WHY AND HOW DID WE AND DO WE LET IT HAPPEN?
Maurice Fitpatrick, Lecturer at the University of Cologne, film documentary maker
Why and how did we let what has happened to our country happen involves a deep examination of our identity and self-awareness, a subject that would not usually involve any reference to Bertie Ahern. But bear with me and picture the following scene. It is a conference hall in a Donegal hotel in 2007. Ahern, puffed up by a third general election victory, is standing tall and he spits from the podium that opponents of Celtic Tigermania should ‘commit suicide’ for refusing to get into the swing of things. The conference room erupts in applause. One such party pooper was Morgan Kelly, the Cassandra-like Irish economic analyst who predicted the property bubble bursting and many of the woes resulting from it. The Irish electorate didn’t heed Kelly’s voice in time because the clapping was so cacophonous. But the worm turns and how…
The exposure of the political culture Fianna Fáil so sedulously constructed should inevitably have raised questions about the backslapping, the cheers, the dutifully marked ballot sheets; it should have gone some way to creating a new political consciousness in our society, and prompted a move away from past deceits. It should have given us occasion to examine systemic failures. Instead, it brought us out in strong numbers to suspend Fianna Fáil for a few years before swinging back to the current circumstances where it is the most popular political party in Ireland.
Bearing in mind that, this spring, Iceland elected the Independence Party back to office, the party that bankrupted their country, and voted out the only left-wing alliance that they ever managed to elect; and that we look set to do something similar next time, to swallow populist policies on mortgaging, the following questions cannot be ignored. Why can an interest group ruin a country, seriously affecting the lives of millions of people, and be entirely forgiven for doing so in the following election? Why would we accept such a transparently feeble excuse for democratic representation?
The answer, I believe, lies in a flaw in our system of democracy, the political dimension of our civilization, which is failing us. Our system of democracy, of political union within Europe, and of money exchange within it, is failing us and it is failing our children.
Last month I participated in Irland-Tage, a gathering of Irish and German journalists, academics and diplomats in the western German city of Saarbrucken, a city which was, over the centuries, the site where millions of bodies were strewn on both sides of the shifting Franco-German border, the remedy to which conflict was and still somehow is political union in Europe, based on hard work and consent. Irland-Tage culminated in a debate between Eckhardt Lubkemeier, the German ambassador to Ireland, and Dan Mulhall, the Irish ambassador to Germany. The Chair, Derek Scally of the Irish Times, raised the issue of the deficiency of the eurozone to handle the crisis, and Mulhall responded that there is responsibility on the part of the borrower, on the part of the lender, and there is responsibility on the part of the system.
We somehow lack a will to engage in a probing discussion about the weakness of the system, the third essential component, the third panel in the triptych and by far the most important one since it enabled, and still enables under a new guise, the transference of wealth from the masses to elites.
Anyone can work out that if Jonas Muller/Jurgen Schmidt in the ECB enables the flow of 400,000 euro to Paddy Murphy to build a mansion in the wilderness of Ireland without collateral to back it up, that trouble will inevitably bubble up. But blaming one or the other has achieved nothing. The will to drive down economies on pretence of reviving them, the doctrine of austerity, has hollowed out the most basic of rights available in a democratic country. We live in a time when the Bundestag vets our budgets, where unelected European bureaucracies and the US Department of Treasury make key interventions in our future.
Tellingly, we are asked to focus on the minutiae of the crisis rather than the overarching significance of its politics. Thus blame for past mistakes, conflated with an obsessive vigilance of costs and salaries across the eurozone, is purportedly a panacea to the eurozone crisis; whereas really it amounts to a guard against scrutiny of the system that inexorably drove us to this situation.
Market fundamentalism transforms citizens into consumers. As President Higgins put it, it means that “we have experienced a dulling of our consciousness, which blocks our capacity to engage critically with the world”. Further, and I’m quoting now from his 1992 The Open Mind Guest Lecture, Uachtaran na hEireann said that “a new version of education which denied creativity as strongly as it demanded from even the earlier levels of education the dehumanising values of Friedrich von Hayek, borrowed by Milton Friedman, and used as tools of oppression by the administration of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, and brought home to Ireland from the British jumble sale of ideas by the insecure followers of acquisitive greed”. Not exactly a recipe for representative democracy.
