This is an extended version of a column published in the Irish Examiner on 22 June 2013. When the troika were inbound, known to be so by all apart from the FF cabinet which had precipitated their arrival, I had a chat with a well known economic commentator. He relayed the views of some of his relatives on the immanent new regime ‘jazuz, the IMF, sure they’ll be worse than the Tans’.. Well, as it turns out the IMF were by far the lesser of three evils. By contrast with the bumbling of the commission and the fumbling of the ECB the IMF were clearheaded and straight. They have form in this – their raison d’etre is to come in and restructure countries to be back on a paying basis. We can and should worry about lots of how they do it but that they do do it is indisputable. They are experienced, but their experience was subjugated to the Trichet ECB which was fixated on the narrowest interpretation of their brief, Mr Trichet endeavouring to show the Bundeshawks that when it came to monetary masochism a French Central Banker could be more Germanic than the Germans themselves.
With the possible departure of the Troika (by no means a certainty) we can now think the unthinkable ; maybe we will miss them when they are gone. For the Troika, mainly the IMF, have shown a willingness to drive forward change and to force events to a head. In this they follow a long and inglorious tradition, of being the external force to cudgel the elites of Irish society into action. Historically Irish elites have adopted the King Log approach, doing as little as possible to disturb the pond. Us frogs that have desired other than inertia have always had the opportunity to move elsewhere. The Troika were our replacement for the succession of King Logs but now they are moving on, leaving us to the swamp of inertia and ineptness which Irish governance has become.
Irish elites have come through crisis after crisis unscathed and unchanged. Change in social or economic issues comes passing slow. We have been repeatedly forced into dealing with environmental and social flux through the actions of national and European courts. When we examine the economic situation the closest we have to a court is the Troika, and to paraphrase the Bert, although they have done a lot there remains more to do. The recent report on implementation shows a growing frustration, I sense, on the part of the Troika, with Irish implementation. The media have focused on the stated need to tackle the pernicious and pervasive legal cost structure. In a Dail where there is heavy representation of lawyers, in a state where lawyers dictate state moves, where the easiest thing is to hide behind the shield of ‘awaiting legal advice’, it is clear that by overt persuasion and covert influence (no, nothing shady, put that writ down) the lawyers have stalled and delayed meaningful reform.
And it is not just in this area that deep reform has been stalled. We suffer even with the Troika and a massive crisis, from myopic policies that seem to benefit insider elites and from a chronic lack of joined up thinking.
We have seen little in the way of meaningful action on the crisis of unemployment, the main problem facing the state. Despite the real level of job seeking being close to 25%, and that after a hemorrhage of hundreds of thousands of people, we still persist with the oldfashioned ‘labour exchange’ model of government intervention and the one stop shop approach is stalled. In whose benefit is that? It is not for the unemployed that is for sure. The existence of large pools of unemployed is of benefit, in the short term where most live, only to those employers who need compliant workers.
In health we have a government that is at one and the same time committed to making heath insurance compulsory and to making it unaffordable. Quite how this is to be squared is unclear. But what is clear is that patients and the public do not benefit while sales of Bentleys to consultants remain solid.
In transport we see time and again that we build massive motorways which end a kilometer outside a small town with two 90 degree junctions, causing traffic to back up onto the motorway. As it was in Kildare so too is it now in Adare. While construction and farming interests do well from the purchasing of vastly costly land and the construction of vastly costly roads, the travelling public dont do well.
We refuse to implement a nationwide postcode system, resulting in at least two state agencies having their own, and others purchasing ones from sat nav manufacturers. Meanwhile we cant therefore direct ambulances to the right place, because nobody knows if they said Lispole or Listowel. A proper ZIP code system would upset the elite interests in the insurance and estate agency industries hugely, and disabuse us of the ability to geolocate wherever we think we should be (‘why yes, I do live in Glasnevin North’ is replicated in every single parish) rather than where we are.
In social welfare we see the same types of poverty traps, where it is more sensible to stay off work than to take it, as were the subject of discussion in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and no doubt will be in the 2040s. But this allows easy lazy discussion of ‘welfare scroungers’ instead of properly focused policy debate. Elites dont like thinking hard thoughts here or elsewhere.
In education we see a persistent attempt to narrow and make more and more vocational the state system, despite the manifest failure of government ‘picking winners’ strategies and that the employers themselves (never mind society of which it appears even Labour now suspect its non existence) want broadly educated flexible thinkers. Again this is of benefit to the mandirinate in the department of education and the HEA and to the employers de jure. We see the government solemenly stating the need for us to be more able to see stuff to foreigners, and cutting back on language education (creating a wonderful need and opportunity for private sector profit for something that is both a social and economic public good).
We see little evidence of thinking about the post FDI era, assuming that a large part of measured FDI is related to tax arbitrage. Across the world there is at least lip service to the need to ensure that corporations pay tax and do not engage in tax arbitrage. The Irish elites have to the most part denied that this mood exists, and suggested that even if it does it doesn’t matter as despite all the evidence we do not facilitate such.
We see in the banks perhaps the most egregious example of elites and insiders stalling and eventually winning over King Log. Having refused to deal with residential mortgage arrears for years, while gleefully stiffing the taxpayer with writeoffs for large corporate loans, the banks have now managed to get a more liberal repossession regime in place which they shall drive. Leaving aside the social issues large scale repossessions will result in a worsening of the banks losses, and if the banks are required to keep very high levels of capital that will mean either bailing in depositors or more taxpayer injections. However, at the top end the insiders remain entrenched and enriched.
All these remain despite the best intent of the troika. Generations of passive aggressive slow rising to the top of the heap, regardless of the state of the heap, have endowed Irish insiders with the abilty to obfuscate, ignore, stall and stymie at a world class level. What they miss is a sense of social good, of joined up thinking, of the urgency needed in facing world where power is moving east, and a sense of vision. But then, they are elected and drawn from us.