Ireland cannot continue to sacrifice everything, even people’s lives, in order to balance the books, writes Brendan O’Connor
YOUNGER readers won’t believe this but there used to be a time when the IMF was the bogeyman in this country. If we didn’t behave ourselves, the IMF would come and there would be no pussyfooting around. They would slash public sector wages in half and double taxes and get our house in order in jig time. This was before we learnt to live quite casually with the fact that we are no longer an independent country and that we are subject to something called the troika, one third of which is the IMF.
That would have been unthinkable back in the day, that we would not be governing ourselves. Back then, it was regarded as the ultimate shame if the IMF had to come to a country. It was something that happened to banana republics in South America and basket cases in Africa. The IMF had come to the UK once but that was an aberration, apparently. It really wasn’t something that could ever happen in so-called developed countries.
Little did we think that we would look back and wish that we had invited in the IMF, that they were in charge. Little did we think that the IMF would turn out to be the most reasonable foreign ruler a country could hope to have. But we didn’t manage to get just the IMF in. Instead we got saddled with EU zealots as well, and despite the IMF’s increasing best efforts, we are still being slowly ground into the dust.
While the IMF used to have the name of being all about making people balance the books fast, it has become an increasingly pragmatic and realistic institution in the last few years. It has tended to be the most sceptical of the big international institutions when it comes to austerity at all costs, and it has been the one that has cautioned most about the need for growth as well. This surprises some people because the IMF is regarded as a right-wing organisation stuffed with Yankee capitalists (the worst kind). But then again dismay about austerity has not been limited to the left. It has been, as Fr Jack would say, an ecumenical matter. Only the other day I found myself in heartfelt agreement with a press release that arrived in my email from Joan Collins TD. In terms of economists, there has been agreement from across the left-right spectrum that austerity unchecked could be as, if not more, dangerous than capitalism unchecked was.
The IMF took its distaste for austerity a step or two forward last week. Christine Lagarde has now upset a lot of people, and attracted much criticism internationally, by coming out and saying straight that Greece and Spain should be given more time to balance their budgets. Her point seems to be that when there are so many countries engaged in austerity, it doesn’t make sense for them all to do it so quickly at the same time.
We cannot underestimate what a defining moment it was for this Government when Brendan Howlin stood up and formally admitted what everyone has known for weeks: that the Government was chickening out on cutting some of the crazy allowances paid to those who work for the bankrupt Government of this bankrupt country.
It wasn’t as if Howlin had promised the earth. His modest goal had been to cut a mere five per cent this year from these allowances — extra pay that various people who work for the Government get for everything from underwear to being on their feet.
But even the minister who is supposed to be responsible for cutting public expenditure — now a matter of grave urgency in this country — could not face down the unions in order to cut one euro in 20 from these allowances. The minister whose department apparently harasses other departments on an almost weekly basis about making cuts and efficiencies, when it came to cutting a mere five per cent from what everyone agrees are at least partially anachronistic and ridiculous allowances, couldn’t do it. He bottled it.
He bottled it even though he had the kind of cover to implement cuts that no other minister in this State will ever have, hopefully. The IMF is here and can be blamed for everything.
We have lost our sovereignty, we are bankrupt and being run by foreigners, and still Howlin couldn’t get even five per cent off these allowances. One suspects that even the unions didn’t expect to get away with that. One suspects that the unions were poised to accept at least some trimming of these allowances. But no, virtually nothing. Because when Brendan Howlin looked into it, he discovered it was more complicated than he thought and that it would in fact contravene Croke Park.