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.

Gloomy forecast

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.

Unemployment wasn’t falling significantly: about 350,000 workers had disappeared from the Irish economy since 2007. Government debt isn’t 79 per cent of GDP, but more like 120 per cent. It would actually be very nice if things were only as bad as they were predicted to be three years ago.

The best that could be said for 2012 is that it brought some clarity. Two big illusions were shattered. One was the idea that it was somehow possible to keep taking money out of the economy and, at the same time, to have a sustained economic recovery. This notion had some superficial plausibility because, on the face of it, this is what happened during the last great recession, in the late 1980s. Back then, the government cut spending rapidly, and somehow the economy began to grow steadily before shifting into overdrive in the mid-1990s.

Different type of recession

The problem, though, is that this recession looks nothing like the one in the 1980s. Back then, our lucky stars all came into alignment: the high-tech boom in the US generated huge investment; the EU was in generous, expansionary mode, with Ireland still its poor little pet; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War unleashed a huge expansion in global trade. Back then, too, the State may have been broke but Irish citizens had relatively low levels of personal debt.

Now, of course, the global picture is bleak: the model of capitalism that has been in the ascendant since 1980 is in a deep crisis but nothing has come along to take its place. And this time both the State and a majority of its citizens are bust. There’s no Jacques Delors to pump billions in structural funds into the Irish economy: if anything, the flow of money is going the other way as German and French banks and bondholders extract billions in bank liabilities from Irish citizens.

The idea that the private economy would take up the slack as public spending was slashed has proven to be entirely hollow. There’s a simple reality that too many people have too little money to spend. The tracking survey by the Irish League of Credit Unions found that 1.85 million people now have less than €100 at the end of the month after paying all their bills. More than 1.3 million have less than €50 left. An extraordinary 42 per cent had to borrow money to pay bills within the previous 12 months. Eight out of 10 respondents worry that they won’t be able to cope with rising energy costs this winter. For a very large swathe of middle and working Ireland, money is increasingly and unbearably tight.

The other shattered illusion is the belief that change was going to come from above. The last general election, in 2011, produced the most radical election in the history of the State, with the humiliation of the once-mighty Fianna Fáil. It felt like a seismic reshaping of Irish politics. By the end of 2012, it certainly didn’t feel like that any more. The new Government had settled, with remarkable ease, into familiar patterns. The most obvious one, of course, was the straitjacket of the troika “bailout” programme, with its parallel universes of austerity for citizens and lavish spending for dead banks.

But the familiarity was apparent in other, smaller, ways too. Minister for Health James Reilly’s remarkable discovery of hitherto unknown criteria for selecting the areas most in need of primary care centres (“One and one makes two and two and two make four but four by four makes 16 and not four and four makes eight and so it is with this. It’s a logistical, logarithmic progression, so there is nothing, there is nothing simple about it.”) looked, to those of us who were less mathematically talented, like old-fashioned stroke politics. The only apparent difference being that a Fianna Fáil minister might have found more subtle ways of making sure that the complex formulae produced the most politically advantageous results.

There was an equally familiar ring to the sound of gold dropping into Ministers’ bank accounts. The Irish Times revealed that the combined pensions of members of the Cabinet would cost €36 million to buy on the open market. Even more startling was the discovery that pensions for ministers of State would cost almost €20 million and those for six other office holders would cost over €10 million. Thus Denis O’Donovan of Fianna Fáil, who failed to be elected to the Dáil last year, had the kind of “soft landing” that the economy was supposed to enjoy. Fianna Fáil councillors elected him to the Seanad, where he became Leas Ceann Comhairle. Partly as a result, he has a pension pot worth €1.3 million.

It was hard to feel that much had really changed when a politician most citizens have never heard of, Paddy Burke, is entitled to a pension worth €2.2 million for his sterling service in keeping the Seanad in order. Or that ministers had much moral authority in dealing with the extravagant pay and pensions of bankers. The revelation that 24 executives at bailed-out Bank of Ireland earn more than €400,000 a year; that 10 Allied Irish Bank executives are in the same position and that seven officials at the dead Anglo Irish Bank are receiving more than €500,000 a year in public salaries, added to the general sense that within the storm of misery and anxiety there are balmy islands of plush tranquillity.

Power and protest

Thus, perhaps, the pervasive sense of powerlessness. The pain of so-called austerity has made little difference to economic prospects. The general election made little difference to political renewal. The collapse of the banks made little difference to the privileges of those who run them. If such big things have such small consequences, is there anything that can break the rather ugly mould in which so many people are trapped?

One answer is the old, deeply rooted instinct: change is individual, not collective. You don’t change your society, you change your location.

More than 90,000 people have left Ireland since 2010, voting with their feet and their futures. But it would be wrong to conclude that passivity is the only alternative to emigration. There were protests of all sorts throughout 2012: the Vita Cortex workers in Cork, the Occupy movements in all the main cities, the rallies in support of the Quinn family in Co Cavan, protests about septic tanks and protected bogs in rural Ireland, demonstrations against the household charge, large anti-austerity marches, sit-ins by workers made redundant in Carlow, Cork and Limerick, farmers taking over the streets of Dublin, students marching against fee increases, and very large marches to protest against the death of Savita Halappanavar.

The point was not that people were declining to protest but that they couldn’t really agree what they wanted to protest about. If they could ever make up their minds, they might have some say in their own destinies.

Perhaps, like our ancient ancestors, we are looking for signs and portents. The rare appearance of the Northern Lights as far south as Mayo in 2012 must be a sign of something. The name of the phenomenon, aurora borealis, combines the Latin names for two great forces: the goddess of the dawn and the god of the icy north wind. It seemed somehow apt: the portents in the sky might be foretelling either a new dawn or a continuation of the big chill. Which it is to be may depend on whether the Irish are content for 2013 to be, like its predecessor, just another year.