This ship of State is leaking badly

This was not a leak. It wasn't even a 'leak'.The 40-page document detailing Ireland’s budget plans for 2012 and 2013, and the covering letters of intent from Minister for Finance Michael Noonan discussed by the Bundestag’s finance committee yesterday were not faxed under cover of darkness from deep within the Department of Finance. They were sent – possibly faxed, possibly emailed as an attachment, possibly handed over in an envelope, who knows how these things get about - to the European Commission by the troika following its third quarterly review of how well Ireland is stifling economic growth and unravelling social protections. Or, implementing necessary austerity measures. The letters of intent from Michael Noonan, along with “confidential draft programme documents” were either sent directly to the European Commission by Mr Noonan’s office, or were given to the troika to insert into their review.

Not. A. Leak.

When asked how these documents ended up being discussed in Germany’s Bundestag Enda Kenny replied “I have no idea.” He was almost certainly telling the truth. As far as he was concerned, the details of 2012’s Budget hammered out by his government some three weeks ago and given to the troika were not supposed to get a public airing until the charade of the Dáil vote on those measures on 6 December. Not having familiarised himself with the mechanics of the German parliament – namely, the legal requirement for the Bundestag’s 41-member finance committee to approve the release of Germany’s contribution to each EFSF tranche, and the consequent need for them to approve the budgetary measures of bailout countries – his bafflement yesterday was undoubtedly genuine. His embarrassment today is also, undoubtedly, quite real.

Kenny was lucky. He was asked a direct question: “How did the documents end up in the Bundestag?” to which he could give an honest answer. His Tánaiste was not quite so lucky, or perhaps simply suffers from a degree of verbal incontinence brought on by increasing belligerence (week by week Eamon Gilmore is coming to seem more and more like Brian Cowen in the dying days of the last government; the same pained grimace, the same downward head tilt - imaginary horns lowered ready to charge, while just out of shot his left brogue paws the ground menacingly). He said he didn’t know how anyone could have a document containing details of Ireland’s 2012 budgetary measures. Really, Eamon? Really? Either a rift of epic proportions exists between Fine Gael and Labour, to the point that the latter were excluded from all meetings with the troika last month, or Mr Gilmore is being – to put it kindly – disingenuous. A less charitable description would include the words ‘lying’ and ‘teeth’.

Gilmore’s Labour colleague Brendan Howlin toed the Gilmore line of baffled outrage on RTÉ’s Six One News last night, saying, “The Government [is] deeply concerned and would be anxious to find out the source of that document.” Howlin has an air of permanent anxiety, but in this instance it is unlikely that his wide eyes in the face of Brian Dobson’s questions were brought on by a real worry as to how those documents wound up in the hands of anyone but the Irish Government. He gave himself away in the next clause of his sentence in any case: “…[We are anxious] to ensure that any correspondence and to ensure that any dialogue or interaction we have with our funding partners is kept in the confidence that it’s expected.” Indeed.

Enda Kenny said much the same thing, telling RTÉ that “he was not going to give validity or a factual account of what had happened with the Troika.” The man simply cannot tell a lie. Or construct sentences that conform to any known grammar or usage rules (it’s his creative streak). Regardless, the upshot of the garble above is that the Irish public cannot expect to be told every little darn thing about what goes on when our Government talks to our ‘funding partners’. Of what possible interest would that information be to us, after all? And don’t the stenographers have enough to be doing writing down all the stuff that goes on in the Dáil and Seanad anyway?

The Journal is now reporting that our Budget will be rubberstamped at an Ecofin meeting of all 27 of Europe’s finance ministers on 30 November. They say:

While it’s the European Commission – Brussels’ central executive branch – that officially writes the cheques for international bailouts, Ecofin must first meet and agree to sign off on the lending before Brussels can release the cash. understands that a provisional agenda for that meeting – set to take place on November 30, just six days before the Budget is announced – includes a vote to release the next quarterly batch of loans to the Irish government.

The vote is expected to be quite routine, however – so much so, in fact, that the matter is only noted on the agenda as being ‘for adoption’ and not actually for debate. This indicates that the council expects simply to rubberstamp the next round of loans without internal hassle.

Does any of this matter? In an obvious sense, yes, of course it does – in that come 7 December the Dáil will have rubberstamped €700m in cuts to the social welfare budget, a reduction of public service staff numbers by 37,000, the introduction of a flat €100 household charge, a 2% VAT increase, and the abolition of postgraduate grants – but in another sense, no, it really doesn’t. It’s embarrassing for the Government to have their impotence exposed so, but this Government’s impotence is hardly news. Indeed, impotence is their stock fallback whenever they’re asked why they don’t, for example, raise taxes on the wealthiest rather than implementing deeply regressive measures like VAT increases or flat household charges. As Simon Coveney said on Tonight with Vincent Browne on Wednesday: “Ireland is in receivership. We are not the only ones that are making the choices for Ireland at the moment. In return for having the privilege of access to stability fund money, we don’t have the freedom to choose to do everything we want to do.” It’s easier for Fine Gael to say, “Our hands are tied!” than to admit that they would sooner self-immolate than raise income taxes on the wealthy. As for Labour, who knows what they’re up to. They certainly don’t seem to. In fairness to them, it's likely hard to think straight when the words “Power, power power power power squeeee power” are chuntering distractingly through your head all day every day.

There is another sense in which all of this doesn’t matter. Was there ever any doubt but that whatever budgetary measures the Cabinet decided on would be gormlessly voted through by both Government parties on 6 December? Again, Kenny is refreshing in his honesty. He told the Irish Times: “Let me confirm something to you, the Cabinet have made no decision in regard to the Budget. It is on December 6th. It is only after the Cabinet make decisions that these things become a reality.” It is only after the Cabinet make decisions that these things become a reality. Irish parliamentary democracy, summed beautifully there in only fourteen words.