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The Big Interview: This is potentially a very exciting time, everything is up for grabs

A COUPLE of hours after David McWilliams and I leave the Idle Wilde Cafe in Dalkey, we realise to our embarrassment that neither of us remembered to pay the bill.

Although an apologetic phone call the next day puts things right, we both agree that there's more than a touch of irony about the situation. McWilliams first became famous a decade ago as the economist who predicted that the Celtic Tiger would end in tears -- and now he claims that we can turn our situation around in just a couple of years by the relatively simple means of renegotiating our debt.

"I've always been an optimist," says the bestselling author of The Pope's Children and scourge of the political establishment, tucking into his chicken salad. "The people who created this mess used to accuse me of spreading doom and gloom, when all I was doing was telling the truth. In fact, I think there's every reason to be hopeful -- but it means that we have to stand up to our creditors instead of acting like scared kids who want the rest of the world to love us."

Before getting into the details, McWilliams is keen to talk about his latest business venture. The good-humoured Dubliner has played many roles throughout his career, including stockbroker, economist, TV presenter and even briefly a speechwriter for Bertie Ahern.

These days he sees himself as primarily an educator, bringing economics to the masses and using his insights to empower others.

Following the huge success of his one-man Abbey Theatre show Outsiders (which begins a nationwide tour later this month), he has embarked on his most ambitious project yet -- the world's first economics and comedy festival, taking place in Kilkenny next weekend.

Laugh

"Kilkenomics was dreamed up by myself and Richard Cooke, who organises the Cat Laughs comedy festival," he says.

"We've invited some of the best economists in the world and put them together with some great Irish comedians, so that we can discuss our current situation and have a laugh at the same time.

"There'll be 24 events between Thursday and Monday, with audience participation actively encouraged -- I've got journalists coming from all over the world because there's never been anything like it.

"Comedy and economics might seem like an odd mixture, but it's part of my ongoing campaign to make the money world accessible to everyone. Stand-ups tell stories to explain their point of view, they're self-employed so they know all about running a business and they'll probably ask better questions than the economists. So I see Kilkenomics as Lenny Bruce meets Milton Friedman -- I've invested my own money in it because I'm confident that people will find it revealing and entertaining."

With the IMF knocking on the door and the harshest Budget in Irish history less than a month away, some may feel that our economic predicament is no laughing matter. So what's McWilliams' quick take on how to wake up from this nightmare?

"Here's the problem," he says. "The elite who run this country are prepared to sell our economic sovereignty to the vulture investors who bought Irish banking debts at a discount and now want to get paid in full. In other words, Roman Abramovich wants to use our tax to pay Frank Lampard's wages -- and that has to stop.

"The last time I checked, there was a harp on my passport and not a picture of Sean FitzPatrick. So what we have to do is appoint a liquidator, tell these creditors to wait in line and let them make do with whatever's left over from our broken banking system.

"Debt forgiveness is the key to our recovery. Almost every major economy in the world has walked away from its debts at some point, including Britain and the US. We can do it too, but it means showing a bit of backbone -- as Roy Keane said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result."

McWilliams' policy of debt renegotiation applies to individuals as well as the country itself. He argues that the government should introduce a two-year 'mortgage holiday' with no more payments to be made until November 2012. That would provide a stimulus of around €20bn, encouraging people to spend money and injecting some desperately needed growth into the economy.

"The banks might not like it, but we own them now so they'd have to do what they're told," he points out. "The bondholders would still want to be paid, but they'd just have to wait another couple of years. This is exactly the kind of imaginative solution that we need -- not the mindless slash and burn approach that will just deflate the economy even further and land us in the European Stabilisation Fund by St Patrick's Day."

Cost

And what if Brian Lenihan gets it wrong on budget day?

"What really scares me is what might happen to Irish society," he says.

"My father was laid off when I was a teenager, so I understand the human cost that is involved. We could have more depression, loneliness, family break-ups, people sitting at home with piles of bills they're scared to open. I see friends of mine in their 40s, who should be in the prime of their lives, losing their jobs -- and I absolutely hate it."

McWilliams himself, of course, is unlikely to be joining the dole queue any time soon. His various media projects have made him the most famous economist in the country, often depicted as a brainier version of fellow Blackrock College boy Ross O'Carroll Kelly. Despite this, he still sees himself as something of an outsider who has no time for the political, banking and civil service elite who, in his own words, "made Ireland a textbook case of how not to run an economy".

"Some of these guys know less than the average bus driver, but they're all still in place," he says.

"That's why the real divide in this country is not between rich and poor, it's between insiders and outsiders. There's a small group of powerful people whose priority is to protect themselves, while those on the outside are forced to pay for their mistakes.

"When people like me told them that the boom was a charade, they did everything they could to vilify me. There's a process -- first they ridicule you, then they violently oppose you, finally they claim they agreed with you all along. It doesn't bother me, because my father said a man who's never made any enemies is a man who's never lived."

But does he never wish he could be on the inside making decisions himself?

"I would be interested in going into politics if the system didn't require you to worry about people's drains," he admits. "Maybe that will change in the future. But at the moment I'm a bit of a loner and the things I suggest are a bit too far out of the politicians' comfort zone."

In fact, McWilliams revealed in his last book that a garlic-chewing Brian Lenihan once called to his house late at night, looking for advice. He also got into hot water when he compared Miriam O'Callaghan's interview technique to a seduction (he later apologised and insists that they are now good friends).

His last television appearance was to champion Mary Robinson in the series Ireland's Greatest ("It made me feel like I was on the X Factor!" he laughs), a woman whose idealism and vision he believes we could all do with today.

"She had courage, she didn't go with the flow," he says. "That's what we need now because there's potentially a very exciting time ahead for this country. Ireland will look very different in just a few years -- and I believe everything is up for grabs."

ON BEING A DOOM MERCHANT:

'All I was doing was telling the truth. I think there's every reason to be hopeful -- but it means that we have to stand up to our creditors instead of acting like scared kids'

ON THE BAILOUT:

'It's like Roman Abramovich wants to use our tax to pay Frank Lampard's wages -- and that has to stop. Last time I checked, there was a harp on my passport and not a picture of Sean FitzPatrick'

ON A TWO-YEAR MORTGAGE HOLIDAY:

'The banks might not like it, but we own them now so they'd have to do what they're told'

ON GOING INTO POLITICS:

'I would be interested if the system didn't require you to worry about people's drains. Maybe that will change in the future. But at the moment... the things I suggest are a bit too far out of the politicians' comfort zone'

ON LENIHAN'S BUDGET:

'If he gets it wrong, what really scares me is what might happen to Irish society. My father was laid off when I was a teenager, so I understand the human cost that's involved'

David McWilliams will host Kilkenomics, Ireland's first ever economics festival, in Kilkenny on November 11-14. See www.kilkenomics.com for full details


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