All hail the new Fianna Gael Alliance


The Irish, it seems, are too thick to think about more than one serious issue at a time, writes Gene Kerrigan

Gene Kerrigan

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

The Fine Gael/Fianna Fail Alliance, after spending two whole months forming a government, is agreed on the continuation of the Irish Water project.

Fianna Fail, being a party of principle, stoutly held to its election promise that it would not enter coalition with Fine Gael. They entered the Alliance instead.

Fianna Fail, being a party of no principle beyond its own advancement, readily agreed to ditch its election promise to "abolish Irish Water".

But, of course, Irish Water doesn't matter any more.

We're all agreed, are we not - the Fianna Gael Alliance, the Independent Alliance, and the officer class of the media - that there are "far more important issues" than Irish Water.

And it's only €3 a week.

They're right - in that most of us can afford €3 a week.

But they're also wrong. The combined actions of FF and FG, with their helpers, have resulted in the spread of low-wage jobs, so that more people than ever don't have a spare €3 at the end of the week.

There are other people who have the €3, but things are so tight that they have to choose carefully how they spend it.

And there are people who could manage the €3 but they figure they've already taken a financial hiding, to save the bankers and the builders.

Ah, but, say the Fianna Gael Alliance fans, surely there are more serious issues?

They're right - and, again, they're wrong.

They're right because the consequences of homelessness, or a chaotic public health service, or property speculation, or untreated mental problems, are far more serious than the consequences of water charges.

But, they're wrong in that we don't have to forget Irish Water in order to be angry at Leo Varadkar diverting millions from mental health resources. We know they have a low regard for us, but we're not nearly as dim as the average backbencher.

Irish Water has been about siphoning money from us, to no good purpose, but the long-term aim has been privatisation.

The protests have been about the money - and they forced FG/Labour to drastically reduce the charges. But they've also been about opposition to selling the water supply to private interests. Few things anger people more than being treated as a fool. And what has angered many, even those who reluctantly coughed up for the water charges, was the brazen way in which the parties tried to take us for a ride.

Where did Irish Water come from? What has been going on? Let's consider what we found out over the past two years.

A cynical Chicago politician laid down a rule: "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." He meant that a crisis gives manipulative politicians an opportunity to get away with things that would arouse dissent in normal times.

From the 1980s, the Thatcher revolution spread the gospel of privatisation: transport, water, telecoms - the quality of services declined, as fat cats vanished over the horizon in trucks full of money.

In Ireland, the politicians followed suit where possible, and did so with their usual efficiency. Telecoms - closely followed by the Moriarty Tribunal; bin charges, closely followed by a decline in service. They're working on transport, and making a hash of it.

Privatising water was dicey. No one dared try it on.

Then, the bankers crashed the economy in 2008. And, you never want a serious crisis to go to waste.

In 2009, Fine Gael invented the notion of Irish Water; in 2010 Fianna Fail ran with it; FG picked up the ball after the 2011 election.

The European Central Bank, working to the same privatisation agenda, pushed things along.

This, of course, is all left-wing paranoia. Until you look at the record. Or try to.

What was discussed at Irish Water's initial meetings? That would be nice to know, but as RTE's This Week programme found out, a rake of meetings took place without the retention of minutes recording what was discussed or decided.

This is not at all usual.

The customary hordes of "consultants" feasted on the easy prey - a pack of cheetahs descending on a virginal gazelle. Around €50m was spent on consultants, we were told, then we got a total of €86m spent on consultants and lawyers.

A nominal €150m was set aside for setting up the company, with a "contingency" fund of another €30m - maybe that was for tea bags and Marietta biscuits in case anyone got peckish at those un-minuted meetings.

Irish Water furiously denied splashing bonuses around to the top staff. The top staff, they said, were given "performance-related rewards".

Half a billion was spent on meters. A vast Irish Water set-up exists to raise the money it costs to run Irish Water.

But, really, privatisation? They wouldn't be so manipulative, would they?

You can't sell a utility paid for out of tax. You must create a "revenue stream" to produce a profit for speculators.

We know that a PwC report commissioned by the Government wrote of "competitive markets in the water sector at a later date". It suggested Irish Water be designed for "the possibility of future retail competition".

We know that Eurostat wrote bluntly, in a letter to the Central Statistics Office, that "privatisation is ultimately envisaged". Outfits like Eurostat are used to calling things as they see them.

The CSO asked for that reference to be removed from the letter.

We know that when Irish Water started writing to us it demanded our PPS numbers: and our home phone numbers, mobile numbers, email addresses and bank account details.

Why did they need all this data? They said it was so they'd know where to deliver the water.

Eh, you've got a goddamn pipe leading to our homes.

They were creating a database that would be a lucrative asset when it came time to privatise Irish Water.

How do we know they would treat our data as an "asset"?

Well, when you ploughed through a difficult-to-read website you found that in a sale of Irish Water our data "will be one of the transferred assets".

Irish Water could transfer or process our data at will, the website said, and "by submitting data to Irish Water, the Customer agrees to this".

When they knew people were ferreting around their site, they took down the stuff about privatisation.

Oh, that old stuff, that was - well, we didn't mean to put that up, that was a mistake. Really.

Spontaneous protest, beyond anything that the Left could organise, sprang up. This forced the politicians to cut the bills, temporarily. The aim is to do whatever it takes to get us on the books, to create that saleable "revenue stream".

Protesters were bad-mouthed as a "sinister fringe". They were compared to Islamic State. Every mistake by any individual - and there were mistakes - was treated as a planned manoeuvre by the whole movement. It was not the media's finest hour.

Already, the politicians who have wreaked havoc on public health, asset-stripped the citizens and presided over soaring rates of suicide, tell us we must stop thinking about Irish Water. And think of serious issues.

As though we're incapable of taking a position on more than one serious issue at a time.

Already, I'm sorry to say - but not surprised - the media has joined in this meme. All hail, it seems, the new Fianna Gael Alliance! There will be fun to be had spotting the odd infight. But the media, I fear, is entering one of its "responsible" periods. As the cringe-making media performance on "government formation" showed, we don't have sources, we have handlers.

Original article: Sunday Independent May 1, 2016

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.