Meet the new boss in Ireland

It would be hard to imagine a more rancid collection of chisellers running a developed nation than the Fianna Fáil government which ran Ireland until a year ago. They were involved in corruption scandal after corruption scandal. And when Irish banks which had gambled on property (and donated to Fianna Fáil) got into trouble in 2008, Fianna Fáil, in a locked room, late at night and probably over a couple of drinks, guaranteed not only their deposits but the investments of their bondholders. The Irish public was put on the hook for billions of euros of bad investments. With one or two noble exceptions Fianna Fáil were, as a Dublin friend of mine put it, “Greedy, unprincipled gobshites”

In February 2011 the bums were kicked out. Fianna Fáil lost 24% of their vote and over 50 seats in the Dáil Éireann. They finished in third place and a coalition of Fine Gael and Labour swept into office with a record majority.

But what was any of it for? In what way was Ireland or its political life different after 2.2 million Irish men and women voted?

One of the most craven aspects of the Fianna Fáil government was its slavish obsequiousness towards the European Union. A party which claimed to be heirs to the nationalist spirit which is such a key part of the foundational myths of the Irish Republic, they gave Brussels whatever it asked for.

In June 2001 the Nice Treaty was put before the Irish people in a referendum. They rejected it. In the EU, votes and referendums don’t exist to discover the will of the people but simply to rubber stamp whatever decision the political elites have already taken. So the EU told the Irish to vote again and the gutless lackeys in Fianna Fáil facilitated it. The Nice Treaty passed at the second time of asking in 2002.

But Ireland’s constitutional requirement to put major changes to the Constitution to the vote remained. In 2008 the Lisbon Treaty was put before the Irish people and they rejected it. Again, the EU elites were dismayed that the people had given the wrong answer and Fianna Fáil was ordered to hold another referendum. The Lisbon Treaty passed at the second time of asking in 2009.

But any notion the Irish might have had that this supplication to a foreign power had ended with Fianna Fáil government has lately been rudely disabused.

The momentum behind the collapse of the Euro has proved less responsive to EU elite diktat than EU member governments. The latest useless attempt to stop it is the proposed ‘Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism’. In effect, this is simply a beefed up version of the old widely ignored and selectively enforced Stability & Growth Pact.

But in Brussels the Irish voters, unlike their politicians, have a reputation for thinking for themselves won in those two brief EU rejections. This makes giving them a say very dangerous, so the EU is looking at ways it can avoid doing so.

And, disgracefully, the Fine Gael government is proving every bit as accommodating as Fianna Fáil ever was. Enda Kenny’s government believes that, legally, they can just about get away with the argument that the new treaty does not represent a large enough change to the Irish Constitution to necessitate a referendum. But there’s not much in it, the government is rehearsing its arguments for the eventuality that they are challenged on this point in court.

That’s how democracy works between the EU and Ireland. The EU and its servants in the Dáil either give the Irish people too many votes or none at all.

Ireland is not the only country whose political class is acting on the bidding of Brussels rather than its people. The new EU imposed Italian government contains no elected officials and the Germans want the EU to take control of Greek fiscal policy away from the Greek government.

This represents a real danger for Europe. How long will the peoples of European nations tolerate a situation where, whoever they vote for, they end up being run by the EU? Democracy is never more vulnerable then when it is seen to be dysfunctional.

For their part the Irish might have expected rather different treatment after handing Fine Gael a landslide last year. But that’s democracy in the EU for you. It was never better described than by The Who ; “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”

This article originally appeared at openDemocracy

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The failure of Fianna Fáil

So long Soldiers of Destiny

Fourteen months ago Fianna Fáil were in a coalition government with the Progressive Democrats. The PD’s no longer exist and on 25th February Fianna Fáil was wiped out at the ballot box.

The defeat was seismic. Going into the election Fianna Fáil had 70 seats out of 166 in the Dáil Éireann ruling in coalition with 6 Green Party members. Afterwards the Party was reduced to 20 seats having lost 24% of their vote, the worst result in the party’s history. The Green Party lost all its seats.

The defeat was also historic. Fianna Fáil were founded in 1926 by Eamonn De Valera who had fought in the Easter Rising of 1916 and been a leader of the Anti-Treaty forces in the Irish Civil War of 1922-1923. The winners of that war, the Free State government established by the treaty with Britain, formed a party named Cumann na nGaedheal, later Fine Gael, which dominated Irish politics in the first decade after independence.

Formed to rid Ireland of what it saw as lingering British influence Fianna Fáil became one of the most successful political parties in the western world. In the 79 years since the election of its first government in 1932 Fianna Fáil has been in power for 61 of them.

