Not quite the last word
CURRENT AFFAIRS:EAMON DELANEY reviews Who Really Runs Ireland? The story of the elite who led Ireland from bust to boom... and back againBy Matt Cooper
Penguin Ireland, pp 464, €19.99
BETWEEN NOW and Christmas we are going to be hit with a plethora of books about how the Celtic Tiger went wrong. Already there have been titles by Pat Leahy and Dan O’Brien, one is coming from Fintan O’Toole and now we have Matt Cooper’s hefty tome. Originally a business journalist and a former editor of the Sunday Tribune, Cooper has more recently been the presenter of The Last Word, comfortably filling the shoes of Eamon Dunphy on Today FM.
Cooper’s central thesis is that there is a community at the upper end of the political and business class who rode together for most of the boom. Having fuelled its expansion, and enriched themselves, they then overreached themselves and saw the economy implode.
In this case, the subtitle is probably more accurate than the title, for whether they actually “run” Ireland is a matter of debate. There are few civil servants here, for example, except for the Central Bank which is rightly castigated for allowing things to overheat.
Cooper looks at the interweave of Fianna Fáil and big business and, inevitably, there is a focus on controversial figures, such as all the Seans: financier Fitzpatrick, the builder Dunne (or “Dunner”, as Bertie knew him) as well as empire builder Quinn, about whom there is a long section charting his irresistable rise until an unfortunate involvement in Anglo Irish Bank. But Cooper leaves nothing out, and even older figures like Larry Goodman get roped in.
The book is ambitious in its length and detail, but not in terms of any broad new revelations or insights. Most of what is here is already well known to an informed observer. But Cooper assembles the material in an impressive and eminently readable manner. He is also generally fair – frustratingly so sometimes – and you wish he’d just come out and say what he really thinks. For example, he clearly shows the damage done by benchmarking and the stubborn attitude of Jack O’Connor and Siptu and yet exempts them from the sort of blame otherwise heaped on fat cats and politicians.
Then he overly criticises the concept of social partnership, which so many analysts now do with the benefit of hindsight. “It was a cosy relationship between government, business and trade unions that meant hard decisions weren’t made because trade offs and compromises prevailed instead. It was another variation of crony capitalism, but this time the unions were the willing participants.”
This goes to the nutshell of our dilemma: the unwillingness of the political culture to take hard decisions, instead of following the opinion polls. But is it really “crony capitalism”? Surely it’s also the very opposite. Surely it is the political system – or ourpolitical system – which reflects what the people want. It’s a very Irish compromise and hey, it worked for a long while, especially at the start of the boom when it secured the industrial peace necessary for the economy to flourish.
By contrast, Cooper lauds Michael O’Leary – most of the Irish media does – and sees him as the sort of leader to help Ireland out of its crisis. Yet he denies such a visionary status to developer Sean Dunne. Even when Dunne is quoted against himself, he sounds, to this reader, eminently reasonable, such as his call for the media “to stop blaming property developers for the ills of all of the society”.
A simplistic shorthand has now emerged whereby “the bankers” and “developers” have brought the whole economy down, and Cooper rightly tackles some of these myths. He describes, for example, the way in which the infamous Fianna Fáil tent at the Galway races has grown in mythology to become, in the ferverish minds of Joe Higgins and others, the corporate equivalent of Osama bin Laden’s Afghan cave.
There are new revelations here: Brian Cowen went to Ahern and specifically asked him to step down for the sake of the government and party. Cooper also reveals Tony O’Reilly was hoping to put Ahern onto the board of Independent News and Media but was thwarted because the clash with fellow shareholder Denis O’Brien meant he couldn’t put any more cronies on the board.
The most contentious part of the book concerns the role of Tony O’Reilly and Independent Newspapers in Irish politics, and specifically its late-flowering support for Bertie Ahern. Cooper makes much of the role of the Sunday Independentand specifically of Eoghan Harris. But, one can only say, so what? The Sunday Independentis an agenda-setting newspaper, with a specific set of views, and it operates thus.
Is it any more biased than the more constant influence of the RTÉ newsroom or indeed The Irish Times?
People welcome the Sunday Independentas an antidote to the Morning Ireland-Prime Timeaxis with its emotionalised news reporting, and soft ride for the trade unions and special-interest groups.
The allegation also ignores the fact that the separate Independent titles have different outlooks and, in fact, the daily Irish Independentis often at pains to differ from its Sunday version.
Much is made here of meetings and phone calls between Fianna Fáil and O’Reilly’s people, but this is mild compared to the UK, where an eager Tony Blair flew off to meet the hitherto Labour-bashing Rupert Murdoch. We’re all big boys and girls now, and the media landscape in Ireland is full of agendas, angles, opinions and connections.
The meat of Cooper’s book, however, is about how a flourishing economy was allowed to overheat and how spending was allowed to get out of control. He is especially damning about Charlie McCreevy, who not only failed to rein in government spending but continued to create extra tax breaks and schemes for the wealthy. He ends on a positive note, and a timely one, describing the recent think-in at Farmleigh and acknowledging that it will probably be those with the money who get us out of this rut.
Eamon Delaney’s next book, Breaking the Mould – A Story of Art and Ireland, will be published later this autumn by New Island