Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger by Fintan O’Toole, London: Faber and Faber, 2009, pb. 1+229pp, €13.99, ISBN: 9780571252688
Fintan O’Toole describes his recent critique of Ireland’s bust to boom to bust as ‘polemical’, a word derived from the Greek ‘polemikó’, meaning ‘warlike’. How apt. This sorry tale of stupidity and corruption should serve as an ideological call to arms.
The book consists of nine essays, propped by a ‘prologue’ and ‘epilogue’, each of which focuses on different aspects of Irish political, economic and cultural life that eventuated in the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger economy. The revelations contained within each page makes one wonder to whom O’Toole’s book title refers - the Captain (Ahern) and his (Fianna Fáil) crew who recklessly steered the ship into a watery economic end, or the passenger population which failed to compel them to change course.
The first chapter, ‘El Tigre Celta’ refers to the title of a speech on Ireland’s ‘model of development’ which Bertie Ahern had the audacity to deliver to various fee paying international audiences until it was ‘quietly dropped’ by his agents in August 2009. O’Toole begins to pick apart the image of the free market ideological Irish dream that so many countries hope(d) to both champion and emulate, suggesting that the success of this Irish model of economic development – based upon economic globalisation, low personal and corporate taxation, a ‘business friendly’ political elite and lax regulation – was the serendipitous product of particular spatial and temporal factors rather than any coherent economic strategy. Ireland’s growth owed more to US expansion, EU structural funds, feminism and low dependency rates (thanks to the 1950s emigration cycle), than to any free market orthodoxy. Government interventionism through social partnership and investment in third level education had also acted contrary to laissez faire governance. O’Toole directs his ire (in chapter 1) at the ‘ruling trio’ of Bertie Ahern, Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney, who as he argues, once presented with a unique opportunity in Irish history to create a ‘decent society’, ‘blew it’ (p.19). O’Toole’s clear, caustic prose would be highly entertaining, were its message not so devastating, describing a culture of ‘cronyism, self-indulgence and, at its extreme, of outright corruption’ (p.19) in which the ‘trio’ ‘practised the economics of utter idiocy… amus[ing] themselves with fantasy lifestyles and pet projects while the opportunity to break cycles of deprivation and end child poverty was frittered away’ (p.19-20).
O’Toole illustrates his thesis of cronyist corruption with numerous examples of bribery, theft and tax evasion. Irish voters, in a political system characterised by clientelism and localism, have almost come to expect that their public representatives would be, and even worse – should be, a little bit sleazy in order to manipulate the system in a way which would support local individual and community/constituency demands. Politicians, even those who had been convicted for theft of public finances, whose immorality was well known were re-elected to public office (as outlined in Chapter 2, ‘A Patriot for Me’). If we value Machiavellian politicians, why should we be surprised to find ourselves the victims of their manipulation?
Chapter 3, ‘Ethitical Banking’ (original sic, that is, the Irish Central Bank’s sic), explores the ‘sickness at the heart of the Irish banking system’, outlining various tax evasion strategies, of which the banks could not but be aware. For example, Deposit Interest Retention Tax (DIRT) allowed for tax exemption based on non-residence, a status which those who could not possibly have been living outside the state, such as farmers, claimed. When asked by Bank of Ireland to impose standards which would enforce compliance by all banks to tax laws, the Central Bank felt it outside their jurisdiction. Thus, as O’Toole concludes, a culture developed in Irish banking which colluded with criminality, whereby the rich were exempted from any sense of social responsibility and ‘their lawlessness…would have to be indulged’ (p. 53). The failure to criminalise those who engaged in flagrant fraud through DIRT and Ansbacher schemes has normalised the rot in Irish banking and, as O’Toole puts it, ‘copper-fastened a sense of impunity’ (pp.67-68).
