Is it just me, or is Bono completely losing it? His speech to the gathering of European politicians in Dublin last week was so cheesy it had the whole country here wincing and grinding their teeth in embarrassment. It was truly toe-curling.
But we’ll come back to the speech by His Bononess in a moment because first we need to deal with what actually mattered at the event.
The diminutive rock star with the outsize ego was speaking at the annual convention of the European People’s Party (EPP) which brought Europe to Dublin last week when over 2,000 members of the EPP came to the National Convention Center, the stunning new building on the Liffey, for a two day congress.
The EPP is the biggest political party in Europe, a center-right/Christian Democrat grouping, of which Fine Gael, like similar parties in other European countries, is a member. It is the dominant political group in the European Parliament.
With so many important politicians here for a couple of days from all over the continent, including senior figures like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was a chance to show off Dublin and the country to a lot of influential people, including the leaders or prime ministers of up to a dozen European countries and numerous ministers and officials.
The attendance even included Yulia Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko from Ukraine, giving added immediacy to the event. And of course there was a huge media presence from all over Europe.
Apart from showing them Dublin, it was also an opportunity to get across the recovery message about Ireland. Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, who had been instrumental in getting the congress to come here, did not miss the chance in his opening address. (It’s on youtube.com/watch?v=chH3UZ0Ict8 and other places on the web and it’s worth having a look).
Some of Kenny’s message may be a bit too upbeat and effusive for Irish people who are still struggling to live with the cutbacks and tax hikes here. But that’s not the point, because this speech was aimed primarily at the visitors from Europe and particularly at powerful figures like Merkel.
The central message was that the bailout exit, the steady reduction in our deficit and the tentative economic recovery we are now starting to see have all been possible only because the Irish people had accepted that our financial house had to be put in order, and accepted the tough austerity measures which had to be introduced to achieve that.
With Frau Merkel behind him on the platform, Kenny pointedly reminded our European visitors that in 2012, in the middle of this painful period, Ireland held a national referendum on the European Fiscal Compact Treaty, the only European country to hold such a vote. (Our constitution required us to do so.) It would have been easy for the Irish people to have voted against the treaty, Kenny pointed out, to show their anger at the banks, at Europe and at politicians in general. But the Irish people supported the treaty by a 60-40 margin, in spite of the extreme difficulties they were going through.
Kenny said that this showed that the Irish people had demonstrated their commitment to Europe. He pointed out that the Irish people had shouldered the huge burden of our bank debts before the new structures that are now being developed in Europe to deal with banking crises had come into being.
The unspoken message in what he was saying was that there had to be some recognition of this, some payback, some reduction in the mountain of bank debt that had been forced on the Irish people when the Irish banks had collapsed and our banking debt had been turned into sovereign debt.
As we all know, a lot of this debt is due to us paying back foreign banks that had loaned billions to the Irish banks so they could also profit from the boom here. A significant portion of this was unguaranteed.
Yet they were all paid back in full with the money we got from the IMF/EU bailout, all of which now has to be paid back by the Irish people. We were forced to do this by the European Central Bank and the EU leaders who were terrified at the time that any defaulting here could cause contagion in the banking sector across Europe.
There is now new thinking in Europe on this kind of situation, and a realization that in future sovereign and bank debt should be separated.
This shift in policy carries with it an implied recognition that what was done to the Irish people was unfair. But despite this belated recognition, there is a reluctance in the EU to do anything to correct the situation by easing the debt burden the Irish people will have to carry for decades to come. A vague promise was made over a year ago, but since then the EU leaders have been dragging their feet on the issue.
And it’s a huge issue here, because the annual repayments on the bailout billions are sucking money out of the country and are a colossal dead weight on our economy. As well as that, they mean the Irish people are crippled with higher taxes.
We are now being told that progress on this issue for Ireland will have to await development of the proposed banking union in Europe and the new regulatory authority for banks across Europe. This will need to be in place before the EU fund which will recapitalize European banks that get into trouble in the future can begin to operate.
And it is out of that fund that Ireland might, just might, get some retrospective funding to compensate for the €60 billion we put into our banks.
Some of our EU “partners” say there can be no retrospective funding, that what’s done is done, tough though it may be for the Irish people. They say the new EU fund can only deal with future banking crises. Some others take a more sympathetic position, although there is no sign of action.
So far all we have got is an extension up to 40 years of the time frame we have for repaying the €25 billion in bailout money we used to repay the debts of Anglo Irish Bank. It’s a help, but we still have to pay it all back. And nothing has been done about the more than €30 billion of bailout money we used to repay the debts of the other banks.
When she was questioned about this in Dublin, Merkel said she is “hopeful” of a positive outcome in the talks about Europe’s banking union. But she gave no commitment that our historic banking debts could be included under the new arrangements.
There’s a long way to go on this one. And the last thing we needed at this point was Bono spouting nonsense at the EPP members in Dublin.
He was invited to speak by Fine Gael, which probably felt that a bit of rock star glamour would liven up the proceedings. And to some extent it did, with some of the politicians rushing down to the front of the auditorium to get a picture of His Bononess up close. No doubt, many of the European politicians and journalists present thought his speech was amusing and daring.
But the Irish in the hall cringed with embarrassment, as did the rest of the country later when they saw clips of it on TV and the web. The Bono speech is also on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fHcxwwt-LQ) and if you’re watching it you should keep the sick bag handy.
What grated with most Irish people, despite his jokes about his modesty, was the assumption that it’s okay for him to speak on behalf of the people of Ireland and that what he says has some kind of special insight. It doesn’t. It’s pompous twaddle, and at times dangerously misleading twaddle.
An example is the line from his speech that made headlines here. He told the Euro politicians that it wasn’t the Troika that had bailed us out and got us back on the road to recovery: “I think it was despite the Troika ... the Irish people bailed the Irish people out,” he said, praising us for our “dignity” in dealing with the situation we faced, even though we knew we had been “screwed.”
Saying this to such a big meeting of politicians from all over Europe was supposed to be shocking. Real rock star rebel stuff. In fact it was fatuous waffle.
The fact is that the Irish people did not bail themselves out. As outlined above, they were blackmailed by the European Central Bank and the EU leaders into taking a huge bailout from the IMF and the ECB not only to keep the country going when the bond markets had shut us out, but to enable us to repay all the European banks who had loaned us billions.
There’s not much “dignity” involved when we had no choice. And am I the only one who finds Bono complimenting the Irish people on their “dignity” to be nauseatingly patronizing? Who does he think he is?
Bono could have used the platform he was given to tell the Euro politicians a few home truths about the shameful way we were treated by Europe and how we are still dealing with the consequences. He mentioned in passing, almost as a joke, that we had been “screwed.”
But there was no detail, no follow up, no exploration of the ongoing effects of the bailout, no outrage at the immorality of transferring private bank debt into sovereign debt that required the Irish people to carry the can.
Another point in the speech which caused people here to reach for the sick bag was when he started talking about community and why the proposed financial transaction tax was an idea that reflected real European community values which would allow Europe to tackle poverty at home and in the wider world. This from the man who has shifted much of the U2 business out of Ireland to avoid paying tax here! Give us a break!
He used the word “bollocks” at one point in the speech about something else. Very rock star that. It’s a great word. He should think about it.