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John-Paul McCarthy: We're on a steep economic learning curve

WATCHING Eamon O Cuiv's media gymnastics last week prompted numerous fleeting thoughts. Some things about his behaviour make sense. There is a certain symmetry in his kamikaze approach to the fiscal stability treaty.

As someone who earned his ministerial spurs in the Ahern-Cowen big-spending governments, it's not surprising that he would react so badly to budgetary rules that are designed to put sensible limits on a state's ability to bankrupt itself.

His reaction makes sense as well in the context of the general mood of escapism that pervades the anti-treaty case.

The austerity-growth dichotomy is a disgrace to modern Keynesianism, a dichotomy that seems to think that Keynes contemplated a general cure for unemployment via national bankruptcy, which he assuredly did not.

The standard of our debate is below the analytical norm expected elsewhere, a norm exemplified for example in the Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski's landmark Berlin speech last November.

Here, Sikorski explained that our biggest structural problem was the fact that the EU's founders "created a system in which each of its members has the capacity to bring it down, with appalling costs to themselves and the entire neighbourhood".

The constraints contemplated by the fiscal treaty seem a modest concession to Sikorski's point about currency protection via budgetary co-ordination.

It's not clear why O Cuiv can't see this and why he would make such bizarre comments about a possible future coalition between Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail.

I found some help in deciphering O Cuiv's thinking in Professor Brian Walker's recently published book, A Political History of the Two Irelands: From Partition to Peace.

In this absorbing study of the two Irish States over the last 90 years, Professor Walker casts a cold eye on various unhappy aspects of the Fianna Fail intellectual tradition, aspects that may still be animating O Cuiv.

Walker found an important interview given by then President De Valera in 1962 to the New York Times.

Here, De Valera returned to his idea of expulsion of northern unionists, an idea he later modified in 1966 during the Easter Rising commemorations when he called for the British government to bring unity forward over unionist heads.

This is a striking paragraph because it reminds us of an inflexible streak that has always been lurking in the Fianna Fail DNA.

De Valera was an imaginative thinker in many ways, especially when manipulating constitutional structures. His theory of "external association" in 1921 was an attempt to get people to think about Anglo-Irish relations in terms of the dynamic links between the American federal government and the several states, as sketched in the ninth amendment to the US Constitution.

And he was equally willing to innovate on defence arrangements with Britain in 1920 when he said he'd be glad to model Irish defence policy on Cuba.

But these imaginative ideas were at war with the ugly sentiments published by the New York Times.

Walker's engaging analysis made me wonder if O Cuiv may not be suffering from the problems that beset his grandfather, namely a similar desire to void in rhetoric what one has wrought in fact.

O Cuiv was a member of the cabinet that endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and that voided the territorial claim on Northern Ireland in the old Articles Two and Three.

This suggests an ability on O Cuiv's part to see beyond the seductive slogans of republican socialism, a faction with much experience at thrusting at the lions that supposedly guard "the Unionist Veto".

Walker actually ends his book by paying tribute to O Cuiv for jointly organising a mass to commemorate Galway's First World War dead with the former RUC inspector and UUP politician John Gorman in 2007.

But O Cuiv's analysis of the fiscal treaty places him in lock step with the republican socialist faction today, just as De Valera's presidential effusions undid a lot of his complex constitutional work as Taoiseach.

How is it possible to spurn the republican-socialist paranoia as regards unionism, yet embrace it on the problem of financial restraint?

Walker's book offers another hint here. The answer may well just be inexperience.

Irish cabinet ministers have very little experience in supra-national economic analysis. Our little political platoon has not yet managed to replace Garret FitzGerald, and our universities have not produced anyone to rival lateral thinkers like Niall Ferguson, Tony Judt or Perry Anderson.

And to that extent, Irish ministers struggle to convey a sense of seeing the whole chess board as regards Europe.

The temptation to fall back on absolutist arguments about Irish sovereignty is high, even though most experts would probably agree that our decision to surrender domestic control over interest rates did more damage to Irish sovereignty than the proposed fiscal treaty budget parameters.

We are experts though, as Walker shows, on issues of identity politics, as we have gradually come to see the bankruptcy of tribal thinking since the Twenties.

Walker explains how we have learned to break down concepts like "consent" and "parity of esteem" into their component parts in the cultural area. (And he gives Hubert Butler, Ruth Dudley Edwards, Eoghan Harris and Kevin Myers more credit in this regard than they usually get from their own peers down here.)

But we are on a very steep learning curve on questions of continental economics by contrast.

O Cuiv stands on that storm-lit plain where political maturity and economic innocence unhappily collide.

Those who fear a national catastrophe if he gets his way in the referendum will feel even worse when they realise that his grandfather once occupied that very same spot.

Sunday Independent