Tuesday 10 December 2019

Gene Kerrigan: Zombie-like arguments on fiscal treaty

I doubt there's a single person left here who believes anything that any politician says, writes Gene Kerrigan

The best thing about Michael Noonan is his voice. The way he keeps it low, the calmness, the absolute certainty it exudes. There are actors who would kill for a voice so convincing.

And last week Michael gave us reason to hope. He said: "On next year's profiles, we're looking at 2.2 per cent of growth in GDP." Well, I punched the air and screamed, Yahoooooo! Which caused the cat to jump off the sofa and run up the stairs.

It's not great, 2.2 per cent of growth next year. But -- hey -- it's fantastic compared with this year's miserable non-growth of 0.7 per cent. Well done, Michael, I murmured. To be honest, I don't know what Michael means by "next year's profiles", but it sounds technical and I'm sure he knows what he's talking about.

I checked the newspapers, to make sure I'd got it right -- that I wasn't being unduly influenced by that persuasive voice. Sure enough, Michael was promising 2.2 per cent GDP growth in 2013. The only thing that could scupper that, he suggested, was if we were fooled into voting 'No' in this fiscal treaty referendum.

The newspaper report continued: "A 'No' vote would oblige him to reduce his forecast for economic growth for next year, he added." Well, we don't want him doing that, do we? Vote 'Yes' for a 2.2 per cent increase in GDP. Sounds good.

I noticed the date. May 3. Old habits die hard. Oh, dear, I told myself -- I'd better check. I have this dreadful habit of saving bits and pieces of facts and figures about this and that. And it was the work of a moment to pull up a page from the Dail proceedings of May 3, 2011.

And there was Michael, exactly a year ago, telling us in his assured, confident way, that GDP would be "accelerating to 2.5 per cent in 2012". (That's the GDP increase that they're now saying is 0.7 per cent.)

Michael is fond of the word "accelerating". It's an active word, it's punchy, it's persuasive. And, this time last year, as he sought to convince us to stay the course with his non-stop austerity show, Michael needed optimistic figures. And 2.5 per cent sounded about right.

Now, I'm not slagging Michael because he got his prediction wrong. I doubt if anyone believed him when he confidently made that claim. I don't believe anyone punched the air with joy when Michael last week said much the same thing.

We've always had a level of scepticism about politicians, but in recent years they have so relentlessly, so thoroughly, crushed our trust that I doubt if in this country there's a single person left who believes anything that any politician says.

We're going through an economic crisis that will shape this country for generations. And never in the history of the State have we had less trust in the political class. They don't tell the truth -- and what they do can't really be called lying. They say what they think we want to hear. We know it's not true, and they know we know it's not true.

But it's a plausible story. A hopeful story. All it has to do is look like it might be true, even though experience says it's not. Politics has been so degraded by this crisis that even the bullshit has been drained of substance.

Want the skulls to vote 'Yes'? Tell them GDP will go up if they do, but it won't if they vote 'No'. We're not fooled by this -- we know it's just a fairytale. But there's a widespread feeling of helplessness. And the fairytale, even though we know that's what it is, gives us a reason to go one way rather than another. And saying 'Yes' is easier -- because saying 'No' involves thinking about what you do next.

There's something unreal about the zombie-like way they haul out the 'Yes' and 'No' posters, and make mechanical speeches. Vote 'Yes' for jobs and recovery. (Although this referendum has nothing to do with jobs or recovery.) Vote 'No' to fight water charges. (Although this referendum is an entirely different fight.)

The 'Yes' side are talking rubbish when they say it's about recovery. The 'No' side are hyping things when they suggest the Germans want to inflict permanent austerity on us (though it might work out something like that). This referendum is about fiscal unity. And we'll come to that in a moment.

What credibility has Eamon Gilmore, for instance, given his reversals as soon as he got into office? Here he is in the Dail, December 2, 2010 (on the troika document agreed by Fianna Fail): "The Labour Party cannot be bound by what is contained in the document, not only for democratic reasons, but also because it will not work." And: "the Labour Party, whoever else will want to be bound by this, will not be bound by this document."

Now, that document is Mr Gilmore's Bible.

Enda Kenny was caught out on the Roscommon hospital issue. We've got that video of Ruairi Quinn signing a pledge that there would be no third-level fees. We've endless videos of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness denying this or that IRA role. No one believes them.

Please, don't ask me to get out the Fianna Fail fairytale videos -- I don't have a forklift truck handy.

Whether it's an issue of substance or a trivial moment, politicians instinctively tell us what they believe we want to hear. Who could deny Enda Kenny a brief catnap during a lengthy public function -- given that he works long, long hours? But, recently, even knowing that we'd seen the footage of his eyes closing, his head nodding, he adamantly denied it happened. Reality doesn't matter. We make our own reality.

So, here we are. Our EU masters have decided to try fiscal unity.

The euro is floundering. The common currency, with varying fiscal policies across the eurozone, had all sorts of unintended consequences, resulting in crisis. Saving the euro is as important to these people as saving the bankers. Ergo, fiscal unity has been moved up the agenda.

This will require a central body -- some offshoot of the ECB, most likely -- which will set the broad parameters of fiscal policy across the eurozone. This body will take the major decisions on how revenue is raised, the levels and areas of expenditure, the allocation of economic resources. National parliaments may tinker with details.

The fiscal treaty is a necessary first step. They don't explain this to us, as they know few across the EU would buy it. Do it inch by inch, maybe the skulls won't notice.

For the next few weeks, the air will be alive with referendum chatter, 99 per cent of which will be totally unrelated to the political realities. The EU project has worthy features -- but the insistence that it must go forward under one false flag after another is creating a Europe of cynics and suckers -- the suckers reluctantly going along out of fear.

By the way, how do I know that precisely 99 per cent of the referendum chatter will be irrelevant? I got that figure from the same place Michael Noonan got his 2.2 per cent GDP growth.

Sunday Independent

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