Beyond its commitment to Irish Republicanism Fianna Fáil never had much in the way of a coherent ideology. Its perennial opponents, Fine Gael, were generally described as ‘centre right’ but whereas they often worked in coalition with Labour in their rare spells in government it was Fianna Fáil which allied with the free market PD’s in the 1980’s and 1990’s to enact a raft of reforms which reinvigorated Ireland’s moribund economy.

If a party has no clear ideology what sort of person does it attract? Sadly for Fianna Fáil and Ireland the answer was all too often crooks and chiselers on the make. The business dealings of the notoriously corrupt Charles Haughey, Taoiseach on and off between 1979 and 1992, prompted two separate public inquiries. His successor but one, Bertie Ahern, was embroiled in yet another corruption tribunal.

It was this ceaseless quest to line its own pockets that did for Fianna Fáil. They schmoozed with Ireland’s bankers who were getting rich thanks to the low rates they could borrow at following euro membership. And when the banks got into trouble in 2008 Fianna Fáil agreed, late at night, behind closed doors and with almost no consultation, that the Irish taxpayer would cover their losses. The party of De Valera’s ‘frugal comfort’ lashed themselves and their prospects to the fortunes of the banks and as the banks losses spiraled Fianna Fáil’s electoral prospects withered.

The prospects for Fianna Fáil are not good. The rump left in the Dáil are mostly the party’s old hands, linked with the government that bankrupted the country. A party which has relied on patronage (also known as kickbacks) will find this power deserts it in distant opposition. A party founded on Republicanism has been crowded out by Sinn Féin. They have no flag left to rally round.

The prospects for other parties appear better. With 37 seats Labour had their best election result ever and look set to join Fine Gael in government. But that could just be the start of their troubles. They are closely linked to Ireland’s trade unions which are unlikely to suffer the implementation of EU dictated austerity in silence. Unless there is significant give in the conditions of Ireland’s bailout from Brussels Labour could end up skewered like the Liberal Democrats across the Irish Sea.

Fine Gael has not been in such a commanding position since the late 1920’s but they too could find a warning in Britain. There a coalition elected to clean up the fiscal mess of a previous government is struggling in the polls against the party which left it. People have short memories and the more unpleasant the medicine the more they are inclined to discount the illness that necessitated it.

For Labour and Fine Gael triumph might be short lived but Fianna Fáil, once the natural party of Irish government, will struggle to capitalize. A sad impasse for the Soldiers of Destiny, but an utterly deserved one.

This article originally appeared at Global Politics

How Ireland’s 88-year experiment in self-government came to an end

A Province Once Again?

On December 17th 1922 the Union flag was lowered over the Royal Barracks in Dublin, marking the end of British rule in southern Ireland. To a large extent (quite how large was the cause of the brutal civil war) this moment marked the achievement of the dream of Patrick Pearse who, on Easter Monday 1916, had announced, “We ordain that the elected Representatives of the Irish people alone have power to make laws binding on the people of Ireland”.

On November 22nd 2010, the 88-year experiment in Irish self-government came to an end. Worried that Ireland’s economic woes could infect them, its partners in the Euro, accompanied by representatives from the IMF, descended on Dublin to demand that the Fianna Fail government accept a loan. After days of brow beating and arm twisting that would have put Lloyd George and Churchill to shame, the Irish acquiesced.

The Irish experiment in self government ended in regret. In their anger, the Irish cursed everything that had happened to their economy in the previous twenty years, anything to do with the ‘Celtic Tiger’ was now reviled. This risked throwing a decent fiscal baby out with rancid monetary bath water. The famously low corporation tax of 12.5% introduced in the 1990s attracted business to Ireland; by 2001, more than 13% of all Foreign Direct Investment into the European Union went to Ireland. Between the late 1980s and Ireland’s entry into the Euro, this helped to add 500,000 jobs to the Irish economy’s existing 1.3 million. This led to a doubling of Irish GDP per capita. Then the Euro came along.

The experiment ended in excess. When they entered the Euro in 1999, the Irish inherited the low interest rates of the Euro area’s dominant economy, Germany. Able to borrow cheap, government and individuals alike went on a spending binge. Between 2000 and 2003 public spending rose by 48%. The boxwallahs from Brussels and Washington arrived at a Dublin Airport – whose manager is on a salary twice that of the German Chancellor.

