Three-card-trick men's sleight of hand makes €40 billion vanish into thin air


The three politicians produced magic of the economic kind and pulled it off with aplomb, writes MIRIAM LORDat the Convention Centre Dublin

AND YOU thought all the three-card-trick merchants had gone to the Galway Races? Not so.

Roll up! Roll up missus! Let the dog see the rabbit! The Two Brians and Incineration Man treated us to a sparkling exhibition of sleight of hand in the new national convention centre yesterday.

This was close-up magic of the economic kind and they pulled it off with aplomb.

Cowen, Lenihan and Gormley should take their act to Las Vegas - these guys could be bigger than David Copperfield. Anyone can make an elephant or the Statue of Liberty disappear. But they made nearly €40 billion vanish into thin air, making a virtue out of it as they slashed the government's capital spend.

(Actually, they didn't really slash the capital spending that much - Dublin is still doing alright. They aren't happy outside the Pale, though. Big cuts.) The trio disguised the fact that they had nothing at all to launch - on the contrary, rather a lot to take away - by putting on a glitzy show, sidetracking their audience with fancy distractions.

It's an old trick.

Look. Here's a national development plan worth €75 billion. See it? Now look at the new conference centre, isn't it beautiful? Wait. Where's the €75 billion gone? Now you see it, now you don't. Magic.

Never mind. Marvel at the new building, with its tipsy cylinder of a facade . Ride those elegant escalators, conveying us up and down its impressive Celtic chute.

Never mind the 2007 development plan, or the 2008 Building Ireland's Smart Economy framework. We are, sigh, where we are.

But it's not so bad, chirps Brian, producing a few rubber coins from behind his ear. Isn't the new centre just gorgeous? "It is a powerful statement about how far we have come and what we can achieve as a people." Right enough, there was no stopping us back in 2008, when the smart economy was rolled out. "I am clear where I want us to be," declared Brian Cowen in Dublin Castle. "We are setting out a long-term, mid-term vision." Which he began to dismantle in earnest yesterday.

But look again - for we were on the fifth floor of the convention centre (with its ongoing sewage treatment issues) and the views were only massive. "Below us, we can see the new Samuel Beckett bridge - designed by Santiago Calatrava . . . along with the new Grand Canal theatre . . . and the O2 arena" gurgled Biffo, never once lifting his head to indicate the presence of these landmarks outside the curved glass wall.

But he wasn't finished yet. "We are adjacent to the International Financial Services Centre, another product of the Irish imagination . . ." And we know where the Irish imagination got us in terms of finance.

This launch was supposed to be about investment priorities, er, going forward, but the Taoiseach was more interested in pointing out what had been done in the past.

Here, we too take a step back, to the launch of the development plan in 2007. Ireland is "a nation that has reversed its own history" we were told back then. We were at it again yesterday.

And unlike those other occasions, there wasn't a national partner in sight.

And Brian Cowen continued to number the great achievements he might have seen from his podium had he looked out the window. "To the north lies the great cauldron of Irish sport that is Croke Park, to the south, the new Aviva stadium at Lansdowne Road - both built on the greatness of our past and both fiercely optimistic for our future." Oh dear.

Beyond, the port tunnel, the motorway system, the new terminal at Dublin airport . . .

Funny though. He only had to look a few yards ahead to see the empty shell of the proposed headquarters for Anglo-Irish bank. Had he looked behind, he could have taken in the nerve centre of the Dublin Docklands Development Association.

And just across the river to his right - not far - is the site of the Irish Glass Bottle Company.

For that matter, he didn't point out the large bit of land earmarked for the Ringsend incinerator. You could see that Minister Gormley, who was on the platform with Finance Minister Lenihan, couldn't bear to look down towards that section of the Liffey.

Sandymount's answer to the Burning Man is resolutely cold on the issue of the incinerator.

But he is very happy with the new emphasis on pubic transport and bicycles as Dublin builds "towards a more integrated transport system". God speed.

In the meantime, RTÉ's Bryan Dobson arrived at the conference centre on his bicycle at the same time as Irish Timesreporter Tim O'Brien, who was on a Dublin city council bike, freewheeled up to the entrance. They began to lock their bicycles to a post to the left of the building.

"You can't be doing that!" they were told by two security men, who sent them around the back. Can't have horrible bikes ruining the aesthetics of the building, when there are TV cameras about and a Taoiseach and two Ministers due.

The two lads muttered to themselves about John Gormley having something to say about this, whereupon he drew up in a gleaming State car. We hope he wasn't coming from the Department of the Environment, all of five minutes walk away.

It's an impressive building, nonetheless. "One hundred thousand welcomes" smiles the sign in the soaring atrium as the two Brians and Incinerator Man pass underneath.

Wouldn't be sure with those sleight-of-hand merchants about. Brian Lenihan will have them down to half that many welcomes come the December budget. (And he'll pump the rest into Anglo.)