I’d like to apply this alarming tendency to university education. The economic benefits to a narrow elite of erasing great philosophers from the University of Tokyo Law Department’s curriculum, of scraping the history department at Magee Campus of the University of Ulster – this, the closing of history departments, was something that Noam Chomsky predicted. He called this impulse the manufacture of consent and it means disabling or denying young minds the ability to make connections with the past, to consider alternative systems, to make imaginative leaps, to find out something about themselves and about their time.
Globalism through the machinations of banks provides the most comprehensive way of controlling people ever achieved. It is open and blunt about its means and objectives: it would sooner uphold zombie banks than offer reasonable bailout terms now that peripheral countries are forced to rely on such. Globalism’s assault on democracy (demos kratos, common people rule) is intense: our democracy is now fully subsumed by plutocratic banking cartels; our taxes are shovelled into their coffers.
Make no mistake; this sorry state of affairs has been a long time in the making. You may not have heard of Bernard Connolly? If not, the reason why you haven’t is more by design than by accident. He was in charge of the European Commission’s Monetary Affairs Unit in the mid-1990s and he dared to write a book, The Rotten Heart of Europe (1995), pointing out the flaws in the make-up of the eurozone when it was teetering into existence. He was summarily fired for his heresy.
The case of Connolly is revealing because it disproves the theories of those who insist on tracing Europe’s core problems to the world’s economic downturn in September 2008. Europe’s financial tycoons in Frankfurt had usurped control of the running of most of Western Europe well over a decade before; now the citizens are paying for the takeover.
Constitutions and Ideology
We know that payment to holders of promissory notes, as with senior bondholders, was not agreed during a sitting of the government, still less by the Irish people. Furthermore, documentary evidence shows that the European Central Bank leaned on our former Minister for Finance to agree immediately to make the deal. That pressure breached Article 15.2 of Bunreacht na hEireann, which forbids bodies other than our government to legislate for the Republic of Ireland.
Constitutions have the potential to be radical documents. Turkey enshrines secularity in its constitution, whereas the Italian constitution enshrines the right of citizens to work. Yet these assertions are only valid in the degree to which they are upheld.
Given that our constitution and those of other countries, too, are so openly flouted, it behoves us to manufacture dissent. Defining Ireland’s position in geo-political and geo-financial terms has always been dogged by our enthusiasm to claim what it is that we are not. As Mary Harney put it in a Eurosceptic speech in 2000, we are ‘closer to Boston than Berlin’. Eminently adept at swing voting, our elected representatives today may well invert that formula, but still miss the servility that inheres in it. I fully accept Professor Gearoid O Tuathaigh’s perspectives offered here last night: that as a small country in a globalised world there are limits to what we can achieve outside a framework of co-operation with bigger allies. Still, we should not lack the courage to continually strive to establish Ireland – for it is must be an accumulative process – as a centre of its own, and constitutive of its own ethos.
That courage is evidenced by the Ballyhea movement. Ballyhea is a small village in north Co. Cork where protestors have gathered on a weekly basis since February 2011 to decry the lost opportunities that the economic doctrine of austerity is causing them and their kin. Last year they travelled to Frankfurt to post their ‘forty theses’ in protest against the injustices of punitive economic policies and the privation of democracy that accompanied them. It is a peaceful protest and undoubtedly a source of solace to the community that, like many such Irish villages – the Glenties here is a good example – has been ravaged by the recession. They assert how a group of people in “a programme country”, to use that despicable phrase, can play an initiatory role in the transformation that is required.
For as long as protest takes place well out of sight (the occasional outing to the heart of the eurozone machine’s centre notwithstanding), conducted by disaffected villagers, it is ignored. But when our president, Michael D. Higgins, spoke against the consensus of economic policy in Europe in May, there was a rush to gag him.
President Higgins said that, ‘There is a real problem in what was assumed to be a single hegemonic model…The unemployment profile in Greece is different from the unemployment profile in Ireland. You need a pluralism of approaches’. Higgins, in Isaiah Berlin’s terminology, is evidently a fox and his vulpine views were roundly rebuked, allegedly for having spoken outside the bounds of his constitutional remit as president. But did he? No article in Bunreacht na hEireann, states that a citizen of the Republic cannot speak his or her mind. While it is true that the presidential office is putatively ‘above politics’, he has consistently espoused human rights issues throughout the world. As First Citizen of Ireland, how could he legitimately ignore how the fabric of our society is being destroyed?
