Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Emigration haunts Ireland once again

One perk of being married is that I have acquired a new grandmother. She is a sharp-witted woman in her early nineties and lives beside a “fairy fort” in rural Ireland; to this day, local farmers will not tamper with that site, lest they upset ancient spirits. Visiting Granny over the Easter break, I was reminded of a bleak past. Her own father came from a family with nine children but never knew some of his siblings. Five brothers and a sister all took the boat to America, never to return.

Emigration is back at epidemic levels in the Ireland of 2011. Each week an estimated 1,000 people leave a country that has raised and educated them but offers no work.

Are those young emigrants supposed to be comforted by a recent assurance from Jean-Claude Trichet that the European Central Bank acts as an “anchor of stability”? According to the official narrative, the ECB has selflessly come to Ireland’s rescue. Where, I wonder, is the stability for families rent asunder by the ECB’s prescriptions of austerity? Skype might make it easier to keep in touch with loved ones; it doesn’t cure homesickness.

Trichet, the ECB’s president, did not cause all of Ireland’s woes but he is exacerbating them. Brian Lenihan, Irish finance minister before a recent change of government, is more directly culpable for the country’s economic collapse. Though he is not trustworthy, I am inclined to believe Lenihan’s “revelation” – published in The Irish Times earlier this month – that the ECB put him under enormous pressure to accept an €85 billion “bail-out”, with excruciating conditions attached, in November 2010.

Also according to the official narrative, Trichet is a master of technical details who does not trifle with the base concerns of elected politicians. His mind is perennially focused on inflation and interest rates, not the interests of his chums in the top layers of the financial system, the spindoctors want us to believe. But who really stands to benefit from the “anchor of stability” he has thrown into our stormy waters? French and German banks have lent €900 billion to countries on the periphery of the euro-zone, including Ireland. The ECB cannot contemplate hurting these bondholders; so the innocent have to suffer instead.

Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist, has called the terms flanking the loan provided to Ireland by the ECB, European Commission and International Monetary Fund a “noose” around the country’s neck. “In effect, the International Monetary Fund and European Central Bank are asking ordinary Irish workers and citizens to bear the burden of mistakes that were made by international financial markets,” Stiglitz wrote recently. “But it is important to recognise that these mistakes are at least partly attributable to following deregulation and liberalisation policies that were advocated by the IMF and ECB and that these policies provided significant benefits to the financial sector.”

Economists of a more conservative hue than Stiglitz have arrived at similar conclusions. Colm McCarthy, a lecturer in University College Dublin, tried to deliver a metaphorical uppercut on the smug face of Nicolas Sarkozy in January. “From an Irish perspective, what looks to him [Sarkozy] like financial assistance from Europe could as readily be characterised as a bail-out of European investors foolish enough to lend to Anglo Irish Bank and other insolvent banks, courtesy of the Irish taxpayers,” McCarthy wrote in The Sunday Independent.

Thumbing his nose at the French president is unlikely to have repercussions for McCarthy’s career, unless perhaps he fancies a secondment in the Sorbonne. It is telling that he has been much more acquiescent towards the Dublin establishment. In a new report for the Irish government, McCarthy recommends that large chunks of the state-owned electricity, broadcasting and public transport services should be privatised. Under the terms of an “agreement” reached with the EU institutions and the IMF, the proceeds from the sale of these assets would be used to pay back the bail-out debts.

McCarthy’s recommendations for a jumble sale of essential services were delivered a few days before the 95th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, that most hallowed event in Ireland’s struggle for independence from Britain. I read the Dublin newspapers carefully on the day the anniversary fell, yet did not see one commentator expressing disgust at how Margaret Thatcher’s poisonous philosophy is now guiding Ireland’s economic policies. The closest I saw was a mildly-worded analysis in The Sunday Business Post noting that the “trailblazing initiatives” of the Thatcher administration had ushered in a worldwide phenomenon whereby $2 trillion worth of assets were transferred from public to private hands between 1977 and 2008.

This is not a problem unique to Ireland; the EU and IMF want numerous countries to swallow the same medicine, with the same toxic side-effects. This week anti-poverty activists will gather in Athens for a conference against the austerity agenda that Europe’s elites are forcing on the masses. Its participants will include representatives of the Jubilee campaign that has mobilised millions to demand that debts crippling African economies be dropped.

The popular rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt earlier this year were in part driven by contempt at the inequality-widening agenda of institutions like the IMF. There is no reason why there shouldn’t be similar mass protests in Europe. As Jim Larkin, a pioneer of the Irish trade union movement, once said: “The great only appear great because we are on our knees. Let us rise.”

·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 1-7 May 2011

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