Chapters 4 and 5, ‘Our Own Gentry’ and ‘The New Feudalism’, detail the lives and schemes, legal and otherwise, of the Irish super rich. O’Toole’s documentation of the ‘tax phobic’ modern gentry is staggering, where six of the top four hundred top earners in Ireland in 2002 were found to have, lawfully, paid no tax at all. Forty three paid 5 per cent, only 83 paid more than 40 per cent and none paid more than 45 per cent tax. The top tax rate for PAYE workers at this time was 42 per cent. But then, given the culture of impunity as explained by O’Toole, is it any wonder that the ordinary tax payer should be treated with such contempt, when the tax evader and the low-tax/tax-free ‘gentry’ are held in such high esteem? In reflecting on the Government’s failure to control grotesquely spiralling land prices and therefore house prices, O’Toole comments on the laissez faire mentality of those in power which ‘made a coma look like manic activity’ (p.107). The close friendship between Fianna Fáil politicians and the developers suggests a darker rationale for inactivity than mere free-market ideology. Further evidence of light-handed regulation is offered in Chapter 6, ‘Kings of the Wild Frontier’ with reference to the IFSC as ‘essentially a tax haven for global finance’ (p.126). O’Toole succinctly articulates the Irish penchant for duplicitous morality, where corporation tax related residence status was again manipulated but this time to take advantage of tax incentives based on being, rather than not being, in Ireland: ‘The unreality of Irish people pretending to be elsewhere was replaced by the unreality of foreign people pretending to be in Ireland’ (p.128).
The failure to invest in a knowledge economy, through science, technology, IT infrastructural and educational development (Chapter 7, ‘Off-line Ireland’) is a further example of Ireland’s lack of foresight and innovation. Chapter 8, ‘Unknown Knowns’ describes an Irish culture whose ‘capacity for double-think’ (p.180), for double standards, for a Janus like positioning towards both Boston and Berlin, allowed an entire shipful of fools to double cross themselves, to deceive themselves that there might be a soft landing ahead. In skipping from the pre-modern to the post-modern, as O’Toole explains it, our shifting dichotomising of right/wrong, eth(it)ical/immoral, legal/illegal has left us with a nebulous understanding of what civic morality is, what social and democratic responsibility should look like and feel like, and be. Social responsibility is currently being conceptualised as a generations-long legacy of debt, in the National Asset Management Agency, to right the wrongs of bankers (Chapter 9, ‘Fair Play to You, Willie’).
It would be easy to come away from this book with a sense of despair. It has certainly been an emotional journey, though of course the Government doesn’t seem to like emotional, unmanageable, moral citizens. One of the most poignantly bitter moments in the period following the economic collapse, was when Colm McCarthy, chair of the Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, defending his proposed €5 billion swingeing cuts in public expenditure and responding to the ire of RTÉ’s Frontline audience members stated that ‘anger is not policy’ (28 September 2009). Not only were Irish people to be denied their social rights, they were also now being denied the right to be angry. McCarthy has since acknowledged that the establishment of the special body was ‘an absolute political exercise’, designed to pre-empt and prevent the angry reactions which followed the October 2008 budget, when as McCarthy puts it ‘there were all sorts of people jumping up and down and the Government rolled back on some of the cuts’ (cited in Murtagh 2010). As I write this, the details of the latest proposed public sector deal are emerging, which imposes a ban on industrial action, in exchange for no further pay cuts (unless the Government needs to introduce further pay cuts – yet another fine example of rhetorical doublespeak). Thus the unions have effectively bought into the idea that anger is not policy, failing to acknowledge that this denial is, in itself, policy. After all, people ‘jumping up and down’ might rock the sinking boat. O’Toole acknowledges the value of anger in his concluding statement. In order to end the endemic Irish attitude which is accepting of dishonesty, to encourage public morality, to democratically reform our institutions, to develop a new social vision and to reinvent Ireland’s future we must get angry. We must, as O’Toole puts it ‘have enough constructive anger to kick away a system that has failed [us] and make a new one for [ourselves]’ (p.224).
Fintan O’Toole is one of Ireland’s finest, most candid and astute commentators. The book is comprehensively researched and his acerbic wit and satirical style of prose is engaging. His ‘Ship of Fools’ is essential reading for any person who is committed to salvaging Ireland’s wrecked reputation and refashioning a new economic model (ship) of which we might become proud.
School of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.
- Frontline, 2009 [TV] Radio Telefís Éireann 1, Dublin, 28 September.
- Murtagh, C. (2010), ‘McCarthy says “Bord Snip” was an absolute political exercise’, The Irish Times, 1 February.