Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

How forelock tugging became cross-border order of the day

Eamonn McCann, Belfast Telegraph

Who's up for a united Ireland now that we know that the South is an economic basket-case ruled by an unsavoury cabal of spectacular incompetents?

A couple of years ago nationalists of all stripes in the North were explaining to anyone willing to listen - and to some of us who weren't but were given no choice - that we'd be fools to refuse to throw in our lot with the rip-roaring Republic.

Harmonise the tax codes, unify the currencies, coordinate all aspects of economic life, and the riches assuredly resulting will wash across the island to erase the border. An astonishing array of people, from recently-retired guerrillas to Northern bankers and academic economists, hitched their hopes for the future to this dreamy prospectus.

Haven't heard much of that sort of palaver recently, have we?

These days, it might be more plausible to suggest that the only thing standing between ourselves and the workhouse is the border. Although, in truth, it's flimsy enough protection partition affords us. Northern workers for Sean Quinn's insurance operation, for example, have not been spared the fearful anxiety of everyone dependent on the Fermanagh man's once-mighty business empire.

Thus, there will have been huge sympathy on both sides of the border for the thousands of Quinn Insurance employees who took to the streets this week in Cavan and Dublin appealing for help to safeguard the future of the firm. It was a striking aspect of the demonstrations that the workers pinned no blame on the boss.

A statement on their behalf read outside the Dail denounced the financial regulator for having put the company into administration - "actions [which] could result in job/business and profits all leaving Ireland" - but offered no word of criticism of the way the business had been run. (There's a lesson there for anyone attracted by the argument that the best way to secure jobs is to eschew bolshie behaviour and give management no grief. You get no thanks, people, much less job security.)

In Cavan, a crowd which included Fermanagh South-Tyrone Ulster Unionist Tom Elliot and SDLP constituency hopeful Fearghal McKinney, heard mayor Andrew Boylan call on TDs to put manners on the regulator and "support Quinn Insurance". GAA Fermanagh county chairman Peter Carty said that the firm's problems had been created "by the ill-considered and pre-emptive actions of one of [the Government's] agents".

Sinn Fein MLA Gerry McHugh agreed: "To a certain extent this all looks like a bit of an over-reaction. Sean Quinn is a leader in innovative business and I would hope this is just a blip to be honest. As a business leader who has given so much to this area I would think he has the whole support of the people of Fermanagh."

In the Dail, Fianna Fail TD and former minister Ned O'Keeffe said of regulator Matthew Elderfield: "We don't want foreigners in here. Michael Collins, Liam Lynch, Pádraig Pearse and James Connolly wouldn't have those foreigners running our business."

Mr Elderfield, who is English, had applied to the High Court for an administration order after discovering that Mr Quinn had used the insurance company's reserves as security for loans taken out by other Quinn companies from Anglo-Irish Bank. This had reduced the reserves by close on half a billion euro and put a question mark against the company's ability to meet future liabilities.

Fianna Fail Senator Joe O'Reilly, scorning the conventional wisdom that a lack of financial regulation has been among the reasons for the collapse of economies worldwide, explained that in heading for the High Court Mr Elderfield had been guilty of "over-regulation."

There was no mention in the Dail or on the demonstrations of the fact that Mr Quinn had had to resign as chairman of Quinn Insurance Ltd two years ago after the then regulator - an Irishman, and markedly more relaxed about these matters than Mr Elderfield - had fined him €200,000 and the company €3.25m for inappropriate use of the reserves. Nor was there insistent reference to the €2.8bn which Mr Quinn owes personally to Anglo-Irish (now wholly owned by the taxpayers) after a major gamble on the bank's share price went disastrously wrong.

Given this level of understanding and support, it's hardly a wonder that Mr Quinn himself appears to be genuinely unaware that his own decisions might have been a factor in the company coming to grief.

In a series of interviews he has laid about him with considerable panache, suggesting that Mr Elderfield simply doesn't understand the way business works. And he has Unionists, Shinners, SDLPers and Fianna Failers nodding in desperate agreement.

The old nonsense about an endlessly dynamic Southern economy carrying the whole island forward into a prosperous future may now be rejected as an embarrassment which it's best to forget.

But a new consensus of sorts has seemingly emerged. For Ned and Fearghal, Tom and Gerry, coordinated cross-border forelock-tugging is now the order of the day.

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