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Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast

After three months of intimidation, sectarian hatred and disruption, the protests surrounding the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall appear to be slowly ebbing. Before the council vote in December to fly the flag on designated days only – in line with England, Scotland and Wales – few would have thought the discontent would have lasted as long, particularly when there are more pressing issues at hand. Those taking part in the protests have been treated with a mixture of fear and ridicule. In the distinctly insular society of Northern Ireland, many believe the situations we face represent a departure from the real world.

In the run up to the flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets around east Belfast attacking the Alliance Party for supporting the Sinn Féin/SDLP measure. It was a sinister ploy by the main unionist parties to oust Alliance MP Naomi Long from the East Belfast Westminster seat, which she took from Peter Robinson at the 2010 general election. Historically, when crises arose, bourgeois unionism whipped up sectarian tensions in order to deflect criticism from the failures of their misrule and incompetence. This was cynically played out again in December. Previously, the DUP and UUP raised no concerns about the union flag being flown on only designated days in Lisburn, Craigavon and, indeed, Stormont itself. It proved useful in diverting attention from the DUP’s dismantling of the Housing Executive.

The mainstream unionist parties quickly lost control of the “movement” which sprang up around the flag issue to more radical and, at times, fascistic elements. Residents in Short Strand have borne the brunt of loyalist intimidation and violence, with illegal parades being facilitated by the PSNI on a weekly basis. Yet, there is nothing overly uniquely “Northern Irish” about these protests. A quick glance at news and election results from around Europe show an alarming increase in support for the far-right, with disadvantaged and alienated people seeking simple solutions to complicated problems. The rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party is perhaps the most disturbing. Notable, too, is the popularity of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the True Finns and the National Front in France.

The Belfast flag protests are symptomatic of the shift to the right of small, yet not insignificant, sections of the working class across Europe. The far right are able to provide easy answers to people looking for them and can dangerously redirect their anger towards the wrong targets, whether they are immigrants, native Muslims or, in the Irish case, the “other side”. It highlights the dangers which lurk in the background if the political conversation continues to be dominated by the right. Failure by the left and trade unions to provide a radical alternative to austerity and corporate domination of public affairs leave open the possibility of people’s anger being harnessed by more reactionary forces.

The response to naked sectarianism on Belfast’s streets by the four main parties has been, at the very best best, unimaginative. Backin’ Belfast, a £600,000 publicly funded advertising campaign, was set up to reverse the losses made by businesses in the city as a result of the protests. Little has been done to challenge the anti-democratic, fascistic nature of the protests. Even less has been done to challenge the sectarian nature which lays the basis of the northern state. Instead, people have been encouraged to do their drinking, dining and shopping in Belfast. The alternative to sectarian hatred, apparently, is mass consumerism.

The public faces of Backin’ Belfast have been pub owners and retailers, such as Michael Deane and Colin Neill,who have lamented the loss of trade suffered by city centre bars and shops. They want an end to the protests, not because of the sectarianism on display at the demonstrations, but because they want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The fact that the pub and retail trades in Belfast are notorious for their gross exploitation of young workers goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps people would be able to afford to eat in Deane’s restaurant and shop in River Island at the weekend if bosses in these sectors paid their staff a living wage. Student blogger Aisling Gallager articulated this point excellently when she wrote:

“I am not #BackinBelfast- I can’t afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I’ll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen’s University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn’t be shamed into spending more money than they can afford.”

The peace process should be about more than facilitating the needs of business owners; it should be about creating a better society, free from both bigotry and exploitation. It won’t be easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what’s absolutely certain is that tacky PR gimmicks such as Backin’ Belfast will not overcome the sectarianism which exists in the north.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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There are many issues which lay bare the subservience of Ireland’s political elite to the edicts of international capital. The bank guarantee of September 2008; the handing over of natural resources to multinationals; the miniscule tax rate levied on corporations; a crippling austerity agenda which continues to stunt the country’s economy – the list goes on.

This week saw yet another bleak day in the state’s history when gombeenism ran roughshod over common decency. On Monday (October 1), €1 billion was handed over to unguaranteed, unsecured bondholders of Allied Irish Bank, which is 99% owned by the state, as part of a pitiful bid to appease “the markets”. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has claimed ignorance over the identities of these and other similar recipients of Irish state funds, although the list is widely known to include financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s. By the end of this year, a total of more than €19 billion will be paid to speculators who gambled in the boom years and now refuse to take a loss. In 2013, more than €17 billion of state money will be squandered in the same way.