For individuals, debt as a percentage of household income rose from 68% in 1999 to 113% in 2004 to keep up with house prices, which tripled over just ten years. Irish banks were happy to help the housing bubble inflate, tripling their lending between 2002 and 2007 to over €360 billion. Builders borrowed to supply the housing to meet this growing demand. At the height of the boom in 2006-2007, approximately 90,000 new dwelling units were built in Ireland. In the UK in the same year – with a population 13 times the size of Ireland – the number was just 120,000. When all this was revealed as unsustainable, Country Leitrim was found to have three housing units for every resident.The experiment ended in confusion. The Irish weren’t sure who or what to blame for their economic collapse. The ‘who’ became the ever popular bogeyman, ‘bankers’, the ‘what’ became fiscal austerity introduced to balance the budget. In reality the ‘who’ should be the politicians and European leaders who took Ireland into an unsuitable and unsustainable currency arrangement, letting economic reality get trampled in the rush toward the dream of “ever closer union”. The austerity is a consequence of this disastrous decision.
And it also ended in irony. There is a certain historical symmetry about the fact that the last German handout to Ireland, a boatload of rifles which found their way to the bottom of Cork harbour in 1916, were sent to aid Irish independence, to accomplish Pearse’s dream. The current one is intended to do exactly the opposite.

The last foreigner ‘invited’ to Ireland to sort the country out was Henry II of England and his descendants ended up staying for 700 years. Given the rumours surrounding the state of Portugal, Spain and Italy’s finances, you wouldn’t bet on the chaps from Brussels sticking around that long, although, if a bungalow in Leitrim tickles their fancy, there will be plenty of places for them to stay.

But given Ireland’s history of bloody struggle for its independence, we can ask whether it was all worth it. Commenting on Eamonn De Valera’s typically impenetrable alternative to the treaty with Britain, ‘External Association’, one participant in the Dail debates commented “For centuries men have been willing to fight and die for the cry of ‘Up the Republic!’ I can’t imagine many dying for the cry ‘Up External Association!’”

Indeed, would Tone, Emmett or Pearse have died and caused so many other deaths for the right of Irishmen and women to have their fiscal policy dictated in Germany? What would Thomas Davis write now? A Province Once Again?

This article originally appeared at ConservativeHome

It’s the end of the road for Ireland’s Progressive Democrats

So long it’s been good to know yuh

On November 8th 2008 Ireland’s Progressive Democrats did something unusual; they voted themselves out of existence.

The PD’s formed in 1986. Then, Irish politics was dominated by two parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, and party allegiance depended on attitudes towards the Civil War. Both parties embraced corporatist economics and Ireland’s economy was a mess. Culturally the Catholic church still dominated.

Formed by a group of Fianna Fail members, led by Des O’Malley, disgusted by the corrupt leadership of Charles Haughey and a couple of high profile members of Fine Gael, the PD’s sought to inject ideology into Irish politics. A small presence in the Dial, peaking with 11 seats in 1989, Ireland’s proportional election system saw the PD’s enter a coalition government with Fianna Fail.

The PD’s pushed on Fianna Fail the free market approach of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to resuscitate Ireland’s economy. Business taxes, 30% in the UK, went to 10% and the Celtic Tiger began to roar. Government spending fell from 30% of GDP in 1990 to 25% in 2000. In the same period economic growth rose from 2% annually to 11% and unemployment fell from 12% to 4%.

The PD’s liberalism extended from the economic to the social sphere. By the end of their first spell in government in 1992, the PD’s had helped liberalise abortion laws. Back in government in 1997, under the first female leader of an Irish party, Mary Harney, divorce became legal with PD support.

The PD’s social attitudes chimed with a broader reassessment of Irish nationality. Long based on the twin pillars of nationalism and Catholicism, these were questioned from the late 1980’s. ‘Father Ted’ and Sinead O’Connor mocked ascetic Catholicism with differing degrees of severity as the PD’s social stance challenged it directly.

Michael McDowell, the PD’s spokesman on foreign affairs, took a strong line against Sinn Fein and the IRA just as nationalism too came to be questioned in the south. The Cranberries song ‘Zombie’ discarded the mythologizing of ‘The Foggy Dew’ to cast a jaded eye over the Easter Rising. The popular film ‘The Commitments’ ignored the national question altogether, a far cry from Yeats’ Cathleen Ní Houlihan who said of the nationalists “The people shall hear them forever”. The Irish were no longer listening.

But the PD’s were never able to expand their support much beyond middle class south Dublin and Limerick, Des O’Malley’s old powerbase. Fianna Fail took the credit for the Celtic Tiger and at the 2007 election the PD’s lost 6 of their 8 seats. At a meeting a meeting in November, considering their work done, the PD’s disbanded.

R. F. Foster wrote of a “pragmatic new Ireland” determined “to live aggressively in the present”. In government for 13 of their 23 years, the PD’s played a vital role in bringing this new Ireland about economically and socially. Journalist Ruth Dudley Edwards says “The PD’s had a short but glorious life. Once they had brought the Fianna Fail party to its senses, they became electorally expendable”. The party is over, but it was good while it lasted.

Printed in London Student, vol 29 issue 8, 02/02/09