FERGUS FINLAY: Grand Slam a rare bright spot as the noughties come to a dismal end

WELL now, who went up in your estimation this year? And who went down?

In a year that had almost nothing but bad news, what stood out for you? I really struggled to find highlights of the year this year.

I was tempted to be cynical because there was one master stroke in 2009. Spindoctors all over the world will have marvelled at the budget we’ve just been through. Not because it was fair or effective, but because the ground was so astonishingly well laid for it.

The Government actually managed to bring in a budget that was historical in its unfairness, and yet they were judged (in the short-term anyway) not by reference to what was actually in it, but rather by a couple of figures they had set up in advance.

They had staked their credibility on achieving €4 billion in cuts in overall spending and €1.3bn in cuts in public service pay. Because those figures were achieved, at least on paper, the Government was seen as visionary. Leadership at last, said the editorial writers.

And Brian Lenihan was widely described as tough, uncompromising, a real leader. He wasn’t so tough, mind you, that he actually told the Dáil in his speech that he was going to cut €8 or so from the disability allowance, the blind pension and the carers’ allowance. No, that bit of detail had to be found in the papers attached to the budget speech.

Wouldn’t it have been really tough if he had announced it in the course of his speech? Or maybe he figured that he mightn’t have been able to finish the speech because there would have been time for real outrage to be expressed.

But anyway, if you were making an award for Spin of the Year, our historic budget that punished everyone except the people who caused the mess in the first place would surely have won hands down.

It mightn’t have been possible, of course, without the other great example of the dark arts of political management. That resulted in branding the entire public service as the Target of the Year.

It really has been quite astonishing. One of the easiest ways to start an argument anywhere you go these days is to express some sympathy or support for public servants.

A whole new mythology has been created around the public service, specifically for the purpose of setting it up for attack.

And it has worked brilliantly. Even people who think that a 5% pay cut for very lowly paid people are inclined to shrug their shoulders. What about Gamble of the Year? It may be too soon to tell, but I think we’ll look back on 2009 as the year that NAMA was introduced, and wonder how in the name of God they got away with it.

There are parts of the Irish banking system that have always been immensely profitable, and remain so. Its entire foreign exchange business, for instance, is almost a licence to print money.

But we don’t own that. Instead, and uniquely in the world, we have nationalised only the bad debts of the banks. And in the process we have taken the biggest gamble in our economic history. If it works, we will struggle to see any benefit for years. If it doesn’t work, the next generation of Irish people will be paying off the debt we created this year. And in all probability, by this time next year we’ll have nationalised the banks anyway – as we should have done in the first place.

Enough of all that. There are a few things we can look back on this year with a degree of pride and satisfaction. Ireland’s win in the rugby Grand Slam was surely the Sporting Event of the Year.

I can still feel my heart beating in my throat as Stephen Jones’s last-second penalty fell just short in Cardiff.

It would have been a terrible injustice, I suppose, if the grand slam had been snatched away from a team that really deserved it. Though not as much as the injustice done by the hand of Henry in Paris, which destroyed the hopes of another Irish team that was playing out of its skin by the end of their year.

And the Revelation of the Year? Surely that was to be found in the Ryan and Murphy reports.

Both revealed a systematic degree of collusion and corruption that went way beyond what most people imagined. Generations of children were abused with impunity in Ireland and it was done by people who had been entrusted with authority over those children.

The ramifications of those reports are still unfolding at one level, with a number of bishops expected to resign by year’s end, and with structural reform under way in the church – hopefully not at the glacially slow pace that usually characterises such reforms.

But the deeper change has yet to be copperfastened. Most people in Ireland, I believe, want absolute certainty that the abuse of children that shamed us in the past can never happen again.

We won’t begin to get that certainty without resource changes, legislative changes and constitutional changes. That may be next year’s big battle. But we know things now that we would never have known without the courage of a few individuals. Those people who stood up in the face of abuse and demanded that the truth be told must surely qualify as Ireland’s Citizens of the Year (perhaps, indeed, of the decade).

Christine Buckley, John Kelly, Michael O’Brien and many others campaigned for years to allow the terrible issue of child abuse in residential institutions to be confronted. Andrew Madden and Marie Collins did similar work to ensure that the abuses of the Dublin archdiocese, and the astonishing and blatant cover-up of those abuses, were finally opened up to public scrutiny.

NONE of them found it easy. At different times all the survivors encountered intimidation and scorn. Not only were their complaints not acted on, for long periods they weren’t believed.

It takes real courage and doggedness to keep going in the face of all that, and Ireland owes them a huge debt of gratitude for their fortitude and their determination to be good citizens.

A lot of people turned out to show their gratitude in what was, for me anyway, the Event of the Year – the march of solidarity that took place after publication of the Ryan report.

One of the newspapers covering that march summed it up perfectly in its headline – ‘Such Dignity’. And it was. For those who were there, it was a moving and unforgettable testament to the courage of people who had suffered – in stark contrast to the slick public relations efforts of some of the religious orders who had perpetrated abuse in the first place.

Anyway, I know that for most people, 2009 was a tough year. And the signs are, I’m afraid, that 2010 isn’t going to be any better. So for the next few days anyway, I hope you can put all that to one side of your mind and just concentrate on having a peaceful and a happy Christmas.


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