An opinion piece from the Irish Examiner.
Opinion: Shaun Connolly
Saturday, January 21, 2012
PICTURE the scene in Cobh in the late 1840s as the huddled and wretchedly emaciated figures litter the quay side, idly flicking through Noonan’s Guide to the New World, musing: "Oooooh, shall I stay here and starve to death, or take a lovely little cruise on a famine ship and get some sun? Decisions, decisions ..."
Flash forward a century and a half and you have the finance minister deploying outrageous flippancy as he effectively says: "Calling it unemployment is just such a drag, cheer up and look at it as a sort of gap year for the poor, yeah?"
It is one thing readjusting to this being a powerless, Toy Town government with nothing to offer except austerity, and no ambition other than to prostrate itself as obsequiously as possible before the Troika, but when they start sneering at the very people who elected them on a wave of misguided hope it really is too much.
Well done, Michael Noonan, your utter inability to do absolutely anything at all about mass unemployment has opened up the world to so many.
The 575 people thrown on the dole by TalkTalk, as the Government impotently looked the other way, must be so grateful that abdication of economic responsibility offered so many ‘lifestyle choices’ for them.
And just think of all the joy that redundancy must have brought to those 550 lucky souls at Aviva, 600 at Ulster Bank and 2,000 at AIB as they whooped: "Yah! I’ve got my P45 at last! Thank you, Enda Kenny! Where’s the backpack? Australia here I come!"
It is a wonder the 32 sacked workers at Vita Cortex have the time to demand the very modest pay-off that is cruelly and cynically being withheld from them by the conveniently complicated company structure — surely, they’re too busy stocking-up on sun-tan lotion and beach wear to bother about protesting over that pittance, Mr Noonan?
To be fair to the finance minister, after talking about "a lot" of young people wanting to "get off this small island", he did, at least, acknowledge that the 800 people fleeing abroad every week to find work were not all sun-seekers, but victims of the crash as well.
But it is the smugly casual way he dismissed so many as adrenalin-rush adventurers that caused offence, and again exposed the sudden disconnect that class, coupled with a chauffeur-driven ministerial Merc, can deliver.
When gaffe-tastic tánaiste Mary Coughlan made similarly dismissive remarks about the young unemployed leaving due to "lifestyle choices", she was rounded on in a withering fashion by the same Fine Gael and Labour figures who now don’t dare, or care, to criticise Mr Noonan for delivering identically ridiculous rhetoric.
And is it just coincidence that his ill-judged remarks came on the day Ms Coughlan’s replacement as Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, showed an utter lack of intellectual reach, or the merest hint of originality, by telling the opposition to pull on the "green jersey" and back the Government.
Yes, the very same, and by now threadbare and discoloured, green jersey Brian Lenihan used to implore Mr Gilmore to don, the same Mr Lenihan, who, when finance minister, also spoke of youngsters wanting to get off this "small island" due to joyous curiosity not crushing unemployment.
Indeed, the Fianna Fiasco administration seems to have now merged seamlessly into its Fine Mess/Hard Labour successor.
Mr Noonan was primarily speaking about his own three children working overseas when he blundered into his sloppy lifestyle phraseology, and while that might all be very fine for financially comfortable, middle-class families like his own, who have always sent their children abroad for ‘improvement’, it is a very different reality for the less well-off.
For them, separation is only punctuated by the freeze of a Skype image or the tear-gushing post-Christmas farewell at the airport as their children and siblings, once again, tramp the streets of London for work, or bar-tend in Australia or Canada, dreading the looming day when their visa expires and they know they have to return to this "small island" with its small-minded government and massive unemployment crisis.
The CSO figures tell their own grim tale, with a remorseless rise in Irish nationals emigrating, rocketing from 18,400 in 2009 to 27,700 in 2010, and 40,200 in 2011 — that’s an increase in "lifestyle choices" of 110% — and a total that will, no doubt, be dwarfed again this year.
The middle classes have long been experts at pulling up the drawbridges in this society when the hard times bite, ferrying their hard cash abroad, getting their children into the remaining jobs at home, and, as always, it is those who have had least of the spoils who suffer the most.
And what does Mr Noonan have to offer them, apart from throwing a dog-eared copy of Lonely Planet at them as he pushes them through departures?
Oh, yes, Fine Gael’s fabled ‘jobs budget’, part of the plank of blatant election lies they tried to win an absolute majority with (see also: ‘burning the bond holders’, ‘not another penny to Anglo’, etc, etc).
But this ‘budget’ was soon reduced to an "initiative" and then allowed to die quietly of shame after producing the magnificent total of 5,000 work-experience placements, including that sought-after career opportunity, the petrol pump attendant.
So, if he hasn’t been doing anything about the 500,000 unemployed and 800-per-week emigrants, what exactly has Mr Noonan been doing?
Oh, yes, he grandly announced in New York he was going to stop paying the senior bondholders at Anglo — but the then ECB chief Jean Claude Trichet humiliated him with a firm "Non!" and the Government is now slipping another €1.25bn of our cash into the pockets of Anglo investors — the same Anglo that TD Stephen Donnelly so rightly summed-up as a "dead, criminal organisation".
And Mr Noonan has been "urgently" sorting out the debt crisis, hasn’t he? Oh, but no, he hasn’t actually, because we still have to wait until at least April for that, and because the finance minister is so routinely set upon by the (nationalised) banks and (state-run) NAMA, the bankruptcy term will still be kept at a lengthy three-to-five-year duration (despite it being one year across the border), and mortgage slaves will see little respite, because that would upset the very cowboy financiers who got us into this crisis in the first place.
After Socialist Peadar O’Donnell wrote an angry article decrying that one million people had to emigrate, the then taoiseach Éamon de Valera rang him to say that even if Peadar had been in power a million would have had to leave. Peadar replied: "Ah, maybe, but it wouldn’t have been the same million." Noonan’s remarks make clear that now, as then, it is never those who create Ireland’s cyclical economic collapses who ever pay the price for their folly.