At the end of your budget speech on Tuesday last you said: "A Cheann Comhairle, there is every reason to be confident about the future of this economy and this country if we only have confidence in ourselves." An admirable sentiment, I thought. The only problem, of course, is that I don't believe you. In fact, I find it impossible to believe anything you say at this stage, because you have been utterly wrong so many times, to the point where the only credible options are that you were totally unprepared and incompetent in the face of the catastrophe that has dominated our lives since 2008, or that you are complicit in a strategy designed to protect a wealthy handful at the expense of the many.
How else can we explain your comment on the astonishing 2008 bank guarantee, when you made the debts of Ireland's most amoral, despicable scumbags, the greedy, worthless vermin who sat on the banks' boards and ran their institutions into the ground while lavishly rewarding themselves, into a debt carried by the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, and everyone else who lives in this godforsaken country - how could you say (with a straight face) that it was "the cheapest bailout in the world so far", when now, two years later, it has led directly to the arrival of the IMF? When the banks' losses will strangle any hope of economic activity in this State for years, possibly decades? Did you actually believe it when you said it, or was it a barefaced lie?
Well, how about last year's Budget speech, when you said: "As we begin to emerge from the unrelenting economic gloom of the last eighteen months, we need to rediscover our optimism and our self-belief. Now more than ever, we need that confidence on which business thrives. The measures contained in this Budget, some of them unpalatable, will engender that confidence." There's that word again! But those measures didn't engender confidence, unless you count being priced out of the bond markets a resounding success and having to call in the IMF a triumph of forward planning. If you were so wrong then, how can we possibly believe that you are right now? Especially when you have been voted Europe's worst finance minister for two years running by The Financial Times, hardly a bastion of lefties and liberals (and you were second-worst in 2008, the year you took the job).
I wish, Brian, that you would tell me (what I believe to be) the truth for once, and break the habit of a lifetime. I wish you would come out and say, some evening, on Prime Time: "We guaranteed the banks to protect our friends who were customers of those banks, because we were too deluded to believe the evidence that was right in front of our eyes, that our banks were not just bust, but so bust that they had the potential to sink the State. We gambled because we thought we could bluff our way out of it, and because Fianna Fail never really bothers to think through the consequences of its actions. We did it because that's what Fianna Fail has always done: it rescues the powerful and dumps their debts on the weak, because I'd prefer to see a crooked banker stay rich than upset the cosy status quo which pretends that the people running our top institutions have any more morals than a Sheriff Street drug dealer. And even though none of my policies have worked, and I'll be remembered as the finance minister who screwed up the country so badly that the EU and the IMF had to come in to fix it, I don't care even slightly because I'm set for life with my huge pension, and maybe a comfy position in Europe. So why should I give a toss if the peasants are rooting through dustbins for food and emigrating in their droves because anywhere is better than here?"
But that's not the Fianna Fail way, is it? Telling the truth, I mean. After all, doesn't the old joke say: "How can you tell a Fianna Fail TD is lying? His lips move." You are a part of that privileged group, along with the consultants and lawyers and semi-state directors and bankers and stockbrokers and top civil servants and all the others who comprise the golden circles in our country, who view Ireland as their own personal fiefdom, who believe that the misery and poverty of others matters not a jot as long as their bellies is full and their pockets bulging, that there is no limit to what they should be paid, that the coffers of the State are there for them to indulge themselves with, and that anyone who behaves otherwise is deserving of contempt.
Well, Brian, I'm one of those little people you so despise. I'm on a low income, and have spent the last two years in a continual state of anxiety and depression thanks to you and your mates and your 'tough decisions'. The phrase 'tough decisions', which gives right-wing economists an erection (as long as the tough decisions aren't being applied to them), is one that your Government has trotted out continuously, but it's blatantly obvious that your supposed toughness only extends to abusing the vulnerable and helpless. Where was your steely resolve when dealing with that shower of scum who ran our banks? The people who have wrecked our economy (thanks to your guarantee) while telling you lie after lie about the state of their balance sheets? According to Morgan Kelly in October 2010, "apart from some token departures of executives too old and rich to care less, the senior management of the banks that caused this crisis continue to enjoy their richly earned rewards." Where were the sackings in 2008? Why weren't conditions included in the guarantee which made all previous pension arrangements with the banks' senior figures null and void, and any future pension arrangements subject to Department of Finance approval? How about a clause stating that any senior banker who knowingly lied to the Department would be imprisoned? Where were the speedy investigations for fraud? When Michael Fingleton, that piece of human excrement, walked away from his ruined bank with a pension worth millions, you wagged your finger and tut-tutted your disapproval, but when it came to cutting welfare you punched like Mike Tyson. Obviously, a fair fight interests you less than kicking the crutches out from under the disabled.
But let's get back to those tough decisions, the ones that will destroy so many lives (and this is a certainty: a whole generation will have their futures annihilated by your party's actions, but I guess it's not the first time, eh? After all, wasn't it your dear old Dad who said that there's wasn't enough room for everyone on this small island?). The problem I have with them is not simply the fact that they are barbaric; it is the fact that you've ploughed the same furrow for the past two years and it hasn't bloody worked! You've cut E14 billion out of the economy since 2008 and our problems have just gotten worse and worse. Of course, they haven't gotten worse for you or your cronies, because you've made sure that you're insulated from the deprivation you're inflicting on the poor with your huge salaries and lavish expenses.
