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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: July 24, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

    Getting a Handle on the Crisis at MacGill

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    It would be wrong to finish up a week at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal without contributing to this blog. One has not yet mastered the art of the brief, almost Twitter-like “soundbite” which other bloggers use from time to time. Our posts on this Blog are more like mini-essays and  hopefully therefore more profound.


    As I write I am looking at a cover from Time magazine from July 12th (!) 1963. Seán Lemass, who was taoiseach at the time, is portrayed, along with a leprechaun. I remember as a boy reading that issue when it first came out (you can read it now by clicking here and you can even buy the cover itself.) Its theme was that Lemass was re-inventing his country, bringing Ireland out of the Celtic mists and into a new era of prosperity and modernisation. One of the illustrations inside showed the Wexford footballer Séamus Keevans, whom I knew well – he was a Garda in the same station as my father in Co Wexford and a great stalwart of the Gaelic Athletic Association but is now sadly no longer with us.

    That magazine story has been mentioned twice in discussions during the Summer School deliberations this week. It is a reminder of the era when we took our first, hesitant steps away from protectionism and into the world economy. In a way, it was like a youngster having his/her first drink. Now, decades later, we resemble seasoned topers who have indulged, not wisely but too well.

    However there was no option but to go into the big bad world. The alternative was to become North Korea with accordeon music. Capitalism is subject to cycles of boom and bust and essentially one has to take the rough with the smooth unless and until we can move to a higher stage of  social and economic development. But it is clear that there was a serious deficiency on the monitoring and regulation side during the boom and, as a result, the bust is far worse here that it needs to be.

    Someone pleaded from the floor in Glenties last night for the media to “give up the scaremongering”. What a laugh! I had a mental picture of a bearded chappie with a sandwich-board stating, “The End Is Nigh”. He is walking the deck of the Titanic as it approaches the iceberg and a member of the crew is berating him, “When are you going to stop the scaremongering?”

    Indeed, the media’s real sin is that they did not carry enough critical coverage of the boom. I remember being on a programme on Newstalk Radio at the height of the madness where I told a story of a Guard and a Nurse I knew about who had been rejected for a mortgage and were blowing the deposit on a trip to Australia. I remarked that there was “something wrong with a society where a Guard and a Nurse – protectors of our security and health – could not afford a house”.

    But other than that, I would not claim to have displayed the gift of prophecy. In any case, the main task of a reporter is traditionally to write about what has happened, not to predict the future, although that is a welcome bonus – when you get it right.

    The MacGill School and its Director, Joe Mulholland, were right on the button in choosing the economy as its theme and inviting senior politicians and other prominent figures to take part in the debate (to read the starstudded programme, click here).  There is a hunger among the public for a convincing analysis of what went wrong and an insight into what happens next.

    Are things really as bad as the “experts” tell us? All the people who failed to predict the collapse are now forecasting that the current recession will be one of the worst ever. They were wrong before, why should they be right now? I’m only asking.

    The high point of the week was without doubt the debate between Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore and Fine Gael’s new star, George Lee. The former RTE journalist is a big draw and the hall was packed to the gills – there wasn’t even standing-room. And of course he performed very well, as usual. But there was a general consensus afterwards that Lenihan gave as good as he got. He was seen to be quite shaky at times when he first took over the Finance portfolio,  but on Tuesday night Lenihan was very much in command of his brief. One did not have to agree with an iota of  Government policy to acknowledge his performance in this particular debate. His background is in the law and this was a classic example of the Senior Counsel who had familiarised himself totally with the facts of the case he had been chosen to pursue. Gilmore also gave a good account of himself, as always.

    There is something delightfully eccentric about a society where, after the Parliament closes down, the centre of debate moves to a small town in a farflung part of the country. Glenties is a charming place which exudes civic pride – it’s no surprise to be told that it has featured among the winners of the Tidy Towns Competition. If I were a  drinker, I would never have been able to cope with the workload but, even with a pint of Rock Shandy in hand, it is fun to mingle in the bar of the Highland Hotel after the lectures with local residents and national politicians, all meeting on an equal footing.

    The programme was formidable and relentless. Virtually every session had a least one national figure taking part. Covering it was quite a challenge, especially since the main session of the day began at 8.30pm, which is decidedly awkward for a daily newspaper journalist on deadline.

    The quality of many of the contributions was superb: this was a seminar worthy of Harvard, Yale or Oxbridge. I now feel I have a greater understanding of the crisis and its causes and maybe even the way it will develop. We are in for a rough time, no doubt about that, but the fact that so many people – I include those who were following the Summer School through the media – are so engaged in the discussion at least gives grounds for hope.

    For news coverage of the School, click here.

    • Niall MacAodhain says:

      Congratulations to all concerned. Unfortunately I was not in a position to attend, but watched and listened avidly every day. At the end of the day, it’s not “rocket science” – we have to pay our way and it is manifest that all policies of renewal and reform have to revolve around that fact !

    • robespierre says:

      Deaglán, I agree to an extent that the media did not criticise the boom enough but there were plenty of people and dissenting voices if people cared to listen. The Central Bank, Gene Kerrigan, Richard Bruton, George Lee (pre-politics), David McWilliams, Morgan Kelly and Ann Marie Hourihane all picked up on various economic and social aspects. Sean Healy, Sr Stanislav Kennedy, Peter McVerry and the domestic NGO sector all consistently pointed to the outrage of private wealth and public squalor that we allowed persist, such as long-term homelessness.

