WHATEVER else you might say about Michael Noonan, he knows how to catch the headline. He even knows how to stealthily take it away from his own Taoiseach, which is no mean feat.
He was at it again last Wednesday. Speaking at Bloomberg’s Ireland Economic Summit, he was doing what he often does best: talking Ireland up. Not a bad thing, even if it does irk some in Sinn Fein and the ULA.
In fairness to the minister, he was never really in the vanguard of those in Fine Gael and Labour talking the country down back in 2009 and 2010. He may not have been talking it up, but I don’t recall him ever using words like “banjaxed”, unlike some of his Cabinet colleagues.
While he might regret his ‘feta cheese’ moment and other comments, (though not nearly as much as Richard Bruton will regret his ‘vote again’ comments on Thursday) there is another one which I suspect he will come to regret as he faces into his next budget.
Often with these international occasions, you have to remind yourself that you are addressing two audiences at once. One audience may not get what you mean by something you are addressing to another audience.
For all his shrewdness and experience, Michael seemed to forget this simple truth on Wednesday. Addressing his international audience, he told them that Ireland was better off now than it was a year ago.
While it is understandable why he should be conveying a
positive image of Ireland abroad, that portrayal needs to be realistic. That means being a bit more cautious about the terms he employs.
No doubt his officials are passing a range of nice little factoids to him, but he also has to use his own political intelligence to realise that the situation on the ground is not as rosy as he paints.
We both represent Limerick. While he may not get around to all the parts of the constituency I do, we still meet and talk with the most of the same people.
They are telling me, and I presume they are telling him, that things are looking and feeling worse. Business is down. People are more worried. It is getting harder to find work and getting harder to survive.
Telling them that things are better now than last year flies in the face of everything they see, hear and experience.
And there are figures to prove it. According to the retail sector organisation, Retail Excellence Ireland, sales fell by around 2.5 per cent in the first three months of this year as compared with the same period in 2011. In the case of the furniture sales sector, the drop was over 9 per cent.
That is not a sign of things getting better. It is a sign of a domestic economy that is slumping further and it is a slump that is being statistically masked by exports.
The figure Michael and his Merrion Street mandarins use to back up their contention that things are better is the 0.7 per cent increase in GDP in 2011. The figure is genuine, but there is a context.
The first is stark — we are back in recession. Having officially come out of it in the first few months of 2010, this Government brought us back into it in the second half of 2011.
Second is that much of the 0.7 per cent relates to the first part of 2011 and the influence of last Government’s last Budget. That’s the one that this Government so vehemently opposed: though not enough for them to disown its achievements.
Third, and most devastating: the 0.7 per cent is only a fraction of what was forecast a year ago. The projected growth figure back then was 2.5 per cent. Last November the Government reduced it to 1.6 per cent. By December, it re-predicted it down to 1.3 per cent.
We know the Government is keeping other bits of bad news back until after the referendum. We can expect a slew of bad announcements and further missed targets between now and September.
Maybe by then the Finance Minister will be thinking that what he meant to say is that the country is better off now than it will be in six months’ time.