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Going south

Pity the nation whose politicians make Gerry Adams look like an attractive option

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

20 November 2010

12:00 AM

The moral nadir of any state must surely have come when Mr Gerry Adams MP announces that he is its white knight. Yes, this IRA butcher and architect of countless bombings and killings is abandoning Northern Ireland politics, and even his empty seat in Westminster, to stand in Ireland’s general election next year. He actually thinks that he is entitled to berate the politicians of the Irish Republic for their conduct.

And by God, he could well have a point. Just look at the latest nugget to emerge from the parliamentary sewer that is Leinster House — the equivalent of the Palace of Westminster. James McDaid, a retiring politician on the government side, twice previously achieved national distinction: once for lifting an IRA gunman on to his shoulders to celebrate his having escaped extradition to Britain, and once for drunkenly driving in the wrong direction ten miles up a motorway. (Yes, his ministerial career survived the IRA celebrations, and no, he was not jailed for his motorway escapades.) This fine fellow is in the headlines because of his retirement package of €250,000 tax free, plus an annual pension of €75,000.

McDaid is a member of Fianna Fail, a political tribe that has no equivalent in Britain — well, not since the Highland Clearances; and as the depravity and vainglory of clan-based Irish politics become more luridly evident, one can see that (without applauding Culloden and its aftermath) maybe Cumberland had a point. Fianna Fail’s culture has brought the Republic to the point of ruin unprecedented in Europe since the Weimar Republic defaulted on war reparations in 1930. The Irish government’s borrowings were €80 billion (as of last weekend: who knows today?), which is nearly €25,000 for every man, woman and child in the state. But the government is frantically adding millions to that figure every week, in order to maintain outgoings on a public sector of which the grisly McDaid is merely the latest caricature.

There’s much talk in Europe of a bailout of Ireland. I have no idea what this might mean, any more than a journalist in 1914 could have described Third Ypres: by the time you read this, it may well have happened. So be it. Let me deal with the reality as I write. There are two economies in Ireland: the private sector, which is still doing extraordinarily well — industrial output up 12 per cent in the past year, with Irish exports per capita nearly matching those of Germany. And then there is the tragedy of the public sector, an economic Chernobyl, endlessly spewing out toxic clouds of debt, and its adoptive cousin, the banking sector, which two years ago under the bank rescue scheme (obligatory under EU law) effectively became an arm of government.

There are two cultural explanations for the folly that is Ireland. The first is the who-you-know politics that is key to Fianna Fail’s style of government. The second is the other survivor from the pre-modern age: a tradition of flaithiúlacht, which means ruinous generosity, especially with someone else’s money.

As Irish finances plummeted a year ago, the Dublin government declared that it would reduce all public service pay. But a back-door deal struck secretly on Christmas Eve exempted senior civil servants from the pay cuts they had devised. Better still, the foremost civil servant who proposed this exemption then negotiated his own early retirement, McDaid-style: a five-year top-up to his pension, a tax-free golden handshake, and off into the sunset! Even after recent cuts, Ireland’s nurses are the fourth highest-paid in the developed world, and Irish teachers earn 33 per cent more than the developed world average. And best of all, every single member of the government, and of the senior civil service (who together have enabled Ireland to stare eyeball-to-eyeball with Chad), will retire with McDaidian pay-cheques and pensions.

Ireland’s financial figures would only make sense to an autistic Chinese astrophysicist. Its annual budget deficit is 30 per cent of its GDP: that means, if every legal contract, every sale of a house or lollipop or newspaper, and every salary, were hit with an extra 30 per cent tax, and economic activity didn’t stop (which it would), only then could Ireland manage to meet this year’s budget shortfall, without touching its existing debts. As things stand, hundreds of thousands face ruin. Thousands of ‘ghost estates’, built with tax incentives and money borrowed from banks that the Irish taxpayer now owns, stand empty. A house worth €300,000 two years ago would be lucky to fetch one third that now. In my formerly prosperous local town of Naas — with two boutique wine shops, two florists and six restaurants in 2008 — 40 per cent of the premises now lie empty. Best estimates are that house prices are set to return to their 2008 value only by 2020 — more likely, when Zimbabwe’s Mars probe returns home.

