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Johnny Fallon: Joan Burton was simply telling an obvious truth on a second bailout .... why silence her?


Joan Burton. Photo: Mark Condren

Joan Burton. Photo: Mark Condren

Joan Burton. Photo: Mark Condren

JOAN Burton gave a very honest and forthright interview in the Sunday Independent yesterday. No doubt as the week goes on she will be under much pressure to row back on the positions she took in that interview. The reaction to it in many circles was that she was speaking out of turn, it was some sour grapes, she was undermining the Finance Minister and the government and she was somehow undermining the country

This was because she suggested that unless the EU gets its act together then Ireland will need a second bailout package. While the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance have been telling us that such talk is rubbish, they can’t really expect us to swallow such nonsense.

Does anyone really think that we are going to borrow money at 8pc when we could get a second bailout and borrow at 3pc? On what planet would returning to the markets make sense in such circumstances? Not to mention that if we did have to borrow at 8% then the budget next December would need to be so drastic it becomes unimaginable, indeed it would make last Decembers budget look like something from the Celtic Tiger.

But we have form in this area. We like to suggest that ministers should keep their opinions to the cabinet table and always present a unified front. Let’s go back to 2004 when Irish government spending started to spin out of control and we gambled all on property. McCreevy, for all his faults, was cutting back on spending so the Taoiseach, who in cabinet is all powerful, shipped him off to Brussels and brought in someone who he could rely on to assist his spending plans.

If any voice did dissent at cabinet we won’t really know for another 30 years due to secrecy laws, so it’s pretty ineffectual to just raise your voice. It is also clear that in our cabinet system each minister is purely concerned with their own brief. The idea of collective responsibility is fantasy. Where a Taoiseach and a Minister for Finance are decided on a course of action then there is no way any other individual minister can hope to defeat them in a vote at the table.

Taoiseach and Finance minister have access to all the information and all the advice, while the minister for education, for example, will be told to stick to his or her brief, where they have the information. If you want to challenge at the cabinet table then the only way you can have impact is if you are prepared to resign, and that’s a big gamble when pitted against all the so called expertise ranged against a minister in a lesser portfolio.

When John McGuinness raised concerns over the government and the Taoiseach and their stance on issues, it was billed as sour grapes. He was frowned upon for speaking out of turn and showing disloyalty. As things got worse, Tom Kitt eventually called for real change, and again this was considered sour grapes and disloyal. Right throughout the last government any voice that questioned the policy or actions was immediately reprimanded and told it was damaging the country.

At the eleventh hour when Micheál Martin finally could take it no longer he was the only cabinet minister to agree with the Irish people and admit that there was no confidence in the government. Even at this stage, when Brian Cowen was only a week away from a meltdown that would cause his own government to fall, the FF parliamentary party voted confidence in him, with only a minority willing to stand up and be counted. This was, yet again, because they felt it was disloyal. It would damage the country, cause an election or make things worse. It all happened anyway. The fear of open debate, constructive criticism, and an unwillingness to look at alternatives were all part of this mentality.

Recently Mary Hanafin was equally criticised for her part in a TV documentary where she said that she had problems with how the bank guarantee was handled, with how decisions were taken at cabinet and that she had voiced her concerns privately. People then said that Hanafin was trying to revise, why didn’t she speak out at the time? If she was unsure why didn’t she ever say that to the media or the people?

During 2010 Ireland played by the rules. We did not speak out of turn or create any difficulties for anyone else. Patrick Honohan, in an interview with Vincent Browne at the time of Brian Lenihan’s death, suggested that Lenihan and others believed the negotiations on a bailout would actually take some months. Indeed, every action of the then government suggests that they did not see contact with the EU as anything more than preparation and why should they?

Surely such a momentous decision would follow the same lines as all other Irish negotiations with Europe, surely it would involve political negotiation and would not be agreed until the politicians sat down and the Irish government discussed it with other Finance Ministers and democratically elected leaders. But it was the EU that leaked the idea that negotiations had begun, they gave the story to the BBC. The EU had a gameplan and that was to force the Irish to take the bailout with little negotiation due to the pressing need of an upcoming budget.

As Ireland still struggled to retain its bargaining power and say that they did not recognise this as negotiation another great episode occurred. Economist Morgan Kelly suggests that never before had any finance minister been cut off at the knees in the manner Patrick Honohan did to Lenihan. This was done by Honohan openly saying that there was a negotiation taking place. Going back to the interview with Vincent Browne, it appears from Honohan's account that from there on in he was in the driving seat and the whole deal was a matter for bankers and civil servants with no political input from either other EU leaders or the Irish government.

He even said that the bailout rates were set to a long standing formula and there was no real discussion about them. This is what happens when you remove democratic accountability from a process.

So here we are playing by the rules again. Talk of a second bailout is uncomfortable for the EU, so despite the obvious reality we must play ball. Joan Burton told a simple truth, her comment would apply some welcome pressure to the EU if the government got behind her stance. It is time that the EU got its act together after all and it will not do that unless someone is willing to make them face up to it. Through fiscal control and debt write offs the EU has the answer within its control but it lacks courage to take it and keeps waiting until Armageddon is upon us before it will move. Ireland should tell them to grow up; people are suffering while they procrastinate.

Will it happen? Probably not, more likely Joan Burton will be told to start towing the line and keep the government intact, regardless of the consequences. Here we go again.