What's another (terrible) year?
As the great philosopher Johnny Logan once asked, What’s another year? What’s another year, he sobbed, for someone who’s lost everything? And indeed the weepy winner of the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest might well have been the national anthem for 2012. It was just another bloody year.
We were locked in some kind of science fiction time warp, where the same things kept happening over and over and nothing seemed to move forward. Was there really a 2012 or was it just a replay of 2011 and 2010? Had the Government actually changed, or was that just a Dallas-style dream sequence? Had all the pain already endured led us anywhere or was it just déjà vu all over again?
In 2012 Ireland’s patron saint was Sisyphus. The arrogant and powerful ruler of Corinth was punished by the gods in a peculiarly sadistic way, forced to push a heavy boulder up a steep hill all day and then watch as it rolled back down so that he could begin the toilsome task anew. Most Irish people know how he felt. So far €28 billion has been taken out of the economy but after all the pain the cost of servicing the State’s debts will keep spiralling upwards: from €6.2 billion in 2012 to €9.3 billion in 2013 and €9.7 billion in 2014. It’s not just that the boulder keeps rolling back down the hill, but that it’s getting heavier.
It’s not that events in 2012 lacked a certain humour. The European Central Bank began the year by “celebrating” the 10th anniversary of the euro, which was pretty funny. (The official video featured scenes of people queuing up at balloon-bedecked ATMs at midnight on January 1st, 2002, to get hold of the new notes and wave them joyfully in the air. They had the wide-eyed look of baby seals who can’t see the club behind the hunter’s back.) In a gay sally, the Taoiseach told the world economic forum in Davos later that month that the crash happened because Irish people “went mad borrowing”, shortly after he’d told the same Irish people that the crisis “is not your fault”. He also, wittily, told an unemployed man in Mullingar in May to “get a job”. Bertie Ahern declared himself the victim of a “grave injustice” when the Mahon tribunal found that he had been on the take. Minister for Health James Reilly showed his solidarity with the debt-ridden masses by making a personal appearance in Stubbs Gazette. You had to laugh.
But there were limits to our mirth. This was the year in which “we are where we are” became “how come we’re still here?” For where we are is not where we were supposed to be.
In 2009 the Department of Finance, in what seemed at the time a gloomy forecast, looked forward to 2012. There would, it suggested, be growth of just 4 per cent in GNP, and investment would rise by a very modest 9 per cent. Unemployment would be falling steadily but slowly. Oh, and net central-government debt would be 79 per cent of GDP in 2012.
This wasn’t a happy prospect, but it was the story that made sense of all the bad things that were happening back then: we were going to have a rough few years but things would then start to get better. We wouldn’t be anywhere near the pig’s back in 2012, but we’d at least be able to smell the bacon. A sober, modest kind of recovery would be the reward for all the money we were pouring into the banks and all the cuts and all the tax rises. By 2012 we’d be a chastened but hopeful lot, looking back on a hard few years but forward to a reasonably decent prospect.
By now, of course, that sober forecast looks deliriously, fantastically optimistic. In the real 2012, growth in GNP was 1 per cent, not 4 per cent. Investment didn’t rise by 9 per cent. It fell by 4 per cent.