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Sarky’s Lady Wows Noonan

Posted on: May 29th, 2011

ALL year the lady has been tormenting us. And all week we have been love bombing her.

Christine Lagarde, French Finance Minister and no friend of Ireland, has become the darling of our Cabinet.

The love-in began in Brussels on Monday when minister of state Lucinda Creighton launched the whirlwind courtship. “I would anticipate,” enthused the lively Lucinda, “that we would be very well disposed to her candidature.” Christine had been testing the waters for her campaign to succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as IMF boss.

Eyebrows were raised at Lucinda’s enthusiasm; but it was probably just Lucinda showing a little sisterly solidarity. Lining up behind Christine after all the grief she has given Ireland in recent months was hardly government policy.

Not until Tuesday, anyway. When Tanaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Eamon Gilmore headed for the Elysee Palace. Eamon was greeted by no less a person than French foreign minister, Alain Juppe.

Eamon emerged from the meeting cooing like a love bird. Suddenly (according to the Tanaiste) France was “showing greater understanding of Ireland’s position on corporation tax and the interest on our EU/IMF bailout”. He even promised to support the lovely Christine if she just happened to put her name forward for the vacancy at the IMF. Lo and behold, within 24 hours her hat was in the ring.

A pity Eamon did not tell the Taoiseach that he had committed the Cabinet to Christine. A few hours later Enda Kenny told the Dail that the matter had not yet been decided at the top level.

But an agenda was emerging: Ireland was shaping up to back Christine, the nation’s tax tormentor.

On Wednesday, the courtship was consummated. Our own Finance Minister, Michael Noonan, was granted an audience in Paris with the French phenomenon. He was given a full 30 minutes. The meeting was flagged as yet another turning point in our bid for a lower interest rate on the bailout terms. It was widely assumed that the pair were cooking up a deal, that we were cannily trading support for Christine’s IMF ambitions in exchange for a less penal interest rate on our loans.

The cameras were called in to record the meeting. Michael was filmed by RTE greeting the elegant Christine with what Irish Times journalist Mary Minihan described as “an awkward continental kiss”.

Body language suggested Michael was not enjoying one of the few remaining perks of the Irish Finance Minister: you get to kiss the cheek of your French tax tormentor, deferentially of course.

The consummation proved a damp squib for Ireland. Michael’s spinners issued a po-faced press release, lacking in credibility. The statement explained that it was a “coincidence that she was a candidate for the IMF”. No progress was reported on the interest rate.

Michael enthused about Christine’s suitability for the IMF gig. His spinners insisted that the vacancy should not be decided on geographic region, but on quality. Christine was the quality candidate. Our Finance Minister, fresh from his date with Christine, was peddling the lady’s line that her European pedigree was irrelevant. Quite a contrast with the Taoiseach and Lucinda’s assertions that they preferred a European.

The routes might have been different, but all roads led to Christine. All the ministers were on message, even if the reasons given for their decision were contradictory.

The Government quartet probably got their wires crossed in their stampede to endorse Christine. Enda wanted her because she is a European. Michael wants her because she is a wonderwoman. His account of the meeting gushed on about her, dubbing Christine as an “excellent candidate, very capable, who not only fulfils the qualities that we would require in the job, but would be in a position that would assist us to meet the requirements of our programme”.

Michael even told the media that Lagarde has a “strong appreciation” of the Irish position on corporate tax.

She can stuff her appreciation. We needed a concession. None came.

Indeed she has never shown any sign of “appreciation” before she became interested in the IMF job. Until last week, she was the mouthpiece of Nicolas Sarkozy — the most implacable enemy of our corporate tax rate living on the planet.

Irish Government sources are spinning that the hawkish Christine is a secret sympathiser with our corporate tax regime. She is apparently a covert dove, wishing to aid our efforts to reduce our crippling interest rate on the EU/IMF loan. Once she is in New York in Dominique’s old job, she will be free of the shackles of Sarkozy and will emerge as a champion of our cause. So say the spinners.

There is not a shred of evidence on the public record to suggest that she will change her spots. The French president is hardly aware of it. Noble Nicolas was lobbying frantically for Christine at the G8 summit in Deauville on Thursday.

If Christine is really a friendly sleeper batting for Ireland, surely we should try to keep her locked in the Elysee Palace, constantly at Sarkozy’s side moderating his militant exploitation of our difficulties? Remember the words of Hilaire Belloc: “Always keep a hold of nurse for fear of finding something worse.”

If Christine escapes across the Atlantic, far away from the grip of Nicolas, perhaps he will install an even more hardline finance minister?

The charade of Ireland cheering for Christine hardly adds up. So why are we leading the charge?

Part of the reason could be that both Michael and his predecessor, Brian Lenihan, have both succumbed to the legendary charms of the French femme fatale: but even in the overwhelmingly male world of European finance ministers, human frailties cannot provide a full explanation.

The root cause is more alarming. We have pawned the nation’s future in the hands of Europe’s bully boys. At the beginning of the week, as Christine’s campaign gained momentum, we were terrified of being seen as reluctant supporters. We are now too deep in the European manure to pull out.

So we began to bandwagon. There was no point in alienating Christine if she was a certain winner.

What a craven piece of diplomacy. Yet it is part of a pattern. Both recent Irish governments have refused to stand up to ECB boss Jean-Claude Trichet, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Sarkozy and their banker friends. We have bowed the knee to their diktats on sparing the bondholders; we have refused to default; we have begged them in vain to reduce their penal interest rates; we have become their puppets.

In return for our acquiescence we are the victims of German and French ingratitude, fending off demands that we face final ruin by giving up our last lifeline — our 12.5 per cent corporate tax. Charming Christine has been in the vanguard of our European “friends” determined to kick us with her stiletto when we were on the canvass.

Instead of accepting our humiliation we should have kept our own counsel. Michael should have indulged himself in his well-practised brooding mood. We could have seized the high ground, pointing out that there are several other good candidates; that Europe hardly speaks with one voice as the big powers decide the fate of the smaller ones; that the policies of Christine are not those of Ireland.

Even more credibly, we could have offered a highly convincing reason for a delay. On June 10 a French court will rule on whether to investigate fragrant Christine over a very serious €240m arbitration settlement with Bernard Tapie, a convicted ex-minister who backed Nicolas Sarkozy.

Our haste to endorse Madame Lagarde, despite this cloud hanging over her candidacy, underlines our desperation.

It never pays to love bomb your tormentor.