|Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the cover of Time Magazine|
It was hard to know whether to laugh or cry here last week when we saw Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kennyadorning the cover of Time magazine, doing his steely-eyed pose into the camera. “The Celtic Comeback,” the cover headline said.
You will not have seen it on the newsstands over there since it was the cover of the European edition only. Be thankful for small mercies.
And spare a thought for Time readers all over Europe who were confronted with the disturbing sight of Endadoing his Superman act. I'm prepared to bet that most of them hadn't a clue who was he was, which must have been a bit perplexing since Time covers personalities who are usually familiar faces.
Even so, people across Europe must have been intrigued by this strange man's power stare. This is what Enda does, of course. He may not use as much make-up as Bertie Ahern did, but he's just as concerned about image.
A bit like George W. Bush, he talks in short sentences and simple language and he's slightly aggressive in his delivery, using a lot of hand chops for emphasis. Under that improbably blond head of hair, he's very stern (to show he's serious), but with the occasional twinkle in the eye (to show he's human). And he is relentlessly positive.
Ireland will never default on its debts, Ireland will do whatever is necessary to get back on track, he repeats. Lately he's started saying that Ireland is turning the corner.
He says these things with so much conviction he's probably starting to believe them himself. The trouble is very few people here go along with him.
They have seen through the empty positivity because they live in the real world, not in Kenny’s parallel universe.
But whoever wrote the “The Celtic Comeback” headline appears to have bought Kenny’s line. To be fair to the European editor of Time, Catherine Mayer, who wrote the cover story, her account was a lot more nuanced and qualified that the headline suggests. (Even though Enda did not make the cover in the U.S., Mayer's story was carried inside the US edition so you can read it yourself).
So as someone who wrote front page headlines for newspapers for years, let me offer an alternative. A more accurate headline would have been “The Celtic Con Job.”
Because that is what we are faced with here, a financial con job that has been imposed on Ireland by Europe at enormous cost to the ordinary citizens here.
It's called a bailout, but in reality it's a way of paying back all the (mainly foreign) bondholders who gambled on the Irish property boom and making the Irish taxpayer pick up the tab.
And who is the chief enforcer of this con job on Ireland? It's the Comeback Kid himself, Enda Kenny.
The Time magazine article does quote Kenny saying that he wants a better deal from Europe on our debt. We may get one eventually.
But in the meantime he continues to work this deeply unfair bailout agreement which is depressing the Irish economy, causing record emigration and making life tough for ordinary people here.
The heroic image of Enda on the cover of Time and the headline suggests that we are on the road to recovery and that the Irish economic crisis will be over before too long. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that we are not even halfway through this crisis and it's a toss up which way it goes from here.
Yes, it is true that because of the perception that we are coping with austerity, the yield on Irish bonds has come down and we may be able to get back into the money markets at some point. But the scale of the debt problem facing us is so great that we don't have a hope of keeping up with repayments. And where will our bond yields go then?
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There are two elements to the problem we face. The first is the €68 billion EU/IMF bailout we got, which is a millstone around the neck of the country.
As you know, the Irish state guaranteed all Irish bank debt when the crisis erupted at the end of 2008, and so far the amount of money the Irish government has pumped into the banks to make good on this promise is around €64 billion.
So almost all of the money we got under the bailout has been used to enable the Irish banks to pay off their bondholders. These bondholders took a risk lending money to the Irish banks because they wanted a slice of the high returns that were available during the boom here.
They took a chance and it did not pay off. But even so, they are getting all their money back.
The joke is that many of the original bondholders sold on at prices discounted up to 50 percent, so the new holders of the bonds are doubling their money when the bonds mature and the Irish banks pay up the face value in full.
So in effect what has happened is that the bailout money was given to the Irish government, who gave it to the Irish banks, who gave it to the bondholders.
At the end of this merry-go-round, the Irish taxpayer/state owes €68 billion in bailout repayments to the EU/IMF.
And these repayments are now part of the annual budget here, eating up a huge chunk of our tax revenues and making it much harder to balance the budget, even with big cuts in state spending.
The Irish taxpayer is being forced to pay the gambling debts in Ireland of the international money markets.
Kenny was not taoiseach when the disastrous state guarantee was given to our banks or when the bailout was imposed on us after the state went bust as a consequence. But instead of refusing to be part of this unjust system, he has gone along with it since he came into power.
It is unjust because the bondholders, including senior bondholders, should have been forced to take a hit. This was ruled out at the time by Europe because they feared it would seriously undermine confidence in European banks.
So the EU turned a European banking problem into a gigantic problem for the ordinary Irish taxpayer who had nothing to do with the boom here. It's an impossible burden for Ireland to carry.
Even hiking taxes sky high and cutting state spending to the bone is not going to be nearly enough to allow us to pay back all we "owe." The figures don't add up. We either get a large amount of debt forgiveness (and it's not really our debt anyway) or Ireland will collapse again.
So to suggest that we are now experiencing The Celtic Comeback is ridiculous.
The humiliating part of all this is that our plea to have our banking debt separated from our sovereign debt and to have Europe deal with our banking debt, was turned down flat. It was impossible, we were told.
Yet now that a major country like Spain is asking for the same thing, it is suddenly possible after all. We are now being told by Europe that the new arrangements don't apply to our "legacy" problem. But that is so ridiculous it is unlikely to be sustained.
What is clear is that, despite the impression given by the Time cover, Ireland is not showing the rest of Europe how to stage a comeback. Instead we are trailing on Spanish coattails.
Apart from bank debt, the other part of our problem is the massive budget deficit that we now have following the collapse of tax revenue when the boom became a bust. The Irish state is spending far more than we can afford.
Instead of implementing a bold adjustment plan, Kenny has been fiddling while Dublin burns, afraid to take on the vested interests and the unions.
He has failed to cut waste out of the system, to cut the pay and pensions of state workers in line with what has happened in the private sector, to reduce the hugely expensive government and NGO morass that eats up state revenue. Most of the cutbacks so far have been aimed at the poor and powerless because they can't fight back.
Despite the image of the strongman on the Time cover, Kenny's performance has been extremely weak. The magazine piece includes a few quotes from Mario Rosenstock, a brilliant satirist and mimic who makes his living sending-up our top politicians.
He got it exactly right when he told Time that Enda was a bit like Chauncey Gardiner, the Peter Sellers character in the movie Being There. The movie is about a simple gardener in Washington who is mistaken for a great seer and whose simple pronouncements on the seasons and growing plants are interpreted by the president as allegorical insights into the state of the economy.
With his Chauncey-like observations, Enda appears to have beguiled a lot of people outside Ireland that all will be well in the Irish garden. But the reality is very different. The truth is we're a long way from any kind of Celtic Comeback.