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Back Chat with Liam Fay: Witless online whingers


Donna Hartnett from Cork has given up work to mind her children. Picture: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Donna Hartnett from Cork has given up work to mind her children. Picture: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Neven Maguire

Neven Maguire


Donna Hartnett from Cork has given up work to mind her children. Picture: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

Donna Hartnett was wrong. In writing her impassioned letter to the Irish Independent, which quickly went viral, the Cobh-based mother-of two eloquently encapsulated the discontent felt by many of her background and generation. By having the gall to speak for herself, however, Hartnett neglected to fulfil her apparent obligation to assume a series of plaintive voices, each one more oppressed than the last.

'First world problems', 'check your privilege', 'white whine'.These are just some of the all-purpose putdowns which are deployed with wearying vociferousness by the more truculently pompous gate-keepers of online political discourse. Apart from asserting the all-knowing gravitas of those who use them, the purpose of these terms is to trivialise discussion about any issue that does not involve famine, war or pestilence in the third world.

Hartnett's frustration with Enda Kenny's government and relentless stealth taxes was widely hear-heared. Predictably, however, she was also accused of "whinging". The latter would be a legitimate charge if the accuser genuinely believes her grievances are trivial. However, the dismissal of her complaints as "first world problems" gave the game away.

Last week also saw an Oireachtas committee recommend the extension of voting rights to Irish citizens overseas. But advocates for the change have yet to make a convincing case. Questions about how well-informed we can expect emigrants to be about complex domestic issues are dismissed with vague blather about the 'digital revolution', as if the mere existence of technology trumped all other considerations.

Social media can be an unrivalled forum for exchanging information and ideas. All too often, however, it becomes an echo-chamber for the witless sloganeering of a grandstanding minority of blowhards who mistake a hashtag for a line of argument.



Never underestimate the destructive power of stupidity. Human ingenuity is a formidable force that can transform lives. But stupidity will always have an evolutionary advantage. After all, stupidity is a stubbornly resilient virus that is transmitted with uncommon determination. Its most potent carriers are almost invariably people with the hardest necks, loudest voices and most confident personalities. Intelligence talks, wisdom listens. But empty  vessels make the most noise.

The central role played by stupidity in Irish political decision-making is rarely acknowledged. Corruption, incompetence, and ideological folly have all contributed enormously to the abundance of woes that beset our embattled republic, but no single phenomenon has wreaked more damage than plain, old-fashioned eejitry. Remarkably, however, we seem instinctively inclined to downplay the extent to which dim-witted thinking has been a major driver in the evolution of our national story.

When disaster strikes, as it has done with exhausting regularity since the foundation of the state, we usually spend time debating whether the greater blame lies in cock-up or conspiracy. More often than not, we overlook the most likely culprit: cluelessness.

Given our long history of ignoring the Dumbo in the room, there was something oddly refreshing about former US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's blunt description of the Irish bank guarantee as "stupid". The quote emerged from raw transcripts of interviews given by Geithner in preparation for a recent book.

His language is consequently less diplomatic - but considerably more revealing - than the bland platitudes usually retailed by establishment bigwigs in their carefully finessed public statements. "(Ireland) was stupid to guarantee all their banks," he declared. "They couldn't afford it."

To most of us, Geithner's comment is merely a statement of the painfully obvious but the clarity of his appraisal comes at an opportune moment. For a while now, there has been a concerted campaign in some circles to rehabilitate the reputations of the ministers and mandarins who placed the Irish people on the hook for ¤64billion in bank losses. In our readiness to appreciate the complexities of the situation they faced, however, we risk losing sight of its essential simplicity. Nobody is suggesting that the politicians or civil servants who devised the guarantee were themselves stupid. In fact, some of them were extremely smart. But good decision-making isn't just about knowledge. It also requires judgement and understanding, and it is in these departments that they fell down.

However, it would be, well, downright stupid to believe that the bank guarantee was the Irish political system's last act of stupidity. The catalogue of blunders perpetrated by the Fine Gael/Labour coalition since the troika left town provides a perfect illustration of how the virus can manifest itself in multiple forms. The apparent belief among ministers that new taxes, levies and tolls can be continually heaped onto the people, without their overstretched backs ever reaching a breaking point, is fundamentally idiotic. And there is reason to believe that some in government have not yet awoken to this reality.

Stupid would be a polite way of describing a provision in the Finance Bill which could result in the imposition of taxes on 'digouts' provided to adult children by their parents. The change involves the abolition of tax exemption on parental gifts of money which are deemed to be a "reasonable" source of support or maintenance. The Revenue Commissioners insist the existing situation is "open to abuse", and no doubt they're right. However, the manner in which the tax authorities propose to mend the loophole is fraught with the potential for further conflict between the citizenry and the state.

According to some tax experts, the amendment effectively means that adult children who've been forced to return home out of economic necessity could become liable for tax on the "notional cost" of renting their own room in their parents' house, not to mention the value of food, light and heating. Some believe other contributions of a similar nature, such as the care of children by grandparents, could also have a tax implication.

Public opposition to water charges is now widely recognised as a politically-insurmountable tidal wave but it would barely amount to a mild seaside ripple compared to the surge of popular anger that would erupt if the government attempted to slap taxes on any of the aforementioned. The assistance given to adult children by their parents is not just a crucial feature of the real economy; for many, it is the real and only economy. It also does a great deal to lessen demands on the central exchequer. Without people returning to the family home, the homelessness problem would be much worse. Without the child-minding services provided by grandparents, the unemployment rates would be much higher.

Revenue has moved to dismiss suggestions that the new rules could result in the imposition of taxes on these kinds of activities. One official was quoted as saying that taxing people for living in the family home was unthinkable because to do so would bring the tax laws "into disrepute". Thanks to serial acts of gross dumbness by government, however, reassurances of this kind are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Never underestimate the destructive power of stupidity.



Some of the biggest names in expert pot-walloping - including Darina Allen, Rachel Allen, Clodagh McKenna and Nevin Maguire (pictured right) - are capitalising on a new trend: the festive dinner workshop. No longer content to take instruction from the glut of cookbooks and culinary TV shows that traditionally attend the run-up to the face-stuffing season, growing numbers of anxious punters now seem to feel the need for personal tuition from leading gastronauts. "Christmas made easy" is the promise peddled by all of these demonstration events.

The doomed quest for a stress-free Christmas is one of the most stressful pursuits known to humanity. In truth, the surest way of ensuring that Christmas is made easy is to forget about the whole thing until sometime in the late afternoon of December 23rd. Your Christmas won't necessarily be any better, but your November will be a cakewalk.


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