The spat that came from Higgins’ comments proved the degree to which our government has swallowed the European consensus on a single, one size fits all, economic model, despite all the evidence that it is not working.
Consider employment. The unemployment problem in Ireland is both the source of our woe and its symptom. It is used as a stick with which to beat people who, through no fault of their own, find themselves unemployed. A huge number of unemployed young adults, small community protestors, and the president himself, acknowledge that these policies must be overturned, and that any delay in so doing only worsens the problem.
Higgins also called for bank debt and sovereign debt to be separated and stated that “what we really need now is something that goes beyond outrage and recrimination”. What would that be exactly?
From an Irish point of view, and from the point of view of other European countries under the kosh of the financial institutions, the Blockupy movement is assuredly a move in the right direction. Blockupy consists mainly of left-wing German political activists: the great unelected, idealists who articulate something very needful in the visionless politics of their country. Having been beaten back in May/June by water cannon and snarling dogs, they were joined by arguably the most powerful constituency in Europe today: the youth unemployed. People from Ireland, from Spain, from Italy and from Greece mustered in Frankfurt to protest at the austerity measures that deny them an opportunity to find decent work, to generate employment opportunities and to contribute to society. The protest was small and short-lived, granted, but it had impact as evidenced by the disproportionate and stupid response of the riot police, despite the absence of riot conditions.
This protest has been brewing for quite a while. Writing in The Guardian on April 30th, philanthropist George Soros argued: “The heavily indebted countries must channel their citizens’ rising discontent into a more constructive channel by coming together and calling on Germany to make a choice.”
But we will not reverse the European position for as long as we’re led by centre-right politicians who want to protect capital holders at all costs. We, living abroad – I’m one of the 300,000 whom Theo Dorgan mentioned here – need a vote and we need to be critical and we need to agitate.
I’d like to emphasize that in a republic, in a Res Publica, the debate about who we are is just as important as the results which that debate produces. The debate on identity politics, a seeking of self-definition is an end in itself, and constitutes what a republic is really about. It is particularly needful when one’s identity is most threatened, when a hostile invading state attempts to claim a people’s rights. For that reason the work of Derry writers like Brian Friel (if Brian Friel is Derry), that is, Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane in inserting their art into the political realm is exemplary.
As Cezlaw Milosz pointed out, there is no point in having freedom from something unless you know what you want freedom for. So I want to pull this right back and have a look at the state of world employment for a moment. Many of you may have had, or will have in the near future, the experience of walking into a public library to find that the friendly librarians have been replaced by machines; that one of the staff is visible to help customers get used to the machines: the rest are upstairs cataloguing (if they had proper contracts) while the others have joined the next generation in being permanently frozen out of employment in that sector. You go back to the same library in six months’ time and find that they have acquired and given pride of place to a 3D printer; you have all seen this machine rolled out – it can manufacture in almost any chosen material. These printers are rare now but in a few years the market will be replete with them.
What comes of an environment where many people are unemployed and yet enabled to do extraordinary things with increasingly sophisticated technology? People in our age are increasingly enabled and decreasingly engaged. What Marx called the reserve army of labour is increasing. That is why representative democracy is important: we need to incorporate a huge swathe of people who are not employed in order for a democracy to have real substance and to be binding. Compared to what we now have, a charade of government that implements the will of banking elites, that is a noble ideal to aspire to.
I want to end on a positive note. There are a number of reasons to do so. To stand here, to have underscored Uachtarán na hÉireann’s courageous call to reject the cruel economic doctrine of our time, to participate at a Summer School where luminaries such as Brian Friel and John Hume are honoured, is to know that Ireland as a nation has still extraordinary moral and intellectual strength to draw from. The mightiest challenge for generations is upon us. We can also draw strength and example from the courage of people on our island who worked indefatigably to uproot a system of democracy which had become unworthy of the name. I am thinking of the students who marched from Belfast to Derry to claim the right to participate in a more representative democracy than the perverted form of democracy that existed in the North for fifty years, who were assailed, famously, at Burntollet in 1969; they knew that the promulgation of the idea of civil rights and democracy could only be achieved through civil discourse because it was made brutally clear to them that the State would always have the bigger stick.
As Ho Chi Minh, when asked about American democracy, said that it would be a good idea, I say, about representative democracy in Ireland, that truly it would be a good idea and that it’s high time to enshrine it in our political sphere.