Quartet's stringent criticism is music to the ear

Mon, Nov 26, 2012, 00:00

Four Angry Men paint a stark picture of economic woes but still raise laughs

With horizontal rain lashing the streets of Cork, a sodden rugby match down the road in Musgrave Park and Cheryl Cole’s autobiography topping the non-fiction bestsellers, it was a poor outlook for the Four Angry Men – all with Penguin-published books hovering below the English pop singer in the charts – arriving to debate the state of the nation.

Yet “four years down from the great collapse”, in the words of moderator Olivia O’Leary, and three years since their last tour, 600 people – including Mattie McGrath – paid about €25 apiece for a seat in the Opera House and what Douglas restaurateur David Halpin hoped would be a vision of the future.

“Pretty much all the truth is out there now so the question is where do we go from here?”

Eleanor Crowley and her daughter Paula, an IT specialist, were looking for nothing less than a new political party. “It’s the only way,” said Eleanor. “It’s like Fintan O’Toole says, we need to spark the flame of a republic,” said Paula.

“Anger can be destructive and will eat you up if it isn’t expressed,” said O’Leary, offering another reason to be there, while introducing O’Toole, David McWilliams, Shane Ross and Nick Webb.

McWilliams, in open-necked shirt and nice suit, reckoned the problem lay with Ireland’s negotiators. “We know our people desperately, desperately need to do a deal that will fix the country, to sell a deal it to the Europeans. Why don’t we do it? Is there something else going on in the Irish psyche that explains our negotiators’ stance?” His theory is we want to be liked too much, that we don’t want to be awkward or different, we just want to be the best boy in the class. “Meanwhile, the mortgage time-bomb is ticking away, like a virus in a crèche ... Mario Draghi has opened the door and said, come in and do a deal.” But, he said, triggering a ripple of laughter, what we need is “some bollix like Michael O’Leary to do a deal for us ... You don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate.

Ross and Webb did a double act, each with his own part. “Welcome to a land where accountability does not exist,” said Webb. “Nothing has changed. That is the message from us tonight,” said Ross.

They conjured up images of politicised judges, who don’t declare their interests, lawyers contorted with conflicts of interest, accountants hired to keep the banks in line and still claimed their €164 million fees when things went “horribly wrong”, the National Treasury Management Agency’s startling salaries and pensions, the non-actions of the Pensions Board, the auctioneers making a fortune advising Nama, and a former secretary general of the Department of Finance also known as Forrest Gump.

And finally, the bankers — “some elevated, some still in situ, some sort of humiliated, some resurrected, some new ones who have been created – and no one has been convicted of anything at all”.

O’Toole talked about people’s illusions of living in a republic. “We have never had a republic ... If we face up to that reality, if we could stop mourning for a republic we never had, it could make us stop feeling powerless.”

A republic, he said, really consists of three basic things: the idea of equality, that no group gets to dominate any other group. That we walk tall and look each other in the eye, without reason for fear or deference. Is that what we’ve had? Absolutely not. The second principle is that power is shared. And the third principle is us, that we live in a place where the citizens believe they own it. But we believe this is a responsibility as well as right. Have we ever really got over the colonial mentality? That power is about them, not us? We allowed it to corrode, he said. But what do we do at the point that we’re at, he asked. “Do we want a republic? Do we want the responsibilities of a republic? One of the responsibilities of a republic is not to elect gobshites, he said firmly. The crowd burst into applause.

“I certainly wouldn’t want to mention any individuals at all,” he added, as a picture of Michael Lowry popped up on the screen behind him, drawing loud laughs.

“I don’t think people are apathetic,” he told them. “I think they feel powerless. They feel completely locked out of all the big decisions that are having these profound effects on them. We desperately have to convince ourselves that we have some power ... We can go on paying the promissory note of €3.1 billion. The thing is we don’t have the goddam money, but we are also allowing it to drain away the sense of collective self-respect. So I would suggest we stand up and say no,” he said to loud applause, “declare online: we repudiate this debt and demand that our Government repudiates it on our behalf ... let’s stop being supine. Let’s start acting like the citizens of the republic we want to be.”

After the interval, questions were invited from the floor. But the big question that seemed to haunt the theatre was an old one: if Ireland renaged on its debt, would it not be “just be playing chicken with the borrowers”, asked a woman?

McWilliams took the view that the ECB would not cut off the funds to Ireland – “because they lent to Greece today and Greece defaulted on Friday”.

There was general agreement that a new party was sorely needed.

Bad things can happen in a political vaccum, they said. “And the Germans of all people know this best,” said O’Toole.

Afterwards, there was some carping about whether the panel had done the vision thing.

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