Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Eamonn McCann: At least Bertie is not feeling the pinch as Celtic Tiger whimpers

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

Bertie Ahern is a Manchester United fan but that’s the least of his sins. It’s understandable he should be enamoured of the Old Trafford outfit, it being a fact universally acknowledged among us football people that followers of United know less about the game than supporters of any other club in the Premiership or, possibly, for all I know, in the universe.

But Bertie has never allowed knowing nowt to hold him back.

Regular readers will recall that it was while on a junket to witness the money-bloated brats intimidating referees, fouling their way to fraudulent victories, throwing themselves on the ground and squirming in agony any time an opponent breathed on them that a gang of fellas he knew only vaguely and whose names he couldn’t remember insisted for no apparent reason on thrusting wads of mazooma into his mit.

Bertie was always meeting people like that. They followed him around. Sterling here, dollars there, roubles, yen, the occasional euro, it kept coming at him from all sides.

Now it’s reported the former Taoiseach is pocketing sizeable sums of public money in return for no discernible service.

Fintan O’Toole was riding high on his horse in the Irish Times on Tuesday, complaining that Ahern is currently trousering more than €100,000 a year, plus “generous” expenses, a gilt-edged pension and a car and chauffeur available 24/7, and had his office at Leinster House refurbished just last year at a cost to the taxpayer of €220,000.

In return, so to speak, he calls in at the Dail every few weeks. Dropped by the office on June 10, it seems, and again on July 10.

Fintan takes a prim view of this sort of thing, and demanded to know why Ahern doesn’t tie an anvil around his brass neck and buck-lep into the Liffey. Well, that was me actually. Fintan expressed a similar thought, though: “Why does he not resign?”

The reason he doesn’t resign is that he will have been genuinely bewildered by Fintan’s censure. Are not these the standards by which he operated before and during his decade as Taoiseach? And wasn’t it the dominant view of all who mattered at that time that he was only doing a brilliant job? The country, like Bertie himself, was awash with money. Why spoil the party by asking whence it came and whose it rightfully was?

Bertie ran the economy the way he ran his own finances.

By far the biggest factor attracting financial service companies to the Republic during the Celtic Tiger years was the assurance that, like the Taoiseach himself, there would be nobody checking up on the source of the riches they would accumulate and they’d be virtually exempt from taxation. If Ahern found it difficult to tell where the money in his office cupboards, biscuit tins and the bank accounts of his partner at the time had come from, wasn’t the same true of the burgeoning financial sector which had made the Republic the apple of capitalism’s eye?

In July 2007, just as Bertie was brazening out the latest revelations at the Mahon Tribunal and the economy was straining towards the giddy pinnacle of its roller-coaster ride before poising to begin its precipitate plunge, Financial Regulator Patrick Neary explained that his approach to company accounts was based on “mutual trust” between regulator and regulated.

“We want to enforce compliance in a reasonable way.”

Neary was on €260,857 a year. He retired last January, not exactly in glory. Somebody slipped €630,000 of the taxpayers’ money into his pocket on his way out the door. (He got €428k in a retirement lump sum and €202k special pay-off in respect of two years left on his contract).

A White Paper issued by Ahern’s Government in 2004 had confirmed the Neary approach as official: “We will regulate as lighty as possible...and use more alternatives.”

The alternatives included “sharing the regulatory role between the regulated authority and the regulated groups”, and allowing “firms and individuals...to choose the process by which they comply with the law.”

Firms which agreed to locate in the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) — that wilderness of glass where the Enterprise pulls in — were promised “full market freedom”, “no transfer pricing legislation”, “no thin capitalisation rules”, and “proactive Private-Public Industry Forums” where finance company executives, regulators and Government officials would meet to discuss common interests.

Any proposed change in regulatory policy, or indeed in any policy, relating to the IFSC had to be referred to a specially-constituted IFSC Clearing House Group before being submitted to the Department of the Taoiseach.

This was a unique arrangement within the Government. Possibly within any government.

The Clearing House Group included representatives of the biggest banks and hedge funds operating in the IFSC — AIB Capital Markets, Merrill Lynch, State Street International etc.

No representative of trades unions, pensioners’ groups, the Salvation Army, StVincent de Paul, the GAA or, indeed, of any other section of society whatsoever was included. The State had no function other than to facilitate the Centre in making money for the new masters.

Come to Ireland, live like Bertie.

I see, incidentally, that Bertie’s boys bricked it when it came to penalties against Oligarch Rovers at Wembley last weekend.

Perhaps a grand pattern has been written in the heavens ... Irish capitalism, Bertie Ahern and the Evil Ones ... they’ll all go down together when they go.

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