Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eight billion, plus two, minus credibility

Within days, Fine Gael has destroyed its carefully contrived reputation

Illustration by Tom Halliday
Illustration by Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

After just two days of the general election campaign, Fine Gael's strategy collapsed. The party is running on its alleged economic expertise. It would "keep the recovery going". That supposed expertise has been irretrievably destroyed.

The Michael Noonan fans in the media seem somewhat reluctant to admit this, but it's beyond argument.

Later, we'll advance a hypothesis as to what happened. Might the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance have known they were misleading voters? It may or may not be so - it depends on how you read events. But it's more credible than Mr Noonan's alleged economic shrewdness.

Meanwhile, the Michael Noonan fans in the media whistle nonchalantly, as though nothing devastating has happened.

"Controversy has arisen," says the Irish Times, using the passive voice that soothes. Nobody has done anything - controversy has merely "arisen".

But this is untrue. There is no controversy. For two weeks, Fine Gael peddled false information about the economy. That is not a contention, it is a fact. Labour and Fianna Fail took that information as gospel and used it as the foundation of their economic strategies.

The problem for the Michael Noonan fans is that it was Sinn Fein that revealed the falsehood at the centre of the government strategy. And that contradicts everything we're supposed to believe about this election.

Everyone knows that in economic matters Sinn Fein and the small left-wing groups and Independents equal chaos. And Fine Gael and Michael Lowry equal stability. This has been pounded home for months.

Stick with the people who know what they're doing, we've been warned.

Don't let your anger at austerity lead you to vote against the party that will "keep the recovery going".

From the Fine Gael ard fheis onwards, Noonan was talking about €12bn in budgetary commitments over the next five years or so. Always a man given to mystification rather than explanation, he began using the term "fiscal space". It means the net figure of adjustments the incoming government will be able to make in taxing and spending.

Brendan Howlin, Mr Noonan's Mini-Me in the Labour Party, began using the same figure. After all, he too is an economic genius.

Fine Gael stressed that the figure of €12bn was based on Department of Finance calculations. It was - but with a twist.

Mr Noonan and the highly paid geniuses who populate his party took a Department of Finance figure of €8.6bn and added a bit here and there until they had sexed it up to €12bn. With this figure, they could make all sorts of promises.

The promises, of course, had an asterisk attached. They were void if growth faltered. All the more reason, they said, to vote for the economic geniuses who could "keep the recovery going".

Labour bought the sexed-up figures. So did Fianna Fail. The experts in the media didn't question them.

Pearse Doherty, Sinn Fein's top economics chap, got out his calculator. He had the same access to the Department of Finance explanatory note on which all the "fiscal space" chatter was based. And he began insisting that the figures didn't add up.

What had happened was simple. Fine Gael took the Department of Finance figure of €8.6bn and added its bits and pieces to sex it up - and didn't notice that €2bn of the figures they were adding were already included in the €8.6bn.

Of course, everyone knows that anyone outside the FG/FF/Labour/Renua cartel is a wrecker who can't add up. The right-wing of Irish politics, which brought us the credit bubble, the economic crash, the bank guarantee and five years of reckless austerity, are the sensible people.

And Doherty was just a noisy Shinner, therefore best ignored. Sinn Fein wrote to the department, asked for confirmation of its figures and got that confirmation.

On Thursday last, RTE's Prime Time did the same. Katie Hannon and David McCullough almost ruefully disclosed the truth that evening. The parties quickly erased €2bn from their figures. And the Michael Noonan fans began practising their nonchalant whistling.

Nothing to see here. Just the credibility of the Taoiseach, the Minister for Finance, the Tanaiste and their parties vanishing down the toilet.

To simultaneously give credibility to Sinn Fein and to concede that Noonan and his circle are piss-poor at the very thing on which they claim expertise - well, that was asking too much of the Michael Noonan fans.

There's nothing wrong with critically examining Sinn Fein's record on the Mairia Cahill scandal, or Gerry Adams's record, or anything else.

Equally, the party - more than 20 years after the initial IRA ceasefire - must be given the credit it deserves when it reveals that the election is being fought on spurious figures generated by people who claim credit for the recovery.

Otherwise, it's not Sinn Fein's credibility that suffers, it's ours. And the public is misled.

Hugh O'Connell of TheJournal.ie, in a fuss-free, fair and balanced examination of the Fine Gael screw-up, showed how it should be done. Look it up.

Some of us have an alternative view of the past five years. We see a government obsessively deferential to its European masters.

A government that obeyed orders, that refused to insist on justice, that cringingly accepted other people's debts, that displayed utter obsequiousness in the hope of getting favours.

Voices on both left and right have questioned the role of the Government in the limited recovery, from which the wealthy have disproportionately benefitted. Still, an excellent slogan - "Keep the recovery going" - grabbed the credit.

Now, that hypothesis.

Remember last Wednesday, when Enda Kenny was asked about his economic policies and said he wouldn't be drawn into "economic jargon which the vast majority of people don't understand"?

There was something terribly wrong about the body language. Kenny looked uneasy, Noonan too. Pascal Donohue stared for a long time at the ceiling, as his leaders spoke, as though his body was involuntarily recoiling in embarrassment from the oddness of it all.

What if Kenny and Noonan knew, before the Prime Time exclusive, that their figures were rubbish? Even as Noonan insisted we remember the figures were "produced by the Department of Finance and endorsed by the European Commission"?

Did Kenny's brief contain an instruction to steer away from "economic jargon"? Was he so rattled that he used the term aloud, misremembering a stage direction for a line of dialogue?

Did they just hope it would never get out, that we'd assume the Shinners know nothing about economics and we should trust without question the word of the self-confessed economic geniuses?

On Morning Ireland next day, after flirting with Michael Lowry for weeks, Kenny now threw him to the wolves - he wouldn't do a deal with Lowry, he said.

It was a small diversion for the journalistic fans of Michael Noonan.

Throw them a little meat, in the hope they wouldn't get their teeth into the bigger story - the fact that Fine Gael and Labour and their economic geniuses can't work a calculator.

Sunday Independent

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