Enda is ruthlessly good at some things

When you see how they treat their friends, you understand how they feel about us, writes Gene Kerrigan

 Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

 Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

We know we're being manipulated. But financially we're somewhat better off. So, we live with the manipulation.

That's just how things are done.

The Fine Gael/Labour Budget is designed to increase inequality, and we know that's unfair. But they gave us some goodies. And that's better than having even more charges, levies and cuts imposed on us. So, we accept the unfairness.

We know the Budget is about using public money to persuade us to elect Fine Gael and Labour candidates. But the side effect is that this misuse of public money puts some cash in our pockets. So, we accept it.

But the scale of the manipulation is epic. They've made a mess of the hospitals, dealing with homelessness is beyond their talents, Irish Water is an expensive joke. But, in the matter of its own electoral prospects, the Government has behaved with an efficiency and ruthlessness that's almost admirable.

Look, for example, at how it stitched up the Fiscal Advisory Council.

The FAC is supposed to examine government economic policy and advise on whether it obeys certain rules. It's part of the apparatus of austerity. We here at Soapbox are not big fans of the FAC, but they're terribly sincere people. They see their role as one of crucial public service.

And the Government openly treats them with contempt.

At best, ministers can use the FAC as intellectual cover for unpopular policies. Otherwise, the FAC is ignored.

Here's a line from the Irish Examiner last week: "The chairman of the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council [Professor John McHale] has denied being put back in his box by the Department of Finance".

Disrespectful, but accurate. The Government gave the FAC plenty of notice that in this Budget it would have €1.5bn to use for political manipulation. The FAC looked at government plans and gave the thumbs up. All within the rules. And not economically damaging, the FAC concluded.

Then, with days to go, Michael Noonan found another €1.5bn down the back of the sofa. He'd have a total of €3bn to buy votes with.

"Ah here," said Professor John McHale, or words to that effect.

He had two points to make. One: this seemed to break EU rules on spending; and, Two: in his view, it was economically risky.

Agree or disagree, the man is not a dope, and he had a job to do. So, he spoke up.

He was instantly shot down. As the Examiner explained: "The Department of Finance revealed it had reached a separate deal on the deficit with the European Commission earlier this year." McHale was using out-of-date figures.

Back in your box, professor.

And McHale, ever the gentleman, immediately conceded that his figures were indeed out of date. Why, though, he wondered aloud, hadn't the department told him of the deal with the EU?

Precisely because it needed to ambush, isolate and discredit you, professor. If you read Soapbox you'd know that our leaders did a deal with our EU overlords. For almost five years they were unhesitatingly obedient to the EU Commission and the European Central Bank. In return, they were now to be allowed some leeway in spending, to enhance their electoral chances.

McHale's main point - that this was economically risky - was lost in the story that he had "retracted" his statement, when he found out relevant information had been withheld from him. Back in your box, professor - take your misgivings about government policy and FAC off.

And this is how they treat their friends.

Back in 2008, this column made the point that the main fight would be over who would pay the cost of the recession, the cost of recovery. The wealthy broke the country, driven by greed. The politicians saw their job as repairing the economy without changing any of the structural inequalities in which they so firmly believe.

They protected the freedom of the market - which means the freedom of the bankers, the freedom of the big landlords, the tax avoidance of the mega-corporations. At the United Nations, as some countries sought to protect their citizens, the Irish Government voted to protect vulture fund capitalists.

They protected the two-tier health system and the class-ridden education system. They protected the use of the housing market as a casino for wealthy gamblers. And they sought to create a private company that would act as a conduit for selling our water supplies to the highest bidder.

They reduced our share of income and thrashed our pensions. They ruined countless lives by cutting services that helped the low paid and the periodically unemployed hold their lives together.

Now, they faced an election.

Fine Gael's core support has been solid. That support expects and backs right wing policies. Labour's supporters expected better. The young people who helped them get elected in 2011 melted away, once burned.

They had this one Budget to rescue the double-act - or Fine Gael will have to find a new partner, perhaps Fianna Fail.

We all know what they did.

It's not that suddenly these extra hundreds of millions popped up out of nowhere. It's not like Brendan Howlin opened a drawer and found a big bundle of money. It's not like Michael Noonan did his sums again in September and realised he could afford a goodie here and a goodie there.

That money has been gathered together. It has been accumulated over at least a year, probably two. Carefully set aside, earmarked for the pre-election period.

Meanwhile, they kept tightening the screws.

It was never about what the economy could afford, and when. It was about hoarding goodies to be dispensed at the last minute.

And so far it has worked. After the past week, they are stronger than ever.

The Opposition is ineffective. They taunt the Government, but they cannot challenge it - Fine Gael and Labour, after all, are merely implementing the Fianna Fail strategy, with more cunning than Fianna Fail ever managed.

As we move into election mode, the weirdness increases. Enda Kenny goes on The Week in Politics and calmly abandons water charges. He has begun speaking of a "contribution", as though the Government is passing a basket around and we can drop in a fiver or a few cents, depending on how we feel.

He is allowed to repeat this, as though he's not making things up. He now praises Irish Water for the number of leaks its meters have detected. This should have been one of the stories of the year - 'Taoiseach Admits Spending Half a Billion on Leak Detection Machines'.

Instead, in this fantasy that Fine Gael/Labour have created, Irish Water is being touted as a success story.

At the last election, Enda Kenny took personal responsibility for solving the hospital trolley scandal. Things are worse than ever. His Minister for Health shrugs, as though he's baffled by it all. And amid the blood and the piss on the A&E floor, a smiling Taoiseach is allowed praise himself for the "stability" he has created.