MICHAEL CLIFFORD: We failed to shrug off past bad habits

Sean Quinn wants 'back in the game'. Picture: CourtPix

What with the week that’s in it, there has been a lot of talk about how much things have changed since 1979. And there has been huge change, writes Michael Clifford.

The week also threw up a few nuggets which indicate how little has changed since 2008. And by God, despite going through an existential crisis, and emerging into a whole new world, things have changed very little in some respects.

On Tuesday last, Sean Quinn told a packed meeting in Ballyconnell, Co Cavan, that he wants back in the game, according to news reports. Mr Quinn was one of the more prominent figures in the Ireland of the 2000s, through the artificial boom and catastrophic bust.

He gambled recklessly on the shares of the reckless bank, Anglo Irish. He lost, and guess who stumped up for his bill? You and me.

After the fall, Mr Quinn was bankrupted and ended up doing nine weeks in prison in 2012 for contempt of court. At issue was an attempt by Mr Quinn and his family to put assets beyond the reach of the son of Anglo Irish, Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, which was owned by you and me.

As with many who have fallen far, the former billionaire considers himself a victim of “hostile circumstances”. Now, he told the meeting of an estimated 600 locals, he wants things to be the way they were when he was on top of the world.

One might well congratulate him on his neck, if not his energy and drive at 71. Yet, he apparently cannot see that the manner in which he ran his businesses — well initially before losing the run of himself — simply does not cut it today.

To be fair to the man, though, who could blame him for wanting to turn back the clock? All he has to do is look around him and see how those who bestrode the Celtic Tiger in his company have all brushed themselves down and got back up and running.

Most of the major developers from those days are back in action, having been rinsed clean by Nama. Now they are in the driving seat as the country grapples with the housing crisis. Those among them who actually own land are in a position to hold the common good to ransom through manipulating the price and supply of housing.

It’s not that there should be no second acts in the lives of those on the bridge when the country was almost fatally holed. The problem is that there has been no change in the balance of power or the hierarchy of priorities in relation to responsibilities and the common good, or even to the status that these people enjoy. The bill for their recklessness has been largely footed by those at the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.

This week we also learned that there will be no change to the policy in which the main banks in the country can write off taxes against the losses they incurred during the economic collapse. The effect of this is that banks will be paying no taxes for the foreseeable future. Last year, combined profits of AIB, Bank of Ireland, and Permanent TSB came in around €2.5bn. None of this is being taxed and profits are expected to grow at a savage rate in the coming years.

Individuals who were in charge of the banks when it was playing with fire have left to enjoy inflated pensions, but the institutions now largely enjoy the same level of power and influence over society as they did prior to the great fall.

Within the general population, the crisis and its aftermath have done little to change attitudes towards tax. For instance, a report last week outlined how a rise of 3% on the marginal rate of 40% for those earning above €80,000 could raise €433m. What could be done with that kind of funding in areas like housing, health, the disability sector? Yet there’s isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that happening. So much for chastened attitudes or more enlightened thinking about how society should be organised in the wake of an existential crisis.

Neither the crisis nor the recovery has done much to change a dysfunctional health service. As is often the case, an excellent blueprint has been produced, setting out exactly how things should be. Yet the chances of it actually being implemented recede by the day. The trouble that would be encountered, in coming up with money, dealing with vested interests, attempting to lead rather than pander to an electorate, is regarded as way beyond the call of duty. Where, for instance, would they find the money required in a culture where tax continues to be regarded as an evil rather than a source of services.

What of the other opportunities missed? Take legal fees, which are a long-standing barrier to access to the courts. A-once-in-a-generation opportunity to recalibrate the power enjoyed by the legal business was missed by a body politic that couldn’t be bothered with the hassle.

In education, there has been no real effort to tackle the thorniest of issues — third-level funding. The blueprint was delivered in 2016 but the body politic does not want the hassle of dealing with it. This week, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority handed in his resignation. He was understood to have been entirely frustrated at the lack of progress being made, much of which he attributes to attitudes in the department.

In all these areas, the common denominator is the failure of the body politic to use the lessons from the artificial boom to attempt to reshape how the country is run.

It’s as if the job of righting the listing economy on a macro scale was about all they could handle. Everything else was simply put aside and left to fester. As such, the culture of managing the country for the short term — exactly what drove the ship of state onto the rocks — persists now as if all that was required was a bit of tinkering around the edges.

In one area, there has been massive change. Homelessness and, by extension, the crisis in housing, demonstrates more than anything who exactly is picking up the bill for all that went wrong.

Despite the extent of the emergency, there persists the suspicion that the Government — and the wider body politic — is unwilling to attack the issue with the urgency required, simply because that would take them beyond the comfortzone which has brought us to this point.

Sean Quinn wants to go back to the future. Why wouldn’t he when the whole country appears to be back there, rolling along without a care in the world, as the next shock awaits around the corner.


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