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DublinAirportT2DeparturesGeneric_largeThis week, rivers were dyed green, tricolours hoisted high and rebel songs passionately belted out as millions around the world celebrated whatever tenuous link they have with Ireland. On Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. Yet, for me, and many others, the festivities over the past number of years have been marred by a bleak spectacle all too common in Ireland. Mass emigration has returned to the country at levels higher than they were during the 1980s. More than 87,000 people left the south of the country last year, bringing the total number of emigrants since 2008 to more than 200,000. With youth unemployment currently hovering at around 25%, this is hardly surprising news.

Those of us still living in Ireland don’t need figures to confirm what we know from first-hand experience. The impact emigration has had on places such as my home town, Lurgan, can be clearly seen in the half-full local bars, boarded-up shops and hallowed out sports clubs. On a personal level, emigration has taken a considerable toll, with some of my closest friends now living in Australia, Scotland and England, having escaped the depressing prospect of unemployment. Celebrating your Irishness can be a somewhat empty affair when those who you grew up with are scattered around the globe.

Last year, I left Ireland to teach English in South Korea. My departure was not so much a result of unemployment, but the result of another crisis affecting the country – the low wage crisis. Despite working full-time, I made just enough money to pay for heating, groceries and rent. Like thousands of others, my disposable income was non-existent and, consequently, I had no savings to speak of. In contrast, my South Korean employer paid me a handsome salary as well as the rent for a furnished apartment. I earned enough money to save, travel and enjoy life. Why would I not make the move? Thousands of others around the country face similar choices.

At a time when the austerity zealots are looting the economies of Europe, the imposing fact that wages have not risen in real terms since the 1980s remains the great taboo, largely unspoken in political discourse. Along with Thatcher and Regan’s suppression of trade unions came the predictable fall in the proportion of the planet’s wealth owned by working people. A example of this was starkly laid out in a report commissioned by the TUC in 2011, which found that had wages in the UK grown at the same rate as the wider economy, British workers would collectively be earning £60 billion more than they earn today. Similar results can be found in countries across the globe, not least in Ireland. Combined with the extortionate rents or crippling mortgages which line the pockets of landlords, bankers and property developers, it was only a matter of time before repressed wages became a wider societal problem.

Yet, the ‘solutions’ being proposed on both sides of the border address none of these issues. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition in the south has shown itself to be disturbingly obsessed with the will of the markets, proving themselves to be the Troika’s ‘model students’. In a society where reactionary Catholicism is rightly being marginalised, money has become the new religion. “The markets” are the new gods to be appeased, economic “experts” the high priests to be obeyed. The language used by those who worshiped the gods of Olympus is resurgent, with daily media reports on how “the markets” react to global events. Like Zeus, “the markets” can be “upset” by or “approve” of the actions of us mere mortals. “Sacrifices” must be made to please the gods or we could incur their wrath. In his St Patrick’s Day address to the US Chamber of Commerce, Taoiseach Enda Kenny boasted of these “sacrifices” made by Irish people at the altar of austerity. In a letter to the Irish Times last month, just after the Croke Park II negotiations, one university lecturer explained the impact these “sacrifices” have had on him and his family:

“Once again the government and the unions have betrayed us – as it happens as a public servant I earn exactly €65,0000. Currently with all the deductions from my salary I take home €29,000! From that figure – just to be able to get to pay my mortgage and get work and back each day it costs me €14,900 a year – that leaves my family with €14,100 to live on.

“The new pay cut of 5.5% will reduce the €29,000 by €3,575 this means I will take home €25,425. So I will now have the grand total of €10,525 for my family to live on! In the next 2 years I will have 2 college age children – the average registration fees will be about €3,500 each per year! This means that as a college lecturer I will not be able to afford to send my own children to college. I haven’t been able to tell them that there’s little point in them studying hard in the leaving cert as no matter how well they do it will take a miracle for them to be able to go to college.”

