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Ronald Quinlan: The truth hurts -- but it was Kenny's job to spell it out


THIS MUCH IS TRUE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Thursday

THIS MUCH IS TRUE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Thursday

THIS MUCH IS TRUE: Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Thursday

NO pun intended, but credit where credit is due to Taoiseach Enda Kenny for deciding to tell how things really are in relation to Ireland's economic downfall.

It's only been seven weeks since the Sunday Independent took issue with Mr Kenny's State of the Nation address, in which he gave the Irish people wholesale absolution for the fiscal sins committed during the bubble years, declaring: "Let me say this to you all: you are not responsible for this crisis."

He said it as if it would make things better, or at least more bearable. Regardless of its efficacy, the Taoiseach's soundbite was welcomed generally by a media long conditioned to feeding 'hard-pressed taxpayers' the line that a golden circle of bankers, developers and politicians had conspired to destroy their lives by forcing them to spend what they had, and borrow for what they could never afford.

Last Thursday, Mr Kenny revised his opinion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, saying: "The extent of personal credit, personal wealth created on credit, was done between people and banks -- a system that spawned greed to a point where it just went out of control completely with a spectacular crash."

For doing the decent thing and telling the ugly truth that people went "mad borrowing" -- a truth first told in this newspaper on December 11 last -- the Taoiseach found himself castigated by a rag-bag of opposition politicians drawn from the remnants of Fianna Fail and the ranks of Sinn Fein, all of whom clung desperately to the populist claptrap that a greedy minority had done it for all of us.

Such was the ferocity of the backlash, even Mr Kenny's own senior ministers -- the supposed backbone of his Government -- couldn't bring themselves to back him without adding their own mealy-mouthed qualifications.

Take Health Minister James Reilly, for example: "There's absolutely no doubt that people were encouraged by reckless lenders and banks to borrow and encouraged further by the government of the day. People had money shoved at them, we know that . . . the type of lending that went on at that time was clearly reckless and has clearly led us to where we are now," Mr Reilly whined, conveniently forgetting that for reckless lending to take place, there needs to be a steady stream of reckless borrowers to support it.

Not that the Taoiseach needs the support of his Cabinet colleagues to prove the point he is now making, albeit belatedly. Figures published by the Sunday Independent on December 18 last illustrate perfectly just how the ordinary people of Ireland played their part in inflating our property and credit bubbles during the boom.

According to the Central Bank of Ireland, outstanding residential mortgage debt ballooned from €26.519bn on May 31, 2000, to €126.597bn on May 31, 2008. While many will argue that this massive growth in our mortgage debt was fuelled primarily by spiralling house prices set by developers and the constant push of bankers, estate agents and other vested interests for people to "get on the property ladder", nobody held a gun to anyone's head to take out a mortgage, that in many cases they could barely afford in the good times, let alone the bad times that have now been visited upon the country.

Whatever about buying a house or apartment where the value may some day be recovered, the Irish love affair with new cars and the new registration plates that accompanied them, reached ridiculous levels during the Celtic Tiger years. Notwithstanding the dramatic depreciation that a new car experiences the moment it is driven from the garage's forecourt, the Irish bought 1.54 million of them between 2000 and 2008.

They couldn't all have been sold to the bankers or developers who politicians courting popular support like to blame.

So you didn't go 'crazy' and buy a house or a car? Well, perhaps you took a personal loan or used a credit card to buy something that you just couldn't wait to save for.

Given the level of household consumer credit went from €11.786bn in 2003 to €21.723bn in 2008, the chances are you, or at least someone in your immediate family, did.

Still annoyed at being lumped with the blame for the mess that you had no hand, act or part in creating?

Then take a moment to check your pay slip; you know the piece of paper where the numbers kept increasing to keep pace with the madness going on all around you?

Figures compiled by the Central Statistics Office show how the average Irish worker saw their salaries increase by over 50 per cent in some cases, in the course of the eight years between 2000 and 2008.

Did anyone ever complain that they were being paid too much for doing too little and offer to work for less?

But if you really want to talk about people "going mad borrowing", you only have to look at what the previous government did, and what Enda Kenny's Government continues to do in spending billions more each year than the State takes in to keep the country ticking along in the style to which it has become accustomed. That's the truth that we really need to come to terms with now.

Sunday Independent