Tuesday 10 December 2019

John Drennan: Chasm between what ministers and voters see

John Drennan

ENDA has certainly used up his quota of two definitive statements per annum early, with his claims on RTE that a promissory note deal would be done and there would be no Cabinet reshuffle until 2014.

It is rare for the Taoiseach to sail so gaily into the future without a safety net, but the Government was in a strange humour last week – and we mean this in a good way – for all the indications are that it has actually returned from the recess in such an emboldened state that trade union leaders were calling Mr Howlin 'Blitzkrieg Brendan'.

It would be a happy miracle were the Grumpy Old Men to reverse the normal pattern of governments which start radically before swiftly declining into a state of cantankerous inertia. For now, though, bittersweet experience means we can only hope that Enda's confidence in the promissory notes deal is not informed by the ideological world view of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, where if you hope sincerely enough, click your heels three times and say, 'There's no place like home,' a deal will appear out of the skies.

The outward air of confidence suggests there is a real chance that the Irish Lite Brigade will not be chopped up when it goes looking for a banking deal. Whatever about that, were Sir Humphrey around, he would be far more inclined to give the dreaded "very brave" judgement on the Taoiseach's declaration of support for his Cabinet.

Outside of that florid nightingale, James Reilly, the current state of that particular grouping is epitomised by the absentee landlord status of not-so Cute Old Phil and our Justice Minister who appears to believe the entire world resembles his preferred locales of the leafy glades of Dublin South and Florida's finest retirement villages.

But while others – particularly amongst his own – may be for Cabinet-churning, Enda's new view appears to be, "You turn if you want to; the Lite is not for turning."

Sadly, Mr Kenny's confidence is not being shared by an electorate who have engaged in a bit of a "turn" themselves. And alarmingly for that long tail of new-minted Fine Gael TDs, the Government appears to be unaware of this development.

In fairness, some degree of confusion is understandable for when Enda returns from abroad the Dear Leader is burnished with awards from Germany and cover pieces from Time depicting his status as a Comeback Kid.

But, in a nation mired – from the Government's perspective – in cynicism, poor Enda is constantly accused of being a comeback fraud.

In seeking to find the just verdict that lies between these two extremes, one explanation for the growing chasm between what the Grumpy Old Men behold and what the voters see when they look in the political mirror may be found in John Bruton's famous observation when he became Taoiseach that it had all been "a bit of a shock".

You would need every expletive invented by Mrs Brown to define the dimensions of the shock the Grumpy Old Men got when they finally secured those ministerial seals. It will be argued that they knew about the state of the country before being elected – but there is a big difference between Opposition, when what you know doesn't really matter and Pollyanna is constantly whispering in your ear; and knowing in government, when how you respond to what you know actually has an impact on citizens' lives.

It is increasingly obvious now that when they realised the State they had just secured was still falling off a cliff, the ambitions of the Government ministers shrivelled. This retraction of the radical gene meant any notions of cutting the claws of the civil service died on the vine as the Government decided it needed every ally it could get rather than the public sector equivalent of the miners' strike.

The grandiose dreams of a NewERA shrivelled because the troika wouldn't let them grow, while the plans to bring the banks to heel withered for the same reasons that informed the little death of public sector reform.

Enda may have dreamed of being a JFK, but the exigencies of his alternatives meant he turned into a latterday Jack Lynch whose political imperative was to generate some form of a sense of stability.

And there was also, in fairness, an element of the challenge faced by Liam Cosgrave who had to secure the integ-rity of the State after the virus of Provoism had infiltrated the heart of Jack Lynch's cabinet. In Enda's case, a banking and business elite that were in their own sphere as wild and lawless as the Provos had mined the foundations of the Republic even more effectively.

It is a measure of the relative success of the Grumpy Old Men that we are beginning to forget the extent of the holocaust of reputational damage wrought upon us by the vast carelessness of the Ahern/Cowen era.

Ireland then was an indigent state at the edge, whose survival prospects were as equivocal as those of the euro.

Ireland quite clearly is not Greece... now... but the dis-tinction was rather less clear when the Grumpy Old Men came into office, and some degree of achievement is involved in the distance we have put between ourselves and the unfortunate Greeks.

The problem, though, is that this was supposed to be an iconoclastic administration that would stand up to the ECB in its attempt to impose a regicide peace on a supplicant Irish state, cherish the struggling mortgage holder, impose a ruthless regime of reform on the vested interests, defenestrate the parasitical trade union social partners, engage in a great process of constitutional reform and singe the beards of our over-mighty mandarin class.

Finally, Ireland's permanently adolescent political class would speak truth to power, and better still, speak truth to ourselves.

Instead of this democratic revolution, however, what we appear to have got is the political equivalent of fleas returning to a familiar old hound, for all the 'good ol' boys' – the banks, the mandarins, the social partnership gents and the bondholders – are all back in town turning a profit on the backs of the rest of us.

Ireland continues to be the docile EU test case, whilst the growing difficulty we have in trusting the bona fides of the Grumpy Old 'honest brokers' is epitomised by the suspicion over the 'three-card trick' status of Michael Noonan's promissory deal.

In fairness, it is easy to underestimate how seductive mere respectability can appear to be in a state that is struggling to hold its centre.

But the homely politics of bringing back Jack Lynch's Ireland is not what the voters wanted... or were promised.

Such 'pastel politics' offers no solution to the generationally unemployed and the 100,000 homeowners in or at the edge of mortgage default.

The Government can be as cantankerous as it likes over how Enda is treated like JFK when he goes abroad and like the Jack Lynch of 1979 when he returns home. The problem, alas, is that – as the first George Bush discovered – foreign affairs matters little when everyone is worried about the domestic economy, stupid.

Ultimately Barrack Obama's warning that a good crisis should never be wasted most acutely defines the challenge the Grumpy Old Men must face. A just verdict would suggest, given the tempest they faced, that they have done OK in bringing us to a place where we are no longer contented with mere stability.

However, now that we are there, should they choose, with eyes wide open, to merely restore the unreformed state that steered us to Biffo's dead land of 'we are where we are', that would be a greater betrayal of the Republic than that engaged in by their stupid, insolent predecessors.

Sunday Independent

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