Tuesday 10 December 2019

Gene Kerrigan: The Spring Statement was a shambles and the Banking Inquiry tripped over Trichet

No reality, please - we prefer pretence

Illustration: Tom Halliday
Illustration: Tom Halliday
Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

It was one of those weeks in which nothing was what it was supposed to be.

Quite often, our leaders put on an act - for electoral purposes, or to cover up a failure. Last week, though, it was hard to find anything that wasn't pretence.

Except the moment when Michael Noonan lost control of his carefully cultivated image and had a go at one of RTE's best broadcasters.

That was real. Noonan let the mask slip and the snarl emerged.

The week began so well.

Our politicians have invented a new political set-piece, the "Spring Statement". This gave them a fresh opportunity to throw shapes and engage in mock battles with one another.

The media loves political set-pieces. They allow for a choreographed dance, a stylised, pretend form of conflict that's totally removed from the reality of the lives the rest of us lead.

Last week, Noonan and his caddy, Brendan Howlin, strode out onto the stage, announcing the joyful news that they were here to release us from our austerity bondage.

It seems that all is now well with the economy.

Seldom in the realm of political play-acting has a stunt fallen so flat, so quickly.

The facts of what was going on were simple. The Italians managed to push the EU into loosening the rules on spending. And our leaders nipped in as they do whenever the Spanish, the Greeks or the Portuguese push the EU into making concessions.

Can we do it too, sir, please, can we, sir, can we? We have an election coming up, sir, and could we spend some extra cash, to impress the mugs, like?

And so it was that our spectacularly obedient Government has been given permission by the EU to bribe us with our own money.

And they made a mess of it. They invented the "Spring Statement" nonsense, totally artificial, and Noonan and Howlin spent an hour lovingly repeating their spending plans, which could have been announced in three sentences.

Instead they rolled the figures around their mouths with a lasciviousness that many found unwholesome.

Since the media had committed resources to covering the "Spring Statement", they had to go ahead with their "analysis", their special reports and their podcasts - all aware, and their audience equally aware - that the whole thing was empty claptrap.

That evening, Noonan appeared on RTE's Six-one News and his usual bored condescension was so obvious that he literally twiddled his thumbs as he awaited the questions.

Next morning, he went on Today with Sean O'Rourke to boost his "Spring Statement", and it all went well for a while.

Then, O'Rourke mentioned Siteserv.

Catherine Murphy has been doing her job as a TD, asking questions about matters of interest. She has made no allegations, just demanded to know the facts of the company's sale. That is a continuing project - with answers coming dreadfully slowly.

Noonan, under pressure, appointed a chap from accountancy firm KPMG to review the matter. Everyone in the country who is not a member of the Government immediately saw the problem - KPMG was involved in arranging the sale. There was, many believed, an obvious conflict of interest.

Under pressure, Noonan appointed an ex-judge to oversee the chap from KPMG's review. The reviewer would be reviewed. This bumbling made some of us wonder how anyone had ever given Noonan responsibility for anything.

Do you regret, O'Rourke asked, that you weren't more forthcoming when questioned in the Dail? It wasn't until Catherine Murphy asked her 19th question that it emerged that there had been concerns within Noonan's department about a number of matters, including the Siteserv deal.

Noonan went into a Jesuitical explanation about the difference between Dail questions and Freedom of Information queries.

"But is there not a mindset there," O'Rourke asked, "and maybe in your case it goes back to your days as Minister for Justice - tell them nothing."

At which point Noonan exploded.

"Ah now, you're really scraping the bottom of the barrel there when you're talking like that," and - feeling an attack on the interviewer might help - he launched an accusation at O'Rourke.

"I mean, RTE isn't great at disclosure - you're sitting on reports for 12 months that you haven't published, I mean reports about the future of RTE."

It wasn't just a charge of corporate cover-up. Noonan was just short of claiming that O'Rourke had personally stuffed the reports down his Y-fronts.

"Get off the stage, get off the stage now," Noonan jeered at O'Rourke, his anger implying the Lord knows what.

Noonan fixed the mask in place. The previous week he'd made a show of himself by claiming the review he'd ordered of the Siteserv/IBRC deal would examine, "were there any malpractices or any criminal offence".

Alan Dukes, chairman of IBRC at the time of the deal, was rightly indignant at this smear, and reached for his lawyer.

O'Rourke brushed aside the silly charge of conspiring to conceal some nameless reports, and finished the interview in a professional manner.

O'Rourke, I think, is wrong about Noonan having an old Department of Justice mindset - tell them nothing. It's 30 years since Noonan was Minister for Justice.

Right now, he's a member of the Economic Management Council - one of the four people who are members of the cabinet-within-a-cabinet that runs the country.

Unconstitutional, unaccountable - power concentrated in few hands, with no oversight.

Is it any wonder that those hands - bored at having to simulate an interest in the questions of others - indulge in thumb twiddling?

These days the arrogance overflows - leaving a silvery trail in Noonan's wake.

Later in the week, the Banking Inquiry was given an audience with Jean Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank. The pretence was that he was there to answer questions - but he simply denied everything and made a liar of the late Brian Lenihan.

He wiped the floor with them.

Lads, lads - here's the reality behind the pretence. The ECB ordered that no bank be allowed fail. Fianna Fail was only too happy to oblige - and went further than required, with a blanket guarantee.

Then, belatedly, under pressure, Lenihan and later Noonan tentatively asked if they might burn some bondholders - and the ECB told them to bugger off. End of.

By Friday, lots of people were walking to work, as the bus drivers held out against the Government's daft privatisation plans.

Have you seen Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Transport, in action? Poor Paschal looks miserable. The pretence is that privatisation will free up something or other to do this or that.

The reality is that it's a half-assed plan that's being pursued purely for ideological reasons. Right-wing governments are supposed to privatise things, so that's what they're doing, but Paschal knows it's a load of cobblers.

If Paschal could privatise the whole thing, he might feel it was something he could get behind. But this plan has nothing to do with improving transport, it's just a knee-jerk attempt to score a little privatisation victory.

And Paschal, who's a decent sort, seems to find it hard to keep up the fantasy that this is worth a moment of anyone's time.

All this and the Irish Water mess. The strain of keeping up so many pretences is beginning to show.

Sunday Independent

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