WHAT, I wonder, should NUI do for its next trick? An honorary degree for Kevin Myers maybe. A citation that refers to his sterling work on behalf of international peace and understanding, his support for equality measures everywhere, his unflinching commitment to ensuring the Holocaust is never forgotten, his fearless and indefatigable attention-seeking?
Maybe not. But after their last honorary degree, they’re really going to have to think of something mighty.
Honestly, I thought I could let it go. Terry Prone nailed it after all in yesterday’s Irish Examiner. You can get an honorary degree and still prove in the process that you’ve learned nothing. I watched the bits of the ceremony that were on the news, and shivered. The self-satisfied faces, the smug lack of self-awareness, the speech that seemed to go on for ever.
And then I thought, it’s happened. Get over it. Get on with the rest of your life.
But it sat there, gnawing at me. And then a social media post flashed on to my Facebook page, immediately followed by a chorus of largely approving comments. This is what it said:
“It was good to read today of Brian Cowen’s Honorary Doctorate from the NUI. His speech was as ever robust and clear sighted. The citation by historian Mary Daly was fair. Honorary Doctorates appear to be the closest Ireland gets to an honours system. Appropriate in a Republic that an honour comes from the education sector.”
The post was from Conor Lenihan, who was himself a player in some of the events for which Brian Cowen was honoured last week. One of the longest approving comments after Mr Lenihan’s post referred to Brian Cowen quashing the malicious and partisan rewriting of the history of the time.
Watch this space, I thought. This is where the real rewriting of history starts to get done. When one of Ireland’s oldest universities, opened in 1854 and a major contributor to modern Ireland (as well as a major recipient of public investment), sees fit to honour a citizen, that honour is often seen as coming from the people of the whole community. Especially since, as Mr Lenihan points out, there is no honours system in this little republic of ours except the honorary degree system.
But then, thank goodness, a small and dignified backlash. The former president of UL, Dr Edward Walsh, announced he intended to hand back his own honorary degree to NUI in protest as this conferring.
Now, I have to be honest. I have almost never found myself in agreement with the views of Dr Walsh. We have sparred publicly a couple of times over the years, and I reckon he and I are about as far apart on the political spectrum as it’s possible for two gents getting on in years to be.
But if he needs a lift to wherever you have to go to hand back your honorary degree, I’m your man. If he’s hungry after doing it, I’d consider it an honour to buy him a decent dinner. I’m only sorry that I don’t have an honorary degree to hand back myself.
Dr Walsh put it very well in the newspaper reports of his decision. “Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen inherited an Ireland which, in 2000, had full employment, was the fifth most competitive in the world and, after Luxembourg, had the lowest debt in Europe, ” he said. “Through their inept stewardship”, Dr Walsh went on, “they brought Ireland to its knees and caused much hardship to its citizens. In other jurisdictions, such people would find themselves held to account by society and suffer consequences.”
Apart from his honorary degree, the primary consequence Mr Cowen has suffered is a pension for the rest of his life in excess of €80,000 a year (as indeed has Mr Ahern.) Or should we call them both doctor now?
The Ireland that Edward Walsh referred to was the country that Ahern, Cowen, McCreevy and Harney inherited from the government of John Bruton, Dick Spring and Ruairi Quinn. I mention Ruairi Quinn in particular, because he was an exemplary minister for finance. Although every inch a social democrat, he took his responsibility for the health of the economy really seriously — to the point where he was the last finance minister who could honestly say that he put economic considerations before political ones.
He wasn’t, of course, given an honorary doctorate by NUI. He was just unceremoniously booted out of a job that he had done outstandingly well.
In the process, he ensured that Ahern, McCreevy, Cowen and the rest of them inherited a set of public finances that had been turned from deficit to surplus. They inherited a general government debt that had declined by a third under Quinn, and a set of unemployment figures that had gone down by nearly 50%. The year Ruairi Quinn became finance minister Ireland’s economy was growing at a rate of 2.5% — the year after he left it grew by 10%.
That’s what they got when they came into office. They decided to devote it all — all of the resources they inherited — to buying every election they possibly could.
Thus, for example, in a budget speech in December 2001, McCreevy announced that he was increasing the children’s allowance by £25 per child per month. He brought the payment forward by months and announced that it was going to be paid in April — guaranteeing a hefty amount of back-money to thousands of Irish mothers. Many of them collected the back-money virtually on their way to the polling stations for that year’s general election.
At the same time as they were doing that, they devoted billions of euro to the creation of the SSIAs, perhaps the most profligate tax-based savings scheme ever invented. People with disposable income were encouraged to plough them into a vehicle that would guarantee them a handsome return, and that return materialised — guess what — just in time for the 2007 general election.
And of course, year after year throughout that period, budget after budget was littered with tax breaks for every conceivable form of construction activity. We ended up as a result importing thousands of migrant workers to build housing estates for the migrant workers we were importing, and built an economy that was uniquely vulnerable to any form of international shock.
When the history of that entire period is written, people will look back on the blanket bank guarantee, on the lies that we were told as the troika landed on our shores, at the shaming loss of sovereignty as we were forced to hand over an economy, and a country, in tatters.
But the truth is that throughout their entire reign, the government whose leaders have been honoured with honorary doctorates did it all for electoral purposes. It was, throughout, a scam. The idea that the perpetrators of that scam should end up gathering together in NUI, to celebrate one another, and to force themselves in passing to express ‘regret’ at the thousands of people who suffered, is nothing, sad to say, except sick-making.