Debt deal is normalising the Irish freak show
There is the old story of the 18th century French lothario sitting at dinner beside a famously virtuous lady. “Will you sleep with me?” he asks. “Certainly not, how dare you suggest such a thing!” “Let us suppose, then, that I am the king of France and I offered half the kingdom for one night with you. Would you agree?” “Well, perhaps, but you are not the king of France.” “Very well, then, we have agreed the principle, so all that remains is to negotiate the terms.”
And so it was with Ireland’s promissory notes. Once any semblance of moral principle had been abandoned, all that was left was to negotiate the terms of surrender. And we’re still going to get screwed.
Again and again over the last five years, the phrase that has epitomised the Irish story has been that coined by the American writer Michael Lewis when he studied the bank bailout: “normalising a freak show”.
Lewis was writing in Vanity Fair about the late Brian Lenihan: “normalising a freak show is now a meaningful part of the job of being Ireland’s finance minister. At just the moment the crazy uncle leapt from the cellar, the drunken aunt lurched through the front door and, in front of the entire family . . . they carved each other to bits with hunting knives. Daddy must now reassure eyewitnesses that they didn’t see what they think they saw.”
Michael Noonan is now the daddy, of course, and he has carried off with great aplomb the ultimate act of normalising the freak show. The promissory notes were a monstrous freak, the star exhibit in the gallery of grotesques that is the Irish bank bailout. Its one virtue was in being so obviously freakish: the extortion of more than €30 billion from 1.8 million workers to pay entirely private debts is right up there with the Elephant Man and the Lobster Boy. Roll up! Roll up!
This misshapen troll was an uncomfortable presence, a rebuke to morality, decency and even to the rules of capitalism. What had to be done was to make it “normal”, to dress it up in respectable clothes, teach it some table manners and polite conversation and bring it into the realm of the ordinary, the mundane, the unremarkable. And this is what last week’s deal was all about: grand larceny on an almost unimaginable scale has been transformed into a plain, boring old fact. The hideous ogre of the promissory note is now to be banal, ho-hum sovereign debt.
This is unarguably a kind of political triumph. The promissory notes have been bringing out the best in Irish political prestidigitation ever since they were born. Remember Leo Varadkar’s straight-up insistence before the general election that “Anglo Irish Bank is not getting another cent of our money . . . Not another cent”?