Those of us who were in Leinster House during the financial crash can now see a similar path to political ruin emerging during this virus crisis.
And if the vaccine rollout continues to stutter, the vengeance of the Irish electorate will be comparable too.
Regular readers of this column will know it is not one of pessimism. While there are parallels with the 2008-2011 financial crisis, this crisis has not reached the point of no return yet. There is still hope.
But Government efforts to distort the truth have failed. Just look at the numbers for proof that the vaccine rollout, until now, has failed. The Government promised that 1.7 million doses of vaccine would be delivered to citizens by the end of March. That figure has been halved to 850,000.
Whether they overpromised or lied is irrelevant – they have set a target and failed to reach it. The Government has blamed the manufacturers and – kind of – blamed the EU. These are partial explanations but the failure to provide vaccines for Irish people is the Irish Government’s failure.
The Irish establishment fears to criticise the EU. We are weak in comparison to France and Germany. Yet we must forcefully criticise and analyse the astounding vaccine failures of the EU, for that is the only route to reform. And, boy, has the EU made a hames of this vaccine rollout.
The EU scheme was set up in June 2020 to collectively purchase vaccines for member states, which did not have to join the scheme, but all 27 EU countries did. The EU then appointed a minor Cypriot bureaucrat to run the entire programme for 446 million people. And the EU ordered late compared to other blocs.
I couldn’t summarise the disaster better than European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen herself did on February 10: ‘We were late to authorise. We were too optimistic when it came to massive production and perhaps too confident that what we ordered would actually be delivered on time.’
The EU is a distant third to the United States and Britain in vaccine distribution. The US and Britain – the old Atlantic Alliance – became the tragic international Laurel and Hardy of Covid, with nobody laughing more heartily than the EU establishment.
Now? Of vaccine doses administered per 100 people, the Brits stand at a best in the world at 35.6, closely followed by the US at 27.8. The EU is a distant third at a pathetic 9.5 per 100 people. You would be made believe that the British have pulled some kind of deceitful con – which is not alien to Perfidious Albion – in succeeding. They simply placed their orders earlier, certified quicker and rallied the Blitz spirit. The Americans were lucky in the timing of their election, getting rid of the malignant Donald Trump. But Joe Biden has invoked wartime powers to distribute vaccines.
There are, of course, advantages to having a single government and single language when undertaking such a massive logistical project. Still, the Irish Government’s wailing that our failures are all down to supply are not true. Recalibration and improvement is possible. In early February, I asked Taoiseach Micheál Martin why we hadn’t sourced vaccines outside the EU stream.
In the most forceful exchange of that interview, he told me that he had investigated the possibility, but found that this would not influence our vaccine stream, as we had plenty to keep us going until mid-summer. The other vaccines would not come on stream in time.
Considering the misfortunes since, would it not have made a huge difference if we had ordered then? Member states are allowed to strike separate deals with vaccine makers that have not signed agreements with the EU. Hungary has bought two million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, rolling it out in February. Hungary has also granted approval to a Chinese vaccine with prime minister Viktor Orban receiving the jab.
Slovakia has purchased the Russian jab and the Czech Republic is buying it too. The Sputnik vaccine had been given a hugely positive rating by the internationally renowned Lancet magazine when I interviewed the Taoiseach. Contempt of regimes should play no more role in this than our willingness to use Saudi Arabian oil.
In another move outside the EU scheme, Austria and Denmark have announced they are joining forces with Israel to produce second-generation vaccines against mutations of the coronavirus. Germany is negotiating with Russia and Israel. We are doing nothing.
There are similarities between the 2008-2011 disaster and what is happening now. The first striking parallel is the inexplicable official torpidity. Brian Cowen/Brian Lenihan were too slow to recognise the gravity of our plight in 2008. Martin/Varadkar have been naïve and arrogantly complacent about the vaccine delivery plan. They have spent most of their working lives within a system, interacting with our civil service and have become inured to its ineptitude. It might seem cruel to call a system that includes our frontline workers, and the universally recognised good intentions of our civil service system inept. But I feel that while the individuals do their best, the civil service is shown up as inept when confronting a crisis.
Like Michael Corleone under attack, our leaders find themselves short of a wartime consigliere. As in 2008-2011, the system is paralysed. When a Government presents facts which are found to be false, the public loses trust. Each subsequent breach of trust, even if on a smaller scale, will be amplified. When we have reached a safe level of vaccination we can open up, to an extent. And then further grave problems will emerge.
All indications from my sources at the Department of Finance say that we will not be able to sustain this level of lockdown after June. The €350 Covid payment will have to end. All the businesses on life support will try and open, many won’t ever again. Unemployment will grow. There will be a demand for housing, families will find there aren’t many to buy. There will be evictions, as landlords seek to capitalise on an inflated demand. Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien will say Covid has slowed construction and will plead to the public to consider the pandemic as an excuse. They won’t.
Across Government it will be found that no matter how reasonable your excuses, no explanation will be accepted. Cowen and Lenihan told us often of a global financial contraction. Events were beyond their control. That didn’t matter to the public and Fianna Fáil suffered a blow to its reputation from which it will never recover. There also are vital differences between now and the crash.
There have been no visible blows to the foreign multinationals here. It was the lay-offs at Dell and Hewlett Packard that were the real gut punches back then. The international agencies, the IMF, the ECB and the countries that decide these things, Germany and the USA, have performed a U-turn. Slashing, burning and austerity will not be the route. The US has passed a $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus. The EU will pay. But the vaccines will have to come quickly or political payback on 2011 levels is over the horizon.