Monday 21 October 2019

John Drennan: Enda's austerity marriage could trigger moral schism

Can the Taoiseach break with Merkel and rekindle the affair with reborn Labour

Newly elected TD Helen McEntee pictured with Taoiseach Enda Kenny just as was declared as having won the seat her Father Shane formerly held, at the count center for the Meath East Bye election at Donaghmore GAA club in Ashbourne yesterday.
Pic Frank Mc Grath
Newly elected TD Helen McEntee pictured with Taoiseach Enda Kenny just as was declared as having won the seat her Father Shane formerly held, at the count center for the Meath East Bye election at Donaghmore GAA club in Ashbourne yesterday. Pic Frank Mc Grath
St Vincent de Paul Conference, National Convention Centre. Minister Joan Burton TD pictured at the event. Picture; GERRY MOONEY. 20/4/13

John Drennan

Happy indeed were the times, mostly during the "people before politics" Bertie era of "Peace! Bread! Land!" and above all "Property!" where Ireland's eternal moral civil wars appeared to have been consigned to the bin of history.

Sadly, Ireland's great fall has ended that amoral tranquility where the only wars we fought were for holiday homes in Croatia.

The notion of a moral civil war might appear to be as outdated as ideology itself but, already the political process has plunged, without enthusiasm, into a reprise of an Eighties-style civil war on abortion.

However, could it actually be the case that the din coming from the various Tin Gods on abortion is drowning out an even greater moral civil war between those Fine Gael hardy pragmatists who continue to accept austerity and a growing number of Labour moral methodists who have had enough of Angela (Merkel)'s ashes-style austerity.

Of course, our hardy pragmatists will laugh at the very notion that morality has any relationship to economics.

They tell us that economics is a science centred around balancing the books, finding out what creates wealth (generally our pragmatists in this regard are enthusiasts for billionaires enjoying tax-free status), appeasing the right vested interests and ensuring that the wealthy, banks and Angela Merkel are approached with a begging bowl.

Such pragmatists, of course, despise those moral methodists who believe that political economy should be informed by the sort of social justice which says that if 23 per cent of our citizens are unemployed we should not let them simply go to the wall.

But, outside of the minor suggestion that if we are to live in a half-civilised society, economics should be infused by ethics; a moral approach should be a central feature of economic policies for one other critical reason.

Any close examination of economics suggests that whether it is under fascism, communism or even our curious variant of "Bertienomics" crossed with social partnership, the economies of amoral societies do not thrive.

The reason for this is that economies are ultimately a social construct and entrepreneurial spirit cannot thrive where the state is rotten.

And outside of fascist and Cold War states there's is nothing as dysfunctional as the ideology of "dumb" austerity.

On one level it is ironic that the revolt of the moral methodists against austerity is being led by the Labour Party for, up to recently, it looked as though that party had allowed its serial defeats by Bertie to erode the high moral sentiment they originally brought to politics.

These defeats had, it appeared, installed the sort of iron in the soul where the amoral cynicism of Haughey's "health cuts hurt the old, the sick and the disabled" had been replaced by the "new" Labour "Every little thing hurts" variant.

It is all the more ironic, of course, that after Labour's flirtation with the ruthless Fianna Fail school of hardy pragmatism that the road back to a future for that party has been charted by Michael D Higgins.

One of the few core values of Irish politics is the sincere hatred, often disguised as affable contempt, that is reserved for them intellectual fellas.

This attitude means that, in the wake of his election, many viewed Michael D as representing little more than an affable clown who would mostly engage in such critical events as The Gathering.

Instead Mr Higgins has turned into an unlikely pied piper who has led the political children of the Cabinet away from "dumb" austerity.

But, while the tune played by Michael D, closely followed by Joan Burton's "limits of austerity" speech and somewhat more distantly by the Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore, Pat Rabbitte and more surprisingly by Leo Varadkar, has defined a certain zeitgeist; intriguingly Enda Kenny and Michael Noonan have maintained an enigmatic silence.

The kindest interpretation of this is that these wise old souls realise that, while Michael D has played a sweet song, the austerity war is not over.

The various demarches, be it by EU autocrats, idealistic presidents, ministers and academic potentates is all well and good but when faced by the bared teeth of the European Central Bank and Angela's economic ashes we are not even at the end of the beginning.

However, the end of "dumb" austerity may not be an easy concept for Enda Kenny for other reasons.

The Taoiseach is, with the best will in the world, a man who likes an element of simplicity in his life.

"Dumb" austerity is unpleasant but it is also the apotheosis of the "careful now, no harm done" ethic of this Government of mostly cautious conservatives.

"Dumb" austerity with its neat primary school ledger-style balancing of the books is something the Taoiseach understands.

It possesses the simplicity of orders given and fulfilled and like the primary school-teacher that he is, Enda likes the concept of boxes being ticked and a gold star for being Angela's "good boy".

Now suddenly though, Burton, Gilmore, Rabbitte and the rest of Labour's moral methodists want to bring Enda and Mr Noonan to a zone of uncertainty.

The unease is all the greater because, after the psychic shock to the system our Grumpy Old Men experienced once they saw the extent of the chaos they inherited, the Coalition has reached a place of stability.

It may be the tranquility experienced by a dozing zombie but the chaos has eased; the ship though still and somewhat infected by scurvy, is at least becalmed and if that means it is going nowhere too exciting, well that at least is better than going over a never-ending series of rapids.

Some, of course, will claim that a very different set of rapids, namely the opinion polls, had driven Labour's return to the moral way.

Labour is undoubtedly a frightened party driven by fears of annihilation, but, is it not also possible that the party has rediscovered a better set of roots than amoral pragmatism because, as Pat Rabbitte recently noted, politicians are closer to the citizens than we acknowledge.

And Joan Burton's critique of austerity is certainly underpinned by a Methodist-style philosophy as distinct from any desire for political gain.

A struggle is escalating within Government between the school of hardy pragmatists that believes only utter obedience to Angela can save us and the moral methodists, mostly from Labour (plus Leo Varadkar) who understand "dumb" austerity's greatest sin is the crushing of human potential.

To date the hardy pragmatists, as is so often the case in Ireland, continue to call the shots.

But the moral methodists in the heart of government have at least articulated the necessity to start doing things in a different manner to the way we are doing them now.

In doing so they may also have signalled the beginning of the end of the reign of the emperors of "dumb" austerity.

Enda Kenny may for now be casting a deaf ear in the direction of Labour and his own moral methodists.

However, while one would never enter Enda into a maths competition involving complexities such as how much is a quarter multiplied by four – few politicians have a finer nose though for the winds of political change.

This capacity means that when the Taoiseach on two occasions in a week becomes twitchy about the bad Celtic Tiger-style karma attaching itself to the "much abused" word austerity something is moving in the political undergrowth.

Mr Kenny, as we noted, may not be the sort who frets over the failings of Bruning, the hungry chancellor, whose austerity policies played a far greater role in the rise of Hitler than Weimar inflation.

But, Enda's has sensed the sort of tremors that signal the advance of a distant bandwagon.

If that is the case we can be sure that no one, outside of that former boss of the great tribe of Irish hardy pragmatists, Bertie, will be quicker than our current "Dear Leader" Enda to leap off the "dumb" austerity bandwagon and join the moral methodists of Labour.

Irish Independent

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