|President Michael D. Higgins. Source: Photocall Ireland
As we get started on the New Year and wave goodbye and good riddance to 2013 and the bailout, there is a lot of talk here of having turned the corner, of green shoots, of hope for the future.
Most of this is just wishful thinking.
It is true, however, that things are not getting any worse. The latest government figures show that the deficit for 2013 is likely to be below the target of 7.5 percent of GDP, possibly even below seven percent when all the tax returns and state spending figures for the past year are in.
So we are keeping up with the program laid down by the Troika to get our state finances back in order and get our deficit down to three percent by the end of 2015.
That’s all fine and dandy. But we are still being suffocated by the enormous debt burden we have been forced to carry, the interest payments on which alone are sucking €10 billion a year out of the economy, paid for by cutbacks and tax hikes forced on ordinary people here.
Many families are struggling to pay the bills and hold on to their homes. Unemployment and emigration are still very high.
So although we’re out of the bailout, we’re just limping along and any recovery will be painfully slow. We’ll be looking into all that in the next few weeks.
But before we leave the holiday behind us, there is one Christmas greeting we want to bring to your attention. It’s not that important itself, but it’s a perfect illustration of the way the so-called leaders and the elite in Irish society are completely divorced from the reality that faces the rest of us.
I’m talking about the Christmas and New Year message from President Michael D. Higgins to the Irish people broadcast on television a couple of days before the holiday. You can see the video on www.president.ie and you really should have a look at it.
It’s not just the sanctimonious tone and the elaborately cultured enunciation (from a guy with a very ordinary background in the west of Ireland) that grates. We’re used to that from Michael D., although he does seem to have acquired a more Anglo accent of late. In fact it was somewhat unnerving how much his TV message sound like the encouraging exhortations delivered by Queen Elizabeth in her Christmas TV message every year.
As we said, it’s not that important. But it’s just not the right time for this kind of pious piffle here.
The reaction on the Internet and on the websites of the newspapers here to the president’s Christmas video was not just negative, it was scathing and derisive, with people cracking jokes about Michael D’s pretentiousness and heaping scorn on his wooly thinking.
Even for a man who has been in love with the sound of his own voice for years, it was a bad misjudgment. Higgins, a former sociology lecturer, has long regarded himself as a kind of intellectual seer and keeper of the moral high ground.
He imagines that he has subtle insights into the shortcomings of Irish society that the rest of us don’t get. He works himself up into verbal knots trying to define where we have gone wrong and what we need to do to get back to real Irish values.
Normally this does not matter a great deal, and most people here take his pontificating with a pinch of salt. But it’s hard to swallow right now, and if you watch his speech you will see what I mean.
The speech began with the usual warm wishes for Christmas and the New Year, with the obligatory nod in the direction of our emigrants. There was the politically correct allusion to all the immigrants who live here now and us all being members of the same national family.
Nothing wrong with that either, although it does dodge the issues involved. This led on to a reference to the message of Christmas being “shared by many faiths,” which again is the politically correct thing to say in our new Ireland, even if it is only partially accurate.
This has had some Catholics here -- including the head Army chaplain -- suggesting that Higgins’ political correctness is taking Christ out of Christmas, the kind of thing that your Bill O’Reilly gets so worked up about.
That was only a side issue, however. What got most people here riled up about the message was what came in the rest of the speech:
“The message of Christmas, shared by many faiths, invites us to care for one another and to be – in an ethical sense – one another’s keeper,” the president said. “At my inauguration two years ago I expressed my wish to engage with a number of themes that affect the welfare and future of our people.
“I am pleased that the first of these initiatives, ‘Being Young and Irish,’ has borne fruit. Ireland has young people of great ability who deserve to have confidence in their future and pride in their country.”
What Higgins is referring to here is a few talking shops he held with young people a year ago to get their views on the state of the country. Fair enough. But how have these “borne fruit”? Around 90,000 people -- most of them young people -- left Ireland in the past year as emigration continued to soar. That’s 250 people every day.
Talk is cheap. Nothing has changed.
This was a very insensitive thing for a man who prides himself on his intellectual sensitivity to say, and it was made worse because he seemed to be congratulating himself. But there was more nonsense to come.
“During 2014 I will be encouraging the widest possible discussion of ethics in every aspect of our lives, nationally and globally,” Higgins continued.
“This will, I hope, make a contribution towards moving beyond a version of our society and economy that has brought so much hardship, required so much sacrifice. As a New Year beckons, I am confident that Irish people will draw on the character and resilience they have so often shown to craft a vision of our shared Irishness that is defined by the values of care, solidarity, trust and responsibility.”
The trouble with this high-minded waffle is that it’s too late and it is misplaced. Ethics and our “shared Irishness” won’t pay the mortgage and put food on the table, or ease the crushing tax burden.
We have been screwed in a deeply unethical way by our inept politicians and their blanket bank guarantee, by the European Central Bank and by the failure of the present government to get the chunks of our national debt written off that are the result of paying back unguaranteed bondholders.
What lies ahead of us for the next decade or more is an economy that is going to be bled dry to pay back debts that should never have been imposed on the Irish people. Money that should be used to invest in the economy here and create jobs will flow out of the country in interest payments on the massive debt while our “young people” continue to emigrate in droves.
That’s not ethical. But Michael D’s “widest possible discussion of ethics” does not seem to include that.
Instead his proposal appears to be a call for a move away from the “version of our society and economy that has brought so much hardship,” which is another way of saying that we all partied, we were all too greedy and we need to learn lessons from our stupidity.
For the vast majority of people here, that’s not what happened. Most people here were swept along on the boom but they behaved ethically.
Ordinary people did not create the boom and bust, even though we are being made to pay for the crash. We can talk intellectual waffle about ethics until the cows come home but it won’t change our situation.
The most sickening unethical aspect of the situation we face was not even mentioned by the president. That is the way the top layer of Irish society — the politicians, judges, lawyers, bankers, professionals, senior civil servants and all the others who make up the elite here — have managed to insulate themselves from most of the effects of the bust.
And the president, who is paid an obscene amount of money for the largely ceremonial role he plays in our almost-bankrupt little country, is one of this elite.
Yes, many of th top layer have taken pay cuts, including the president. But they are all still on huge salaries and all of them who are on the state payroll still have their big guaranteed pensions for life, unlike ordinary people in the private sector where pensions have collapsed.
(The president is in line for four pensions – university, Dail (Parliament), Senate, presidential -- all paid for and guaranteed by the state. Is that ethical?)
Many of our elite, especially those paid by the state, have carried on as though nothing has changed. It’s as though they exist in an alternate world, with their comfortable lifestyles, cars and expenses.
They oppose cuts in state spending on jobs in the arts and culture sector, for example, at a time when special needs assistants in schools have lost their jobs. They defend state spending on the myriad of quango organizations we have, where the top people get fat salaries.
They argue that all these roles and their big paychecks are, of course, absolutely essential despite the evidence to the contrary.
Despite all the promises about shrinking the state sector here to a level more appropriate to a country of our size -- and a country that recently went bankrupt to boot -- little has changed. Life -- and a very good life it is too -- goes on for the top layer in Irish society.
Meanwhile the ordinary people -- the middle class -- are squeezed mercilessly.
Is it any wonder people here were cynical about the president’s Christmas message and him waffling on about holding seminars about ethics (all at the public expense)? As my old teacher used to say, he needs to cop himself on.