We have been servile for far, far too long

Theo Dorgan

HOW long does it take for a slave nation to cast off its unconscious love of chains?

Why is it that after near-on a century of ‘independence’ we find ourselves governed by authoritarian incompetents, men and women whose first and last instinct is to sequester power for themselves and their cronies, at whatever cost to the public good?

What is wrong with us, that election after election we hand power to dreary, pedestrian minds, dead souls, the eager and sometimes unconscious lackeys of powerful hidden interests? (Yes, of course there are exceptions, but few enough).

Once it was the Catholic Church that exercised undeclared power through its puppets in the Oireachtas, the civil service, the media and business.

Now, and for decades past, it is international capital that exercises this mesmeric spell, that runs its sophisticated programmes past the gawping, credulous, servile elite we have permitted to exercise power in our name.

The same ECB that browbeat and bullied Brian Lenihan in Brussels last weekend was pouring money into our bandit banking system even after Anglo Irish went down in flames.

Now they want their money back, not from the banks who profited but from the taxpayer who did not, and our rulers present this to us as a successful negotiation?

It would be bad enough if our government understood what and whom it is they are serving; it is beyond endurance that they do not show the slightest signs of understanding what they have permitted. It is simply vile that now, having visited horror on us, most likely from bone-deep incompetence, they insist not just that we must pay but that the poorest among us must pay proportionately the most.

I watched Brian Lenihan, barely able to control his aggression, hectoring Miriam O’Callaghan last week in words that will haunt him: “Let’s face it, we all partied.”

Ah yes, it’s all our fault. Making life hard for poor Brian with those dole-fuelled safaris in Mozambique, those minimum wage binges in Barbados. Yes of course there is a small element of truth here; many people invested, mainly in property, to an unrealistic extent. But, at whose instigation?

Fuelled by cheap money from where? Lulled by promises from whom, by complacent assurances that our economy was the envy of the world?

Remind me again who was in government during the so-called boom? Remind me again who it was invited those of us who warned this madness would end badly to commit suicide?

There is form here. Denial has long since become the default mode of Irish politics. I recently watched in disbelief as Dessie O’Malley and Willie O’Dea tutted and huffed on television about the disgraceful mistake of having built Southill and Moyross without schools, shops or amenities of any kind. Disgraceful. Shocking. Inhuman.

Excuse me? Who were in government when these estates were built? Who has been in Government more or less permanently ever since?

Denial is not, let it be said, confined to the present regime. Last year, Enda Kenny’s front bench rose up against him, and he replaced them with what we can only, in charity, call the subs’ bench. It does not seem to have dawned on Mr Kenny that he now asks us to put him into government with his second choice team clustered about his skirts. He doesn’t seem to see this as a problem.

I do, just as I consider it a problem that the Labour Party seems to have slimmed down to the Burton & Gilmore double act, with the redoubtable Deputy Rabbitte acting as sweeper.

Representative democracy, for all its many faults, is our only realistic choice. All other paths lead to tyranny. The problem, of course, is that historically we have been permitted to vote almost exclusively for candidates pre-selected not for their passion for the common good, not for their competence in a particular area of responsibility, not, god help us, for their animating vision but for their skill at manipulating the mechanisms of the party.

And then, once they have been passed through the electoral system, the big beasts of the Party must be found jobs commensurate with their idea of themselves.

Consider: the Minister for Finance has no background in business, no training in finance or economics. Ah but, you say, that’s what the Department of Finance is for.

Right, that would be the same department that didn’t see the crisis coming, that failed to persuade Government of the disaster that would follow from issuing a blank cheque to a renegade banking system. That didn’t even notice the banks had gone rogue.

Is it credible that nobody in the higher ranks of the Department of Finance took a moment to ask, in the past ten years, if we really proposed to go on building houses, retail parks, office blocks for ever? That nobody in Merrion Street thought this was madness? If they didn’t, they are incompetent. If they did, and failed to convey the seriousness of the coming train wreck to Government, then what are we employing them for? In some ways it’s even more terrifying to imagine these men and women are super-competent but blithely ignored.

Having rolled over for the banks, having been hurled off the pitch by a ruthless ECB, the same team are about to deliver a budget. Let me make a prophecy here from my own area of expertise: Investment in the arts will be rolled back on Tuesday. Perhaps you are someone who is not disturbed by this.

Then let me give you the figures. Last year, through the Arts Council, the Government invested €73.4m in artists and arts organisations. €57m of this went back to the exchequer in taxes. This means that the actual investment was €16.4m. How much did this investment generate for the economy? Close on €220m. So naturally it make sense to cut back, yes? After all, who needs that kind of return, eh?

More people work in arts & culture than in the defence forces and the Garda Síochána combined; the economic value of the sector is in excess of €780m.

Our Department of Finance and our bewildered Minister, and it pains me to say it, are a law unto themselves. My question, again, is why do we permit this? Why are we happy to let an elite set the ground rules, an elite that decides to pay Jackie Healy Rae more than Norway pays its prime minister?

An elite that sees nothing wrong with paying Minister Dermot Ahern an annual pension of €128,000 — and a once-off payment of €150,000 to cushion him against the shock of surrendering his job, 10 times the proposed annual minimum wage before deductions.

There are women and men of vision and achievement in all walks of life in Ireland. Some of them, indeed, are already in politics. Can we find a sufficient number to do the state some service? And if these generous souls should volunteer some finite portion of their lives, can we find it in ourselves to grow up at last, to step away from the servilities of party politics, to elect a legislature, gifted and competent, that will dedicate itself to building a just Republic?

- Theo Dorgan’s most recent books are Greek (Dedalus Press) and Time on the Ocean, A Voyage from Cape Horn to Cape Town (New Island), both published this year.


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