IT MAY be the season of festive cheer and good will but there is unlikely to be much jollity in evidence when Four Angry Men - pundits David McWilliams, Fintan O’Toole, Shane Ross, and Nick Webb – take to the stage of the Radisson Hotel this Sunday.
Riding into town like the Four Horsemen of Ireland’s economic apocalypse, and with each toting new books in his saddlebag, the quartet will offer their analyses on Ireland’s continuing fiscal and social woes and debate where we might go from here.
Of the four, Shane Ross has the distinction of being a TD as well as a journalist and author. His latest book, co-authored with Nick Webb, is The Untouchables, published by Penguin, which shines a light into dark corners of Official Ireland, and shows how the blame for running this country into the ground goes well beyond Fianna Fáil - and that many of the people who should share the blame are still in situ.
The book details the destructive culture of cronyism - from the boards of leading companies to the appointment of judges - and shows how many of those who presided over the crash have been rewarded with plum new jobs and have held on to power and influence.
“I think the reason these people are still there is that we’re governed by a kind of permanent, self-perpetuating elite that hasn’t been disturbed by the change in government,” Dep Ross tells me over an afternoon phonecall. “The great hope was that once there was the change of government in 2011 that they would come in with a clean broom and sweep from power all those overpaid, over-indulged, civil servants, bankers, lobbyists, and all those other people we identify in the book.
“That didn’t happen because we have two very conservative parties in power who are deeply involved in political patronage and extremely able practitioners of it, and a lot of those people who were in power under Fianna Fáil find themselves very well indulged by the new administration. The General Election made no difference whatsoever in the way Ireland is run. There is a perpetuation of the system and personnel that were there before.”
Dep Ross furnishes one striking example of the kind of cronyism he and Webb expose in their book:
“One of the most extraordinary things I discovered was about Richard Burrows, who was governor of the Bank of Ireland and left that post in 2009 because the bank was basically bust and had been one of the causes of the IMF coming into Ireland.
“When I was researching the book I discovered Burrows was a member of the European regional advisory board of the IMF so he was effectively both poacher and gamekeeper. The constant pattern here is one of resurrection or restoration or non-disturbance of people in powerful positions.”
Ross goes on to argue that there is a lack of will on the part of the Fine Gael/Labour Government to do anything about people in key positions.
“Fine Gael’s Richard Bruton declared they would remove all the directors of semi-state bodies when they got into power,” says Dep Ross. “Not only did they not do that, when they got in they utterly failed to remove those scandalous appointments made by FF in the dying days of the government – they had appointed about 100 directors and gave them plum jobs on the boards of semi-State bodies. Enda Kenny came in and didn’t even remove those guys because he claimed the Attorney General had said it would be legally difficult. They didn’t have the bottle to do it.”
While The Untouchables casts a cold eye on the political system, Ross professes to have enjoyed his own time so far as a TD.
“I’ve been very lucky in that I was allotted the leader’s questions role as part of our technical group,” he explains. “So I have had that opportunity to question the Taoiseach about a pile of issues I’m interested in, such as the banks, judges. That’s been very useful and I’ve been very privileged to be able to highlight those issues. The frustration has been that the Government has a huge majority and it’s in no mood for giving in to requests from the Opposition, however reasonable those might be.”
Amid all the prevailing doom and gloom, does Ross see any glimmer of hope on the horizon?
“I think we’re going to need a monumental shift in Government attitude before you see optimism,” he replies sombrely. “The problem is that the current Government are just the same as FF in both their practices and policies. When you see how readily they’ve bought into the bailout deal you wouldn’t have too much cause for hope.
“However, I do think that sooner or later they’re going to have to face the fact that our debt is unsustainable and we have to stop going around Europe being flattered and being told what a great Government they are.
“Once they realise they are going to have to do a deal on the debt I think they’re going to be forced to confront the problem of debt write-off, which they’ve been running away from, at sometime in nearish future, maybe in the next two years. That will be the point where we can say there will be a departure from the old policies, but until they make that realisation we’re still going to be trudging along the austerity trail.”
Shane Ross, Nick Webb, David McWilliams and Fintan O’Toole take to the Radisson Hotel stage at 7.30pm this Sunday. The debate is chaired by Olivia O’Leary. Tickets are €25 and available from the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie ).