| 8°C Dublin

Gene Kerrigan: Better to flip a coin than heed a tosser

Is there a neck in this country that's harder than the short length of blue steel that holds up Mary Harney's head? I think you know the answer to that one, but we'll come to it in a moment, along with the story of Ms Harney and her notorious packet of crisps.

Ms Harney, of course, has her own opinions on the "tough decisions" she wants Brian Lenihan to make in the impending Budget. Poor Brian is snowed under with advice from well-off people. One of the remarkable phenomena of the Great Recession is the confidence with which the well-off toss out advice, as though their views amounted to anything more than a flutter of hot air.

Take Peter Sutherland (pulleeease!). The multi-millionaire banker was all over the papers last week, urging Mr Lenihan to cut up to €5bn out of the economy. Now, if I had told an admiring audience, in 2008, that Ireland could "confidently look forward to continuing growth above the EU average for the next five years and beyond" -- well, I'd be somewhat sheepish about offering any further economic analysis.

I'd worry about whether people took me seriously when I talked up the economy. I'd worry that they invested in bank shares, perhaps, or bought an over-priced house. I'd be paralysed, frankly -- and if anyone asked my advice now, I'd hand them my April 2008 speech and say: "Shows what I know, mate, -- frankly, you'd be better off flipping a coin."

At that same gig, Bertie Ahern gave this sterling analysis: "The indicators that measure the health of the banking system, such as capital adequacy ratios and the quality of loan books, as well as the ability of the banks to fund their operations, all continue to signal a strong state of health for the industry here."

Now, if I was the gobshite who said that, I'd hide away in a closet.

Over the years, in understanding what we called the Celtic Bubble, the analysis that underpins this column

has included three fundamental points: 1) When the bubble bursts, the wealthy will hand the bill to us, as they did in the 1980s; 2) in responding to the crisis,the politicians will reject the necessary radical measures and insist on preserving the structural inequalities that have dreadfully damaged this country; and 3) while this just might work, their policies will probably drive the economy over the edge.

Now, the bill has arrived. Fifty billion for the banks, untold billions for the destruction of the tax base. Frankly, I never dreamed the bill would be this big, this destructive, this unfair and this obscene. It took an exceptionally stupid elite to bring us this low.

With Mr Cowen and Mr Lenihan, the structural inequalities are in safe hands. And the policy of deflating the economy has stifled domestic spending and effectively extinguished hope of economic growth (without which, recovery is impossible).

Yet the lunatic policies of throwing billions at the banks and hastily reducing the budget deficit, regardless of the effects on citizens or on the underlying economy, has wide support among the elite -- not least in the media (and it's an article of religious faith out in RTE).

Here's the thing. If you're well off, it's all academic. You might like to be listened to, you might have sincere beliefs -- but whether the economy revives or nosedives you remain more or less recession-proof.

Near the top of the heap, look at Michael Smurfit, who recently told the Irish Independent it's "just wonderful to own a yacht". Mike says, however, that he's not immune to the recession. "I just about have the resources." I checked the Sunday Independent 'Rich List', published last April, and Mike has indeed taken a hit. He's down something like €80m -- in fact, he's no higher than No. 25 on the list, with €368m. Don't worry, Mike, I think you'll manage.

Peter Sutherland isn't quite as rich, but he's well-padded with Goldman Sachs money. And if all else fails, he's entitled to a €50,000 State pension for the short time he was Attorney General.

Lower down, there are people like Mike Soden, just appointed to the Central Bank Commission. Mike sneers at social-protection measures such as the single-parent allowance. He derides the cheek of those "who think the world owes them a living" -- but he welcomed the bank bailout.

After a long period of absurdly high salaries, Mike resigned as CEO of Bank of Ireland with a €2.4m redundancy package. These days, he says, he watches the pennies -- even though "there's nothing I couldn't afford".

Below these garrulous gents, there are layers and layers of the well-off, not so well-heeled but very comfortable. And they all urge further austerity on the two Brians.

Why the surprise at the latest HSE whiz, in which it's come out that millions were set aside for various perks? We've known for years about the culture in which the elite overpay themselves, travel first-class and hire regiments of "consultants" to do their work for them.

Oh, that reminds me -- Mary Harney. Last week, Ms Harney said that the behaviour revealed in the HSE scandal was "unacceptable". I opened Wasters, the new book by Shane Ross and Nick Webb, and I had a peep at Ken Foxe's excellently titled Snouts in the Trough.

There you'll find an excess of detail on the fortunes squandered on luxury travel -- the use of ministerial jets and first-class hotels. Economy, it seems, is not Mary's middle name (although she never matched Micheal Martin's €1,900-a-night stay in the Hotel de Bergues in Geneva). But must we pay for everything -- a bottle of wine, a couple of Bushmills -- Jesus, Mary, can't you pay for your own goddamn booze?

And, look at this -- from the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago. It's just pennies, but -- come on. A seven-dollar bill for a Snickers bar and a packet of crisps. Next time, Mary, get one of the servants to bring some packets of Tayto.

There's a sense of entitlement that allows politicians to live like princes when in office, to have their smallest need subsidised by citizens. And to accept bloated "pensions" when they leave office, even though they're far from retirement age. Of the 121 former office holders on the State books, only 11 voluntarily handed money back in 2009, amid calls for national sacrifice.

Fair play to Labour's Eithne Fitzgerald. It's absurd that she's entitled to a €17,000 pension after spending just three years in office in the 1990s -- but laudable that she voluntarily gave up 80 per cent of that. The former office holders cost us €11m in "pensions" per year. And what percentage of that did the 121 of them voluntarily give up -- bearing in mind that many are currently on huge salaries? A whole 0.8 per cent.

The same sense of entitlement underlies the disastrous policies currently fashionable. It underlies the rejection of the radical responses that such a systemic collapse needs. It underlies the efforts to preserve the structural inequalities.

We can't afford to rescue private banks that gambled and lost. We can't afford to pay their gambling debts to idiot German and French bankers who recklessly lent to them. That's private-sector stuff -- it was the politicians' duty to start from a position of defending the citizens, not one of cleaning up the mess of an irresponsible elite.

The fiscal deficit can be reduced only by an economy that functions, not one that's smothered by the needs of private-sector banks, the outdated ideology of EU mandarins and the gasbag opinions of an I'm-Alright-Jack elite, including one that's recession-proofed by public money.

Anyone got a spare packet of cheese and onion?

Sunday Independent