Blessed with nothing but good intentions

Finally, the long heralded debt deal has arrived, and with no small fanfare. As the Dail Debate ended, Enda Kenny declared “[t]he Anglo promissory-note payments are gone“, which made for catchy, if misleading, headlines. The deal, as you’ll have read, postpones payment of IBRC debt for up to 30 years. While Anglo’s debts aren’t quite gone (we still being forced to pay them), they have been pushed far enough in to the future so as to make them look much more…manageable.

This is obviously great news, which is why the Irish Times asked economist Pat McArdle to explain to us lay people why. McArdle made the point: “every borrower knows, a longer mortgage is easier to service as inflation and time erodes the real burden of the repayment“, which offers us “some light at the end of a very dark tunnel“. For the ungrateful among you still disappointed that you’re paying off bondholder’s mortgages, the Irish Times was quick to declare that the deal was the best we could hope for “given that debt write-offs were never on the cards.”

Needless to say the Government were not the only ones proud of their deal. In the following days the Irish Times’ Stephen Collins marveled at the “scale of the Government’s achievement“. Using the same phrase to lead not one, but two articles. He went on to reassure them the deal “should steady nerves…after a wobbly few weeks”. While it was a team effort, with the “Coalition’s credibility as well as the country’s vital national interest on the line”, there was still a opportunity to single out certain individuals who had risen above the rest.

The “elder statesman of the Government, Michael Noonan [gave] a lesson…about the importance of holding their nerve when things are looking their worst“. Mary Regan, of the Irish Examiner, declared that “Kenny has ushered in a Spring of Hope“, pulling off “his greatest political triumph so far”. The deal “would probably secure his legacy”, proving wrong all “those who doubted his leadership ability”. Miriam Lord was fascinated by the drama of it all, breathlessly commenting, “with all twists and turns of a spy novel, the Anglo riddle was solved” by a “hero” who “came up with as good as it gets”. And the Irish Independent declared it a “rare chink of light in an abysmal political landscape“.

If it comes as surprise that political commentators chose to focus on the individual or party achievements, rather than, say, parsing the details of the actual deal, or perhaps the democratic circumstances in which it was passed. It’s probably because you failed to grasp the principle importance of the deal. As the Irish Times explained in it’s handy Q&A:

“Why was it so important to achieve a deal? Apart from the cost savings that will be realised under the newarrangement, the Government had hung its hat on the negotiations and thus needed the political victory that should ensue.”

So, apart from the minor question of what to do about the nationalising of 25bn euro worth of toxic bank debt, the Government had made a public commitment, and, well, it’s in serious need of coming through on one of those, for the sake of the Government. This is important because, as the Irish Independent explains, “right now, more than any other time, Ireland needs a stable government“. And with polls shifting away from the incumbents, “the deal could not have come at a better time politically for Fine Gael“. Thankfully, Noel Whelan was not the bearer of bad news, reporting a “massive boost for down-at-the-polls Coalition“.

Unfortunately for those of us who are not political correspondents with access to the halls of power, little energy was expended detailing how the deal was actually struck. Gene Kerrigan, writing in the Irish Independent, gave a taste of it. He explained how the “Dail bully-boys” mocked the legislative process, effectively undermining “by any means possible, what remains of a functioning opposition within the Oireachtas”. The performance was a “threat [to] our democracy”. If any of you had stayed up until the small hours to witness the debate, I’m sure, whether you agreed with the thrust of the deal or not, you’d have trouble disagreeing with this blunt characterisation.

Although not everyone saw it that way, Stephen Collins remained in awe, saying: “The leak from the ECB that triggered the all-night debate in the Oireachtas was probably fortuitous as it necessitated quick decision-making.” But, according to some commentators, this decision-making prowess necessitated compromises elsewhere. For commentators who had days earlier strained to understand what the Irish Examiner referred to as the “scholastic caution of Mr Kenny’s ambivalent response to the Magdalene Report” this was a revelation. For Miriam Lord, the demystification of Kenny’s restraint was dramatic: “now maybe we can understand why, in his distraction, he took his eye off the ball when framing his response to the Magdalene laundries reportfrom villain to hero in three days.”