This is the reality for many in the south of Ireland today. It is the inevitable result of the fanatical dogma which recoils in horror at the thought of billionaire financiers suffering losses on dodgy gambles while, at the same time, not batting an eyelid at the spectacle of a generation of young people fleeing a country which offers them no opportunities.  In the north, where the situation is little better, insecure, depressing, low-paid jobs in call centres and supermarkets are presented as the pinnacle of economic development, the dividend of a decade of peace. While our political classes busily applaud themselves for their ‘peacemaking’ and being the ‘good boys’ of Europe, young Irish people now find themselves in a situation where they are more welcome in far off places like Sydney, New York and Seoul than they are in Dublin, Cork or Belfast.

What a disgrace.

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More than 100,000 people took to the streets around Ireland on Saturday (February 9) to demonstrate against the €64 billion bank debt which has been forced onto the country’s population. The protests, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, marked the end of a busy week in Irish politics, which saw the publication of a report into the barbaric Magdalene Laundries, the liquidation of the former Anglo-Irish Bank and the announcement of a supposed “deal” on the hated promissory notes. Basic democratic standards took a hit on each occasion.

Although the population have been subjected to a relentless campaign of government spin and misinformation, those who attended Saturday’s rallies were well aware that the “deal” presented to the population earlier in the week was merely an extension of the calamitous bank guarantee which Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan condemned this country to. As a result, Ireland will pay for almost half of the total cost of Europe’s banking crisis, with every citizen coughing up €9,000 – compared to a European average of €191. Over the next 40 years, because of our political class’s dread of seeing billionaire speculators suffer a loss, the country’s population will witness hospital closures and mass emigration in order to repay a loan which they never took out. This is the incessant “no bondholder left behind” approach so eagerly adopted by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. “We are not going to have the name ‘defaulter’ written across our foreheads,” boasted Taoiseach Enda Kenny. “We will pay our way, we have never looked for a debt write-down.” The only concern this government has with paying off an illegitimate debt, it seems, is the timing. It will now be paid off over four decades instead of one. So much for a “deal”. So much for our “partners” in the ECB.

The political class in Ireland have long been infatuated with the wealth of foreign capitalists. Since partition, our economy was built around the goal of attracting “foreign investment” rather than the development of native industries. Economic policy was constructed around the desires of the wealthy, more so than most other European nations, a situation which continues to the present day. It is the enduring continuation of “trickle-down theory”, the folly long promoted by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher which contends that the more wealth those at the top accumulate, the more those at the bottom will benefit. The global stagnation of wages in the midst of rising CEO pay over the last three decades is proof of its failure.

Despite the gravity of last week’s events, as well as the wider drive for austerity in general, the ICTU leadership succeeded only in completely neutering the message of Saturday’s rallies. A comedian, a rapper and musicians dominated the stage outside Government Buildings in Dublin in what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to depoliticise the protest. The crowd was entertained rather than radicalised by an uninspired display devoid of any political content. Its success in entertaining those in attendance was affirmed by the droves of protesters who departed the rally early.

The overall message of the demonstrations was carefully crafted by a trade union leadership determined to pursue a social partnership model which has immensely weakened the movement. The ire of the top brass was directed solely at the EU/ECB/IMF Troika, and not the government which has chosen to implement their policies, betraying pre-election promises. Rather than demanding the outright repudiation of a debt that we have no moral obligation to pay back, the ICTU leadership is content to call for a “better deal”.

Bland, apolitical campaigns which fail even to inspire otherwise enthusiastic activists are unlikely to reverse the drop in trade union membership we have seen over the past number of decades. The opportunity to send out a radical message on Saturday was entirely squandered. This is a somewhat unsurprising consequence, given that this same leadership failed to take a position on the Fiscal Compact Treaty last year which enshrined austerity into EU law.

As we approach the centenary of the great class battle which occurred during the Dublin Lockout, the contrast between Larkin and Connolly and the present leadership couldn’t be greater. It’s time for change.

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.