Current Affairs / Economy

Irish elections 2009: The Charge of the Right Brigade

Ireland is bracing itself for the Charge of The Right Brigade.

Right in the moral sense, as in wanting to severely chastise those who have done wrong, in this case the Fianna Fail government, at the polls next Friday.

But right also in the sense of the term Right Wing. Unquestionably the electorate are justified in feeling as they do under the first definition of right.

The tragedy lies in the fact that though it appears inevitable that the public will record a triple vote of no Confidence in the government in next Friday’s European, Local Government and parliamentary by-elections, thus leading to an equally inevitable General Election fairly shortly there after.

However, whatever combination of parties form the next government (presumably Fine Gael and Labour), it will have to continue with Fianna Fail’s present policies of Tax and Cut.

For the brutal reality of our present situation would appear to be that daily, the country currently spends some €50 million more on social services and the public service than it gets in revenue.


Daily also, the numbers of unemployed rise so that instead of being contributors to the exchequer these unfortunates become a drain on the public purse. So some belt tightening is obviously necessary.

But, at the same time, as dazedly, the long suffering Irish public gazes at the consequences of horrific job losses. People are forced to grapple with the nearly incomphrensible parallel reality that Fianna Fail is simultaneously spending billions on efforts to shore up banks whose directors’ reckless behaviour would appear in some cases to have been in breach of their legal fiduciary responsibilities.

Today’s electorate, their children and grandchildren are being committed to shouldering stratospheric debts in what is probably a vain attempt to shore up these irresponsible banks .

But these grim facts alone do not explain the depth of the public’s anger with Fianna Fail.

The public are well aware that there is an international crisis and that bank bail-outs are not confined. It was not better for either the country or the party that Fianna Fail endeavoured to make political supporters of builders and developers by inviting them into the infamous fund raising tent at Galway Races each year at so many thousand euro per scrotum.

The symbolism of the tent for the Irish public is that the unholy alliance of politicians, builders and developers pissed out on the rest of us by creating and maintaining an unsustainable property bubble which catastrophically worsened Ireland’s position in the face of the international financial tsunami.

The warnings of the few economists who spoke out were derided. Significantly, one of these commentators, RTE’s former Economics Editor, is now odds-on to defeat his Fianna Fail rival in one of the by-elections.


Bertie Ahern, however, wondered out loud why people like Lee did not commit suicide. When the whiff of corruption forced Ahern himself him out of office, his departure took the form of a long goodbye of speeches and functions that went on for months, obscuring the growing threat of collapse in the building boom.

Brian Cowen, the Minister for Finance, whose ministry is supposed to prevent such collapses took office in a splurge of  congratulatory, down home celebrations in his native Offaly and throughout the rural GAA world he is most at home in.

This too went on for more months, contributing to the impression that all was well with the economy, unemployment was a thing of the past, Fianna Fail was in its heaven and all was right with the world. Who cared about talk of corruption, stroke-pulling, over-charging in pub, restaurant and supermarket? Everyone was making money.

Well, as the world knows, all was not well. The cranes fell lifeless across the country. The brutal, yellow earth-moving, landscape-defiling, building machinery, the tough-looking unshaven men in the day glow jackets, disappeared from the building sites. Half-completed apartments, boarded-up sites, bought at hugely inflated prices, be-spattered the land.

In the Dail, the bullying, hectoring style which Cowen had begun with in his opening jousts with the principal Opposition leader, Enda Kenny, gave way to a furtive, sweaty demeanor, which had all the inspirational leadership qualities of a rabbit caught in the glare of a head light.

Ineffective cost-cutting

His ineffectiveness and that of his colleagues was encapsulated for me one night last year, after the government ushered in its cost-cutting program by proposing to take back medical cards from the over-70s.

I suggested to my TD, Mary Hanafin, the Minister for Social Welfare, that this was not the best way to go about winning friends and influencing people. She rounded on me: “We’ve taken a 10 percent pay cut. What more can we do?”

A few days later a grey tide rolled through Dublin, culminating in mass meetings outside the Dail. The Government promptly restored most of the cards, but the crisis deepened and suddenly there were solicitors and architects in the dole queues. Parents with a negative equity mortgage lay awake at night wondering how they could keep their children in fee paying schools.

Hanafin is the archetypical example of what ineffectual Fianna Fail has become. Her father was the Fianna Fail Treasurer, a post not associated with penury, her late husband a very prominent earner at the Irish Bar. She has no children, a ministerial salary of some €200,000, a State car and driver.

But, and it is a very big but, middle class Dublin to whom she once appealed has suddenly entered the world of the dole queue. The chattering classes are still there. But it is their teeth which are chattering.

People are worrying about the situation erupting on to the streets. I would assess that danger as being remote—as yet. A great deal of anger will be defused if  the polls are borne out and Fianna Fail does get a monumental kick up the backside next Friday.

But that €50 million a day still has to be found .

All sorts of new taxes and and savage welfare cuts are forecast for the Government’s coming budget in October, the third in a year. But even if the government falls before then the Charge of the Right  Brigade will go ahead anyway, fuelled in part by a Reagan-Thatcherite anti-Union, anti-Welfare vein in Fine Gael.

‘Cut social welfare’

Licking his lips one former Fine Gael Minister commented to me recently: ”This can be got right if we have the balls. Make it worth while for them to work. Cut out this minimum wage nonsense and cut  the social welfare payments.”

What work? Where will the money come from to pay the new taxes?

And oh! What about those billions for the banks? Who’ll pay them?

These are the questions and others like them which are likely to be drowned out initially by the thunder of the Charge of the Right Brigade.

But if they are not answered with discernment and sensitivity, Ireland has a history of taking its politics on to the streets and behind  barricades not easily breached, even by a charge of the Right Brigade.

– First published 2nd June 2009 at