Business people are the ultimate pragmatists and the election proved as much. If Ibec's chief executive Danny McCoy had been tearing around Mondello race track in a Subaru Impreza, he could scarcely have done a better handbrake turn than the one he performed on Monday, once it became clear that Sinn Féin had a chance of governing.
As the results poured in, McCoy, the main lobbyist for Irish employers, surmised that Sinn Féin was “not that mad” when it came to the economy, a deliciously back-handed compliment, leaving open the possibility that it might still be a little mad.
Could business work with it in government? “Absolutely,” replied McCoy.
'Things couldn't get much worse, could they?'
There is a certain cadre of veteran republican activists who may be used to the smell of burning rubber. But rarely have they sniffed it billowing so freely from the bastion of the nation’s standard bearers of commerce and free markets.
A week before, McCoy warned of the "grave" dangers of the economic policies in the manifesto of Sinn Féin, which promised to spend an extra €21 billion on workers, non-workers, house-hunters, renters, the old, the young, the poor, the less poor and Uncle Tom Cobley and all.
None of this is a criticism of the Ibec chief executive, who is strategic and astute, much more so than some of those who have been publicly rolling their eyes at his comments.
McCoy was doing his job, which is to maintain an open dialogue with those who might – just might, mind – end up grasping the levers of power. Ibec, and all the special interests groups in the State, must now play the cards that some of the electorate has tossed in a huff on to the table in front of us.
Make no mistake -–people are huffy. Earlier on Monday, as I waited for a bus to work from the cold depths of the People's Republic of Dublin South Central, I met a neighbour.
“Do you like Sinn Féin?” he asked, nodding at a poster of Aengus Ó Snodaigh smiling from across the road. “I don’t know if they’d be my first choice,” I replied. “Me neither,” he said. “But things couldn’t get much worse, could they?”
He is a good neighbour and I wanted it to stay that way, so I smiled and kept waiting for the 83, the scarlet pimpernel of the Dublin Bus fleet. But I felt like grasping him by the shoulders and telling him, actually yes, it could get a lot worse, you know.
Sure, there is an acute but fixable housing crisis, and our health service is just a bucket with a hole in it, but it was always thus. Yet there is full employment, average households have never been richer, and we might have time to save the planet yet.
Business-oriented people are ever the pragmatists
Ireland, it seems, is not immune to the wave of political nihilism that has swept through the electoral systems of the West in recent years. It is through these waters that McCoy and other business representatives must wade.
McCoy simply performed a sensible handbrake turn, if such a feat is not oxymoronic. But bank lobbyist former Fine Gael MEP Brian Hayes will have to summon the spirit of Evel Knievel to leap the gaping chasm he wants to cross.
Banks desperately want the State’s restrictions on their employees’ pay lifted. Sinn Féin in government would replace Amhrán na bhFiann with The Sash before it would let that happen.
In the current climate, it wouldn't be an outlier on that front, either. If Paschal Donohoe and Fine Gael chafed at the prospect, what chance do the banks have with any combination from a chastened Fianna Fáil, the Greens, Labour, the Social Democrats and various socialist groupings?
Business lobbyists are not paid to burn bridges. Hayes, the chief executive of Banking & Payments Federation Ireland, said the political risk to the economy was being "exaggerated" and business should stay "relaxed" about what lies ahead. He also pointed towards a salient fact: electoral manifestos are written in poetry, but programmes for government invariably end up being penned in prose.
How would running the Republic serve Sinn Féin’s long-term goals if citizens end up eating cold spaghetti hoops from a can? Hayes and McCoy might represent vested interests, but they are not wrong when they surmise that it is not in Sinn Féin’s interests to bust the economy.
To see the realisation a new order is dawning, one had to attend Ibec’s conference on Wednesday at the Convention Centre Dublin, a basilica of sorts for the business community, so regularly does it host the huddled masses of Irish capitalism.
The conference was conceived as a post-Brexit think-in, but it ended up as a postmortem on Ireland’s lurch away from the two-party conservative system to, well, nobody quite knows what. A huge Tricolour always flutters outside the building. Never before has it seemed so apt, given the two words on the lips of every business person there: Sinn Féin.
Business-oriented people are ever the pragmatists. Before long, McCoy, an economist by trade with statistical nous to match, was making the fiscal case onstage for why a hike in public spending might be just what Ireland needs. Fintan O’Toole, the distinguished Irish Times columnist who tends to tack left of centre on economic issues, was onstage with him, agreeing that McCoy’s points were “radical” and “absolutely crucial” in understanding how Ireland must forge ahead.
From the floor, senior Irish executives sipped their water, furrowed their brows in thought, and observed this strange convergence of left and right ideas. Whether Sinn Féin is in or out, all has changed. And business will change utterly to keep up with it.
Although the election came to dominate much of the talk at the Ibec conference on the Politics of Trade, one of the most interesting speakers was Keyu Jin, a Chinese-born associate professor of economics at the London School of Economics. She comes from a line of Chinese economics royalty, as her father is former Chinese government adviser Jin Liquin, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
The coronavirus epidemic that has emanated from China has resulted in the country’s nationals bearing the brunt of an ugly wave of illogical prejudice across the globe. Jin, as any of us could have been, was clearly a tiny bit under the weather with a common cold or a sniffle as she gave her speech. Perhaps conscious of this, she decided to deflate it by opening her address with a joking reference to the fact that nobody should worry: she had come to Dublin directly from London and not from China.
“And definitely not from Wuhan,” she smiled, to warm laughter from the room.
Jin laid out the case, from a Chinese perspective, for why US president Donald Trump’s trade war against the Chinese may be doomed to failure. Ultimately, she argued, it isn’t about trade, but about the race for new technologies and also China’s aspirations in relation to its place in the world, and these are long-term issues.
Curiously, however, she made a compelling argument for why China may eventually make concessions to Trump in the lead-up to the US election that may allow him to claim victory. Earlier concessions, she said, “bought China nothing”, as Trump just became even more belligerent. So China has made a strategic decision to hold off on further concessions until the election. Why, if this could help him win?
“Because what comes after Trump might be worse for China,” she argued. “Trump is a businessman who does deals. He doesn’t talk about Tibet. He doesn’t talk about human rights.”