Thursday 21 March 2019

Eh, folks, we need to talk, yet again, about Enda

More fantasies from the Taoiseach, and scary words from Patrick Honohan, writes Gene Kerrigan

Soapbox toon
Soapbox toon

Is ANYONE paying attention? Even those of us who know little about economics have a sense of smell. And, right now, there's a smell of 2005 off this country.

We're being told that too many rules impede the exuberance of our entrepreneurs.

Back in 2005, celebrity bankers warned us that banking was over-regulated. And the media reported those warnings with a straight face, even as the popping of champagne corks was drowned out by the snores of the regulators.

Today, many look at Michael Noonan and see economic wisdom incarnate. Those same people once looked with admiring eyes at a great economic theorist called Charlie McCreevy.

Before the crash, the phrase the media used about Taoiseach Brian Cowen was "brains to burn". As in, "God, that man's got brains to burn".

And, right now, we're being solemnly assured that our current Taoiseach has no trouble whatever distinguishing his arse from his elbow.

Despite growing evidence to the contrary

History seldom repeats itself exactly. The next crash probably won't be preceded by bankers shovelling billions into developers' pockets while alleged entrepreneurs max out their credit cards with their favourite cocaine retailers.

But the usual suspects are pawing the ground. Having shrugged off hundreds of millions in debt, some of the geniuses who brought us the last crash are again described in celebratory language. The luxury-goods market is tooling up for a very happy Christmas.

We're being warned about interfering with the market; we're being assured that rent controls, for instance, are precisely what we don't need. The assumption is back that rising house prices make us richer and safer.

Right about now - three, two, one - various eejits reading this won't be able to stop the silly phrase "talking down the economy" from forming behind their foreheads.

Some time ago, this column was headlined, "We need to talk about Enda". More in sorrow than in anger, it listed the occasions on which Mr Kenny indulged his bizarre habit of talking in great detail about things that never happened.

Well, we need to talk again about Enda.

And about Patrick Honohan.

Did you see the quote from the letter the Irish Times got hold of? The one in which the governor of the Central Bank warned the politicians that the wonderful news about the economy mightn't be all that wonderful?

There are, he said, "distorting features" in the growth figures. And: "Distinguishing between revenue sources that can be considered as stable - such as taxes on personal income - and those which have a one-off or transitory characteristic is a challenge of which I am sure that your department is cognisant."

May I translate that for you?

What does Professor Honohan mean when he says he is "sure" that Noonan and his high officials are "cognisant" of the dangers?

He means he's not at all sure. If he was sure, he wouldn't have had to write the letter. It means he fears they believe their own propaganda.

He also suggested that the weighing scales on which they judge the state of the economy is throwing up dodgy numbers.

In the same Irish Times story yesterday, economist Seamus Coffey was quoted as he mused on a 50pc rise in company profits. Such an apparent jump, he said, is "very strange".

The economists aren't sure what's happening. The Government hasn't a clue, but there's an election, and they'll happily throw positive statistics at us, however dodgy they may be. The media aches for the good times to come again. And behaves accordingly.

And we've got a Taoiseach who quite obviously has trouble getting a fix on reality.

Various RTE worthies spent time last week assuring us that it doesn't matter whether the Taoiseach was fantasising when he talked about how he was told to call out the army to "protect" the ATM machines. Move on, we're told - sure, Enda was just using colourful language.

No, it won't do.

There are some who accuse the Taoiseach of lying about such matters. I have absolutely no doubt he has not lied. To accuse Mr Kenny of lies is to misjudge the seriousness of the problem.

When he told us some months ago that workers contacted him to ask why they had a little more in their wage packets, we knew it wasn't true. If you've a question about your wages, you don't ring the Taoiseach, you ring Brenda in Accounts.

Later, he might have got away with his man-with-two-pints story, if he hadn't repeated it a few weeks later, as though precisely the same thing had happened again.

He boasted about telling Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras how to fix his economy - telling him the Irish Government imposed no income tax, Vat or PRSI increases. Of course, this was nonsense. The Taoiseach was saying things that weren't true, his explanation for this was threadbare - but it all got glossed over.

There is always something real at the centre of these yarns. Then, Enda elaborates, exaggerates, makes up little scenes, adds detail and dialogue, and in no time, he appears to believe his own fantasies.

We didn't get the debt write-down he assured us he had achieved in the summer of 2012. So, some of us assumed EU leaders had broken their word. Then, it dawned on us. Those triumphant claims about a "seismic" breakthrough at a private EU meeting - it never happened, except in Enda's head.

Something happened - perhaps Merkel said something like, 'Leave it with me.' And Enda's mind went to work.

In recent times, he's been repeating a story about how the governor of the Central Bank told him on a Wednesday to have the army ready to "protect" the banks that Friday.

The story became more detailed each time he told it. If he hadn't been challenged on it, he would no doubt have eventually recalled himself and Paddy Honohan with AK47s outside a bank, gunning down hordes of panicking customers who wielded their ATM cards in an aggressive manner.

In what world do soldiers have to "protect" ATM machines from "mass withdrawals"?

If you don't want people withdrawing money, you simply switch off the ATM. The notion of sending soldiers is a juvenile fantasy.

On Prime Time, Simon Harris TD brazenly claimed that Enda was referring to the army delivering new currency, in the event of a collapse of the Euro. Plausible - if the Taoiseach hadn't said something quite different.

In reply, Pearse Doherty referred to politicians throwing €64bn at "busted banks", and the consequent thousands now homeless and tens of thousands on hospital waiting lists. At which point, Mr Harris uttered what were, in the circumstances, the least appropriate words in the dictionary. "But, Pearse," he said, "back in the real world..."

And that's how it is, regardless of the string of fantasies the Taoiseach peddles as fact. Fine Gael lives in "the real world", where workers ring the Taoiseach's office for advice, where tax increases that were imposed are written out of history, where the army is always ready to shoot down anyone daring to use an ATM card in an unapproved manner.

The rest of us, not being in Fine Gael, don't live in this real world - we offer only instability and reckless economics.

And that worrying letter from Patrick Honohan, as he leaves his Central Bank job almost a year ahead of schedule? Well, Paddy, if I was you, I too would be a bit cautious about hanging around too long.

Sunday Independent

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