Sunday 15 December 2019

Lise Hand: I don't believe it -- it's Meldrew McCarthy the very jolly joker

Colm McCarthy was sporting a very jolly tie yesterday for his speech at the MacGill Summer School in Donegal. It was a riot of oranges and reds and yellows and the jazzy pattern included a pair of bored-looking lassies looking for all the world as if they were en route to Dundrum shopping centre.

It was a startling choice of neckwear for an arch-curmudgeon, a chap whose blunt irascibility makes him a sort of pinstriped Victor Meldrew of economics who goes about his business in a perpetual state of exasperation over the profligacy of political and banking bigwigs.

In fairness, he takes his role of An Fear Snip -- the scourge of bloated quangos and under-performing semi-state bodies -- very seriously. And so there was always a chance that he might end up indulging in a spot of verbal handbags with feisty fellow panelist, ICTU general secretary David Begg, during yesterday's opening session.

Once again the Highland Hotel hall was full by 11am, with the audience as usual featuring a preponderance of pensioners and a bunch of beards, all hoping for a clash of cranky chaps.

But, in fact, the lack of grumpiness was remarkable. And David Begg -- perhaps inspired by the massive Donegal fries served up at breakfast-time -- launched into a rasher-and-sausage simile as he warned against deeper integration with Europe.

"At the moment we have the same relationship to Europe as a hen has to the full Irish breakfast -- we are involved. Shortly we may become more like the pig, fully committed," he joked, and looked chuffed when his foray into comedy was rewarded with laughter.

However, it was Meldrew McCarthy who proved to be the real star turn. First he turned his disapproving eye on such multi-million euro frivolities as the government wheezes to expand the National Concert Hall and relocate the Abbey Theatre into the GPO.

However, if Colm has his way, it'll be Arts out the window. "The fact that those two projects have only just been scrapped literally in the last few weeks is evidence of how sluggish we are in dealing with these things," he reckoned.

But he wasn't finished wielding his great big axe just yet. He had other folderols and fripperies in his gunsights, including Metro North.

"There are three huge capital projects in Dublin to build underground railways and electric railways and trams. Everybody knows they're not going to happen, but there are engineers and architects and PR consultants beavering away as we speak on these projects," he sniffed.

As far as he was concerned, they should be derailed immediately, rather than in a few months' time.

"I don't think we should wait until the autumn," he declared to approving applause.

Then it was the turn of the medical consultants to feel the blade on their necks. Earlier in the discussion, boffin Brigid Laffan had produced a graph which showed the salary levels of medical consultants.

"I'll just point you to the highest spike, because the country that pays its medical consultants more than 32 countries in Europe is Ireland," she announced with the flourish of a magician armed with a rabbit and a top hat.

And so Colm did a number of his own on the medics, remarking that: "Private consultants get paid and they're in private practice on other peoples' premises," he pointed out.

"I've a pal who has a big farm down in Cork and he says (of the consultants' set-up), 'It's like you own a farm, you get in a farm manager, he gets paid a few grand a month, but he gets to bring his own cattle with him and he gets to eat your hay and use your tractor and burn your diesel'," sniped Colm.

He had them rocking in the aisles. And in true showband tradition he left them laughing, finishing up with a right old go at those impetuous fools who are agitating for a return of the good old punt or drachma.

The scorn poured out of him like lava out of Vesuvius at the very notion of reviving the corpse of a dead currency and then promptly devaluing it to attract buyers.

"The drachma has been abolished -- it's not cryogenically preserved in a cave on Athos or something, and the finance minister can't just go along and breathe life into it and then devalue it," he grumbled.

"You then have to announce that you'd like people to hold this currency, and the prospectus would say, 'Well actually we're bust, we're in an IMF programme, we've had to default, the economy's banjaxed, the banks are bust, and the reason we want to bring in this currency is in order to devalue it. How much would you like?'" he scoffed as the crowd roared. Who knew recessions could be so much fun? And then after the discussion, Colm, the scourge of the public sector, and ICTU's David Begg sat outside the hotel together and chatted away like best mates.

"I don't believe it," thought every passerby.

Irish Independent

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