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Gene Kerrigan: Lies, damned lies and party manifestos


THE clue is in the name. Election Manifesto. There was a time when I sought out such documents. Bent over my desk, chain-smoking, I zealously read every page, making notes in the margins. And yes, you're right, it was a sad life. Sometimes I'd even draw up charts, comparing the stance of each party on the major issues of the day.

Ah, the follies of the young! Along with cigarettes, poker dice and high-heeled boots, taking politicians at their word is one of the embarrassing memories of a youth misspent. After each election I'd check the manifestos against the implementation of government policies. Then, with time and experience, the truth dawned. And I don't do any of that anymore. Last week, various manifestos and policies were "launched". That low moaning sound you heard in the distance was me, yawning.

The name tells us, clearly and unambiguously, the function of an Election Manifesto. It is to get the politicians elected. Full stop. To that end, they will put into the Manifesto a lot of stuff they believe and care about. And more stuff about which they don't give a damn -- but which they know is important to various segments of the electorate. The purpose of this is to be able to say, whenever a voter asks awkward questions: "Oh, yes, that's in our manifesto."

When the election is over the Election Manifesto has served its purpose, and may be burned with the rest of the election junk (I used to recycle, but I burn such stuff these days, just to upset John Gormley). Once the new government comes into office, the Manifesto is kaput and what matters is the Programme for Government. "If the voters had given us more seats, vis-a-vis our coalition partners, we would have been able to achieve more."

This is their excuse for breaking the promises in the manifesto. It's not their fault, you see, the voters are to blame. If the polls are accurate, the right-wing regime that oversaw the creation of the Celtic Bubble is about to take a breather. They've had a tough time over the past two years, shredding this country and handing over the pieces to the ECB/IMF.

And a new right-wing regime will continue similar policies -- pounding the economy even further into the ground.

Some revelations over the past few days illustrate how this works, and the difference between the outgoing regime and the incoming shower. And the extent to which old-fashioned stuff like Election Manifestos and democratic mandates have become cute relics of a changed political culture. Yesterday, Irish Times reporter Simon Carswell published some interesting letters from the very heart of the banking scandal. Written in 2006, the letters show bankers and politicians working assiduously to create the conditions in which the banks imploded and brought the economy to ruin. Yes, there's the evidence of Brian Cowen pushing the legislation the bankers requested, ensuring they could borrow the tens of billions that the German and French banks were offering. And there are the bankers, playing the politicians like a cheap harmonica. And Bertie's in there, too. And Cowen listened to the bankers' concerns over dinner, as you might expect. No doubt a fine wine was shared by all. We know the drill -- the politicians of the old regime used to meet the bankers on golf courses and around the dining table. They met the developers at race meetings and in the Galway Tent. We knew this, but it's nice of Mr Carswell to let us see it confirmed in their own words.

That was government by the reckless right. Next up, Enda and Leo and their chums. There won't be anything as crude as the Galway Tent, for hearing the views of the people who matter. At a guess, I'd say that fine dining in private rooms would be the consultation mechanism of choice. The new crowd are exuberant with the prospect of victory, but even now they're fraying at the edges. We watch Enda playing hide and seek with serious interviewers and we see exactly why his front bench colleagues panicked last year and tried to dump him. This is going to look great in the history books -- Enda the Hardly Visible, Enda of the Garbled Soundbite. The bankers will have him for dinner -- in every possible meaning of the phrase.

Prominent among those who tried to shaft Mr Kenny was Leo Varadkar, one of the more articulate of the new right, and now apparently on course for a cabinet seat. Last Thursday, Leo turned up on Vincent Browne's TV3 programme. The discussion veered onto the subject of taxation -- Fine Gael has promised no increase in income tax, and I believe them. It will, instead, jack up and invent all kinds of other taxes.

A couple of academics -- Mary Murphy from NUI Maynooth, and Marie Moran from UCG -- spoke of the impact of a VAT increase, essentially a shift of the burden from the higher earners to the lower and middle earners. And Leo began casting doubt on claims about the regressive nature of such taxes.

Suddenly, it was like watching a group of adults having a conversation and one of them begins making serious claims about his personal experiences with fairies. Murphy and Moran spoke firmly at first, then quietly. As did trade unionist Michael Taft. It was like they were embarrassed for Leo. It was evident he was unfamiliar with the basics of the argument -- all he had was a selection of off-the-peg right-wing cliches. It was a devastating moment.

Exit FF, the reckless right. Enter FG, the ridiculous right. Enda, peeking out from under his comfort blanket. And Leo and his generation, emerging from Young Fine Gael with their firmly grasped ideological maxims, truisms and bromides.

And, of course, it doesn't matter too much. On Friday, in the Irish Independent, Thomas Molloy did one of those helpful charts I used to make up from the Election Manifestos, showing the policy positions of the various parties. Wisely, Mr Molloy added an extra column, on the left of the chart, showing the policy of our governors from the EU/IMF. The posing of the parties is beside the point.

Rhetoric aside, all of them accept the basic policy laid down by our new masters: piling debt on the citizens to pay off private gambling losses.

Last Tuesday the head of the German central bank, Axel Weber, said: "I think we have to put into the constitutions of member states a balanced budget rule." The EU mandarins are now musing amongst themselves about what they should put into our constitution. Our political leaders will do as they're told, and if we demand a referendum they'll hold it as many times as necessary until we agree.

Meanwhile, mid-election, Brian Lenihan withholds the €10bn he wants to use to "recapitalise" the banks -- which means the first thing Michael Noonan will do is be seen to throw money away on dead banks, as Lenihan has been doing for two years. Suddenly, the banks are political playthings. Banker Alan Dukes announces the banks need another €15bn of our money, and says he thinks Nama will need €75bn.

I switch off the radio. Next time I turn it on, someone is outlining in detail how cuts are destroying essential services. "But", says someone else, "we don't have the money."

Sunday Independent