. But we would also like to know what, if anything, we will get in return.

Not long ago, Brian Lenihan liked to talk about turning corners. Every time we turned a corner, we came up against another brick wall. The biggest problem about increasing taxes and cutting spending is simply stated. It is not the pain it causes to individuals. It is that it makes economic recovery unlikely, perhaps impossible.

Enda Kenny and his team face two further problems: the dissipation of goodwill in Europe during the terms of the Ahern and Cowen governments, and the stark extent of the debt crisis.

In the Financial Times on March 14, Wolfgang Munchau wrote that the EU was exceptionally skilled at muddling through, but muddling through would not serve any longer. He is not optimistic about the prospects for the alternative, dramatic moves.

Dramatic moves might well help Ireland, lifting some of our debt burden. For now, though, we must apply ourselves to muddling through. That will require an extraordinary level of competence and sure-footedness in negotiation. It will require concessions and abandonment of fixed policy stances.

And here I come back to Micheal Martin. If he really wants to engage in constructive opposition, he must put forward helpful ideas -- in the Dail chamber and outside it. He will have to refrain from denouncing every tactical change of policy as a U-turn.

It won't be easy. He has Sinn Fein and the far left breathing down his neck. He leads a party, or what remains of a party, which would like an outmoded, populist style of opposition. He needs to strike a difficult, delicate balance between support and justified criticism.

He has a right, indeed a duty, to criticise. But he must not seek to pretend, any more than the Government should seek to pretend, that the next few years can be much fun for anyone.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss