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Gene Kerrigan: Nothing at all has changed, nor will it

Which is most annoying? The fact that Colm Doherty got three million euro when he left the top job in AIB? Or the outrage some people now pretend to feel about this? Mr Doherty, of course, is a handy distraction -- "Oh, look at the greedy banker!" It encourages us to engage in recreational outrage. But there's nothing unusual in a senior executive walking away from a failed company, pushing a wheelbarrow full of money. It's the norm.

Put the Doherty case next to last week's feeble Nyberg Report on the causes of the banking collapse. What becomes clear is that no matter how ignominious the failure, the Irish establishment will always reward itself with lavish salaries and obese pensions.

Throw in Colm McCarthy's report on how the government should (or shouldn't) sell off state assets -- and the befuddlement of the Irish establishment is complete.

We've now had three reports on the banking scandal -- and even when you put them together they don't come anywhere near the full story. What the politicians and their patrons and camp followers are searching for is an agreed narrative that exonerates them, one they can hold up as the font of wisdom, and so stop people asking questions.

As RTE's business editor explained Nyberg's conclusion: "We were all to blame." It seems that "all parts of society had a role" in collapsing the banks and blowing a hundred billion.

I hope you're thoroughly ashamed of your role in this -- you and Seanie FitzPatrick. Not a day goes by that I don't beat myself with a cane for borrowing all those billions and building all those hotels and offices and estates.

The silliness of this conclusion is such that the Nyberg Report had to come wrapped in a layer of psychobabble. Mr Nyberg says we engaged in "a national speculative mania". This presents a handy picture of a nation unhinged by greed. It suggests an inescapable hysteria swept through the population like an unstoppable virus -- a National Speculative Mania. Each of those three words is inaccurate bullshit. There was nothing "national" about it -- not in the sense that it was unique to the Irish psyche; nor that it overcame the nation.

"Speculative" -- well, many people took out mortgages that were oppressive and extortionate. There was nothing "speculative" about that. They were putting a roof over their heads, having been warned by the media and estate agents that they'd be permanently excluded from the property ladder if they didn't buy now. The speculation was confined to relatively few -- the vast majority of us didn't take part.

Third -- yes, there was maniacal greed among deluded developers, but that wasn't all it was. These people operated within a well-understood set of economic and political principles. There were books and seminars and schools of thought underpinning this neoliberal religion -- and neoliberal sacraments that were treated with hushed reverence.

The Sacrament of Competitiveness. The Sacrament of Privatisation. The Sacrament of Low Income Tax. The Sacrament of the Blessed Entrepreneur. The Sacrament of Denouncing The Public Service. Above all, the Sacrament of Light Touch Regulation.

Each of those Sacraments was treated with the respect a devout Catholic would accord the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The activities of the developers, bankers and politicians were zealously protected by neoliberalism's equivalent of the Christian Brothers -- the pet academics, tame economists and media cheerleaders.

Worriers such as Morgan Kelly and Richard Curran raised concerns based on mainstream, if old fashioned, capitalist principles. And they weren't just dismissed as wrong, they were treated as heretics. Curran and RTE were furiously accused of trying to sabotage the national economy. They were abused in much the same violent tones that fundamentalist Catholics once used to denounce "wife-swapping sodomites" for supporting access to condoms.

Elephantine salaries and extravagant pensions of CEOs and ministers have always been a central part of the neoliberal creed -- this growing inequality was publicly lauded as being part of the "dynamic" of society. So, today you have one banker on a pension of €650,000 a year, another on a mere €458,000. From Bertie (€146,000) to Brian (€150,000), with the Blessed Charlie McCreevy on three pensions, totalling €173,000 a year, plus the stipends from the various boards he decorates.

So, Colm Doherty is being unfairly singled out (what's his pension, not much more than €300,000 a year, am I right?). You might complain that he was an AIB insider, right up to board level from 2003, during the worst of the reckless lending -- and therefore bears significant responsibility for what happened. But the upper echelons of our elite are awash with the overpaid and the underwhelming. The lifestyles of whole squads of these people -- bankers, developers, politicians -- don't seem to have been appreciably affected by the collapse of their banks/companies/ parties. No matter how the country sinks, they remain above it all.

We haven't moved on from the neoliberal religion. Its tenets of widening inequality and "incentives" still dominate the thinking of the establishment, even though the wreckage of that reckless, heartless philosophy lies all about us.

Last week's McCarthy Report, on selling off state assets, was commissioned to please the cardinals of neoliberalism, who've long salivated at the thought of privatising state companies. Making the state smaller,

weaker, is an important part of their religious canon. The economic crisis provides an opportunity to push through privatisation, on the basis that it will raise billions that can be used to "create jobs".

McCarthy is a realist. He hedged his report with qualifications. This and that should be done when the time is right. No hurry.

Events have overtaken the privatisation dream. Selling off the profitable bits in a depressed market is patently foolish. Disentangling the "strategic" from the "non-strategic" is questionable. And everyone knows that even if the target price of two billion could be achieved -- a big if -- the money earned from such sales will just go into the zombie banks, so they can pay off the German banks, as our EU/ECB governors demand.

Oh no, says Brendan Howlin -- our masters will let us use the money to "create jobs". And we think back to the beginning of the banking debacle -- what was the excuse for bailing out the banks? What did they keep saying, as they poured countless billions into a bottomless pit? They wanted to revive the banks to "get credit moving" to "small businesses", to "create jobs".

We haven't moved on from veneration of the neoliberal superstitions that led us to where we are. We occasionally indulge in recreational outrage, and lash out at the likes of Colm Doherty. But we retain the culture of overblown salaries and pensions for the elite, with token wage cuts to show they too are making sacrifices. We allow them to continue trying to resuscitate their beloved banks. We shrug as they persists in depressing the real economy, suppressing domestic demand, killing retail jobs. We sigh as they kowtow to their EU/ECB masters, who share the principles of their economic religion.

It may well be dawning on the citizens that our leaders haven't finished with screwing up the country. In fact, you could put that thought to music and make a fortune: They've Only Just Begun.

Sunday Independent