Tuesday 15 October 2019

Michael D's swipe hits home

Shane Ross

Last Thursday I was wandering sleepily along the corridors of Heathrow airport at seven o'clock in the morning. I took a brief glance at the newsstand – and woke with a jolt.

The headline on the front page of the Financial Times was tailor-made for passengers on the 7.30am flight to Dublin: "Irish President warns of EU upheaval".

Good God, I thought, proudly, Michael D has gone global.

And he had. Even Taoiseach Enda Kenny cannot command equal attention from such a prestigious publication. Labour Party leader and Tanaiste, Eamon Gilmore, hardly merits a footnote on the bottom of page 23. Michael D has hit the big time.

In the process he has left the Government looking like zealots for financial austerity.

Back in 1984 I soldiered with Michael D in the jungles of Nicaragua. Four years later I travelled with him to Chile to witness the beginning of the end for the Pinochet regime. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day my fellow election observer would be a hero of the Financial Times. Last Thursday he was.

In those days Michael D was a noble radical, a left-wing member of the Labour Party, principled to the last drop of his blood, constantly sacrificing prospects of promotion because of his uncompromising views. Now, 25 years later, he has lost none of the nobility or the radicalism.

Ireland's President was always unorthodox, even eccentric, but he never crossed the batty professor barrier. He was romantic, idealistic and much loved. Those of us who knew him, loved him for his human frailties, for his wonderful oratory, for his passion, for his intellect and for his integrity.

His oratory was exotic. Yet nothing he said lacked substance. He was a rare creature – a socialist who understood finance and the workings of the market perfectly. He often threatened to join me at Bank of Ireland, Eircom or CRH AGMs. He even once mischievously asked if I could give him a proxy at an AGM of Independent Newspapers where he would ask a few unwelcome questions!

Thankfully, he did not press the project. Michael D is financially literate. He could argue the merits of a balance sheet with the fluency of an accountant and an eloquence that would leave Seamus Heaney standing. Blessed with an electric intellect he bears a deadly ability to beard a corporate lion in his own den.

In recent weeks Michael D has taken up a cudgel that he was never allowed to wield in political life. He was always a Minister for Finance manque. No Labour leader would ever have let him within a country mile of the mandarins in the Department of Finance. His launch into global financial affairs is an entry into territory that had always been a no- go land for him in domestic politics.

His timing and location were perfect. On April 17 the President of Ireland opted for an ingenious platform to take a swipe at Europe. No less a place than the Strasbourg parliament itself was chosen for the delivery of a key polemic about Europe's lack of democratic accountability.

When he had finished he was cheered in the public gallery and given a standing ovation by many elected members, delighted that they had found a champion of Europe's citizens against Europe's unelected oligarchs.

The President may have been mobbed in Strasbourg, but there was a silence at home. Hardly a single TD acknowledged his initiative. Members of his beloved Labour Party lost the use of their tongues.

The President, suddenly playing the keeper of the party's soul, let rip in coded language. He spoke of a "deficit of democratic accountability". He was careful to acknowledge the new-found influence the parliament holds over the multi-annual budgeting; but that apart , he was disillusioned. He fingered unaccountable bodies, specifically naming ratings agencies. While he was careful not to be more specific, he went on to criticise Europe's hierarchy as being driven by "speculative markets" rather than by "compassion and empathy".

To ram home his message he set his sights on the need to end unemployment and return to growth. He beefed up his arguments with chilling figures of 26 million people out of work and 115 million close to poverty.

The President of Ireland was launching a full-scale attack on the politics of austerity without ever mentioning the 'A' word. By the end of his speech his colleagues in the Labour Party, now Europe's high priests of austerity, must have been squirming.

He was relentless. He even savaged Europe's patronising patriarchs when he declared: "The suggestion that citizens and their representatives are not fiscally or economically literate enough to carry the decision-making necessary for policies that impinge on their lives ... has the most serious implications in legitimacy terms".

Ireland's body politic was shell- shocked. Privately many dismissed the beautifully crafted speech as a once-off: Michael was missing the limelight; he had planted enough trees, opened too many community centres; he would be fine, now that he had received his attention injection.

Some hope. Barely a fortnight later Michael D picked May 1 for an even more lethal assault on Europe's doctrine of austerity. A May Day interview with Jamie Smyth of the Financial Times was explosive.

This time he did not pull his punches. He named the culprit institutions. The European Central Bank was top of the hit list. He demanded that it change its economic model. He refused to spare the political leaders, insisting on the need for a "rethink" of their policies and for "radical economics". He descended into the nitty gritty, advocating eurozone bonds, a divisive suggestion that will drive the Germans dotty.

Exasperated, he even gave European leaders a lash for their failure to separate sovereign debt from bank debt. But he reserved his most stinging words for a domestic query. Asked for an explanation of Ireland's passive acceptance of austerity he told Smyth: "The polite version is that we are pragmatists."

The mind boggles at his view of the 'impolite' one.

Labour leader and Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore was forced to respond. Unconvincingly, he welcomed the President's intervention as expressing government policy. Just like Michael D, insisted the Tanaiste, the Government favoured growth; the President was happily articulating government policy.

Which was nonsense. He had acutely embarrassed them. The President was openly rubbishing Eamon's friends in Frankfurt and Enda's allies in Berlin.

The problem for the Government is that the people agree with the President. So Eamon is forced to pretend Labour are on the same side. Higgins is in good company, not least with the president of the European Commission Manuel Barroso, both declaring that there is an alternative to austerity.

Ministers are seething. For a long time they have basked in the overseas applause for their role as poster boys for austerity, as pet pupils of Merkel, the ECB and the commission.

Michael D has undermined their disastrous economic policies. Let us hope that he is not silenced by his former colleagues who have abandoned the one million people that voted for him.

The President has done the State (and the economy) some service.

Irish Independent

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