Craven Counterfactuals


Bertie Ahern

In last week’s column, Irish Times column, Kathy Sheridan reminded the paper’s readership that politicians were human. This came as a useful corrective to those who believed they were shape-shifting lizards from another dimension. This week, the columnist wishes us to imagine that even the most crooked timber of humanity in politician form, in this case Bertie Ahern, can be wielded as the most virtuous of instruments.

Basically Sheridan says that Bertie Ahern would have done a better job negotiating on behalf of Greece than its former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. She contends that personality, in particular that of Varoufakis, was a decisive factor in the shape of the so-called agreement finally forced upon Greece. A more wily and amoral operator, under the same circumstances, she suggests, would have produced a substantially better outcome.

The trouble is, she provides no convincing evidence in support of this suggestion.

Ahern’s achievement in negotiating the Belfast Agreement forms the basis for Sheridan’s claim. But a moment’s reflection should reveal that the Belfast Agreement negotiations were completely different to those revolving around Greece’s austerity packages and debt burden. To state the obvious: it was a different time, different place, different stakes, and different power relations.

When Kathy Sheridan’s anti-hero was conducting negotiations, he enjoyed broad backing not only from the Irish political establishment, business groups, the media and broad civil society, but from Irish America and the US government.  Ahern also had a good relationship with the other key actor in negotiations, the UK government.

What was more, there was a will and momentum on the part of all participants to reach some form of agreement. And above all: reaching a deal was perceived by and large as a good thing for capitalism in Ireland.

No doubt Ahern played a part in establishing a deal, but the overall tendency was towards a deal anyway. The singular brilliance of Ahern’s performance in this regard is mostly a myth concocted by a political establishment and an admiring media that likes to narrate Irish history in terms of the grand feats of heroic statesmen.

In the case of Greece’s negotiations with the Eurozone countries, there was no will on the part of any of the other countries to reach any kind of agreement that might have altered the initial position of continued austerity and insurmountable debt burdens for Greece.

As many commentators been already pointed out, the political cost to the participants, the Irish government included, was unthinkable. A deal that involved anything other than a humiliating climb-down from the Greek government would have undermined the entire premise of economic policy throughout the EU.

Let us recall, not least because it is largely ignored by the press, that the EU’s overarching economic policy entails, variously: removing the welfare state provision that formed the basis of Europe’s post-war settlement; protecting the financial sector at all costs; promoting an ever-deepening competition between the workforces of member states for the purposes of capitalist exploitation –the race to the bottom-; and of placing key decisions over economic management beyond any kind of democratic control.

All this would be undermined if the Eurozone governments were seen to relent in their stance on Greece. It is unthinkable, given these circumstances, that someone like Bertie Ahern would have the ability, to say nothing of the inclination, to deliver a better outcome for the Greek people.

It is only if you accept, as a self-evident and natural fact, that the ‘national interest’ and the interests of capital are one and the same that you might imagine Bertie Ahern playing such a role. Unfortunately, this acceptance runs deep and wide in Ireland, and public commentators are particularly afflicted.

The narrative rehearsed by Kathy Sheridan, that the failure of the Greek government to get a better outcome all boils down to Varoufakis’s intransigence, or his naivety, or his Burberry scarf, or his pointy-headed intellectualism, is largely the same as that offered by senior Irish politicians -who, according to the Sunday Business Post, referred to Varoufakis and Tsipras as “clowns” and “eejits”.

epa04817993 Italian Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan (L-R), Dutch Finance Minister and President of Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem, International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Christine Lagarde, Irish Finance Minister Michael Noonan, and French Finance Minister Michel Sapin at the start of a special Eurogroup Finance ministers meeting on Greek crisis at EU council headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 25 June 2015. Eurozone finance ministers will reconvene on to assess the situation, before the European Union's 28 leaders kick off their two-day summit in Brussels later the day. A special meeting of the 19 eurozone leaders could also be held.  Greece and its creditors continued marathon talks on how to avoid a bankruptcy in the country, just hours before an EU summit meant to bookend the crisis.  EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET
I suppose we can imagine the amazed incomprehension of someone like Michael Noonan, when confronted with a finance minister unwilling to go along with the dogma that animates Eurogroup meetings. It must be like what an everyday person might feel on coming downstairs on a Monday morning to find a drunken zebra sprawled on one’s sofa. But even such disorientation and annoyance have little to do with personality, or intellectual mien. It is just that the drive of the Eurogroup is strenuously opposed to even the sort of mild alleviation that the Syriza government was seeking on behalf of the Greek people. If Varoufakis was a pain in the hoop to them, it was because of the forces he represented.

The same narrative also presents the rest of the Eurogroup –and let us recall that this group is an informal grouping, 95% of its members are men, and it is subject to neither democratic oversight nor accountability- as experienced and sensible lieutenants of their respective ships of state. It reduces politics to the ultimate insider game, beyond the reach of democratic control.

The ultimate function of this narrative is to cloak the naked class savagery on display: the utter contempt for democracy, the vindictive destruction of Greek society, the matter-of-fact looting of public assets, and to propose that Greece -and, by extension everyone else- should just submit to Europe’s neoliberal consensus.

What is most ridiculous about this particular version, however, is the way we are supposed to think that someone like Bertie Ahern could stand up against such robbery, whilst ignoring the fact that the present finance minister, Michael Noonan, who serves the same masters, got stuck right in. But since politics is no place for novices, we are suggested it might be best if we keep our noses out of things, lest we cause even more damage, or lest we crack the thin veneer between civilisation and barbarism. Craven conservatism is what will keep us right in the end.

Won’t it?

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