Irish politics: Continuity through stupidity

Last week brought several reminders of the ineptitude of Irish governments, past and present. By Vincent Browne.

A sense of hopelessness was in the air last Thursday. The announcement that the proposed Children's Hospital at the Mater site had been refused planning permission, on such palpably foreseeable grounds, confirmed the comprehensive ineptitude of the former government.

Not to be outdone, also last Thursday, the present government launched its Pathways To Work programme, founded on the fantasy that 100,000 jobs will fall from the heavens by 2016 - plus the menace aimed at an already devastated community, the unemployed.

There was also the acknowledgement last Thursday morning that frontline services would be curtailed because of the glut of incentivised retirements from the health services, on top of the chaos caused by incentivised retirements in our schools.

My own mood was also dampened by a depressing exposure last Thursday morning to a few hundred entrepreneurs at the Convention Centre, where speakers urged flexibility in labour markets, claiming this would be good for workers. "Flexibility" in labour markets means flexibility to fire workers on the limpest of pretexts, or on no pretext at all.

One speaker said flexible labour markets would give workers more control over their own lives, relieving stress. The same fellow decried the "dependency culture". When it was put to him that we in society all depend on one another, someone said something about everyone sweeping outside their own door.

I assume the remark was intended to convey that, if everyone swept outside their own door, there would be no need for the state to do it for them, thereby ridiculing the idea of co-dependence in society. There was a murmur of approval from the audience.

There were some hopeful signs earlier in the week, with the announcements of PayPal jobs in Dundalk and an investment of $130 million by Microsoft in its data centre in Dublin.

Elements of the government's job strategy seem sensible: incentives to employers to hire people from the masses of unemployed, and indications of more targeted training.

The headline ESRI forecast of growth in 2012 seemed hopeful, too, until it was revealed that the projected GNP growth rate was a miserable 0.1% - effectively no growth, and maybe even contraction.

There will be no growth in jobs, with projected total employment falling from 1.8 million to 1.77 million in 2012, and a further drop in 2013.

Admittedly, all this pales in comparison with the cost of the bank guarantee of 2008, for which the last government was responsible - though the present one is responsible for refusing to undo its consequences. This is likely to amount to a debt of €70 billion, over and above the fiscal debt.

If we had a political culture that accepted the idea of a largely equal society in terms of wealth, income, power, influence, well-being and respect, it might not be so devastating, because €70 billion spread over 1.2 million households and over, say, ten years is not too catastrophic - about €6,000 per household per year. Pretty awful, but not devastating.

However, we have a hugely unequal society that, according to the CSO, is growing more unequal - and the consequences for middle-income and low-income households are overwhelming.

The recklessness of the original guarantee is almost beyond belief. All the more so, given that the Department of Finance had a paper prepared nine months before the guarantee that foresaw what would happen, and that recommended that distressed banks be placed in receivership.

All the more reckless since the über-expensive advisers, Merrill Lynch, commissioned by the former government to do a four-day report on this immediately preceding the guarantee, recommended against following this action. All the more reckless since there was no time even to canvass the views of 13 of the 15 cabinet ministers, which is a constitutional imperative.

The present government, after solemnly promising us before the election a year ago that it would renegotiate all this by seeking writedowns on the debt, has never sought to do so once in office, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

In late 1980, Charles Haughey appointed a Cork TD, Gene FitzGerald, as minister for finance. Gene was a decent man, a man of integrity and honour, but nobody, including Gene himself, suspected him of having any expertise in the arena of economics or finance.

On returning from a meeting of EU finance ministers, Gene told the Dáil in his hoarse Cork accent that he had "warned [his fellow finance ministers] of the dangers of overreacting to inflation at the expense of unemployment", a not unreasonable policy position. The late John Kelly of Fine Gael mercilessly teased Gene, enquiring again and again: "What did the German finance minister, or the Dutch finance minister, say to you when you offered them this helpful hint?"

I thought the same last Friday on hearing how Kenny, who had been in Berlin and Rome, had cajoled Angela Merkel and Mario Monti on the need for a robust firewall to protect the euro. One wonders what Merkel was thinking when Kenny offered this helpful hint. She was probably too polite to tell him. Ditto Monti.

God help us.

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