As I face next year, my wife and I are going to have to cut our own spending again, reducing our food bill, our fuel bill, and cancelling expenses we can no longer afford (like health insurance). All our bills will be going up at the same time as our earnings are being cut further. And every penny that we can no longer spend will provide another blow to local businesses, many of whom are already struggling to survive. A large unexpected expense (like, say, a new car) could quite literally reduce us to bankruptcy. And we're lucky, in that we have fat left to trim. How do you feel about those people who'll have to choose between food and heat this winter because of you?
Of course, I could get another job but hey! There aren't any! Because people aren't spending money! And there we're back to that whole confidence issue again, aren't we, Brian? To fix the economy, we must have growth. To have growth, we must have jobs. To have jobs, people must spend money. To spend money, people must have money in the first place. But where are the jobs going to come from? There is no plan for stimulus in this or any budget you've proposed. Your savage cuts (and let's repeat: people will die as a result of your actions) would be almost bearable if every penny taken was being used to give Ireland world-class infrastructure, a top-notch universal health system, education facilities to rival the best, and so forth. But it isn't. It's only going to fill a hole left by Fianna Fail's appalling mismanagement of the last ten years, and if this country ever emerges from this pit, it will be even more behind its European partners than it was at the height of the boom. You're going to hobble the economy for a decade and hope that something turns up out of the blue to save you, the classic Fianna Fail policy. In terms of inspiration, it's up there with Homer Simpson's "let's hide under a pile of blankets and hope that somehow everything turns out alright." What's your plan for when more and more and more people start seriously defaulting on their mortgages as a result of these cuts, Brian? If 200,000 people can't pay back mortgages worth on average E300,000, that's E60 billion that our banks won't get back, isn't it? On top of the E50 billion that we've already pumped into these zombie institutions, and whatever other losses are hiding in the balance sheets that they've repeatedly lied about.
But that's not even the crux of the problem, Brian. The real issue, as many commentators have pointed out, is that Ireland simply cannot afford to repay the debts that you have saddled her with, regardless of how much taxes you raise or cuts you make. We're like a 35-year-old on E50,000 per annum who owes E50 million; no matter how much he cuts his spending he'll never have enough to pay it all back! Even if he were to hand over all his income and live on rainwater and twigs, it would still take decades longer than he'll probably live to hand over all the money. So this budget doesn't even bring any certainty; astonishing as it may seem, you're just kicking the problem into next year, in the anticipation of ... what, exactly, I don't know. Finding a giant stash of leprechaun gold in the Wicklow mountains? Or are Department of Finance alchemists working desperately on turning bullshit into gold, in which case you could clear off the national debt with your collected speeches? Or, cynical as it may seem, maybe you're just delaying the ultimate catastrophe until your party is safely on the opposition benches? All I know is that there's been over two years of this now: two years of stress and dread and sleepless nights, and thanks to you there's no end in sight, just the certainty of further chaos and hardship for the nation.
Every day, I am so happy that I don't have children, and I cannot imagine the stresses that parents must be feeling right now. I wonder, as you're sitting around the dinner table this Christmas with your family, will you spare a thought for those whose pay or welfare you've reduced, who'll be having nightmares about the New Year? Or (the ultimate hypocrisy!) will you salve your conscience by giving a fraction of your enormous salary to charity? Would the sheer obscenity of such a gesture bother you? I doubt it, because, like your cabinet members, shame is an alien concept to you. If it wasn't, Brian Cowen and his whole cabinet would have resigned on September 30th 2008, the moment the bank guarantee exposed once and for all that the previous ten years were nothing more than a giant Ponzi scheme in which most of our top institutions were complicit, but instead he'll be remembered as both the second most worthless Minister for Finance (the prizewinner is your good self) and the second worst Taoiseach (the worst, obviously, being his immediate predecessor, Bertie Ahern) in the history of the State.
You say, Brian, that we all partied in the Celtic Tiger years. I don't who this 'we' represents, but it doesn't represent me. I spent most of the Celtic Tiger earning a modest wage and spending prudently. Like many people, I was ripped off continually by my fellow countrymen, a fact which never seemed to bother the government of the day, your government. I never bought bank shares or had a credit card, and the crooks and morons running our banks never shared with me their profits, even though I'm now paying their colossal debts. I didn't buy an apartment in Bulgaria, and you probably spent more in expenses than I earned in a year. Even now, my only debt is my mortgage. But my standard of living will be destroyed by this and future budgets. And the people who partied the most are definitely not the people who are going to pay the most (unless you're an Irish Times reader who believes that not being able to afford a golfing holiday in South Africa is as serious as being made homeless).
When you were sick recently, Brian, you no doubt received the best of care from the finest specialists, and it probably didn't bother you in the slightest that you were being jumped ahead of all those people who are poorer than you and cannot afford the most expensive private health insurance. Nothing reinforces that feeling of power like knowing that the peasants are waiting months and years for treatment that you can get instantly, does it? Nothing feels quite like sitting in your chauffeur-driven Merc as it cruises past people eating out of dustbins, or queuing for hours to collect their pittance from the dole, less in a year than you earn in a month, does it? And that's what it's all about, behind all the waffle that you excel at. The Ireland you seem to envisage is one where, to paraphrase Alan Moore, the top 10% will be better off and the bottom 10% better off dead. It will be a truly shameful legacy, and I hope that the electorate (and historians) treat you and your government with the contempt you deserve.
A Doubtful Egg.