We have exited the bailout, but we are far from fiscally free.
And we have paid a terrible price for the folly, incompetence, greed and, in some cases, corruption of those who brought us to this sorry state.
The economic war goes on, even if we have won a battle in that war. That is where we stand this week in the aftermath of the Taoiseach’s address to the nation on Sunday night.
The Government was right to use the bailout exit as an opportunity to attempt to retrieve our battered international image. The international media turned out in force in Dublin on Friday and Ministers were on hand to brief them on the progress made in the grim journey to some kind of financial rehabilitation.
One foreign journalist remarked that we were once an international disgrace, but we were now respected for the manner in which we had raised ourselves from the financial gutter.
And in the gutter we were. Who would have thought that the new Republic of decades ago would see boom and bust and, then, a bust so great that we had to ask for international help as we were confronted with insolvency?
In the grim 1980s, when Ireland was yet again in recession, the possible arrival of the IMF was a black joke. Nobody really believed that it would happen, although our circumstances were dire.
Then, we clawed our way back – or rather the people did at the usual cost – and we were, it seemed, economically viable. But it was all an illusion and the required remedial action came too late when the rot set in.
When some commentators warned that you could not sustain an economy on the proceeds from a property boom, they were told to get lost by the Government. The then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, told them bluntly to go and commit suicide, an appalling gaffe. Even as the storm clouds gathered, the Government and their senior advisers were in denial. In October 2010, the then Minister for Finance, the late Brian Lenihan, said he was “absolutely sure” that Ireland would not have to seek an IMF bailout. Mind you, he did concede that the country had real fiscal and banking problems to address.
The following month, the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, denied we would need a bailout, but accepted that intensive discussions were required with our European counterparts on the economic situation.
Time moved on. And then, on that fateful day, November 18th, the Central Bank Governor, Patrick Honohan, went on early morning radio to tell us the worst. The Government would be accepting tens of billions in a loan in a rescue package agreed with the EU and the IMF.
Huge unemployment, people economically challenged in a way they could never have imagined in their worst nightmares, pensioners denied the peace of mind and security that should be their lot, and the horror of forced emigration….
It was against this backdrop that the Government marked the bailout exit at the weekend and that Mr Kenny gave his televised address.
Mr Kenny was rightly low-key, emphasising that the bailout was an important step and not an end in itself. “Our lives won’t change overnight,” he said.
He spoke of the Government’s economic plan, to be announced this week. It is envisaged that it will run until 2020. Given the false economic dawns of the past, when grandiose plans were introduced, people will inevitably be sceptical.
The most recent Irish Times opinion poll showed that a whopping 33 per cent of voters remain undecided about their political choice. So one-third of the electorate are watching and waiting. Politically, there is much to play for. With such a significant section of the electorate declining to opt for any party, we are in a very volatile situation. Meanwhile, in post-bailout Ireland, people will be glad that there will be a strong measure of European surveillance of our economic policies. History has shown that those entrusted to govern us failed. And it must never happen again. Questions abound. Can we sustain the scale of our debt? Just how severe will next year’s budget be? Where will the savings come from? The Taoiseach and the Government avoided triumphalism at the weekend. This was as it should be. For the Irish people, the struggle goes on.
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