Quiz time… Question: Who said: “I’m not going to be tied down with numbers”?

Answer: Brian Lenihan, Ireland’s Minister for Finance.

Recap: RTÉ’s last night (Thursday November 4th) special Prime Time was dedicated to the upcoming budget, which will be announced on December 7th. We all know by now that it will be a painful one; the government has already made clear that we can expect €5.5 to €6 billion ‘adjustment’ as part of a 4-year plan to save €15 billion. Although we know that the €6 billion frontloading will be painful, we know very little about how we are going to feel the pain, and how painful it’s going to be for different people. As of now, the government has indicated that the bulk of it will be spending cuts (about €4.5bn), with tax increases kept to a ‘minimum’ (€1.5bn). But what is going to be cut, who is going to be affected most …etc are still unknown variables in the equation. And Brian Lenihan, who was interviewed on Prime Time last night (not live though), did not give much information on that, while presenter Richard Crowley and other guests on the programme spent most of the on-air time speculating on how the cuts and taxes would be distributed. Brian Lenihan was just keeping in line with the decision of the government not to publish the details of their 4-year plan in the coming days as it was initially planned, and to leave it to the end of the month, after the (long-in-the-waiting) Donegal South West by-election that is to be held on November 25th after the High Court ruled on Wednesday (November 3rd) that the 18-month delay for this by-election was ‘inordinate’ and unconstitutional – a ruling that the government is appealing. As noted by the Irish Times in today’s edition, “the Government is hoping to minimize internal dissent by leaving as little time as possible between the publication of the plan and the budget on December 7th”. In other words: no debate please. ‘Democracy’ you said?

Irish Times - Front Page -5/11/10

So Brian Lenihan kept mum on the details of the ‘plan’ and of the upcoming budget in particular, on Prime Time last night. One thing that he clearly stated though was that “[he was] not going to be tied down with numbers”. Not tied down by numbers? A Minister for Finance??? The comment came as a reply to Richard Crowley asking about future government’s borrowing and the high level of (over 7% at the moment, compared to average levels of 2 to 4% across Europe). Brian Lenihan attempted to dismiss the question as he said something like “we have enough in the government’s coffers to keep the country going until the middle of next year, so no need to borrow”. Until the middle of next year? Wow, phew, I feel much better now, I thought we were about to run out of money, but we have until the middle of next year. The presenter insisted with his question though, and mentioned that sure the government was going to need to borrow again around February-March, because we will need money (you know, to keep the country running after the middle of next year), and asked something along the lines of “what will you do if the interest rates remained as high?”, insisting on the fact that they may be as high as 8% (and, as admitted by Taoiseach Brian Cowen, they are not foreseen to be lower than 6.4% in 2011). That’s when Brian Lenihan replied: “I’m not going to be tied down with numbers”. (I know, I’ve written down that quote several times already, but I just can’t get over it…. A Minister for Finance in charge of the budget who says that he is not going to be tied down with numbers?!? Americans would add something like ‘WTF?!?’ here – not meaning to be rude, but I feel that expletive sounds about right here, I reckon that’s how many people would feel hearing that). So, just wondering, does that mean that all these numbers that have been dropped on us like bombshells lately (€35bn, the cost of the Anglo-Irish debacle; €15bn, the size of the hole in the government’s account; €6bn, the planned ‘adjustment’ in the upcoming budget …etc) should still be taken seriously? Or does that mean that Brian Lenihan does not feel tied down with these numbers either and that it may well be that Anglo-Irish will cost, say, €50bn rather than €35bn? (after all, at the end of 2008, less than 2 years ago, it was supposed to be ‘just a few billion euros’… and it kept going up after that). The bottom-line is that ‘accountancy’ (literally) has been banned from the government’s lexicon and Brian Lenihan made it clear. Again, as he said, he is not going to be tied down with numbers…

There was plenty of other stuff in Prime Time last night, but that one quote was what stayed in my mind for hours then, because it is so scarily exemplar of how the current government approaches the issue: we have a plan … but not really (because we know we might not stick to it, plus, we’re not really good with numbers) … but we don’t want to talk about it (again, no public debate please).

Delphine Ancien