The fanfare over the deal was though to be short lived. As quickly as the Irish Times could declare, “austerity in coming years less harsh due to debt deal”, hope was to be dashed only a few paragraphs later, “while it may be tempting to slow pace of fiscal adjustment…this would be a risky strategy“. The fire lit by “the Government’s achievement” needed to be quickly quenched if we are to “stick to the austerity programme“.

As such, an Irish Times editorial proposed that “the Government now needs to lower rather than raise public expectations about what measure of relief may be expected in next year’s budget”. In reward for it’s “stoic resolution” in the face of years of cuts to “living standards, reduced social benefits and higher unemployment”, the government “can offer the public some modest hope that the burden of fiscal adjustment may be eased – albeit slightly”, but it should make this in the context of assurances to “Ireland’s lenders that any such adjustments will not affect its commitment to a 3 per cent deficit target by 2015.”

This editorial position certainly took the wind out of Fintan O’Toole’s sail when he attempted to put to rest “expectations of the end of austerity“. In the event that we doubted the anonymous Irish Times editorial sage, Arthur Beesley was despatched to extensively cite an anonymous European source who explained that “such remarks were very poorly received in troika circles“. In the end we are left with a simple choice, accept austerity or be “dependent on the expensive kindness of strangers

A response neatly encapsulated by the Irish Examiner: “At nearly every point since 2008 the needs of banks and those who invest in them have been given priority,” as it shuffled the ever shifting line in the sand that gives us “the right to call ourselves a society”. We’re assured it’s “this time social needs must prevail”.

Unfortunately, comments like these, circumscribed as they are, are little but rare deviations from an establishment narrative. A narrative that has been successfully employed since 2008, save for a handful of revealing failures “to shape public opinion”, as former Irish Time editor Geradline Kennedy would say, such as the Household Charge. Which is partly why a call to arms from Fintan O’Toole rings hollow: “Let’s stop talking about it and do something – before it�s too late. That something is simple, relatively undemanding, dignified and peaceful – a citizens’ petition”

Partly this, and partly because no matter how often you read an opinion deriding Ireland’s failure to enact a strong protest movement from Ireland’s left media establishment, you don’t hear protestations against their own employers when occasions of sensationalism and bias meet on the front of the Irish Independent. Such as news that a group of peaceful protesters who had turned up at the chamber of South Dublin County Council uninvited, before being enthusiastically arrested, were accused of “storming [the] council chamber“. Instead, you get editorial comment such as this from the Irish Examiner:

Speaking at the Dublin protest MEP Paul Murphy…asserted that the protestors represented the majority of the Irish people. The reality is that those who brought in the tax and those interrupted in council chambers represent the majority. They achieved that by getting elected to office.

Which was apparently delivered without a hint of irony. Despite being printed in paper that spends much of it’s time essentially lobbying the Government to enact Troika economic policy. Or, to generalise a comment by Richard McAleavey, referring to Stephen Collins:

“[the media] has spent years presenting the transfer of tens of billions of euro in public money to private bondholders as a matter of urgent and self-evident necessity

The debt deal, the bank guarantee, the establishment of NAMA, successive austerity budgets; at every significant milestone over the last four years the media has cheerled Government/Troika policy. At least some small part of this ideological collusion seems to stem from a perception that Government has the interests of the people at heart at all times.

To Matt Cooper, the Government’s actions are characterised by “hard work and horrible decisions they feel they are making in almost impossible circumstances“. So when Fintan O’Toole talks about “normalising the Irish freak show” he seems not to realise the freak show isn’t just the normalising of nationalising vast sums of private debt, it’s the normalising by the press commentariat of the circus presented to us through the Oireachtas Live Webcast.

This is not to suggest journalists should assume ulterior motives on behalf of politicians. Journalists are only too aware of the dangers of speculating on personal motives. As Conor Brady explains: “purport[ing] to tell the reader what is going on inside somebody else’s head” can be a costly business. As evidenced by the recent High Court award against the Irish Daily Mail for their ill-founded musings about the sincerity of Denis O’Brien’s aid work in one of Digicel‘s countries of operations, but this does not mean journalists should begin every narrative from the assumption that politicians are blessed with nothing but good intentions.

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