This enormous transfer of wealth takes place against the backdrop of the largest spending cuts in the state’s history. In the demented political sphere of Ireland, where the nation’s economy is seen as a mere tool to service the needs of multi-national corporations, closing A&Es, reducing the wages of teachers and slashing allowances for disabled people are seen as “tough” decisions. Increasing corporation tax and forcing the super-rich to take a loss on their gambles are, apparently, weak decisions. A 15% unemployment rate on top of mass emigration, it seems, is the tolerable price to pay in the appeasement of “the markets”. Sacrifices must be made to save the European financial system, we have been told.

For all their talk of “injustice” and “unfairness” earlier this year, the GAA stars who rallied behind disgraced former billionaire Séan Quinn have remained remarkably silent on this particular issue. The handing over of scarce public funds to nameless professional gamblers merits no public demonstration of anger from Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte or the others who chose to support a corrupt billionaire. Nor were they as outspoken when Ireland’s economic sovereignty was handed over to the IMF in 2010.

Diarmuid O’Flynn, a hurling reporter for the Irish Examiner, has filled the void left by these sports stars and, of course, many other journalists. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, failed to report on Monday’s €1 billion bond payment. O’Flynn is one of the organisers of a weekly demonstration in his home village of Ballyhea in County Cork against the bondholder bailout. Now into its 84th week, the Ballyhea protest is a small glimpse of indignation among a population which has been renowned globally for its tame acceptance of harsh cutbacks. O’Flynn’s blog, Bondwatch Ireland, is an excellent source of information for those seeking to find out the true scale of the toxic debt plunged onto the nation’s shoulders. A result of meticulous research, the site details on a weekly basis the upcoming bond payments due at Ireland’s state-owned banks. Irish journalists should be well advised to consult the site.

Many of the attempts to explain what caused Ireland’s economic collapse have been muddled, causing much confusion around the issue. Some commentators point to the “cute-hoorism” prevalent among the Irish ruling and political class, while others highlight the outright criminality which existed at the top of Ireland’s banking sector. All of these arguments carry weight, but ultimately fail to provide a thorough explanation.

Ireland’s problems transcend its own national boundaries. Although all of the above were certainly contributing factors, the country’s collapse was part of a global calamity. Since the 1970s, capitalism was transformed from its Keynesian model towards a more radical neo-liberal one. Trade union influence diminished, financial markets were deregulated and public assets were privatised. Ireland was long touted as the “success story” of this economic arrangement.

The rise of neo-liberalism saw an unprecedented concentration of the world’s wealth into increasingly fewer hands. The demise of trade union movements in much of the west resulted in falling and stagnating wages for most workers. In order to make up for the loss of income, people were forced to take on ruinous amounts of debt to secure some of life’s basics, most notably in Ireland’s case, a home. The bursting of this credit bubble was inevitable.

In 2011, the British TUC released a report revealing the extent to which the incomes of workers had stagnated. It was found that UK workers would be earning a combined total of £60 billion more had wages increased in proportion to the growth of the wider economy. The same is true in many other countries. In the United States, the Irish bourgeoisie’s ideological home, this inequality occurs to an unnerving degree. The poorest 50% of Americans own a mere 1% of their country’s wealth, while the richest 1% own more than 34%. Or, to put in another way; the richest 1% of Americans own 34 times more wealth than half of all the American population combined. One family, the Waltons, who own Wal Mart, now possesses more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Such is the economic model our rulers aspire to.

During the boom years, with its unregulated financial markets and low tax rates for corporations, Ireland was held up as the poster boy of neo-liberal capitalism. The Celtic Tiger ran riot as the worst off in society were left behind. On 24 September, the Simon Community reported that homelessness has increased in Dublin, with more than 2,600 people seeking the housing charity’s assistance. This situation continues alongside the sordid spectacle of up to 400,000 empty homes scattered around the country – many of them owned by the state’s ‘bad bank’, NAMA.

Just as many of Ireland’s problems were rooted in a global system, so too do the seeds of a solution lie in other parts of the world. Although afflicted with a notoriously parochial political system, the population would do well to note the actions of people in other parts of Europe. Following its own crisis in 2008, Iceland refused to repay the debts accumulated by private banks, to the fury of the neo-liberal “experts” and “the markets”. Depositors’ money was guaranteed but private investors were forced to take a loss. These are real “tough” decisions. Iceland now has an unemployment rate which is less than half that of Ireland’s, and a growth rate of 3%. This political courage needs to be combined with the resistance of the kind shown by trade union movements in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Neutered as it is by a subservient ‘social partnership’ model, the Irish trade union movement, with honourable exceptions of course, has so far failed to inspire mass action. The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions even refused to take a position on the EU Austerity Treaty in May.

Ireland’s socialisation of private losses is a national scandal which remains so far under-reported. It’s astounding that many fail to make the connection between this and the array of cuts to public services taking place right now.

