Sunday 17 November 2019

Jody Corcoran: Bitter truth at the heart of Labour's porky pies

Eamon Gilmore is himself open to a charge of economic treason

Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Almost three years ago, when the possibility of 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' was taken seriously, when the Labour leader routinely soared to ever greater heights of righteous indignation, a moniker was applied to best describe the then man of the moment: "Mr Angry".

His anger reached a crescendo in the Dail on Wednesday, March 31, 2010, the day he accused the then Taoiseach Brian Cowen of "economic treason", a devastating charge which ultimately did for Cowen.

Eamon Gilmore launched his visceral attack in the context of a seminal decision by the then government, in September 2008, to extend the bank guarantee in blanket form to include Anglo Irish Bank.

The day before, on March 30, the Finance Minister, Brian Lenihan, had announced an injection of more than €8bn into the bank and said that a further €10bn might be required at a later stage.

"I believe," said Gilmore, "the decision was made to save the skins of a number of individuals, some of whom were connected to Fianna Fail and whose property interests and prosperity were bound up with the fortunes of Anglo Irish Bank."

Playing to his constituency, Mr Angry said: "People have lost their jobs as a result of this. This bill is equal to the sum total of the pay cuts and pension levy in the public sector."

Cowen was roused from what was by then widely held to be a curious stupor: "I would never come into this House to accuse another Irishman of what he accused me."

He was so stung, in fact, that almost a year later, on January 12, 2011, Cowen returned to the accusation.

The context this time was, as Gilmore had said, the "large hole" in people's pay packets, that is, those "fortunate enough" to still have a job, as he so empathised.

"The same is true for people in receipt of social welfare payments," he added, such as – although he did not specifically state this – the many thousands in real need of child benefit payments.

It was then that Cowen chose to return to the "economic treason" charge.

He argued that the bailout cost – now estimated at €64bn – would have been far greater had the blanket guarantee not been put in place; he referred, for example, to personal savings, credit union deposits and pension funds.

Labour should consider that, he said, and move away from the "politics of smear", which, he said, was designed, to harvest hundreds of thousands of votes at his expense, what with the charge of "economic traitor" hanging over him.

"I reject that assertion with contempt," said Cowen.

Gilmore resiled somewhat, but not entirely: "What I said, and what I stand over, is that if the Taoiseach's Government knew Anglo Irish Bank was insolvent and asked the Irish taxpayers to bail it out and to pay the cost we are now paying for it, that was and is economic treason. I stand over that."

The comment may have been more enlightening than Gilmore had intended: in effect, he had just said it "is" economic treason to continue to make the Anglo promissory note payments.

Therefore, a month before the general election two years ago, effectively Gilmore had said that Labour in Government would discontinue the Anglo promissory note arrangement as devised in December 2009.

In fact, he coined a slogan which was to neatly encapsulate the election promise: "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way," he said, the implication, clearly, that it would be Labour's way and Europe could go to hell.

It was one of many such slogans devised by the "grey men" of Labour when, at the time, it was clear that the 'Gilmore for Taoiseach' poster was a dead duck and that Fine Gael could actually form a single-party government.

Another election poster read "Protect Child Benefit Vote Labour", dispatched to Labour candidates a week before polling at 5am with the instruction that party workers hang them near schools and train stations to reassure parents.

Then there was the poster which is pictured above. It warned voters against what Fine Gael had in store, not only a child benefit cut, but a car tax hike, a Vat increase, tax on savings, even €1 on a bottle of wine, all of which have since come to pass – the sixth is pending, an annual water charge.

Asked about the simplicity of these election promises, now broken, Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte offered this: "Yeah well ... I mean ... isn't that what you tend to do during an election?"

But that was not the most astounding declaration of Pat Rabbitte's interview on The Week in Politics last weekend during which he sought to defend Labour's clear breach of faith.

He also said this: "We didn't pay the promissory note this year and as far as I'm concerned we're not going to pay it next year. It's as simple as that."

But it is not that simple at all – far from it.

Last week the media ran with the latest solemn promise that Ireland would not pay the more than €3bn due in March under the Anglo promissory note arrangement, a claim from which the Taoiseach has already backed down.

In the Dail last Tuesday, Enda Kenny said that he did not wish to give the public false hope that the promissory note due to be paid on March 31 would not be paid.

"This country is in a bailout programme..." he said. "So the money to pay the salaries of the gardai, the teachers, the nurses and all of the other people in the country here comes from Europe."

No, the real news arising out of the interview was Rabbitte's barefaced "porky pie" – as Mary Lou McDonald might put it in the Dail.

