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Gene Kerrigan: Ours is a country flush with idiots

SO, THERE I was, standing in the kitchen, when this billionaire property developer came on the radio. He sounded almost as befuddled as I felt -- but, then, we were both in danger of being overwhelmed by our respective problems.

The billionaire property developer was Bernard McNamara. A nice guy, by all accounts, but a bit of a loser. (When I say "billionaire property developer", what it means in Mr McNamara's case is a developer who owes a billion and a half.)

I waited for Mary Wilson to ask him what for me was the crucial question. But she didn't. Mary was more interested in deals gone wrong and complicated legal suits.

If I'd been doing the interview I'd have cut right to the chase. "Bernie," I'd have said, "tell me this -- can you flush your toilet?"

Like many more in This Great Little Nation, I spent a significant part of recent days concerned about the flushing of my toilet. When the water supply died on me, I worried too about the lack of drinking water. I fretted that I was unable to wash myself, not to mention the plates piling up in my kitchen.

Bernie McNamara paid e412m for a bit of land that's now worth maybe e80m. This is just one of the reasons that Bernie is now a billionaire developer in the negative sense. He was telling Mary that it all would have worked out if he'd got planning permission.

Mr McNamara is not unfamiliar with the Galway Tent. He was a Fianna Fail politician once, apart from his property developing. He's famous for his mansion on Ailesbury Road, in which there's a dance floor in the middle of a swimming pool. (Or is it a swimming pool under a dance floor? Anyway, it's one of those extravagances for which the Irish entrepreneurial class became famous.)

I hurried to the local supermarket but the bottled water shelves had been stripped -- I got, literally, the last bottle of sparkling Ballygowan. We'd be spared dehydration, but the Ballygowan wouldn't go far in flushing the toilet.

There are places in which the water has been off for far longer than in my neighbourhood. The TV screen shows stoical elderly people in small towns and rural areas, living for weeks in conditions that would shred my nerves. Nevertheless, when my water supply gurgled to a stop I was a bit put out. It would come back, we were told, at low pressure, at some unknown point. And the uncertainty will continue for up to four months.

Now, I've seen those guys working late at night, clustered around a hole in the ground, in freezing weather, working relentlessly to restore supplies, in the best public service tradition. I admire them and tend not to hassle them. They've enough to do without reassuring Mr Outraged of Northside Dublin.

But over the past few weeks, as the country ground to a halt, it's sometimes seemed like This Great Little Nation is just one more snowflake away from complete breakdown. One heavy shower away from being literally swamped. The entire infrastructure seems barely capable of holding things together under optimum conditions. The least strain and it collapses.

Am I right in thinking that it didn't get that way by accident? Am I right in believing that the strategies and priorities of the wealthy and their political cronies might have something to do with how things have worked out?

In the middle of all this, the airwaves became laden with the usual idiots telling us not to complain, things are far worse in Haiti.

Now, what's happening in Haiti is beyond awfulness. We're all agreed that we're bound to do as much as those people need us to do.

But to imagine that empathy with the afflicted should force us to ignore the bizarre shortcomings in this country is rampant idiocy.

Let me lay down a criterion of civilisation, to compare with any in the writings of Plato, Chomsky or even Orna Mulcahy. It is this: "When you've paid your taxes for decades, when you've faithfully kept your side of the Social Contract, you're entitled to rely on the State to flush away your faeces."

I hold this truth to be self-evident.

But, enough about the problems of the little people. Poor Bernie McNamara is but one casualty of a wave of legal proceedings in which our entrepreneurial classes have become embroiled. It sometimes seems like they're all suing one another, or running to the courts for protection.

How did they get into this mess and what does it mean for the rest of us?

Well, Bernie and his type borrowed billions from the Irish banks. The Irish banks borrowed those billions from abroad. The foreign investors loaned billions to the Irish banks, to loan to Bernie and his type -- and all of them were betting their future on a quasi-religious belief: that Property Prices Always Rise, and Will Do So Forever and Ever, Amen.

Smart guys, right? Bernie earned enough to buy a mansion on Ailesbury Road, with a dance floor-cum-swimming pool combo. The bankers paid themselves two or three million a year. Their political cronies ratcheted up their own pay accordingly. The foreign investors raked in the interest.

What it means for the rest of us is that our toilets sometimes don't flush.

The semi-religious belief in the mystical powers of property prices suggests that some of the smartest people in this country are in fact idiots. And so many of our recent problems derive from the dominance of this class of idiots, their political cronies and their media cheerleaders.

For over a decade the whole thrust of government was determined by their needs. Housing estates, roads and shopping palaces were built not where it suited us but depending on which idiot owned what bit of land.

As it happens, Bernie McNamara has a good reputation as a builder, with an interest in doing a job properly. But throughout the country projects were run by the Fastbuck Brothers and their political cronies in Leinster House and on the local councils. No need to worry about building on flood plains. No need to put pipes down at least three feet, it was more cost effective to stick the pipes just a few inches underground -- it's not like it's ever gonna snow so hard the pipes will freeze and crack and the water will leak, is it?

And the political values that made this country what it is today, debt-ridden and leaky, are being applied to repairing the economic devastation. The banks are to be restored to their position of power. The politicians cut billions from wages and public services and they give billions to the banks. The rich fight it out in the courts, to see who gets to hold onto the bulk of what they can salvage.

Eventually, the circus will resume. Some will again afford to use juice from hand-squeezed grapes to flush away their faeces. Our pipes will continue to leak and burst.

The radical surgery needed to construct an economy that's sustainable and fair, to ensure that the next bubble being planned by the idiots isn't inflated -- ain't gonna happen.

It was always pie in the sky to hope otherwise. The people who created the mess did so in good faith -- their values those of the piggery. Snouts to the trough, the most ruthless pig gets the most. To expect them to construct something different from the rubble is naive.

Now, if you'll excuse me, the water's back. Low pressure. Don't know how long it will last. So, I've got something to do that involves that most glorious domestic music -- a toilet flushing.

Sunday Independent