On the road to nowhere - and Poland
RADIO REVIEW:AS THE RESIGNATION and apathy of the fiscal-treaty campaign suggested, our attitude to Europe has become increasingly weary, if not cynical. But even the most ardent Europhile must have been slightly alarmed at the symbolism of the German ambassador appearing on RTÉ the day after the referendum was passed to give his country’s verdict on the result.
Admittedly, when Dr Eckhard Lubkemeier spoke to George Lee on The Business (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday), he came across as an impeccably mannered diplomat rather than an all-powerful plenipotentiary passing judgment on a vassal state, but it was still clear which country was the supplicant. When Lee asked what the German reaction to the Yes vote was, the ambassador immediately replied “relief”. But when it came to relieving Ireland’s fiscal woes, Lubkemeier offered little reassurance.
He recognised that bank debt was a major problem but counselled caution “not to expect the chancellor [Angela Merkel] to say today what we will be doing”. It was advice that Ministers might have heeded, given Berlin’s subsequent silence on the matter. By the time the ambassador acknowledged that “a lot of hardship has been taken by the Irish people, and we greatly respect and appreciate this”, the impression was of a wealthy Teutonic uncle giving his ragamuffin Celtic relatives a pat on the head before shooing them along.
It was a patronising remark picked up by Paul Sweeney, chief economist with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, when he said that “we made a terrible mistake in socialising bank debts, and of course the beneficiaries of that are the German banks, so no wonder he [the ambassador] respects that”.
Lest we were left with any lingering traces of optimism after that exchange, Lee spoke to the Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, whose jaunty manner belied his deep gloom for the future. On the referendum outcome he was unequivocal: “The fiscal thing is a bad idea, and one shouldn’t vote for a bad idea.”
Far from requiring more austerity, Europe needed to spend to kickstart the economy, as our example proved: “Ireland has been such a good soldier and done everything it’s supposed to do, and austerity still hasn’t worked.”
Krugman was downbeat about the euro’s chances of survival – “about 50/50” – and was even bleaker when Lee asked what the Government could do to alleviate the situation. “Wow, there’s very little,” the economist chirruped: as a small country without its own currency, Ireland’s economic policy options were virtually nil. “Salvation has to come from Frankfurt and Berlin.”
Clearly, we might have to get used to hearing from Lubkemeier.
Last Saturday’s edition was a good example of how Lee has reshaped The Business since he took over from John Murray as host. There are still interviews with bigwigs and items on successful Irish enterprises, as well as comic asides courtesy of the comedian Tara Flynn. But Lee has given the show a spine of intellectual rigour and serious inquiry, as his illuminating discussion on Europe testified.
Since entering the environs of daytime talk radio with The John Murray Show (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Lee’s predecessor has given free rein to the playfulness that marked his tenure on The Business, as his own forays into Europe last week proved. Not for Murray analysis of the prospects for the single currency; his mind was focused on Euro 2012, as he drove across the Continent to arrive in Poland before Ireland kick off their campaign in the football finals.
It was a vintage ploy by Murray, road trips having been one of his trademarks on The Business and Morning Ireland. This was of a larger order than usual, however. Having spoken from the beaches of Dunkirk on Wednesday, Murray and his travelling companion, Zbyszek Zalinski, drove 1,000km to broadcast from Berlin the next day. But, for all the scale of the journey, it made for curiously flat listening.
Murray’s reports on his progress only accounted for a few minutes each day, much of it occupied by slightly forced banter with the comedian Neil Delamere, who handled studio duties back in Dublin. Attempts to give a Homeric spin to the trip foundered: characterising Wednesday’s long drive as “epic”, Murray told awestruck tales of “tailbacks like you’ve never seen before”.
There was also a slightly perfunctory quality to his on-the-spot chat with Irish expats in Berlin, moving rapidly from guest to guest without allowing time for a rapport to develop. Given that Murray had only a short time in each destination, a certain looseness could be forgiven, but the tone was rushed and confused rather than freewheeling and anarchic.
Still, Murray’s journey had its telling moments, as when he took a diversion off a jammed motorway in the Netherlands to meet a group of Irish graduates working at a Dutch software company. Expressing varying degrees of enthusiasm for their emigrant lifestyle, they had thrown themselves into one area of the local culture. “You can go out every night,” said one interviewee. “We’ve got Irish bars, Dutch bars, German bars and Belgian bars, so there’s no problem on the socialising front.”
For some, at least, the European dream lives on.
Radio moment of the week
It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry when the Independent TD Mick Wallace, a loud voice for equality and fairness, went on Thursday’s Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) to explain why his construction company underpaid VAT, resulting in a €2.1 million settlement with the taxman.
“I acknowledge that what I did was wrong, but I did it in good faith,” he said. “Even though it was illegal, I thought it was the right thing to do.”
Wallace was candid as ever, but his honest image took a knock.