Ireland’s unemployment now stands at 14 per cent, and without the departure of 200,000 Poles it would have been far higher. As it would without the culture of flaithiúlacht working through a toxically powerful trade union movement and protecting the public service to a ludicrous degree. For example, civil servants still get a half-hour paid leave every week to cash their nonexistent pay-cheques, even on holiday. The country is burdened by wasteful tribunals investigating now irrelevant historical events. One tribunal, which has been in existence for 13 years and has cost around €50 million, met for only three days in 2008. One of its barristers nonetheless charged — and was paid — €760,000 for that year.

Flaithiúlacht means that Anglo-Irish Bank spent €250,000 on lost golf balls for its clients (now being paid for by the lucky Irish taxpayer). The state-run Railway Procurement Agency spent €6,500 on chocolates for the re-opening of a railway station, and many millions trying — but failing — to get integrated tickets between Dublin’s buses and trains. Three RPA officials flew first-class (not business) to Singapore (not Switzerland) to see how ticket-integrating works. Five nights at the Shangri-La hotel followed: total price for this junket, €35,000. And still no fully integrated tickets.

State projects in Ireland are not so much co-ordinated as allowed to run themselves: the flaithiúlacht school of business management. The Republic has just completed building 1,000 kilometres of motorway, with just one service station, just outside Dublin. You can travel the length of Ireland now without being able to buy any fuel or coffee, or use a loo. A tunnel beneath Dublin to its port was estimated at €220 million: final price, nearly €800 million. The cost of widening the orbital motorway around Dublin (no loos, no coffee, natch) went from €190 million to €560 million. Dublin has two new tramway systems that don’t meet, with incompatible rolling stocks: the cost of building these two systems soared from €290 million to €750 million. In 2005, the state-owned Dublin Airport announced a new €200 terminal to be completed by 2009: it opens this month, one year late and five times over budget: cost, €1.2 billion. Meanwhile, the existing terminal is only half full.

Thus the iceberg; now the ‘lifeboat’ — Gerry Adams. Counting Bono (who is a truly Irish figure: full of flaithiúlacht with taxpayers’ money for Africa, and a legendary tax avoider at home), Adams is one of the three most famous Irishman in the world. The other is Ian Paisley, who is now Lord Bannside, God help us, and a respected peer of the realm. Yet all those years ago, when Paisley was a ranting sectarian bigot, he was actually speaking the truth. The Irish Republic was a relatively safe opera
tional base for the IRA. Now it seems that the Irish people cannot be trusted to govern themselves without eagerly looking out for an iceberg, and then steering straight for it.

That said, Fianna Fail will not look kindly upon the arrival of Gerry Adams in their political bailiwick. Despite all their talk of a united Ireland, they still regard Northern Ireland as ‘elsewhere’. So is Sinn Fein the National Socialist Party of Ireland’s Weimar? Not under Adams; he is too old and weary. But who knows what fledgling he has under his wing? Who knows what budding monster lurks among the higher numbers of Sinn Fein today?

It’s said that Freud regarded the Irish as being immune to psychoanalysis. Well, that’s a shame, because the real issue is not Fianna Fail and its addiction to flaithiúlacht so much as why the Irish people repeatedly give that party the key to the drinks cabinet of government. It was Einstein who said that the definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and each time expecting a different result; which pretty much describes the conduct of the Irish electorate. And now we have Ireland’s own mass-going Gerry Adams, offering his unique moral perspectives on the Republic’s problems. Which might seem rather like Hannibal Lecter giving Socratic advice to the Royle Family, but that would be a false comparison — for Ireland’s politicians and civil servants, with their guaranteed pensions, have already collared Ireland’s silverware. So, yes, Gerry Adams really does have a point.

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