Stephen Collins: Worrying signs the past is about to repeat itself

Irish politicians who led us out of financial crisis are not getting the credit for it

Why is it that former Greek minister for finance Yanis Varoufakis, who was such an abject failure in office, is lionised by the Irish media while his counterparts here who managed to save this country from a fate similar to Greece are generally treated with disdain?

The question was raised during the week by one of Ireland’s leading academics, Bridget Laffan, in the course of a stimulating lecture which looked at the response of the Irish State to the financial crisis.

While the erosion of faith in the political system was prompted by the failures of political leadership that led to the crisis, it is hard to argue with the view that the media’s coverage of the state’s response has generally left a lot to be desired.

In her lecture entitled "In Defence of the State: Fractious Politics in Hard Times", Laffan examined the response of the Fianna Fáil/Green government and the Fine Gael/Labour coalition to the enormous problems posed by the crash, and she gave them both considerable credit for taking the tough decisions required to stave off disaster.


Comparing what happened in Ireland to events in Greece, she pointed to the great contrast in negotiating style between Varoufakis – who served as Greece's minister of finance from January to July 2015 – and Michael Noonan.

“I am constantly surprised at the media exposure that Varoufakis gets in Ireland; he appears as a star turn at this or that meeting and is fawned over on radio and television.

“He was a disaster as Greek finance minister; he left the economy in further decline, capital controls in place and the banks shut. He had managed to alienate each and every member of the Eurogroup and did his country no service,” said Laffan.

By contrast, successive Irish ministers, central bankers and officials opted for persistent but quiet diplomacy that gradually restored the country's reputation and fortunes. Yet the Irish media never gave Brian Lenihan, Michael Noonan or Brendan Howlin anything like the fawning treatment reserved for Varoufakis.

If anything the Irish ministers who steered the country back on track were given a consistently hard time and their policies often misrepresented as the imposition of wilful hardship on a long-suffering electorate for no apparent reason.

Corrosive cynicism

Now it is the media’s role to question political leaders and hold them accountable for the impact of their policies on the citizens of the state, but a diet of unremitting and often ill-informed criticism has helped to promote a corrosive cynicism that has serious implications for our democracy.

From this side of the Irish Sea we can recognise the baleful influence of so much of the British media in creating the atmosphere in which a majority of people there voted to leave the European Union and do so much damage to their country’s future prospects.

That should prompt some examination of conscience here about whether the media is doing its job in informing people about the real choices that confront our political masters and the challenges they face in making decisions about the allocation of recourses.

As Irish Times opinion polls and focus groups in the run-up to the election demonstrated, many voters here are seriously ill-informed about most of the basic facts of political and economic life in the country in which they live. The media must share some responsibility for this state of affairs.

In her lecture Laffan pointed out that there were now intense pressures on the current fragile Government, and in some ways the challenges are deeper than during the crisis because there is no clear pathway ahead.

“The treatment of these issues in the media does not help us address them. Political commentary more often than not portrays politics as a game; who is in or out; who will be the next taoiseach, will John Halligan survive and so on. The John Halligan story mattered of course for the future of the Government but the big issue at stake was and is the allocation of very scarce public resources to the Irish health system.”

Real people

Now it is inevitable that the media will present major social issues as human-interest stories. Those who read newspapers, listen to radio or watch the news on television are far more likely to engage with stories of real people than ponder policy choices.

The problem, though, is that coverage which only focuses on individual stories often does little to foster discussion about policy solutions or options and in many cases distorts the choices that are available.

One of the reasons we got into the financial crisis in the first place was that there was no proper debate during the boom years about how then-plentiful resources could best be allocated to promote the common good.

In the aftermath of the crash the Fianna Fáil-led governments of the century’s first decade were subject to a deluge of criticism, but very few of the post-crisis critics had anything of value to say when the money was being squandered through unsustainable increases in public spending.

The biggest danger now is that the mistakes of the past could well be repeated in the not too distant future. There are some worrying signals that we are on the road back to perdition.

The Fianna Fáil U-turn on water charges is the clearest sign yet that the party has really learned nothing from the crash and is hellbent on a course that will inevitably drag the country back to the future when it is next in power.

Much of the media, particularly in the broadcast sector, seems to be in exactly the same frame of mind as Fianna Fáil: obsessed with short-term sensation to the exclusion of all else, and oblivious to its responsibility to promote informed discussion and debate.