The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition, by Pat Leahy

Leahy exposes the undermining of cabinet government by a Coalition gambling that it can clean up the mess by the next general election

Sat, Sep 28, 2013, 01:00

In perhaps the greatest of political novels, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, there is an object lesson in how conservative forces should react intelligently to a crisis that threatens their ascendancy. It is May 1860, and the revolutionary armies of Garibaldi and the Italian Risorgimento are about to attack Sicily. The prince, Salina, is a stalwart of the king of Naples. He is shocked when his beloved nephew, Tancredi, announces that he is off to join the rebels.

The prince objects that a man of Tancredi’s aristocratic blood should be “with us, for the King”. Tancredi, suddenly serious, counters: “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

In a sense, the coalition that came to power two and a half years ago is neither Fine Gael nor Labour. It is the Tancredi party. Its primary goal has been to ensure that “they” (an angry and disillusioned citizenry) did not foist a republic on “us” (the structures of power and privilege that had brought the country to ruin). Pat Leahy’s vivid and compelling The Price of Power might have been better called The Strange Non-Death of Conservative Ireland. It is an excellent account of a remarkable achievement: the self-preservation of a system that had failed catastrophically.

Leahy, the deputy editor and political editor of the Sunday Business Post, gave us a terrific account of Fianna Fáil in power in Showtime, published in 2009. Its message could be summed up in one line, that of a very senior member of Bertie Ahern’s cabinet who told Leahy that “politics is keeping enough people happy at the right time and taking the shit for the rest of the time”.

The Price of Power could be summed up with the same sentence, not as a statement of fact this time but as an expression of hope. The excrement is much, much deeper, but the primary gamble of the Coalition parties, especially Labour, is that enough people will be happy enough when “the right time” comes with the general election of 2016. In the meantime, the motto of Irish politics is: “Hold your nose and pass the shovel.” That The Price of Power should be so continuous with Showtime in this respect says it all.

Likewise, the methodology established in the first book is carried over to the second. Leahy is quite upfront about the deal he makes with senior politicians and their handlers: they tell him their stories and he preserves their anonymity. Implicit in this contract is that the book is a narrative – and an insider narrative at that – not a critique.

This is the closest we can get to an official contemporary history of the Government’s first two years. Leahy is no mouthpiece, but neither is he in the business of dissecting or challenging what he has been told. He has some deliciously barbed asides – on James Reilly’s support base in his party: “He has a constituency of one, the occupant of the Taoiseach’s office” – but he mostly keeps his views to himself.

This studied neutrality has its drawbacks and frustrations – his opinion about whether Richard Bruton protected Denis O’Brien’s interests in the takeover of Independent Newspapers is “perhaps, perhaps not” – but it also has its advantages. We can take what appears in the book on face value and draw our own conclusions.

The most striking conclusion concerns not what the Government did but what it did not do. There is a way of looking at the first year of the Coalition as a story of failed expectations. Enda Kenny, Eamon Gilmore and their cohort came in, on this view, with a genuine desire for radical change. After all, they proclaimed in the programme for government nothing less than a “democratic revolution”.

But they were, tragically, beaten down by the sheer force of circumstance. They wanted to be revolutionaries, but cold reality forced them to be reactionary.

Leahy’s insider account makes it entirely clear that this view is far too generous. His informants (and they certainly include very senior members of the Cabinet from both parties) leave him in no doubt that there was never any real intention to challenge the troika deal, the ruinous bank bailout or the determination of the existing order to preserve itself.

The entire mindset of the incoming administration was governed by a single perception: that the “democratic revolution” had already occurred. It was not a process of changing the power structures or challenging the appropriation of public resources for private gain on a phenomenal scale. It was simply a matter of getting Fianna Fáil out: “To Kenny and Gilmore, the real change was the replacement of the government. To them, this was self-evidently a change for the better.”

For all the immense goodwill that accompanied its election, “there were no serious voices in government calling for dramatic departures in government policy”. You have to read that sentence twice to remember that the second “government” here refers to Fianna Fáil. The democratic revolution was always seen by the insiders as a change of personnel, not of approach.

And yet there was a kind of secret revolution: a sweeping and unannounced shift in the constitutional order. Leahy’s strictly narrative approach somewhat underplays the most important insight of his book: the sheer extent to which cabinet government (the only kind that is lawful under the Constitution) has been undermined. This has happened from two directions: the loss of sovereignty to the troika, particularly the European Central Bank, and the rise of a coterie of unelected, and entirely unaccountable, advisers.

Anglo bondholders
The book’s most important single revelation concerns the first of these. Leahy describes what happened on March 28th, 2011, a few weeks after the Government took office. Michael Noonan proposed a detailed plan to burn some of the remaining bondholders in Anglo Irish Bank – speculators who had bought the bonds at a fraction of their face value and stood to make vast windfall profits from impoverished Irish taxpayers. The Cabinet took a decision, in the words of one Minister, “not to repay €6 billion in Anglo senior bonds”.

Three days later Jean-Claude Trichet, then president of the ECB, threatened that he would pull the plug on Ireland if this happened: “If you do it, the bomb will go off.” Noonan crumbled under this threat of financial terrorism. A sovereign Cabinet decision was simply torched.

Equally, though, cabinet government has been eaten away from the inside. The Price of Power is remarkable in the way it treats unelected advisers – almost all of them called Mark – as star players while many Ministers barely merit a mention. This is no whim: as Leahy definitively demonstrates, the centre of power has moved from the Cabinet room to the Sycamore room, HQ of the Economic Management Council, a body that has no constitutional sanction whatsoever. It is made up of Kenny, Gilmore, Noonan and Brendan Howlin, along with numerous Marks and the occasional marquesa. This “democratic revolution” has produced a new political aristocracy. In order for things to stay the same, they had to change.

The Price of Power: Inside Ireland’s Crisis Coalition, by Pat Leahy, is published by Penguin Ireland, 292pp, £14.99

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