Worrying signs that politicians learned nothing from collapse of the Celtic Tiger

Traditional politics caused the economic mess - they can also get us out of it

Wed, Mar 20, 2013, 10:27

The good, the bad and the ugly side of Irish politics were in evidence over the past week. All served as a reminder that the mistakes which almost undid the country will repeat themselves unless the politicians, and the electorate, learn the right lessons.

To start with the ugly side of politics: the behaviour of Luke “Ming” Flanagan on the issue of quashed penalty points was breathtaking. Here was a TD who led a vitriolic campaign against those who abused the penalty points system being forced to admit that he had, not just once, but twice, benefited from that very same abuse.

The hypocrisy involved was astonishing, coming as it did from somebody who frequently accuses other politicians and various organs of the State of being corrupt. That the Roscommon TD could engage in a noisy public campaign against a practice in which he had himself engaged says it all.

In one way his behaviour reflects a certain strand of Irish public opinion in which all politicians are denigrated as corrupt and self-serving by people whose own standards of behaviour are often very much worse.

The political behaviour of Ming and his ally Mick Wallace, who was last year exposed as a tax defaulter, are all of a piece with this corrosive attitude to politics. Their success has frightening implications, given the number of voters opting for Independents has never been higher.

The last Irish Times opinion poll showed that more people intended to vote for Independents and smaller parties than for any of the established parties. There is a real possibility that the technical group in the next Dáil will have 30 to 40 members.

It brings to mind the remark of the Irish patriot Tom Kettle that politics is the only profession in which most people believe the amateur can do a better job than the professional. Whether the behaviour of the current crop of Independents will do anything to alter that view only time will tell.

Not that the professionals covered themselves in glory over the past week or so either. A depressing feature of the reaction to the plan to deal with the mortgage crisis was the level of political posturing all-round - and even worse was the propensity of TDs to attack a senior official for trying to speak the truth.

When the secretary general of the Department of Finance John Moran gave evidence to the Dáil public accounts committee two weeks ago he outlined the facts about mortgage arrears and gave his honest assessment of the situation.

He pointed out the incontrovertible fact that the level of house repossessions in this country is “uncharacteristically low”, particularly given the extent of the crisis, and noted that “it’s surprising to us that there are so few repossessions in the system at the moment”.

It was not long before anonymous Government sources, said to be speaking on behalf of Labour Ministers, were attacking Moran for insensitivity, while misrepresenting his comments in the process.

Fianna Fail leader Micheál Martin joined the fray in the Dáil during the week, highlighting the concerns expressed by Labour sources and asking Taoiseach Enda Kenny whether the Government still had full confidence in Moran.

The attempt by politicians of various hues to dump on Moran shows just how little they have learned from recent experience. One of the important factors that led to the disastrous decision-making in the Celtic Tiger era was the propensity of senior officials to go along with foolish Government decisions they should have tried harder to stop.

A decade ago the media was lauding “can do” public servants who cut corners to enable Bertie Ahern’s government to push forward a range of dubious projects. What the country needed at the time were traditional “can’t do” public servants prepared to stand up to Ministers and put their objections in writing.

Ultimately, politicians have the responsibility for making final decisions, but a healthy democracy requires that officials engage in robust argument so that all the facts are taken into account before those decisions are made.

The attacks on John Moran for giving his honest assessment of the mortgage situation are a worrying sign that some of our leading politicians have learned nothing. In any case, Moran was not talking about repossessing the homes of ordinary families but of dealing with people who engaged in property speculation and either can’t or won’t pay their mortgages. That is something that will have to be sorted out in the interests of the taxpayers, who own the banks.

For all that, the week also threw up an event that reflected on the good side of politics. The State managed to raise €5 billion in 10-year bonds at a reasonable interest rate with far more engagement from investors than had been expected.

It was a clear sign that confidence in the Irish economy is on its way out of the financial and economic crisis that threatened at times to overwhelm it. While events on the international scene could always set back progress the worst seems to be over.

That is a tribute to the ability of the Irish political system to respond to the gravest threat in decades. True enough it was one set of politicians who led the country to the brink of ruin, but Brian Lenihan and Brian Cowen had the courage to reverse engines before the ship hit the rocks and the Fine Gael /Labour coalition, for all its idle rhetoric while in Opposition, has managed to do the right thing in government.

Traditional politics may have got the country into a mess but it has also got us on the road out of it. Politicians of established parties need, however, to demonstrate they really have learned from their mistakes by reacting in a more mature and less populist fashion to every issue that arises. Otherwise the country’s fortunes may come to depend on the dubious charms of a multitude of Independents after the next election.