Written more than a century ago, Jack London’s, The Iron Heel, endures as a very pertinent read. The dystopian novel, which later influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four depicts the tyranny of a class of nihilistic super-rich, named ‘the Oligarchy’, imposing their brutal rule on the rest of humanity. The book’s protagonist, Ernest Everhard, is a fiery socialist whose life-cause is to take on the huge capitalist monopolies and the powerful state which safeguards them. Riddled with outbursts of rage against the profit system, the book’s reader could not fail to miss the parallels between the scenario set out in this book and the world today.

Politicians from the two main parties in the US bore the brunt of one of Ernest’s wonderful tirades, an eruption of anger which could be aimed at almost any parliament in the world today:

“You pompously call yourselves Republicans and Democrats. There is no Republican Party. There is no Democratic Party. There are no Republicans, nor Democrats in this house. You are lick-spittlers and panderers, the creatures of the Plutocracy. You talk verbosely in antiquated terminology of your love of liberty, and all the while you wear the scarlet livery of the Iron Heel.”

Although it has been true for a long time, the present Eurozone crisis has brought to the fore the unspeakable fact that national parliaments are no longer the main power-holders in the world. The blackmail and intimidation of the Irish people into accepting Angela Merkel’s ‘Stability’ Treaty was but the latest instance of a rabid financial system making big decisions against the interests of the majority of humanity.

In January, under the threat of a “financial bomb” going off in Dublin, the Irish state pitifully paid €1.2 billion to unsecured, unguaranteed, faceless bondholders at the now defunct Anglo-Irish bank. Two months previously, €720 million was forked out for the same senseless purpose, at a time when billions are hacked away from public spending. The fact that the Fine Gael and Labour manifestos pledged to “burn the bondholders” did not halt this grotesque looting of scarce public funds. Terroristic warnings of financial catastrophe saw to it that the desires of the Irish electorate were overridden.

Although Ireland reluctantly bowed to the intimidation of financial terrorists, the Greek people took a stand and rejected the social vandalism of austerity, much to the annoyance of the “markets.” Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, let her veil slip when she declared that it was time for the Greek people to “payback” and warned them “not to expect sympathy”. The world’s media were shocked by her callous outburst. They needn’t have been surprised, however, as cold-hearted arrogance is well within the tradition of this monstrous institution whose policies have spread poverty and hardship throughout the globe.

True to her economic fanaticism, Lagarde is capable only of acknowledging hard figures, while remaining totally oblivious to the destitution millions of people now face in Greece. And destitution is no exaggeration.  It has been reported that many schools in the country are no longer able provide physical education because children are fainting in class as a result of hunger. In April, retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in the main square of Athens during morning rush hour after his pension was butchered by the fanatical austerity measures imposed on Greece by the Troika.  His suicide note read: “And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting… I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.” Later the same month in Athens, a university lecturer in his 30s hanged himself from a lamp post, a young student shot himself in the head and a priest took his own life by jumping off a balcony. One can only imagine the hopelessness these people experienced to be driven to these extremes. This is the human side of economics, beyond the endless chatter about “the markets” and those frustratingly dull, lifeless figures.

Before the Troika’s diktats, Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. Since then, it has doubled and is likely to continue to rise. The country has seen a 25% increase in homelessness over the past three year and 1 in 11 people in Athens rely on soup kitchens for food. Thanasis Maniatisan, an economics professor at Athens University, told the Guardian that Greece faces “a great humanitarian crisis, similar to that suffered in advanced economies during the 1930s.” The society of an entire nation is collapsing as a direct result of the financial terrorism perpetrated by the Troika. Lagarde remains indifferent.

Back in March, ECB chief Mario Draghi revealed the sheer short sightedness and utter stupidity of the powerful when he boldly declared that “the worst of the Euro crisis is over”. The path of austerity they have chosen to travel tragically underline this folly. Their self-styled solutions merely attempt to resolve the symptoms of this crisis, rather than the causes. Such is their blind fanaticism.

The aim of Merkel’s Treaty is to minimise state debt and restrict public spending deficits. Although these issues were not the causes of the Great Recession, and tackling them will certainly not improve the situation as Greece has shown, the austerity gang insists on continuing on its failed path. Far from being a problem of the public sector, the current crisis was caused by the excesses of the private sector. Before the notorious bank guarantee, Ireland ran budget surpluses every year for the previous five years. Even the usually right-wing Economist magazine commented:

“This fiscal focus gets things exactly backwards. Spain’s poor public finances, unlike those of Greece, are a symptom rather than the cause of the country’s economic woes. Before the crisis Spain was well within the euro zone’s fiscal rules. Even now its government debt, at around 70% of GDP, is lower than Germany’s. As in Ireland, the origins of Spain’s debt problems are private, not public.”

