We've been down this road before. A complex issue is cast out into the public square to be dissected and devoured every which way. Facts are an early casualty. Claim is matched by counter-claim. Predictions of Armageddon abound. Vested interests loom like a dark cloud over the debate. And the public is left dazed and confused, convinced the country is damned if it goes with it, and damned if it goes against.
Lisbon and Nama are issues from different spheres, but the debates about their implementation have a lot of similarities. Complex aspects are reduced to loaded soundbites designed to sway opinion: Lisbon will send your children off to war; Nama is a Fianna Fáil plan to ensure their banker and developer buddies skip off at the expense of the taxpayer.
The similarities with Lisbon end there. Firstly, there will be no referendum on Nama. If there were a referendum, it would not be a close-run thing, as Lisbon was. The smart money says between 70% and 80% of voters would reject Nama out of hand. Most people resent the impunity of those who landed us in the mess. For them, Nama simply gives off a powerful, foul smell.
The resentment is well placed. Bankers and developers were the poster boys and girls for the lightly regulated free market, where space was allowed for the spreading of entrepreneurial wings. They lived by the free market, garnering vast fortunes on the back of minimum risk and not a lot of sweat. When it came time to die by the free market, they ran home to mammy, the nanny state, which they had previously regarded as nothing more than a drag on their brilliance. Now, mammy has to mortgage her home to save the reckless free marketeers whom many believe deserve penury, or annihilation.
Therein lies a psychological barrier to the establishment of Nama. Dismantling that barrier, or even negotiating it, will be a major task for the government, one in which it is unlikely to succeed. The best it can hope for it that the barrier doesn't provide the foundation for widespread and vocal opposition to the concept.
Beyond resentment at bailing out banks, there are two issues to the fore of public consciousness on Nama. One is trust, the other competence.
Nama is going where nobody has ever gone before. Taking ownership of 10,000 loans with a book value of €90bn is a leap in the dark. Behind the walls of an agency ostensibly established in the national interest, money can be made, fortunes raised, fate's arrow twisted.
The taxpayer must trust that their interests are to the fore in the agency and that prices paid to banks are the best deal that can be got in their interest. For example, where there is a dispute with a bank over the price a loan is being bought for, the minister for finance will have final say in the valuation, according to the draft legislation.
The taxpayer must trust the minister's decision will not be weighed down by political considerations. The lower the price paid to the bank, the greater the chance the bank will have to be recapitalised, and most likely nationalised. The current minister for finance says he is totally opposed to nationalisation. Could such ideology impinge on the taxpayer's interests if he has to make a call on valuation?
The taxpayer must trust that no favours will be done for developers, to the detriment of their interest, and that defaulting developers are pursued with the kind of rigour the state employs when chasing after those suspected of social welfare fraud.
The Liam Carroll saga in the Four Courts has all the whiff of an attempt to stumble on until he can go to Nama crying "gimme shelter". If it's good for developers, the taxpayer needs to be even more wary.
All of this comes against a background plummeting trust in government. The banking crisis is the result of crony capitalism, where the government identified primarily with the interests of banks and developers, to the detriment of all citizens.
The crisis in the public finances is also one in which the taxpayer was taken for a ride. Exchequer funds were thrown around like snuff at a wake, used primarily as an election war chest for the government at a time when prudence should have been employed for the rainy – as it turned out stormy – days to come.
Now, we are being asked to believe Fianna Fáil is on the road to Damascus, abandoning those to whom the party had hitched its wagon, in favour of the whole constituency it was elected to serve.
Now we are being asked to believe the taxpayer's interest, and not the party's, will be the principal concern of government in cleaning up the mess.
Competence is the other concern. While the average taxpayer and citizen has misgivings about bail-outs, a large body of economists are worried about Nama's ability to do what it says on the tin. Most of this concern comes from academic economists who, a cynic or a banker might say, know little of the real world. Notably, the concern in academia goes right across the ideological and political spectrum.
By contrast, economists working for banks and stockbroking firms are all in favour of Nama, which is a real cause for concern.
Beyond the confines of the dismal science, others have brought concerns to the public square. Last Tuesday, Fintan O'Toole wrote a column, informed by solid logic, which suggested that for Nama to be a success, another property bubble would be required. Government adviser Alan Ahearne rejected the analysis, but it struck a chord with many people.
On RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime programme that afternoon, O'Toole was interviewed and suggested a march against Nama should be organised. The reaction from listeners was immediate and highly supportive. As it happens, a march had already been organised – for Saturday 12 September – by a new group called the Irish Peoples' Union, which claims to have had thousands of expressions of support on its website.
On Wednesday, 46 academic economists signed their names to an article for the Irish Times highlighting three main issues: lack of transparency; unknown lifespan for Nama; and, most crucially of all, the mechanism that will determine prices to be paid to the banks for loans.
There is particular concern over the concept of "long-term economic value", which will be a premium paid for the loans on top of the perceived current market value. This leaves wriggle room, and where there is wriggle room there is the possibility of a buck being made by those who are fleet of foot, such as bankers.
The concerns can be summed up in the jargon du jour: Will the taxpayer be taking a bath over the haircut on the loans for the distressed assets, as Nama attempts to wash its face annually? With such cleansing imagery, you'd never think we were dealing with a dirty business brought about by greedy, reckless gangsters.
The most interesting academic contribution comes from Patrick Honohan, carried on these pages. Honohan recommends tweaking to ensure risk is shared by the banks, therefore lightening the taxpayer's load. In all likelihood, a move that is sure have the full backing of the Green Party will find its way in some form into the final legislation.
Alternatives to Nama are being put forward. Labour – and some economists – want the banks nationalised. This would position the taxpayer to benefit from any upswing that follows the bail-out. A problem remains as to what to do with the toxic loans. They can't just be offloaded into a skip outside the back door of the bank.
The government argues that nationalisation would be expensive and would frighten off some foreign investors in banks and bonds, particularly in the United States, where they might get the impression we have transmogrified into Cuba on the Atlantic. Or so the scare spin goes.
In any event, nationalisation of AIB in particular looks likely, even if Nama is established. It is difficult to assess whether there is any difference in the manner in which the nationalisation takes place, and whether the Yanks can be appeased if it is done through Nama.
Fine Gael has a good bank policy that is wrapped in woolly thinking. Even the party members don't
seem to believe in it. A Fine Gael statement carried on these pages backtracks on the party's opposition to Nama.
For now, it looks as if the great beast will go ahead, albeit with a lot of tweaking to reassure the public that the banks will pay dearly for the bail-out, and that risk is shared around. It can only be hoped those who lead us know what they're doing. Form does not inspire confidence.