Monday 16 September 2019

Johnny Fallon: What would the ghost of Michael Collins have to say about the troika and the bondholders? You might be surprised

SINCE Enda Kenny spoke at the Michael Collins commemoration there has been a lot of talk about what Collins would make of things and how he would approach our problems. A lot of this debate has centred on a romantic vision of the men and women who delivered Irish freedom without much heed to some of the realities.

In modern Ireland we like to think of the heroes of independence as people who would be horrified by our current bailout agreement. In reality, most of those who died did not die dreaming of raising money on the international markets, currencies or banking. Freedom was a human rights issue and an issue of justice primarily.

So if Collins walked into Enda Kenny’s office today what might he make of things? First of all he might not be that shocked if he didn’t know about the intervening years. He would find us part of the euro, but we know that the founders of our state had no difficulty in, quite wisely, establishing a currency that was pegged to Sterling. Therefore, the idea of not really having full control of your currency would not shock Collins, nor would he see that as a definition of our freedom.

So what about the bondholders and the EU? Collins was a decisive and pragmatic man, but for him the ends justified the means. He was not one to ignore what he saw as a reality. As a military general this made him brilliant.

He was not concerned with what made him popular, or look good, but instead what was necessary to get a result. Hence guerrilla warfare was his chosen tactic.

De Valera liked full scale operations because they looked better to the rest of the world; Collins didn’t as he saw them as a waste. Michael Collins signed off on an agreement to pay substantial land annuities to Britain to make up for loans advanced to Irish farmers in the previous 50 years to buy their farms. This was a burden on the Irish state, but even if Collins did not like it he had to take it as part of the deal. He would be more than willing to listen to Enda Kenny’s point of view on bondholders and would undoubtedly see a parallel.

Collins pragmatism was critical in all his endeavours. Once the civil war began he had no hesitation in using the help of his former enemy, the British, in order to quell the rebellion in Ireland and defeat his opponents.

Compare this to what we might expect if De Valera walked in to Enda Kenny’s office. Without a doubt De Valera would bemoan what had become of Ireland. He would lecture Enda at length about indigenous business, about Ireland being self-sufficient and the dangers of internationalism. Just like his grandchildren, he would be deeply suspicious of the EU.

Without doubt he would propose vast changes, probably a new constitution, and electoral reform would be a must. As for the bondholders? He would be scathing and we could expect he would propose a default in the same way as he defaulted on the land annuities to Britain. He would maintain that it was not our debt. However, the economic war that ensued, and the ravages that tore apart the Irish economy as a result along with failed economics of self-sufficiency might give Enda Kenny the upper hand in this debate.

Collins would do some things differently, however, and that would be welcome. He was a decisive man who would, like all good generals, have made a great CEO. Collins issued orders and expected that they be carried out. He had no time for indecision, long debate or second guessing. His confidence would demand that the government take action now.

That they work with the troika ... and that they let them know that Ireland will deliver their bottom line on our terms. He would then issue the orders and would not spend time wondering how to present it in the media. Collins would dislike the idea of coalition harmony and would give little opportunity to others to question the policy. It would be done quickly and with pain, but all for the right reasons. He was not a man to worry about the consequences for himself and, as a result, he would do what he believed in.

Sean Lemass was another streetwise former gunman and like Collins his actions showed similar traits. Lemass never won the levels of public support afforded to De Valera or Lynch as a result. Albert Reynolds was another decisive character from the other side of the so called civil war divide, who might have admired Collins tactics. Reynolds was not popular either and did not last long in the job.

Enda Kenny has every reason to suspect he could work with Collins and that Fine Gael may still be true to what Collins wanted. However, he would be a nervous man continually trying to make Collins see political sense if they were to work together, trying to make him see how his actions might be perceived by the public and the world.

A bit like De Valera, back in the day.

Johnny Fallon is an author and political commentator

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