Friday 18 October 2019

Chutzpah Charlie declares himself to be a winner all right

Charlie McCreevy speaking at the inquiry yesterday
Charlie McCreevy speaking at the inquiry yesterday

Lise Hand

'I'm a punter, people know I like a bet," grinned Charlie McCreevy. Indeed, the former finance minister's grá for accountants of the turf kind was always widely known. And yesterday - to continue the horse-racing metaphor - Charlie once again reminded all and sundry how his neck has all the unassailable durability of a jockey's undercarriage.

Over the past few months of the Oireachtas Banking Inquiry, observers have become used to the ritual of a trail of pinstriped penitents prefacing their evidence with expressions of regret.

It's been a veritable symphony of sorrys, as former and current bankers, regulators and sundry government backroom boys chant their apologies for the whole financial farrago which left a nation of taxpayers aghast and holding the multibillion-euro baby.

Therefore there was probably a bit of an assumption that the first big political beast to attend the inquiry would kick off his day of question-and-answer with a brisk spot of modelling a suit of sackcloth and ashes.

After all, Charlie McCreevy was in the high chair in the Department of Finance from 1997 to 2004, the golden era when the boom just kept on getting boomier and when the Exchequer was awash with moolah.

Granted, he was banished to the desolate wilderness of Brussels by Bertie some time before the brown stuff reached the financial fans, but he had been in charge of the national coffers for seven crucial years.

How wrong everybody was. Although he may be more white-haired than in his heyday as a political heavyweight, it was almost instantly evident that Charlie had shed not a scintilla of his chutzpah.

First off, he wanted to set the record straight on the image of him as some sort of fiscally reckless yahoo, glugging from a methuselah of Bolly. He was, he insisted, no Champagne Charlie. He took umbrage with the portrayal of him while in office as "a right-wing ideologue possessed of a Scrooge-like parsimony" when it came to public spending, only to find himself transmogrified into "a kind of Santa Claus" once the economy tumbled over the cliff.

He insisted that the infamous quote often attached to him - "when you have it, you spend it" - had been taken out of context. "In particular, some commentators have gone so far as to advise that light touch regulation was even a Charlie McCreevy invention," he insisted, using the somewhat alarming third-person to refer to himself. "Much as I might be flattered to think I own the copyright, it is not the case," he said.

As far as Charlie was concerned, he was there to answer questions on his tenure as finance minister only, rather than take a stroll through the less fragrant memory lanes of the years that followed. So he was disinclined to reply to Sinn Féin's Pearse Doherty's enquiry as to whether he agreed there had been a property bubble in Ireland. "Why is that relevant?" demanded Charlie. Five times Pearse asked him, but Charlie wasn't budging. He explained he had a policy of not commenting on events after his departure - "even though I've been sorely tempted", he said. "When I left in September 2004, I didn't believe there was a property bubble."

Stalemate. Committee chairman Ciaran Lynch adjourned the session for a breather and a chance to consult the legal-eagles, and informed the witness after the break that failure to reply could land him with criminal sanctions. "I suppose there was a bubble," he grudgingly conceded. But it was after his time, of course.

And that was effectively the one and only concession that the members of the committee coaxed from Chutzpah Charlie who robustly defended the fiscal policies of the Fianna Fáil-led governments while he was minister. "I would contend that we were more responsible than any other government in the history of the State," he announced. But what about the contention that before the 2002 election, the government spent money like there was no tomorrow? "Of course - we are politicians, we actually like to get elected," he agreed cheerfully.

But in hindsight, surely there are things he would change? Not a bit of it. "I don't operate like that," he shrugged. When he eventually made Cabinet after 15 years as a backbencher, "I always thought I'd approach every day as if it was going to be my last day there - I don't regret one moment of it," he insisted. "You'd only apologise for things that you think you got very much wrong, or you made a big mistake or a series of large mistakes. I don't believe that I did."

No regrets even about his presence in the apogee of Celtic Tiger greed, Fianna Fáil's tent at the Galway Races? Nothing to do with him, boss, he assured the committee. "In fact, I didn't attend that often because I found it an awful pain in the backside, because I'm a punter, people know I'm a punter, I like a bet, and I used to have to put the betting aside to go into the bloody tent," grumbled the flat-capped man of the people.

Chutzpah Charlie eased past the winning-post by a distant brass neck.

Irish Independent

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