      Some of these voices were quite simply ignored even when accommodated relatively frequent platforms. Ann Marie Hourihane’s fine tome “She moved through the boom” flickered briefly and then was all too quickly forgotten. The French have a phrase for distinguishing between the hard of hearing (du mal a entendre) and those who willfully choose to hear something else (du mal a comprendre). There was a story being flogged and “everyone” wanted a piece of it.

      Fundamentals are fundamentals. The Government failed to govern and the people failed to question the web of vested interests holding the country to ransom from representative bodies to the 800+ QuaNGOs and their associated appointees. The Golden Coterie that rule the ruled is not being hit by the crisis. The rich and powerful always protect their own and that will be no different on this occasion.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglán, There is a real disconnect between what you can print and sell in the media in Ireland in 2009 and what the great unwashed need to understand about their current predicament, when they patently refuse to hear it. I doubt if you’ll need to give up the day job and don a sandwich-board to get the message out, but I’m sure there are times when it feels like that will be the only media not subject to the current all-pervading ‘censorship of the deluded’.

      The chorus of disapproval that greets any mention of “crisis” in the media is actually from an unholy alliance of FF, FG and Green supporters who think the economy can be fixed. Maybe they are right … but it is only a maybe.

      Seeking out the views of informed observers who do not have a vested interest in the people of Ireland believing that the economy is fix-able (like FF, FG & GP) should be allowed in our media. But it is not. That is because our media is constrained to the point of being strangled by a form of commercial censorship which makes the Papal censorship of the 1950s look almost benign.

      You have my sympathies in working under such reporting restrictions, but please keep up your efforts to reveal the nature of the tightrope Ireland Inc. is walking. Hopefully this blog will afford you more scope than the print edition, ‘should you decide to accept the mission’.

      To the Doubting Thomases of this world – remember that only two bankers jumped out of Wall St windows in 1929, but already …

      “On January 5, one of the hundred richest men in the world, a German named Adolf Merckle, who was 75 years old and the owner of a holding company employing 100,000 people, suddenly became aware of how it feels to be a destitute pensioner. He gave up running his empire which involved 20 banks and threw himself in front of a train. A month earlier, the same gesture had ended the life of the New Zealand millionaire, Kirk Stephenson, director of operations in an investment company which had been affected by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

      Likewise, on January 5, the day on which Adolf Merckle followed the example of Ana Karenina, the president of one of the most important real estate companies in the US, Steven Good, committed suicide inside his own luxurious Jaguar. His despair had been brought on by the prospect of not being able to continue building and selling houses.

      Two weeks before that, the French financier, Rene-Thierry Magonde de la Villehuchet, cofounder of Access International Advisor, had slit his own wrists in his office in New York. He had been responsible for the 1,000 million Euros which had been tossed into the shifting sands of Madoff.

      As 2008 came to an end, at least four other American analysts and investors, Eric von der Porten, Barry Fox, Edwin Rachleff and Scott Coles, decided to opt out of existence. All of these men had been rich and happy until a few days earlier, when life suddenly lost all its meaning.

      When the rich commit suicide it’s because there IS a crisis in capitalism.”

      From THE RATIONALITY OF THE ABYSS by Santiago Alba Rico http://groups.yahoo.com/group/CubaNews/message/104387

    • Jim Flynn says:

      Ireland,’North Korea with accordeon music’, Jesus, should anyone read further? What losers!!

    • Johnny says:

      As already mentioned above, there were indeed many within the media and beyond who articulated the social and economic dangers brought about by the “boom”. All too often they were ignored or branded naysayers, doom mongers who, in the words of our dear leader at the time, “should go and commit sucide!”

    • Seamus says:

      The media were sort of cheerleaders for the builders with weekly supplements telling us a semi-d was good value at half a million. That is why young people camped out all night or in sleeping bags, trying to get on the ladder to the Tower of Babel of a life sentence of negative equity, depression and job losses. Shame on the media as much as FF

    • Did Deaglán mean up the Mac Gills instead of “up to the gills”? They have found the missing link between apes and man – it is us. The rich will always betray the poor and who can blame tthem? We apply scientific thinking to everything but apply voodoo thinking to the market. Intersting times indeed. the capitalists have done their 3 card trick on us once more. Now you see it now you don’t. I always thought socialism was for the poor but I was wrong – it is for the rich. Whoop it up for freedom eh!

    • Gerry Croft says:

      As a frequent visitor to Eire over 25 years, in particular Wexford, there was an air of inevitability when people were paying extraordinairy sums for moderate accommodation 70 miles from Dublin whilst buying offshore vacation homes, and living on what appeared to be inflated expectations. Some things cannot last!

    • Larry says:

      At first glance, I thought that was Walt Disney on the cover of Time. The presence of the leprechaun only added to that.

    • Jack says:

      During the boom, the economy was criticised but no one was listening!
      David McWilliams ran several shows on RTE about how might the boom end, comparing our boom to those in other countries and how house prices would fall. As we can see, he was dead right, but at the time who was listening?
      Everybody had some idea that the housing market would contract, even fall, but nobody cared, as we were all earning, drinking, holidaying and in some cases eating too much. We need more regulation in certain areas (Banks!) but let’s just get on with it …

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