The defiant, confident appearance of Charlie McCreevy in front of the Banking Inquiry seems to have surprised the media and political culture.

But, honestly, why the surprise? This is Cheeky Charlie, the man who was the face of the early years of the boom and the expansion of the Irish economy and its infrastructure and population. Yes, the economy became over-reliant on a property bubble in subsequent years and went over a cliff, when overspending, an international downturn and a domestic banking crisis conspired to create the perfect storm for an economic collapse.

But the fact is that we did have an economic boom, and many of the same factors which created it – FDI, low tax rates and an entrepreneurial culture – are bringing us out the recession. McCreevy was key to all these and there was no way he was going to go away and sit in sackcloth and ashes for what he felt he didn’t do. There was no way he was going to come into the banking inquiry begging forgiveness for problems that very few of us were warning about back when he was Minister.

Indeed, what McCreevy’s appearance also did was to show up just how fickle the media and political culture can be, as it uses it’s completely ‘after the event’ wisdom to question just about every economic decision taken from 2000 on. He also reminded us that the same politicians and experts who are now calling for more spending in health, education and welfare, however justified, should reflect that it was spending, and often overspending in these very areas, that led to the country getting dangerously over-extended. And this was long before any banking crisis.

McCreevy resisted many of these public spending demands, but was over ruled by the more election-savvy Bertie Ahern. Did those who campaigned for more such spending object? Not likely. Nor would they today.

As McCreevy himself told the Inquiry, when he was Minister he was depicted as Scrooge but now he is depicted as a free spending Santa Claus. Indeed, this perception was precisely why he was exiled to Brussels by Ahern in 2004. The Government wanted to abandon its frugal finances and open the purse strings.

The wider political culture didn’t shed any tears when Cheeky Charlie was sent to the EU. Not likely. And yet there was strong sense he’d been hard done by, and was being made a scape goat by a Taoiseach who had suddenly decided to depart from the prudent, pro-enterprise policy that had given us buoyancy and to a more social democrat ‘tax and spend’ model. Ahern announced that he was in fact a socialist prompting the real socialist Joe Higgins to tell the Dail that someone had raided his wardrobe!

So while Bertie was dressed up as some left wing benefactor, McCreevy was over in Brussels. Except he didn’t stew, but got on with his work, no doubt relieved to be out of the hypocritical circus of Irish politics. And he retained a great admiration among the political hacks, for his humour, his straight talking and his frank determination to his beliefs.

Ah, but the hacks too are a fickle bunch, just like the people they report to and the political culture they report on. I have two very different memories of meeting McCreevy in Brussels. Both of them were on press trips to the EU, an annual fact-finding trip (and soiree) organised by the European Commission and involving a cross section of Irish media, both print and broadcast. It is quite different to the on-the-ground press presence there and precedes the now continuous crisis in the EU which has taken away some of the novelty of these trips.

On my first trip in 2006, McCreevy hosted a dinner for the delegation and he couldn’t have been more popular and gregarious. McCreevy is no longer a drinker but he retains the craic and conviviality of the Irish session. At a large table, he told juicy stories about Irish politics– all ‘off the record’ – and the hacks lapped it up. Indeed, they were reverential to the point of fawning but there was genuine respect for the blunt talker who had been sent overseas.

A year later, I was back in Brussels on the same trip and the atmosphere could not have been more different. It was a another set of Irish journalists but drawn from the same gene pool. McCreevy held a reception at which there was to be a polite speech but no questions. However, after much pressure, he conceded to one question from a radio interviewer – in the light of sudden very bad economic turn in Ireland. But one question became two, and then three. And before you know it, he was facing a baying mob of journalists shouting stuff like ‘are you not responsible for the economic bubble bursting,’ are you going to apologies to the Irish people’, and ‘why did you cut tax as much as you did?’

It brought home how fickle is public opinion. And, when the tide turns, just how quickly people will turn with it. And, as Bertie Ahern and others are discovering, it is those who are most behind you, holding the torchlights, who get the most angry and who want to go to your house and torch it.

Now, of course, everyone is wise after the event. Everyone seems to have known that the property market was dangerously overblown – even the same newspapers which published voluminous property supplements to boost their revenue! Sinn Fein’s Pearse Doherty tried to question McCreevy about the property market, but he refused saying it was something that became overheated after his time.

Otherwise, McCreevy was like a man swatting flies. Unlike other witnesses, he was able for the sometimes glib questioning of the Committee inquisitors. This, after all, was the man who faced down Charlie Haughey and got wrestled to the ground by a mob outside Leinster House, the man who then despaired of Haughey’s overspending and help to create the Progressive Democrats – although he didn’t join them. This was the man who unable to marry his partner Noeleen because of Ireland’s absurd lack of  divorce, arranged for her to change her to McCreevy by deed poll!

But most of all he is the man who created the original and still valid model for the Celtic Tiger – low taxes, prudent spending, and proper investment in infrastructure, health and education. His change of our crippling tax burden is the most crucial. He broke the orthodoxy that Ireland should always be a high tax and high spending country – and liberated thousands of Irish citizens from the hangover of the PAYE days and getting absolutely taxed to hell. Unfortunately, his progress here is in danger of being undone by some who want to take us back to the route of auction politics and high spending – as he himself pointed out yesterday.


When he was Finance Minister, I wrote an article, based on insider accounts, of how he was in fact, the driving force in the Government of the early 2000’s, and certainly in terms of economics and taxation. He has many critics for this, but one of my sources, a then junior Minister, admiringly described McCreevy’s response as the Rhett Butler attitude, referring to the character in Gone with the Wind, and his famous riposte, ‘Frankly, Madam I don’t give a damn’!

McCreevy showed plenty of the Rhett Butler attitude yesterday. But the tragedy is that he was then sent out of that Tiger-era Government too early, precisely because he had too much influence. Would overspending have got so out of control has he stayed? Would the banking crisis have been quite so bad? Perhaps not. Certainly, having been exiled to Brussels for his so-called sins, he has already done his time. So the last thing he was going to be doing was coming into the banking inquiry begging for forgiveness and mercy.