Gene Kerrigan: Rampaging rich pawing the ground again

Gene Kerrigan: Rampaging rich pawing the ground again

Behind the scenes, politicians face pressures on making decisions that affect us – we need to be heard, writes Gene Kerrigan

There was a meeting four months ago, on November 22, at which the mood of Irish politics was assessed, with a view to advancing the interests of rich people.

That’s not what was written in the agenda, but it’s the reality of what was happening.

Paschal Donohoe, Minister for Finance, was at the meeting. Also scheduled to attend were various bankers and investment managers – the people who handle the gambling affairs of the rich.

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The meeting didn’t make any front page. It didn’t make the news pages at all. It was tucked away on the business pages, where the people who matter are kept informed.

Bloomberg, the business news group, found out about the meeting through a Freedom of Information request, and other media carried Bloomberg’s story.

And another omen: last week, as the Irish leisured classes frolicked at Cheltenham, we had a sighting of – no kidding – Brian Cowen, enjoying the gee-gees (which is easy enough to do when you retire aged 51 on a €150k pension).

Most depressing in Simon Carswell’s report in The Irish Times was the appearance at Cheltenham of chortling young Irish bucks – the “We’re back, baby!” brigade.

A quote from a 23-year old: “Brian Cowen is back, Bertie Ahern is back, we are all back. AIB shares will be going up!”

The chatter of eejits matters little, but evidence of rising morale within a social force that so recently wreaked so much destruction matters a lot.

And the Irish rampaging rich do indeed seem to be pawing the ground again.

Let’s see what that November meeting, and the renewed vigour of the “We’re back, baby!” brigade tell us about the likely political direction in which we’re headed.

Almost always, Irish politics is analysed in the context of the next general election. This involves predicting whether Fianna Fail or Fine Gael will get the edge; what are their prospects in the individual constituencies and which small parties or groups might “make up the numbers” to form a government.

In short – Irish political analysis is mostly about the process, not the political direction in which vested interests will seek to push us. I don’t care whether FG or FF gets the most votes, because in political terms it matters little – and mostly to the personal ambitions of a set of interchangeable politicians.

A more useful way of assessing what’s happening, I think, is to see it in terms of periods of time shaped by political currents.

Which way is the partnership of power and money drifting, and how will that affect the rest of us?

For instance: the period 1994-2003 was one in which the Irish economy finally clicked into the global economy, which was booming.

The political drift involved genuine gains in employment and earnings, but the political parties continued to refuse to adequately fund social needs.

While the rich went mad gambling, another generation of kids was being educated in “temporary” prefab classrooms; and thousands of hospital beds which had been closed by the Haughey-led tax-evaders of the 1980s weren’t replaced.

The period 2002-2008 was one in which the greedy shook off all restraint and the politicians handed over the running of the country to the bankers and developers.

The decade since 2009 was about cleaning up the mess they made.

Some of us said, as that period began, that the aim of the political parties was to restore the economy without changing the structural inequalities that crush so many, and that freed the comfortable classes to indulge their recklessness.

We said that the decision to turn private debt into public debt would mean prolonged austerity, with the pain that involved, including premature deaths for those a fractured health service could not save.

Social programmes and spending were cut, supports people needed to escape terribly damaging circumstances, or to receive life-saving treatment, or to receive treatment that made hard lives tolerable.

Privately, knowing there would be little fight back by the vulnerable, the politicians and their agents referred to this as sacrificing the “low-hanging fruit”.

Other austerity measures – the local property tax, wage and job cuts – were more difficult, but they managed them.

Pretty soon, Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton was smiling as she posed for a photo while cutting a ribbon to open a food bank.

That meeting on November 22 last involved Paschal Donohoe being urged to remove the cap on bankers’ pay. Currently, the cap is at €500,000, but half a million is nothing to a senior banker.

There’s little relation between the income of the rich and the usefulness of their work – to society, to any company they manage or to anything other than their own high self-regard.

The income doesn’t relate to hours worked, to the difficulty of the work or the qualifications of those working, or the results they achieve.

We have the evidence that this is true: top Irish bankers were paid €2m and €3m when the banks were being run into the ground.

Paschal Donohoe is nervous about this. He’s scared that if he favours the bankers, there’ll be a political backlash.

On the other hand, he expects bankers to whinge, but the meeting in November was at the behest of investment managers – who represent shareholders. They claim it’s a matter of “huge concern” that bankers are limited to a mere half million.

It’s almost as though shareholders fear that bankers won’t take enough risks unless they’re incentivised, by big bucks.

Donohoe is spending a lot of money hiring a consultant outfit to look into the matter – a way of putting off the decision.

Why not just say no?

Well, after all, these are bankers, not nurses.

Those who merely bought homes during the Celtic bubble are chased for the consequences of the crash – and they might be evicted.

But, those who borrowed and gambled on property merely washed themselves clean of debt through Nama or short-term bankruptcy.

The recently published Knight-Frank Wealth Report says there are now 77,984 millionaires in Ireland, up 2,942 in one year, which means increasing amounts of the value we as a society produce are being sucked away by a small cabal of those who are already more than comfortable.

Last week, Eilish O’Regan reported in the Independent that a cancer specialist, Prof Brian Hennessy, has noted a reduction in the number of clinical trials, which allow patients a chance to use experimental drugs, when all else has failed.

“We have gone backwards”, he said. “Ireland has the know-how to do more trials… Cancer trials can extend lives and give people a better quality of life.”

It’s not the drugs they can’t afford, it’s the lack of clinical trial infrastructure.

“Resource constraints in our cancer units and at our head office,” he said, mean “there are trials we simply cannot do at present”.

Expensive infrastructure, I suppose?

Well, €1.2m a year.

A lousy one million and small change.

So, the mood of Irish politics is being assessed, with a view to advancing the interests of rich people.

The rich think it would benefit them to give bankers bigger bucks, and they want Donohoe and his colleagues to comply.

We need to make the kind of loud, vicious noise that will persuade the politicians it’s more dangerous to neglect the cancer patients than to tell the bankers to bugger off.

Sunday Independent

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