Thursday 21 November 2019

What we are doing is cutting out our heart

People now feel they have less and less of a stake in the fate of this country, writes Brendan O'Connor

You will have noticed that there is a new mantra in Government. It used to be that when a politician was in trouble, he blamed the last government, or he might even blame the current government, while kind of acting as if he was nothing to do with that government. Remember that? When ministers would come on Questions and Answers, as it was in those innocent times, and they would get indignant about something, and say something should certainly be done about it, and they would often have to be reminded that they were the government. Indeed sometimes they might even have been the minister relevant to that issue. But still they would fulminate as if they were an irate and powerless member of the public, a victim of the establishment.

Of course, now the Government has a whole new way of having power without responsibility. Like guys in a courtroom pleading the fifth, they just sit there and stare at the wall ahead of them and parrot that "the country has lost its sovereignty and this is in the terms of the IMF/EU bailout". It's a great old fallback position. You can imagine them drumming it into them all at media bootcamp; the way Fr Ted trained Fr Jack to say "that would be an ecumenical matter". So any time they're in trouble -- like when Ruairi Quinn was visibly rattled on Prime Time the other night -- they just intone the mantra. This is why Pat Rabbitte is suddenly in favour of selling off the ESB. It is also why Alan Shatter is shutting down garda stations. It is ultimately the excuse for every government action these days, government actions these days being mainly cuts.

On Prime Time, having sat through what must have been an uncomfortable film about how the Government's policy on education for children with special needs was playing out in reality, a clearly nonplussed Quinn began and ended his contributions by playing the trump card: We have lost our sovereignty. This is in the terms of the EU/IMF bailout. While acknowledging that he would be going away to look at the situation given what he had seen and heard, Quinn essentially then shut down any debate by implying -- It doesn't matter what we say here. It doesn't matter whether I'm right or wrong here. It's not my fault. It's nothing to do with me anyway. You could possibly blame the last government. But anyway, it doesn't matter.

Not only was Quinn suggesting that this was all beyond his control, because we have no sovereignty anymore, he was also suggesting that the terms of the EU/IMF bailout were commandments handed down in stone, and that there was nothing we could do to change them. In other words, in this case, he was suggesting that the EU and the IMF, having examined the matter carefully, had ordered painful cuts, specifically in the provision of Special Needs Assistants to disabled children. In other words, Quinn was suggesting that the EU and the IMF specifically decreed that cuts be implemented on people who are among the lowest-paid people in the educational system, and who work with the most vulnerable people in the educational system.

Of course, this is simply not true. The EU and the IMF don't give a damn how many

Special Needs Assistants we have in this country. All the EU and the IMF care about is that we save the right amount of money. It was we, in the form of the last government, who suggested the cuts we are currently enduring. It was basically written by them in a four-year plan before the bailout. The current Government opposed it. And now, this Government's only job is to implement it, like the most highly-paid petty clerks in the world. And when anyone questions the wisdom of it, they just shrug and say there's nothing they can do.

But of course there is. They could choose to cut pay at the top of the civil service, for example. But obviously the people at the top levels of the civil service are not going to encourage that. They could choose to look again at Croke Park, but of course the public sector who run this country are not going to suggest that either.

So we live in a country where there is no governance, where what we laughingly call a government is merely a cutting agency, a cutting agency that will cut anything before it cuts itself and its vast bloated apparatus. And if this cutting agency is allowed to continue, it will destroy the largely humane and reasonably fair society we have painstakingly built over the last half a century.

And no matter how much good news we hear, about how well we are doing, and how great we are for enduring the cuts, and how Ireland is relatively better than many of our neighbours now because we started austerity earlier and oftener, no one ever suggests that we might have some let-up. All we ever hear is that there should be more and faster cuts. We normally hear this from people such as Peter Sutherland, who won't even feel the cuts nibbling at their bottoms and who have done very well thank you out of the type of establishment entities that we are all propping up.

But still we mindlessly do what we're told, handing over our sovereignty, as Shane Ross pointed out last week, to people like the French, who are possibly in a worse situation than us given what we are hearing about their banks.

And in the meantime, as we continue to sacrifice everything, as our pathological austerity, the only game in town, continues to destroy the prospects of real growth or an upswing in employment, as we continue to sacrifice ourselves on the rock of Europe, everyone else is looking after their own backyards. As Philip Stephens pointed out in the FT the other day, the problem now in Europe is really a political one, and it is a retreat to nationalism by the Germans and others.

Over the last year, with increasing urgency, we have seen the likes of the World Bank, the IMF and others begging Europe, largely in the shape of France and Germany, to do something, something real, about the sovereign debt crisis that is gobbling up the world's economy. Various suggestions have been made at various points. We are so punch-drunk at this stage that we barely register anymore whether they are still discussing increasing the bailout fund to a couple of trillion, or issuing eurobonds, or recapitalising banks. All we know is that things never happen, and they never happen on time, and they are never enough, and the crisis lurches on. Last week we saw Mme Lagarde pretty much begging her former colleagues in Europe to tackle the matter. Increasingly, we see people who rarely say meaningful things break out of speaking diplomatic language, to say that these are incredibly dangerous times we are living in.

But real solutions aren't allowed to happen. Because most countries are looking after their own interests now.

Except us. We continue to operate as a kind of zombie state whose only purpose now is to service and cut debt on behalf of Europe, whatever the cost to our people, our society, our lives. The only point of us as an entity now and of our Government, is to basically eat ourselves alive to serve our creditors, who increasingly have no better standing than us economically or in any other way.

But still, we want to flagellate ourselves and still we feel we deserve punishment. But the danger is that it all becomes a downward spiral where cuts beget stagnation and shrinkage, which in turn leads to more cuts.

Here's a very simple thought for the Government. As the news came through of some growth in the economy last week, it was difficult for anyone to get excited. Because it didn't make any difference. And when we hear that we are saving a billion here or there on debt, it didn't make any difference. Because no matter what happens, it seems that the Government's only mission now is to keep cutting more and harder. Therefore people feel they have less and less of a stake in the fate of this country. Ironically perhaps, a country that has such a nationalistic history has become the most de-nationalised country in Europe.

While the rest of them are protecting their own countries at all costs, we sit here alienated from our own Government, who keep putting their hands up and saying it's nothing to do with them, that we have no control over our destiny. We are now alienated even from the very idea of our own nation. Increasingly, we feel like powerless slaves to others who are no better than us. Right now, even the Greeks have more of a sense of themselves and their destiny than we do.

But let's remember one thing as we let our nation and our society rot through a policy of austerity at all costs "because it is part of the terms of the EU/IMF bailout". It's going to take a long time to rebuild a nation, a society and a country.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss