Thursday 5 December 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Irish politicians refusing to criticise Germany's treatment of us after the crash feels like betrayal'


Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Frank McGrath
Paschal Donohoe. Picture: Frank McGrath
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe

Eilis O'Hanlon

When it comes to the Germans, Irish politicians take their cue from Basil in Fawlty Towers, only, instead of "don't mention the war", their panicked catchphrase is "don't mention the bailout". Even after a former senior German finance ministry official admitted that Ireland had been treated too harshly by Berlin after the crash, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe refused to criticise the EU's largest power.

Asked about the comments as he met his German counterpart and other Government officials on their home ground last week, Donohoe would only say that there was a "huge amount of learning to be had" and that the bailout programme had "created additional challenges" and that "hindsight is the very finest of qualities." It was like listening to an 'I Speak Your Weight' machine trying to master human language but failing to come up with anything but mechanical cliches.

Suggesting that it's only possible with hindsight to see the damage and danger of imposing such a huge debt burden on Irish people when they were at their weakest is to retrospectively erase the many voices both inside and outside Ireland who spoke out against it at the time. Government ministers can argue that the naysayers were, in retrospect, wrong, because the painful economic correction eventually shunted the country back towards economic recovery.

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What they can't do is pretend that there wasn't widespread dismay at the severity of the societal punishment it took to get there, and it just feels staggeringly disloyal when those who lead the country refuse to speak up for those who bore the brunt.

The same thing happened when, not long into his time as Taoiseach, Enda Kenny went to the World Economic Forum in Davos and explained the crash to his international audience by stating that Irish people "simply went mad with borrowing", as if the banks were mere bystanders.

Fianna Fail TD Niall Collins noted after Kenny's all-too-revealing remark: "The Taoiseach is clearly taking one approach at home and another abroad. While he's here, the priority is media management and preserving popularity. When he is abroad, the priority appears to be to avoid putting the blame where it belongs. Where was the Taoiseach's harsh criticism of European banks which helped flood Ireland with credit for years? He should be standing up for the Irish people."

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In Berlin this week, Donohoe was more concerned with being diplomatic with his hosts than he was with standing with Irish people who suffered as a result of the crash.

This timidity, both shameful and shameless, cuts to the heart of the continuing failure of the Irish political system to deal with the fallout from the recession - and the harm it inflicted on ordinary families.

That former officials in Germany now concede that there was another, less punitive way to recovery is too little, too late, but at least it's an acknowledgement of the hurt. Perhaps out of a desire for self-preservation, because no one likes to think that they put their own people through unnecessary trauma, Irish politicians still seem to be wedded to the mantra that there was no alternative.

They might even be right about that. The troika was threatening to pull the plug on Ireland Plc. The cash machines were going to run dry. As Leo Varadkar memorably said at the time, they were set to detonate a financial bomb in the heart of Dublin. The Irish Government had to go along with it or go it alone, and didn't have the confidence, and probably not the competence, to say no. So be it. As Donohoe said: "When you become that vulnerable, all choices open to you are bad."

But having taken that pain, the least the Irish people deserve is to be dealt with straight, rather than being hoodwinked again that shouldering the burden of Europe's bank debt was not just unavoidable but somehow noble.

Enda Kenny tried to pull that stunt too, by admitting to the Dail that Ireland had "never looked for a debt write-down", boasting that "we will not have 'defaulter' written on our foreheads". The rich and powerful get debts written off all the time. Only those who are weak, but who've convinced themselves that their weakness is a badge of honour, would take such a perverse pride in being penalised.

Donohoe's reluctance to criticise the Germans last week shows that the subservient attitude lives on. An excessive rectitude about protocol and a desire to maintain European solidarity still seems to be uppermost as the post-Brexit landscape of Europe is being thrashed out. That's why the Minister for Finance was in Berlin last week. The Germans appear determined to whittle away the last lingering rights of national governments to opt out of the master plan being drawn up by those in the EU who think that the answer to the cracks which have appeared in the union is to push for ever greater political and economic convergence.

The Irish Government isn't especially enthusiastic about that direction of travel, but they won't offer more than token resistance. Why would they? Having proved their credentials as good little boys and girls, they can now reap the personal rewards.

When they talk about Ireland's future being in Europe, Irish politicians are thinking as much about their own ambitions to get to Brussels as the country's destiny.

The latest to make the continental switch is Fine Gael's Cork North Central TD Dara Murphy, formerly junior minister for something or other, who is set to take on a new role with the EU's new Commissioner for Innovation at an annual salary of €150,000.

The prospect of jumping on the same gravy train keeps many tame ministers from ever criticising the status quo.

There's understandable relief in the country at having dodged a bullet. There's almost full employment again, and the latest report from the Central Statistics Office (CSO) finds that average disposable income has risen again in the past year. Everything in the garden looks rosy, if seen, God-like, from above.

Down among the tangled roots and bushes, however, the headline figures hide a multitude of sins. There are still significant ways in which people's confidence is constrained. Even many of those in steady jobs admitted to the CSO that they can only afford certain small ordinary pleasures on occasion.

The gap between doing fine and not doing fine by any stretch of the imagination is not that large for many people.

It's these nuances which senior Irish politicians still seem, bafflingly, unforgivably, unable to understand. Where is their emotional empathy? A decade of wage stagnation, or, worse, falling wages, takes its toll. Even if you managed to keep hold of your house, years of struggling to pay the mortgage on a property that wasn't worth what you paid for it eviscerates the soul. Rocketing rents shrivel the satisfaction of greater job security.

Just because you're holding it together on the outside doesn't mean you're not bubbling away with insecurity and terror on the inside.

The crash wasn't that long ago to have been so easily forgotten. Everyone now possesses that fatal knowledge of how easily the whole edifice of stability can come crashing down, and the psychological evidence is that experiencing even a single recession increases an individual's risk of depression and anxiety for the rest of their life. The repercussions are cross generational and can last for decades.

The Irish Government was extremely fortunate that ordinary Irish people were too demoralised after the crash to take their revenge; but what choice did they really have?

The hard left was and is economically illiterate; Sinn Fein was and is toxic; the Greens have always been too flakey; and Independents didn't and don't have sufficient combined strength to make a difference. Where else could they turn? The biggest let down was the Labour Party. It had a chance to realign the centre of Irish politics, but ended up ducking the challenge, settling instead for grabbing as many of the perks and privileges of office as they could before their luck ran out, as it had before.

It could be that Irish voters were not so much demoralised, as grimly realistic about the mediocre quality of the politicians from which they have to choose. Anyone who wants to do things differently is soon weeded out as a contagion risk to the rest.

The least that those who suffered the consequences of the recession can expect of the elected representatives that they more than generously allowed to keep their cushy jobs is that they're prepared to criticise those who inflicted that trauma on them, even if they do happen to be bigger and stronger and German.

The Irish Government is supposed to be there to speak up for the Irish people. The clue is in the name, Paschal.

Sunday Independent

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