World

Ireland under the watchful eye of the IMF

Cup of tea and a biscuit
Image caption IMF bailouts and cups of tea - rude to say 'yes' first time?

Amidst the litany of bad economic news about Ireland over the past three years, sometimes it can be hard to see the wood for the trees - or in our case, see the smouldering charcoal for the forest fire.

So, I have my devised my own personal test. If Ireland doesn't feature on the front news page of the Yahoo! Finance website then, while things may be bad, they're not really, really bad.

Over the past five or six months, Ireland has been mostly absent from this particular unhappiness index, which effectively means that in that period, we haven't sparked a new international crisis.

Bailed out

There was a time though, six months ago, when Ireland made the front page of Yahoo! Finance website every day for two weeks.

I was almost proud that our filthy banking system had managed to accrue a debt mountain with enough zeroes to get noticed by news editors in America - a country that manufactures zeroes.

That was when the IMF came to bail us out. We were the centre of attention. There was a kind of macabre excitement around Dublin during those days. We were like a misbehaving schoolchild who sees a group of teachers discussing his bad behaviour.

TV news crews were lined up outside the government buildings and they could also be seen around the country looking for atmospheric camera shots to add colour to their reports.

The standard news montages about Ireland contained an empty housing estate, some beggars sitting outside a bank, and stray, underfed urban horses. If all of these elements happened to be wrapped in a delicate shroud of Celtic mist, then all the better.

Good manners?

And in a way, the IMF were kind of welcome. As our own politicians lurched from one calamity to another, the IMF functionaries seemed apolitical.

During a chaotic few days, our government prevaricated on whether to accept the bailout. It was as if they were being polite in a particularly Irish way.

Image caption The Irish government is implementing four years of austerity measures

You see, when an Irish person is offered something, such as a biscuit with their tea, generally they refuse the first time, as to accept too quickly is almost bad manners. And so it was last November.

"Ireland will ye take a bailout?

"Oh no, I'm fine thanks, trying to cut back actually.

"Ah go on, have one.

"Ok, so. If you insist."

On the other hand, IMF officials appeared on our TV screens as efficient, emotionless people. They were here to do a job.

I imagined them to be like Harvey Keitel's character in the film Pulp Fiction, saying to Department of Finance officials: "My name is Winston Wolf. I solve problems... And if self-preservation is an instinct you possess, you better do what I say and do it quick."

Under observation

The sheen has worn off now, though. Any new stealth taxes or cuts floated by the new government carry with the tagline of "as recommended by the IMF". And they return every quarter to see how we are getting on. There is the constant threat that if we slip from our targets, more austerity may be required.

We glance nervously across the continent at the Greeks who seem to be losing more and more sovereignty with each passing day.

One report I read recently said the IMF may demand national collateral in exchange for new bailout money. Could that happen here in Ireland? Would there be tearful managers handing over the keys of airports, power stations and the Guinness museum to humourless grey-suited men and women of no nationality?

Against the backdrop of this, the IMF is deciding on a new leader.

None of the front runners are likely to have any particular affinity for Ireland. There are no Irish-American candidates who could be persuaded to go all misty-eyed about meeting long-lost cousins and therefore let us off easy. They will look at the books and make a judgement based on the numbers. On our adherence to their schedule.

Which reminds me, time for my daily check on the Yahoo! Finance website. No mention of Ireland. We're in the clear. For now.