This crisis, particularly in Ireland, Spain and the United States, was caused by an uncontrolled housing boom, unregulated private banks and the 30-year long suppression of wages. The austerity zealots have turned a crisis of a runaway private sector into a crisis of public spending. This situation urgently needs reversed.

Doubtless, there are millions who would agree with Jack London’s character Ernest Everhard when he raged:

“The capitalist class has mismanaged. In face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged, that you have mismanaged, my masters, that you have criminally and selfishly mismanaged.”

 

– This article was published in The Morning Star.

 

 

 

The announcement by Greek Prime Minister George Panpandreou to hold a referendum on whether or not to accept the Troika’s latest “bailout” has been met with the predictable fury of Europe’s leaders. Such are their democratic credentials, the very thought of the Greek people having a say on the austerity being inflicted upon them sparked outrage. Under intense pressure, Papandreou balked and called off the proposed referendum.

Everyone needs to keep a close eye on the events unfolding in Greece. What happens there will affect us all. The very existence of the European Union is on the line; if the Euro collapses, the EU is likely to go down with it. What happens after that is anybody’s guess. The ethnic cauldron that makes up much of Europe could very well boil over, the results of which most do not care to think about. The prospect of war in the continent is a very real one. Don’t just take my word for it; German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stark warning in the Bundestag last month when she said: “No one should think that a further half century of peace and prosperity is assured. If the euro fails, Europe will fail.”

Distracted by X-Factor and other hollow gimmicks, much of the population seem oblivious, and contently so, to the enormous events unfolding around them. Capitalism is now in its biggest crisis since the 1930s, with even the “top” bourgeois economists at a loss as to what to do to next. In all likelihood, capitalism is heading towards a period of prolonged and deep recession. Many are even plausibly predicting another depression. If this materialises, the ramifications on working people will obviously be enormous.

The sense of urgency among Europe’s leaders to save the EU project stems from the continent’s collective memory of fascism. They know the EU is the cement that has maintained peace in most of Europe since 1945. Its collapse will create a political vacuum in many countries, which the far-right will doubtless take advantage of. Across Europe, a tide of extreme nationalism is gaining ground. Muslims have replaced Jews as the targets of “acceptable” racism in today’s society. Fascist-friendly comics, such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express, spout their racist, reactionary vitriol without any real controversy. Their headlines attack Muslims on a daily basis, accusing them of being “terrorists”, “benefit scroungers” and “imposing their values”. Such disinformation in mainstream discourse provides fertile ground for the spread of fascism. This can already be seen across much of Europe. In 2009, the BNP polled 1 million votes in the European Parliament elections. The increasing popularity of the odious English Defence League since then is another case in point. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party has made considerable gains in Holland. Latest opinion polls show that 16.9% of Finns support the True Finns Party. 15.2% of the electorate in Denmark have expressed sympathy with the Danish People’s Party.

Such alarming statistics should come as little surprise. In deep crises, people will naturally look to areas outside the mainstream for solutions. Fascists provide extremely impressionable people with “easy” answers. Many people, unfortunately, find it easier to blame their problems on immigrants and minorities, rather than study the economic, social and political issues which dominate their lives.

One important point to bear in mind is that fascism is good for big business. Do not fall under the illusion that capitalism is compatible with democracy and human rights. Capitalism is there to make profit. What happens to the environment, societies, families and individuals is simply immaterial in the dark race for profit. If fascist states provide profitable outlets for big business, you can rest assured that they will take these opportunities.

Without a viable left alternative, the rise of fascism in many parts of Europe is a distinct possibility. Earlier this week, the Irish Independent reported that a significant number of people in Athens have been brandishing the portraits of some of the country’s top generals. In a nation which got rid of a military junta just 30 years ago, this is an extremely worrying development. Despite the inspirational resistance to austerity shown by the Greek working class over the past number of years, fascism can still creep in through the back door.

Since 2008, the capitalist class have been using the crisis as an opportunity. They have taken advantage of people’s shock and have begun the process of slashing wages, conditions and, of course, jobs. They are attacking all the gains made by the labour movement over the past 60 years. That being the case, this should be seen by socialists also as an opportunity. The time is ripe for the airing of new ideas and alternatives to a system organised for the pursuit of profit, as opposed to social need. To stop fascism before it grows, progressives and socialists need to provide a clear programme detailing what we stand for. We should discuss and debate this thoroughly, as it is the only way to clarify our ideas and strive towards what we hope to achieve.

The opening of opportunities for the building of a better and more humane society come once in a generation. Let’s not miss this one.