In fact, last year the Government borrowed more than €3bn from Nama and then Nama passed the debt to the Bank of Ireland; so now, instead of owing €3bn as a promissory note, which might be written off, the State owes €3bn to the bank, which is much less likely to be written off.

In political terms, the real consequence of this accounting trick is that Labour has left itself open to an accusation of "economic treason"; Mr Angry, after all, had said that to continue to make such payments "is" economic treason.

"Labour's way or Frankfurt's Way" is, in fact, the Big Lie in a myriad of lies at the heart of Labour's current predicament, porky pies which have allowed Sinn Fein to feast at the core of the party's support.

A related lie, still told, is that it is entirely the fault of Fianna Fail.

The Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan, for one, has said that the refusal of the troika to allow losses on senior bondholders has further increased losses incurred as a result of the bank guarantee.

While there was much that was the fault of Fianna Fail, recent evidence has made clear that the last government was forced by Europe into the straitjacket of the troika – a force that the current Government also seems incapable of resisting.

In Paris on Monday, October 22, last, Enda Kenny gave an account which more closely resembled the truth – days after the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had caused consternation by appearing to rule out retrospective recapitalisation of Ireland's banks under the ESM. He said: "Ireland was the first and only country which had a European position imposed upon it, in the sense that there wasn't the opportunity, if the Government wished, to do it their way by burning bondholders. The Irish public and Irish taxpayer were required to service the full extent of the debt. . ."

In other words, for the first time Kenny had admitted that the "economic traitor" Brian Cowen had, in fact, a position "imposed" upon him by Europe; was not given an "opportunity" to burn bondholders; was forced by Europe to require the citizens of Ireland to service the debt in full.

In fact, Pat Rabbitte has himself endorsed the sentiment as expressed by Kenny in Paris, that the troika, as Rabbitte has said, had "imposed" an "unjust" deal on Ireland.

As is his wont, the Communications Minister could not resist a barb, however: "It is only important to history to establish if this was allowed to happen because of the level of dysfunction then engulfing the Irish government."

This from a minister who has witnessed five of his Labour colleagues, including two ministers and his party chairman, withdraw support from his Government and who sits in a Cabinet with James Reilly.

It is, also, richly ironic that Gilmore now seeks to defend the Government of which he is part in a manner similar to the government of which he was so critical.

The following took place in the Dail last week during a debate on the Social Welfare Bill. At one level, the exchange amounts to the sort of "auld palaver" of which Rabbitte so memorably accused Pat Carey on Prime Time before the election; but at its heart lies exposed the rank hypocrisy which is central to the position in which Labour now finds itself.

Gilmore: "The Government was elected by the people on a single promise and with a single purpose – to solve the crisis and to do so in a way that was fair and balanced."

Dessie Ellis (SF): "Is this Frankfurt talking?"

Mattie McGrath (Ind): "The Labour Party made a hundred promises at the last general election."

Gilmore: "Unlike others, the parties in the Government have not promised fairytale solutions to the complex problems the country faces. . ."

McGrath: "The Labour Party got away with it."

Gilmore: "The Labour Party went to the people and entered government with the same mandate."

McGrath: "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way."

Dinny McGinley (FG): "Deputy Mattie McGrath is just a loudmouth."

McGrath: "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way."

Gilmore: "We promised to fix the banks at the lowest possible cost and are doing so."

McGrath: "Labour's way or Frankfurt's way."

McGinley: "Deputy Mattie McGrath, will you keep your mouth shut?"

Ciara Conway (Lab): "If he would just keep quiet, he might learn something."

McGinley: "He is a serial interrupter."

Acting chairman (Liam Twomey): "Please, deputies."

Gilmore: "The people who sent us here expect us to be serious. If there are members who want to act the clown, let them go off and act it somewhere else.

McGrath: "Economic treason."

Gilmore: "There is no one solution, such as defaulting on our debts, which would only rebound on our children and their children. . ."

In short, although he continues to wriggle on a hook, Gilmore was last week hoisted with his own petard.

During a Dail debate on the economy on Thursday, October 25, last, Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen set the scaffold. In a bitter exchange with Gilmore, the former Taoiseach's brother began with a call for a "degree of perspective and honesty" in the "absence of denial or anger".

When Gilmore responded by stating that Cowen had "some neck to come to the House. . . etc, etc", the atmosphere changed.

Cowen referred to the comments made by Kenny in Paris and said: "The Taoiseach rubbished the commitment the Tanaiste had given to the people, for which he subsequently got a mandate, to the effect that he would burn bondholders.

"I would say it was almost treasonous to give the people that impression, but I will let the Tanaiste live by that commitment."

Sunday Independent

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