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Gene Kerrigan: Is your toilet half-empty, or half-full?

Let's explore the toilet arrangements of Mr Brendan Howlin TD. Mr Howlin is the Minister for Frowning Sternly at Waste of Public Money. The minister wakes up thinking of costs he must chop, he nods off to sleep muttering about spending he might slash. It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it. A bit like this column -- who else will take on the job of peering closely at Mr Howlin's toilet arrangements?

It's been a momentous week, with workers fighting back against despicable treatment and the euro inching closer to the edge. There's been a sudden lurch away from the economic fashion for austerity. But Mr Howlin's toilet arrangements must take priority with us. In fact, Mr Howlin's toilet arrangements are pertinent to these matters.

Some time ago, word went around that Mr Howlin had spent €47 on a toilet seat for his ministerial office. The usual suspects sneered at this supposed extravagance by Mr Austerity. In fact, the toilet seat story was a lie. The evidence is that Mr Howlin spent €47 of our money on getting a key cut for his personal toilet.

I know these things because I occasionally click into an indispensable website, thestory.ie, run by journalist and researcher Gavin Sheridan. Mr Sheridan has an admirable devotion to digging out and archiving raw data on the running of the Government. He acquired a detailed list of the costs of Mr Howlin's offices.

Why did Brendan need a key for his toilet? To keep unauthorised personnel from using The Official Ministerial Lavatory, of course. One can't expect a minister to pee and poo in the same facility used by all and sundry. Besides, one needs a toilet nearby when one has installed a "Tea Station" at a cost of €7,638 (plus plumbing and electrics costing €4,368).

However, this raises another question. Why did Brendan spend another €47 installing what the records call a "sign for Minister's toilet"? Presumably this sign said something like, "Brendan's Toilet -- Piss Off". But the Sherlock Holmes in me wonders why Brendan needs to tell others they can't use his toilet, if he has the only key?

Perhaps the sign isn't on the door. Perhaps it's inside the facility, above the actual toilet. And it reminds the minister, "Poo Here".

All this came to mind with last week's revelations that Brendan Austerity authorised a €133,000 salary for his "special adviser", Ronan O'Brien. He did this back in April, at the time he was vigorously resisting Richard Bruton's demand that his "special adviser" should get a salary of €127,000. Officially, there was a salary cap of €92,000 for these positions.

"Ah, here," said Mr Howlin's officials, or words to that effect. So, the King of Austerity shrugged and arranged for his adviser to get only €114,000 -- i.e. a mere €22,000 above the salary cap. (You'll be glad to know that Richard Bruton's adviser, Ciaran Conlon, got his full €127,000, on the instructions of Taoiseach Enda.)

Now, you might conclude that there's something wrong with the fact that we're paying for lavish lifestyles for the people who close hospital beds and destroy crucial education programmes. But the argument has been that such costs don't matter in the greater scheme of things. And that the brutal austerity must be bravely borne, as it will save us all.

From the beginning, some of us pointed to an inescapable lesson of history. You can't cut your way out of a deep recession -- austerity makes things worse.

On average, five companies per day were declared insolvent in 2011. It looks like it's about to get worse. We were set against each other -- private sector set against public sector. The silly Ibec people demanded that nurses and guards and clerks "share the pain", when their wages had already been cut. Ibec represents many retail businesses. Essentially, Ibec demanded that the purchasing power of their clients' customers should be reduced.

Hey, we loony lefties warned -- you're killing your own jobs. Share the pain, share the pain, share the pain, said the bright folks at Ibec, with unflinching mindlessness.

Today, even Ibec mutters sullenly about austerity. On Friday, when the chancers at Standard & Poor's rating agency were downgrading whole countries, they had to make a grudging swipe at austerity. As Forbes reported on the Standard & Poor's story: "German Austerity To Blame For Eurozone Crisis."

Why the lurch against austerity? It's not real. Austerity "alone", we're now told, won't end the crisis. But -- austerity and what? And here, Standard & Poor's, Forbes and the academic economists start crunching selected numbers. To no effect.

Because this is a very special recession. Massive banks, and the extremely wealthy people behind them, gambled billions on stupid speculation -- sub-prime housing in the USA, property here and in Spain. German and UK banks and other gamblers joined the game. Hedge funds, investment banks, gamblers of all sorts, raked in billions. Right down to the builders throwing up housing estates where nobody wanted to live. When the credit bubble burst they found themselves on losing bets, but they were damned if they were going to take the losses.

That's what the "re-capitalisation" of the banks and Nama and the rest of the game-playing has been about. The austerity programmes are designed to siphon money from the real economy, from the taxes and levies the rest of us pay, from the services we earned and built up over generations -- and borrowing money our children will have to pay, to shore up the insolvent financial system.

The hope is that the money people will somehow make it right. And this despite the fact that there simply isn't enough money on the planet to pay all the debts these idiots have run up.

In Europe, the euro has become a victim of the row over who pays. Here, the real economy has suffered. In the row between retail outlets and the landlords (the banks), the Government has stood loyally by the bankers. Brutality is the order of the day, which leads to workers at La Senza, Vita Cortex and other places being discarded like used tissues.

Last week saw a fightback, the injustice of what was done to those workers being so cruelly obvious. And, now, in the fourth year of this lunacy, the penny is dropping. Austerity kills jobs.

Without jobs, no growth. Without growth, we slide into a generation of stagnancy -- and over on the right, the dark forces are stirring. Look at what's happening in Hungary (where democracy is being suppressed by Fidesz, a party that shares membership of the European People's Party with Fine Gael).

A problem for the austerity hawks has been that they love their comforts.

They love their big salaries and their personal toilets. So, ministers still expect hundreds of thousands and conditions to match. When the bank workers who accept our deposits and cash our cheques are thrown on the dole, the lads upstairs in the sharp suits still complain that salaries of half a million aren't enough.

A fourth year of paring back social supports, killing hope, driving the young off the island, and the futile search continues for a solution that enables the privileged to maintain their structured inequalities. Either the rich accept their losses or we're all going down the toilet.

Sunday Independent