Do you ever feel like you’ve slipped through an enchanted mirror into an alternate reality in which nothing makes sense?
there was an embarrassing suspicion about it last week over hearing former taoiseach Enda Kenny praise Angela Merkel – who once spotted him as a possible candidate for the presidency of the European Commission – as the one who “among all the others (EU) leaders understood what was really important from an Irish point of view and I supported it ”.
Is he referring to the same Angela Merkel who opposed imposing € 64 billion debt on Ireland to protect German banks from the consequences of their own reckless lending? The same Angela Merkel who, in 2012, ruled out debt reduction, saying through a spokesperson that she “didn’t see the need” and that it would send the “wrong signal”? This Angela Merkel?
Things could have been worse, as Kenny pointed out. Other EU leaders wanted Ireland to drop its low corporate tax rate in exchange for the bailout. Merkel played, he said, a “restrictive role” on them. But how much worse could the bailout conditions have been? Ireland was still landed with the lion’s share of the EU’s bank debt anyway.
Ireland has never fully dealt with the psychological fallout from the bailout. It’s not so much an elephant in the room as a whole herd of them, dropping pachyderm droppings on the carpet.
Or maybe it was just realism. What could we have done there, after all? We could have left the EU, burned the bondholders and tried our luck, but even Greece, after briefly flirting with rebellion, backed down and took his meds.
We kept our heads down, accepted the punishment, hoped for the best. It was probably the right thing to do.
But it’s still maddening to hear Merkel’s praise, as if she had been Ireland’s best friend throughout her tenure, when, as Kenny himself admits, she was only protecting the people. German interests, and rightly so. Even when it comes to Brexit, Merkel’s priority was to close the single market, not take care of us.
It is true that Merkel was a dominant figure on the European political scene and, although it is not yet known who will replace her as chancellor, it will be a smaller, less prodigious figure, as this is the age at which we let’s live.
The Taoiseach Micheál Martin is a decent man, but the endless references to his decency only seem to draw attention to the fact that there isn’t a lot of substance behind it.
Leo Varadkar, the man who will succeed him at the end of next year, also possesses many admirable qualities, but he is obsessed with a kind of polite triviality that will ultimately limit his legacy.
Compared to the current harvest of taoisigh on hold, men like Charles Haughey, Seán Lemass and Jack Lynch stand out as giants in a landscape dominated by Lilliputians.
The leaders of nationalism and unionism in Northern Ireland are in turn diminished figures, while British Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is so filled with moral emptiness he is incapable of being a statesman – as evidenced by his recent jokes about Kermit the Frog at the UN Security Council.
Unfortunately, he is not the only one unable to meet the challenges of a post-Cold War and post-prosperity 21st century.
Emmanuel Macron does not know how to calm France’s troubled political waters. The EU has collectively failed its Covid political test. Now that the vertigo that greeted the end of the Trump presidency has faded, the internal divisions tearing the United States apart are more evident. Cabinets everywhere are made up of people few outside their own parties have heard of.
There are still enormous arguments to be debated – about the role of the state and how technological advances will change society; who will control it, who will benefit; whether that will worsen inequalities. The fact that billionaires made $ 3.9 billion during the Covid crisis may suggest an answer.
But these questions are largely asked outside of government, rather than within it. Politicians are content to manage changes decided elsewhere. The most important issues lie above their level of remuneration. Was this really what ministers imagined when they dreamed of coming “to power”?
The recent report released by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (for the World Health Organization) even used the slow global response early last year to the Covid threat to claim that a “New World Council on Health Threats should be created to sit above the WHO in the United Nations orbit.” Never have national governments seemed so insignificant.
It is not mere nostalgia that makes us look upon former rulers with more respect and admiration. Rather, it is impossible to imagine many of today’s professional politicians existing outside the public sector or the corporate world. A figure like Albert Reynolds, a self-taught businessman, probably wouldn’t make it in 2021.
Angela Merkel had a serious scientific background before entering politics. His precursors as chancellor were men of substance. Helmut Kohl worked in industry. Gerhard Schroder began his life as an unskilled construction worker before going to night school to obtain the necessary qualifications for college. They all had what former British Labor giant Denis Healey called a “hinterland” outside of politics.
Maybe that’s what sets Merkel apart. The next most likely German Chancellor is Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, another member of that ubiquitous tribe of lawyers who now dominate politics. It can be many things, but inspiration is not one of them.