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Sunday 4 December 2016

Enda left looking foolish if Greeks can secure cut in loans

'England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity,' ran a popular nationalist slogan at the outbreak of World War One. Substitute Greece for England and you have a pretty good description of our position right now.

Tomorrow's emergency EU summit on the Greek crisis should be an ideal moment for Ireland to lobby for some write-down of our banking debt - but sadly it appears that Enda Kenny's Government is just too timid to ask.

In fact, Michael Noonan has already waved the white flag. Even if Greece's creditors take a severe haircut to keep it in the eurozone, he says Ireland will stay committed to repaying every red cent we owe.

This week the Finance Minister claimed with a straight face, "Our debt is now entirely sustainable" - which must be a great comfort to anyone lying on a hospital trolley or reeling from a cut in their lone-parent allowance.

As the Greek tragedy reaches its final act, nobody knows for sure what is about to happen. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has performed an incredible u-turn by actually offering harsher austerity measures than the ones rejected in last Sunday's referendum.

The Syriza supporters who greeted that result by dancing in fountains must now be starting to wonder if they were sold a pup. On the plus side, however, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is coming under huge pressure to seal the deal and give Athens some kind of debt relief.

If Greece's loan book is dramatically reduced after tomorrow's talks, Enda Kenny will not be a happy man. Ever since he came to power, the Taoiseach has worked hard to earn his reputation as the best boy in the EU class.

It would be deeply frustrating to see the naughty Greeks causing all sorts of trouble and ending up better off as a result.

Back in June 2012, Kenny emerged bleary-eyed at 4.30am from a leaders' summit in Brussels and claimed to have secured a "game-changer" on cutting Ireland's bank debt. He also boasted that it was a vindication of his softly-softly approach.

summit

"To the naysayers who say you should be beating the Lambeg drum up and down the streets of Europe, there is another way of getting results... I'm a hard grafter and, as some of them found out, they shouldn't tangle with me too often," he said.

Three years on from Enda's game-changer, however, the scoreboard looks exactly the same. Whatever the EU's big guns told him at that late-night meeting, they have managed to put the kibosh on any major recapitalisation of our banks.

Instead Ireland has just won some loan extensions and interest rate reductions, which are obviously worth having but effectively just hand the debt on to our grandchildren.

This is why tomorrow's summit should be about us as well as Greece. If Athens can break all the rules and still secure some debt forgiveness, then Dublin must be morally entitled to a slice of the same pie.

As Brian Cowen admitted at the Oireachtas banking inquiry last Wednesday, Ireland was essentially bullied into a bailout by the European Central Bank - so payback time is surely long overdue.

At this stage, however, Kenny and Noonan seem to be adopting Homer Simpson's advice on perseverance: "If at first you don't succeed, then it's probably too hard and you shouldn't try again."

While Sinn Fein has declared its undying love for the Greek government, Fine Gael and Labour want to be seen as the anti-Syriza. We saw this in the European Parliament on Wednesday, when Shinner MEPs embraced Alexis Tsipras while coalition representatives gave him a frosty reception.

On one level this strategy makes sense, since most Irish voters are cautious and can see that telling the EU to "bugger off" as Gerry Adams once suggested would be playing with fire.

However, Enda Kenny should realise that total spinelessness is not a good look either. By apparently giving up on debt relief this weekend, he is awakening memories of a European Council meeting where French President Nicolas Sarkozy patted him on the head.

"We are not Greece," has been the Government's mantra since 2011. On Monday morning we will see if they still want to put that particular slogan on their election posters.

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