What Ireland lacks now are statesmen who can make the case that recovery is possible
The screen at Manchester airport tells me I’m about to board an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin, but there’s a Lufthansa plane at the gate. ‘Blimey,’ I mutter, ‘this bailout’s moving fast.’ I’m looking at the wrong gate, however, and it’s an Aer Lingus stewardess who becomes the first of many people during my 36-hour visit to wish me ‘the best of luck’. Luck looms large in the Irish psyche and it’s what they long for right now — an oil find would help, I hear one passenger remark — plus a bit less attention from world markets and media. For a country whose economy is little bigger than Manchester’s, the glare of global attention is traumatic. The last thing they’ll welcome, I guess, is another doorstepping foreign columnist.
So thank goodness for talkative taxi drivers. The first gives me a vernacular version of Kevin Myers’s recent Spectator rant about the cronyism of the Irish political class. ‘Here’s where one of the big fellahs drinks,’ he says, as we pass Fagan’s Bar in the suburb of Drumcondra, where Bertie Ahern, who presided as taoiseach during the decade-long boom while fending off multiple allegations about his personal finances, can be found supping Bass and contemplating his country’s ruin.
The next driver tells me he’s behind on his mortgage and business is thin. ‘But all I need’s a couple of good months and a bit of luck, an’ I’ll be fine.’ A third points out a sign of hard times I haven’t seen since I was in Eastern Europe 20 years ago: entire blocks of flats, in mid-evening, with not a single electric light on. But he roars with laughter as he tells me about a man from his own flats who was a sand-blaster by trade but claimed to be a builder when the boom came, won some contracts, made out like a bandit, bought a string of racehorses and lived the Irish dream. How’s he doing now? ‘The banks have him by the bollocks, he’s completely fucked.’
Later, a racing man tells me the other side of the same story. In some trainers’ yards, every horse was owned by new-rich builders. But just as there were no bidders last week (even at a slashed reserve of €300,000) for an apartment complex in Donegal once valued at €9.5 million, so there are no buyers for the builders’ nags at bloodstock sales — and the owners often don’t bother to collect them if they’re unsold.
Never mind the numbers
I was wrong to think no one would want to talk to me: everyone does. But it seems to me that Dubliners, as people in shock often do, are obsessing about the wrong things — the shocking €85-billion scale of the bailout and the €20,000 debt per citizen it implies. Those are just numbers, I tell them: what matter more are market mood-swings. To stabilise investor sentiment, you need leaders who declare robustly that Ireland has now taken every painful step demanded by the IMF to shrink the fiscal deficit; that there is a way to keep Irish banks alive without imposing a haircut on bondholders which might cause Europe-wide panic; and that Ireland’s inward-investment success story, bolstered by its ultra-low corporate tax rate and its strong connections to the United States, offers real hope for the future. I’m hearing all that from businesspeople, but not from rabbit-in-the-headlights politicians.
Halfway through dinner, there’s a hand on my shoulder. It belongs to Vincent Browne, a cult figure in the Irish media who’s riding high after telling the current Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, at a televised press conference that he should apologise for ‘screwing up’ the country and resign as a matter of patriotic duty. Vincent wants me on his late-night TV3 chat show to give a British view of Ireland. I assure viewers that we still have far more affection and respect for our Irish cousins than we do for the EU powers and their doomed currency. But Vincent too is obsessing about numbers: what’s a fair rate for Ireland to pay on the bailout? The answer when it came on Monday won’t have pleased him: 5.8 per cent is more than Greece had to pay, and equates to €5 billion a year in interest costs. Again I argue, the numbers won’t matter if markets believe Ireland has a viable recovery path — because much of the bailout will never have to be drawn down.
The weakness of my argument is that Dublin has no statesmen to make the case. Cowen is bumbling towards electoral oblivion; the finance minister, Brian Lenihan, is more impressive but will be swept out with the rest of the Fine Fail gang. The opposition Fianna Gael leader and likely election winner, Enda Kenny, has been all but invisible during the crisis — and is another product of the old system: like Cowen and Lenihan, he inherited his Dail seat from his father. The best man to speak for Ireland now would be the former Fine Gael attorney-general Peter Sutherland, who went on to be an EU commissioner, world trade negotiator and chairman of both BP and Goldman Sachs International. I once asked him if he would ever contemplate a return to domestic politics, or whether Ireland was now too small a stage. ‘Ireland will always be big enough for me,’ was his reply. But he has battled against throat cancer since then, and was in hospital in London during the bailout talks. For his country’s sake I hope he’s fit enough to return to the fray in the New Year.
Dublin airport’s Terminal 2 opened, a year late and massively over budget, on the day the IMF men flew in. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary (who had argued to be allowed to build and run his own low-cost terminal) damned the new showpiece as ‘a statement of modern Ireland, a big, bankrupt property development’. But at 7.30 on Friday morning, Terminal 1 is heaving: everyone has a cheap ticket to leave the country. Ryanair planes buzz in and out of the departure stands, intent on their 25-minute turnaround target and offering a demonstration of what the Irish can do when they get their act together. ‘That’s the fellah should run the country, that Michael O’Leary,’ says my last taxi driver. ‘An’ the best of luck to you, sir.’