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John Drennan: Fifty shades of grey men hooked on fiscal fantasy

It used once to be the case that critics of the Celtic Tiger economy were accused of suffering from the same delusional pessimism as the hotel bell boy who looked at George Best sprawled across a bed with a blonde and a bottle of bubbly and asked, "Where did it all go wrong, George?"



Sadly, we are in a different place to the Tiger era of champagne and delusion continues to be the dominant theme of Irish public life.

Enda Kenny may have claimed, last week, that the 'silly season' is over but his stance was almost immediately contradicted by the spin about how everyone is friends again with Dr James Reilly and the Budget will be agreed with nary a cross glance or a strong word.

It was a brave try but all that particular line of fantasy did was to solidify the growing impression our Cabinet of Grumpy Old Men is starting to acquire a delusional grasp of reality similar to a tramp sitting with a bottle of wine in a downpour singing "happy days are here again".

In fairness, the Grumpy Old Men realise 'happy days' is a relatively optimistic summary of our circumstances. However, the decline of the reforming impetus of this Government suggests that whatever about the rest of us, it has become content with the condition of the State they inherited with such initial horror.

It is a mood they would be wise to snap out of, for there is something delusional about the way in which they are dealing with the scenario where the overdraft we are paying to run the country is escalating by a billion euro a month.

The crisis in the public finances, where the response to the worst balance of payments in Europe is to protect those groups who are kept snug as a bug in a rug by the

Croke Park deal, is just one example of how the State, in its current format, is not sustainable.

The list of other examples is long, but, nothing epitomises the unsustainable nature of our economy more than the status of social welfare as 'the Irish stimulus'.

And before any of our state-paid Croke Park advocacy 'hacks' start to spit on the airwaves, it is not attacking the unemployed, or pensioners, to say that an economy is utterly dysfunctional when welfare is one of our largest domestic industries.

The Celtic Tiger had its flaws but replacing it with the economic equivalent of a native American reservation where welfare, tourists and alcohol are the biggest industries, is not progress.

There is, of course, nothing to be gained by tipping our unemployed on to the streets to beg either. But, if this country is not to be hollowed out fiscally, and spiritually, by generational unemployment, then some different way of organising the welfare State needs to be implemented.

The virtue of courage in politics can often be over-rated as most people and countries prefer the quiet life.

In our case, though, unless we act radically on issues such as social welfare or mortgage arrears or the Croke Park incubus, this State will experience the same slow, sad fate as the stricken Titanic.

It will survive for a while, but it will continue to list until the ever-increasing weight of our overdraft forces the hulk beneath the waves accompanied by the plaintive song "nearer my public sector to thee".

Sadly, when it comes to the basic unsustainability of the State, our Grumpy Old Men have become so conservative, even where the State acts courageously, they have increasingly used the excuse that 'bad' things such as 'reform' are only occurring because the troika is making us do it.

This is all the more surprising, for in the wake of the destruction of their Fianna Fail nemesis, for a week at least, the talk was of radical reform. Since then, however, the Grumpy Old Men appear to have experienced a failure of nerve.

It is as if after looking at the list of crises including the euro, the banks, unemployment, mortgage arrears, personal debt, corporate debt, the death of the main street, the Croke Park deal, particularly as it applies to health and education, the HSE, property tax, water charges -- and that's before we get to the issue of abortion -- the heart just went out of them.

We have, in fairness, not quite yet reached the abyss where Brian Cowen defined the fatalistic inert pessimism of his government's non-reaction to the crisis that crashed upon it with that infamous "we are where we are" phrase.

The current Coalition of the increasingly Grumpy Old Men may not have embraced quite so nihilistic a school of existential despair for they are, if nothing else, far too nice and normal.

But, normality and niceness are not necessarily good in exceptional times where a State, to survive, needs to be governed in new courageous ways.

We had -- and, Lord, but we were being optimistic -- initially hoped the age profile of the Cabinet would be a bonus, since old men can be daring where life has taught them the futility of the cautious road.

Instead, after that brief week-long Renaissance, the defining spirit of this administration has resembled those protective parents who respond to every action of the newborn child, particularly if it is the first of the line, with a series of anxious clucks of "careful now".

Happily, even the most cautious of parents realise at some stage that if the child is to thrive or at least live a normal life, the nursing strings of "careful now" must be swiftly dropped.

However, rather like a first-time mum in the safety section of the maternity shop, this lot appear to be clutching the stair gate of "careful now" ever more tightly.

The Government might own the banks, but when it comes to loans for businesses or mortgages they creep around saying: "Careful now. Don't annoy the manager by asking for our own money back."

Indeed, the dead ethos of "careful now" means that even the slightest of radical suggestions like the proposal to annex the Bank of Ireland in College Green as a justified act of social reparation now lie buried in the Sadducees' grave of the Programme for Government.

Of course, those who question the Croke Park deal, that dying wasp from the busy hive of social partnership that ate rather than made the honey, are warned with even greater fervour to be "careful now" whilst it is also the default response to everything else from insolvency law to social welfare reform.

Intriguingly, though the politics of "careful now" does facilitate the easy life, the embrace of this desideratum of inert appeasement does not appear to have made the Government happy.

Instead, this is an administration that is becoming far too spiteful for its own -- or our -- good.

There is perhaps a simple reason why the Grumpy Old Men appear to be perpetually waiting to be needled by the slightest real, perceived or accidental insult.

It was asking a lot to expect the ranks of primary school teachers and professional politicians, whose idea of radicalism consists of a daring speech in the company of the public sector octogenarians who attend the MacGill Summer School, to embrace the sort of red-blooded Lemass style of pragmatic courage this State needs.

But, their decision to cling to the milk-and-water school of "careful now" has had the unexpected side-effect of making an administration increasingly bitter over the erosion of respect they are suffering as a consequence of their own political windiness.

The rest of us, meanwhile, can only wonder if the difference between the authoritarian paternalism of "we are where we are" and the spirit of appeasement that surrounds the advocates of "careful now" is merely one of degree.

Last week, amid the highly censored squabbles and ever-so-brief squalls, one of the few moments of sense occurred when Lucinda Creighton noted "the country is in a crisis, we cannot put our fingers in our ear and hope it will go away".

Sadly, if they have a plan, this appears to be the precise intention of the Grumpy Old Men.

Sunday Independent