THE STATE OF PLAY: Talking up the economy is unreal, distorts international perceptions; and risks false budgetary expectations and Germany thinking we don’t need bailout relief – John Gormley
By the time you read this either Joe Biden or Paul Ryan will have clawed his manly way back to the position that Lyndon Johnson unedifyingly denied was worth “a bucket of warm piss”.
But there is one illustrious candidate for the Vice-Presidency that you may not recall. His name was Admiral James Stockdale, and he was the running mate of Ross Perot back in 1992. Stockdale was a true American hero. Captured by the North Vietnamese when his plane was shot down, James Stockdale survived torture and the privations of the Hoa Lo prison, where he spent seven years in leg irons in a three-foot by nine-foot cell.
Many of the Americans who were captured with him died. Years later, when Admiral Stockdale was asked who were the ones who didn’t make it out of Vietnam, he replied: “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas’. And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter’. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart”. Then Stockdale clarified his message with some truly inspiring words: ‘This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be”.
I would like our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to read those words. He might even like to frame them. You see, our Taoiseach is a born optimist. Reliable – and consistently-favourable – reports from Government buildings claim that Enda’s enthusiasm and optimism are infectious. The high-fives, which he dispenses regularly to civil servants, are not contrived but come as naturally to Enda as the efficient chairing of meetings, for which he is also noted. That sense of optimism also permeates his every word and gesture on the international stage. And it has worked, out of all proportion – convincing many people in political and business circles in the United States, Europe and Asia that Ireland is making a steady recovery. But there’s a problem with all of this. Optimism, as Admiral Stockdale said, isn’t enough to get you out of a hole. You also have to confront “the brutal facts of your current reality”. And this is where the government has singularly failed. Here are some of the brutal facts that need to be confronted:
1. Our GNP (gross national product) fell by 2.5 per cent last year
2. Household debt will stand at 185% of disposable income in 2017.
3. According to the IMF, Ireland is now the world’s most indebted country.
These are just some of the facts; there are more relating to unemployment, emigration and poverty that make for grim reading and have caused international observers to marvel at the fortitude and forbearance of the Irish people. Indeed, the patience shown by the Irish public has been remarkable, but it has been based in part on the belief that the new government was going to make things better. Not only has this government not reversed the last government’s unpopular measures, like the universal social charge, they have also managed in a ham-fisted way to introduce a series of regressive taxes which have only added to a sense of grievance. This simmering discontent could result in social unrest by 2014, and it has already resulted in general disenchantment with the political system, with many Independent TDs reporting an increase in the ‘you’re all the same’ line from punters on the doorsteps.
ar more worrying is the trend in the mainstream media of sidelining those commentators who don’t buy into the government’s happy-clappy line, as Eddie Hobbs recently discovered when he was excluded from RTÉ interviews following the publication of his critical article in the Wall Street Journal. These ‘Jonahs’ are seen by the establishment as hindering our chances of recovery by talking them down – rather than as in fact “confronting the brutal facts of our current reality”.
The spin machine of this government has been efficient and effective, but it risks now becoming far too clever for its own good. Restoring Ireland’s reputation abroad might help us return to the bond markets next year; however, it may well impede progress on a deal on our banking debt within the EU. If we do manage to get a deal on the banking debt two major problems will arise for the government: 1. The Germans and others will insist on some sort of trade-off regarding corporation tax, an issue which has apparently become a non-negotiable for all political parties. 2. A deal on the bank debt will increase the expectation, heightened by recent statements of Michael Noonan, that the next number of budgets will be easier. Our taxpayers and social welfare recipients will be brought down to earth very quickly when it becomes plain that the stringent budgets continue regardless of any bank deal. The resulting austerity could weaken and shrink our economy even further. The main political casualty of all of this will not be optimistic Enda and Fine Gael but the Labour Party, which created such false expectations at the last election. Labour should remember the words of another US vice-presidential hopeful, Sarah Palin, who asked Americans a year after the historic election of Barack Obama: “How’s all that Hopey-Changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” Palin, the Tea-party poster-girl, has been replaced by the Ayn Rand admirer, Paul Ryan, as the new Republican vice-presidential candidate. It’s proof that recessions make the extremes more attractive.
There are many who believe that there is now a gap in the market for an extreme right-wing party in Ireland. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if such a party emerged.
When optimism turns sour anything can happen.
John Gormley is a Contributing Editor of Village